The Feedback Loop of Memory
EVER SINCE Seattleite Elissa Washuta wrote My Body Is a Book of Rules, she's been asked the same question again and again: "Aren't you too young to write a memoir?" "I think people ask that because there's a lack of understanding about the difference between memoir and autobiography," she says. Her solution is to explain the obvious. "I try to do it in a funny way and talk about Bill Clinton's autobiography," she adds. "I think it's like 800 pages or something."
The experiences Washuta recounts in My Body Is a Book of Rules—navigating Native American identity, the aftermath of sexual assault, and a bipolar diagnosis that launched an odyssey of failed attempts at treatment—all happened in her twenties. But whether describing the DSM-IV sequence that defines her "brain... summed up in a five-digit number," Britney Spears comparing being bipolar to "[going] through life like a karate kid," or justice for rape victims as embodied by the face of Detective Olivia Benson on Law & Order: SVU, Washuta's stark, compressed prose is brave and gutting.
It's also endlessly creative in its form. Washuta worked on it with David Shields, author of the intentionally plagiarized manifesto against traditional genre distinctions, Reality Hunger. She takes up Shields' call for creative freedom, punctuating her book with a fragmented narrative tracing her Cowlitz/Cascade ancestry back to 1856. Traditional memoirs often fail in forcing experience—which by definition isn't linear, or even logical—into tidy narrative. But Washuta divulges the details of her narrator's struggle early on, so when they recur, they're familiar. In this sense, Washuta's book takes on the cyclical quality of the trauma it describes.
"I always knew that there wasn't going to be an a-ha moment," says Washuta, "like, 'Oh! Okay, so she was bipolar the whole time!'" Instead, she writes the feedback loop of memory as it really is.
Who She Really Is
WHEN LENA DUNHAM is hailed as the voice of my generation, however ironically, I am always uncomfortable. I'm equally uncomfortable when she's maligned for being a young woman and writing about her experience—which is to say, when she's asked the same question as Elissa Washuta. Though Dunham is often identified as either a paragon of millennial ennui or a spoiled baby of the art world, her new book, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's "Learned," would suggest that she is neither.
That's a good thing. While I generally prefer the cynical exuberance of Broad City to Girls and didn't expect to like Dunham's book, I mostly did. Not That Kind of Girl reads like a charming, involved backstory for a Roz Chast cartoon in the New Yorker, covering hypochondria, embarrassing and/or frightening sexual experiences, obsessive-compulsive disorder, prosciutto sandwiches, and working on Girls.
In "Sex Scenes, Nude Scenes, and Publicly Sharing Your Body," Dunham traces her comfort with TV nudity back to the nude self-portraits shot on a Nikon by her mother, Laurie Simmons, in the '70s. The chapter opens with the self-congratulating, Cindy Sherman-ignoring, "My mother invented the selfie," but Dunham's examination of a self-defining female gaze is worth it. "It's the images of my mother that fascinate me," she writes. "The flash of fear in her eye—or is it longing? The feverish need to reveal who she really is, as much to herself as anybody."
In "I Didn't Fuck Them, But They Yelled at Me," Dunham describes powerful, unnamed Hollywood men who treated her like "a cute little director-shaped thing" when she was first starting out. "When I'm 80," she writes, "I'll describe the time I sat with a director in his hotel suite while he told me girls love it when you 'direct' their blowjobs. 'Oh wow,' I answered. I mean, how else do you answer?"
Dunham's ruminations on summer camp, treacly mentions of her boyfriend, and a monotonous food diary overwhelm essays like "I Didn't Fuck Them" and "Sex Scenes." That's unfortunate. Because amid the chatter about Not That Kind of Girl's $3.7 million advance and lavish book tour featuring special guests like Carrie Brownstein, pieces like these are a testament to Dunham's mastery of the essay; this is where a girl I want to know more about begins to emerge.