I was initially sceptical of Lena Dunham’s “memoir-ish” because I had given up on Girls a few seasons in as I found the premise a bit narcissistic. This is probably hypocritical of me since my PhD is on Dorothy Richardson, whose writing Virginia Woolf of all people thought was ruined by “the damned egotistical self” (Diary Vol. 2: 1920-24, 1984, p. 14). However, just a few pages in to Dunham’s book I came across this line, which I’ve been using as the tag line for this blog ever since:
“There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman.” (Not That Kind of Girl, 2014, p. xvi)
Dunham was describing her odd fascination with a terrible 1980s self-help title (Helen Gurley Brown’s 1982 Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money Even If You’re Starting With Nothing) but it immediately struck me that Dunham’s book is not just an advice book, as the New York Times named it; nor is it simply a “self-exposing memoir” as the Guardian claims: this is a book about women’s life writing.
Yes, there are a lot of excruciatingly personal details to be found within the pages of Not That Kind of Girl. Details that led to Dunham being accused of sexually abusing her sister (lots of articles on this here) and many, many other private tales. She claims that “sharing is my first instinct” (p. 138) and lives up to this by providing 30+ pages on her irrational fears, therapy sessions, and OCD diagnosis. She spends a chapter discussing the intricacies of her naked body. She writes an anonymised letter to the first boy she ever performed oral sex on, berating him for never calling her back, and then gives his full name in passing just 61 pages later. Although whether or not the name is real is another question entirely, since so much of memoir is fiction (see Liz Stanley’s The Auto/biographical I (1995) for more on this) and Dunham self-consciously calls herself an “unreliable narrator” (p. 51).
However, under this layer of shockingly confessional memoir lies a narrative of encouraging women to tell their own stories and to use their own voices. Dunham was reportedly paid a $3.7m advance to write this book thanks to her fame as a TV writer, director and actor and so it could be easy to dismiss any thoughts she has on the struggle of women’s life writing, her privilege providing her with money and an audience before she had even written a word of the book itself.
What Dunham does well though is to weave the stories of other women’s stories into her own narrative. For example, she tells of a fascination with a writer called Nellie who cannot be tracked down online:
“A Google search of Nellie’s name was unsatisfying. She didn’t have a Twitter, a blog, or any other form of personal Internet expression. A scant web presence is so rare these days, alluring in and of itself. She was telling her story through the ancient medium of theater.” (p. 132)
Here, Dunham acknowledges that Nellie is successfully writing her own life but also that she is doing it in exactly the opposite way from Dunham herself, completely out of the watchful public eye of social media. Later in the book Dunham then talks about her grandmother, who she calls Doad, and her own attempt at autobiography:
“Doad wrote a memoir. […] She did it not glory but for posterity – spare, practical prose designed simply to get the information out, to prove that she was there and that she is still here.” (p. 232)
I really like this. It’s an acceptance that perhaps her grandmother’s narrative of her life won’t be read widely, certainly nothing like the 300,000+ copies sold of Dunham’s memoir, but that it proves her place in the world nonetheless.