When Lena Dunham first announced her memoir, "Not That Kind of Girl," bloggers balked at the prospect of a 20-something writing a book that promised "frank and funny advice" -- especially one netting nearly 4 million dollars. They interpreted it as a kind of highbrow millennial entitlement, exactly the kind projected by "Girls" characters Hannah, Shoshanna, Marnie, and Jessa, and picked apart by tiresome New York Times trend pieces. Gawker published decontextualized lines from Dunham's book proposal: "I went to my first Women's Action Coalition meeting at age three"; "I've been in therapy since I was seven"; "When I got to college I suddenly had the sense that my upbringing hadn't been very 'real.'" In these snippets, Dunham comes across as a coddled, privileged and self-absorbed kid, enduring the same criticisms as her TV character. What can a memoir coming from that perspective offer a larger world of readers?
A few things, it turns out. In an excerpt from her book, published in The New Yorker, Dunham writes candidly about her struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Since childhood, she has endured hundreds of distracting and disturbing thoughts every day. As usual, she manages to poke fun at herself while writing about the disorder:
The first doctor, a violet-haired grandma-age woman with a German surname, asks me a few simple questions and then invites me to play with the toys scattered across her floor. She sits in a chair above me, pad in hand. I have the sense she will gather all kinds of information from this, so I put on a show that I’m sure will demonstrate my loneliness and introspection: bootleg Barbie crashes her convertible with off-brand Ken riding shotgun. Tiny Lego men are killed in a war against their own kind. After a long period of observation, she asks me to share my three greatest wishes. “A river, where I can be alone,” I tell her, impressed with my poeticism. From this answer, she will know that I am not like other nine-year-olds.
She's already stuck in her head, for reasons beyond her control, so processing her thoughts and discussing them with someone might help. Thus begins, at age nine, intensive therapy. Dunham captures the inherent awkwardness of therapy, in some ways a one-sided friendship, perfectly. Surely, anyone who has seen a therapist has wondered: If we met under different circumstances, would we be friends? I process my issues with you, so do you go to someone else to process yours? (And where does that person go?) Can I trust you, emotionally, with these intimate details of my life? Are you secretly judging me (I know I would be!)? Do you really understand what I'm saying? Do you like me?
Then, in a magical turn of events, Dunham actually gets to answer the questions that the rest of us never will. She's able to break the barrier with one of her therapists, and the daughter of her childhood therapist, Audrey, winds up becoming her best friend in college. And of course, she will go on to explore some of these themes on TV and in books. Therapists--the people who orbit her and draw her out, their own lives always partially unknowable--turn out to be an ideal subject for Dunham. After all, this is in some ways what many of her characters do: access other people's brains only as a sounding board for their own internal dramas.
We are expected, in polite society, to keep our issues to ourselves. But Dunham doesn't follow that rule as closely as the rest of us, and while she gets some flack for that, we're surely better off for it. For those who have wondered how to balance the dramas inside their heads with the ones unfolding in in front of them, have with therapy, or love to talk about themselves (which is all of us), Dunham's book may offer some real insight. Or, at the very least, some relief.