The first time I saw my new book, a collection of my childhood diaries, displayed on the front table of a local Borders, a woman who was leafing through it turned to me and said, “This looks great. Have you read this?”
“Well, actually,” I replied, embarrassment mixing with pride, “I wrote it.”
“You did?” the woman asked. Then she looked at my photo on the jacket, up at me, back to the photo and at me again. She did this a couple more times, as if watching a tennis match or identifying a suspect in a police lineup. Finally she lifted the book to my face and marveled, “Wow, this picture’s so glamorous. It doesn’t look like you at all.”
Ironically, my book, “Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self,” is about my preteen struggle with beauty. (I guess the woman spent all her time looking at the jacket photo and skipped the text.) But instead of being taken aback by her comment, I heard myself explain that I’d just gone running in 80-degree weather, that I was sweaty and smelly and greasy-haired and wearing a huge baggy T-shirt, so of course I look a little, well, different from the photo.
It wasn’t until later that I wondered why I felt the need to justify myself to this woman. And more important, who would go up to a complete stranger and make an unflattering comment about her looks? I mean, you might tell a good friend that her upper lip needs waxing, or that she’s got a piece of something disgusting stuck between her teeth, but you don’t go around saying this stuff to strangers. It took me a while to realize that when you publish autobiographical material, people don’t think of you as a stranger.
Soon after the Borders incident, I got a message on my answering machine from a young woman who waxed poetic about how much she enjoyed my book. Before she hung up she said, “I spent hours trying to find your number, and I’m not even sure this is the right one, so could you call me back and let me know if I reached you?” Flattered by her comments, I figured I’d give her the courtesy of a call.
“Oh my God!” she yelled when she heard my voice. “I’m so glad to talk to you! I hate my parents’ guts, too!”
“I don’t hate my parents’ guts,” I said.
“Well, in your book … ”
“In my book I was 11. Eleven-year-olds seem like they hate their parents’ guts, but they’re just being 11. See, the book’s subtitle is ‘A Diary of My Former Self.’”
“So, you don’t hate your parents’ guts?”
“Oh,” she replied, disappointed. “Well, I gotta go.”
She wasn’t the only reader who had trouble separating who I am today from what I chose to reveal about myself in my book. Later that week, I got an e-mail from a guy who asked me out on a date. The e-mail, which included a very attractive photo, a witty bio and praise for the book, seemed like a press release, and when I didn’t respond, I received a follow-up e-mail asking if I was the Lori Gottlieb who wrote “Stick Figure,” and if so, could I confirm that his first e-mail went through.
I wrote back a quick thanks for his note, only to receive a third e-mail asking if I’d meet him for coffee. I replied that I was in the middle of my book tour, but again, thanks. The fourth e-mail asked if he could take me out when I returned from the book tour. Finally I wrote that I don’t feel comfortable meeting strangers, but I appreciated his interest in my book. It was the fifth e-mail that startled me most:
“I know from your upbringing that you have ‘trust’ issues, but you have nothing to worry about with me. I really understand where you’re coming from.”
“I don’t have trust issues,” I wrote back, “I have safety issues. You can read about them in my next book, ‘Lori Gottlieb: A Diary of My Stalker Years.’” Not coincidentally, I’ve been getting a lot of hang-ups on my answering machine lately.
“Is there such a thing as memoir protocol?” I asked a friend who also just published a personal narrative. “Like, are there boundaries you can maintain, or is publishing self-revelatory material akin to opening Pandora’s box? Does your entire life — even the part you didn’t write about — become fodder for public scrutiny?”
“It’s not supposed to,” he said, “but people will ask about it anyway.”
He was right. One reporter asked if I was married. Then she wanted to know why I wasn’t married — if it was a feminist statement related to my “childhood fear of becoming a trapped woman.” (I wanted to reply, “Sometimes a singleton’s just a singleton.”) Although I’ve managed to train my mother never to go down this path, I couldn’t get the reporter to stop. Do I have a boyfriend, she wanted to know. When I declined to answer, she actually asked my sexual preference.
In an attempt to lighten the mood, I joked that she should check with the guy I was dating. Then she asked me for this guy’s name and profession, and when I politely said something about protecting his privacy, she responded, “Why? You didn’t protect your family’s identity in your book.” THEY’RE MY FAMILY! I wanted to scream. I’ve discussed this with them, and besides, we share a last name. Their identities aren’t exactly difficult to figure out. I hadn’t even brought this guy to a party with me yet. I wasn’t about to publish his name in a national magazine.
Another reporter arranged to meet me at a local coffeehouse at 2 p.m. “What do you want for lunch?” she asked when we sat down. Thinking this was just coffee, I explained that I’d already eaten lunch and ordered a latte.
Five minutes later, when I was discussing the fact that struggling with body image as a preteen has given me a healthier attitude toward my body today, she looked skeptical.
“But how can you say that when you just skipped lunch?” she asked.
No matter how times I reiterated that I’d already eaten, she refused to believe that someone as obsessive about food as I used to be could be telling the truth 20 years later. To her, my body may have grown up, but my mind was still that of the girl in my book.
Other questions I’ve been asked include: “Now that Martin Scorsese has optioned your book, do you want to play yourself in the movie?” (Not unless I want to portray myself as a grown woman who peppers her speech with “Duh!”) “You said in the book you’d never wear makeup, no matter what. But tonight you’re wearing lipstick.” (In the book I also said I’d become an astrophysicist and never stick my tongue in a boy’s mouth. Things change.) “The first time a guy saw you naked, were you concerned with how your body appeared?” (I was more concerned with whether his parents might appear.)
When I worked in Hollywood, I used to roll my eyes when celebrities would complain about what a hassle it is to be famous, to have to answer questions about their personal lives and not just their latest film projects. Deal with it, I’d think, and I’ll bet there are people who believe that if you publish something personal, you’d better be prepared to reveal everything from what you eat for breakfast to when you lost your virginity. It comes with the territory.
And to some extent, I’m in that camp. I mean, I’m just as curious as the next person to know if Elizabeth Wurtzel is off Prozac yet, or how Mary Karr views motherhood, or if Dani Shapiro ever sees the manipulative old creepy guy she had the dysfunctional relationship with, or if Sarah Saffian still visits her birth family.
So don’t get me wrong: I’m not complaining that there’s interest. Let’s face it, I’m glad people have questions. After all, I may not be Joyce Maynard, documenting my life on the Internet each day, but I do have a Web site with a URL that epitomizes narcissism: www.lorigottlieb.com. (To be fair, I tried to get www.stickfigure.com, but it was taken by a guy who says he’s 6-foot-5 and really, really skinny.)
But I do try not to make assumptions or judgments about who these memoirists are today. I restrain myself from conflating my projection of who they are based on their books with who they are in their real lives. I remind myself that I’ve read only what they’ve chosen to tell — no more, no less — and that I don’t really know these writers personally, even though it may feel like I do because they’ve shared some pretty personal information. No matter how much I might feel entitled to it, I force myself to remember that I don’t have carte blanche to analyze their lives just because they’ve published a memoir.
Now, of course, Dave Eggers, he’s another story. You can tell from his memoir that he’s sensitive, witty and endlessly insightful. A bit damaged from the early deaths of both his parents, but that’s made him more empathic to loss. He’d never callously dump someone, for example. And the way he treated his little brother? Sure, he made some mistakes, but that’s just because he had unresolved anger at his parents for abandoning him. I’ll bet he’ll make an excellent father one day. His jacket photo’s not bad either. Hey, Dave, you got a girlfriend?