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Lena Dunham's Memoir Is Not About Telling You How to Live

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A portrait of a highly unusual woman making her way in the world.

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

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One of my favorite chapters in Lena Dunham's new book of essays is an unexpurgated food diary that contains brief notes about other aspects of the day the food was consumed, such as "I did some cocaine this evening! Joaquin showed up at the bar and I said I couldn't drink so he was like 'do this cocaine.' Just a bump." and "I had diarrhea today!" She eventually lands in the hospital with gastritis; chocolate-flavored laxative tea may be delicious, but it's not a good idea to consume too much.

The chapter is voyeuristically fascinating, as though Us Weekly stepped outside of the bizarre fictive world where seven almonds constitute a "snack." But more than that, the diary is, by virtue of its very existence, important and revelatory. Talking about things like dieting and drugs and diarrhea like they're an everyday part of life, which they are, and not something to be ashamed of, which our repressive culture constantly asks women to believe that they are, is Dunham's defining move. She's not "being brave" when she gets naked onscreen, she says in another chapter; she's just innately unashamed of herself and always has been.

More than her supportive artistic family and stratospheric early success, this is the reason to envy Lena Dunham: Unlike many artists who have a fraught relationship with the self-exposure their work requires, she is preternaturally, vibrantly comfortable with herself. As we increasingly live in Dunham's world, it's becoming clear that if a woman is born with that superpower, almost anything is possible for her.

Like Rebecca Traister, who wrote about the feeling of "nearly incapacitating exhaustion" she felt at the prospect of opening this book, because she'd be required to feel "something important, defining, or culture-shaping," I was wary of even accepting the assignment to review Not That Kind of Girl. But I did because I knew there was no other way I would ever bring myself to read it, and I needed to stop feeling scared of reading it. I also accepted the assignment because I need the money that Racked is paying me, and that feeling—and the knowledge that Lena Dunham has never experienced it—is yet another reason I didn't want to open it.

I didn't want to read advice—which is what the subtitle "A Young Woman Tells You What She's "Learned" seems to promise—from someone who's never lived in the world we real-life Hannah Horvaths have no choice but to inhabit. I could feel my blood pressure rising at the thought.

Luckily, advice and lessons and cautionary tales are not what this book contains at all. "If I could take what I've learned and make one menial job easier for you, or prevent you from having the kind of sex where you feel you must keep your sneakers on in case you want to run away during the act, then every misstep of mine was worthwhile," Dunham writes in the book's introduction, but this promise is one of the book's rare false notes. Dunham is not concerned about "you," really, and why should she be? She is concerned with Lena Dunham, and that's great.

A few sentences earlier, she delivers the book's real thesis statement: "I want to tell my stories, and, more than that, I have to in order to stay sane." The stories that follow, in their extreme specificity, cumulatively create a portrait not of an everywoman but of a highly unusual woman making her way in the world and generously, often hilariously, telling us what that's like. There's no need to offer more value than that.

Dunham on The View last month. Photo: Getty Images.

The essays are divided into sections: Love and Sex, Body, Friendship, Work and The Big Picture. Dunham's close and supportive relationship with her artist parents is a recurring theme—there's a whole chapter of each parent's wisdom, presented in list form. There's a lot of wistful nostalgia for childhood summers at a lake house, a lot of funny and straightforward examination of what it's like to live in a body, many laugh-out-loud descriptions of people and situations and herself, and also some take-no-prisoners axe-grinding.

A chapter titled "Emails I Would Send If I Was One Ounce Crazier/Braver/Stupider" makes it clear that Dunham is capable of using her bully pulpit to absolutely eviscerate anyone who crosses her. It's funny, but also a little bit terrifying. In one of the emails, an aging feminist who seems to have sent Dunham a cruel missive of her own is told "I'm going to live at least 50 years past you."

But Dunham has also been on the receiving end of some shitty behavior, and not just the stuff we non-under-rock-inhabitants already know about. A chapter titled "I Didn't Fuck Them, But They Yelled At Me," about Dunham's first year in Hollywood, is about the powerful men who, under the guise of "mentorship," tried to get in her pants so that they could say they did, who offered her work as a way of undermining her own projects, and who overall behaved the way powerful older men behave towards younger women whose talent they find intimidating. Anyone who's had to deal with this—so, any young woman who's had an important job, I'm pretty sure—will find herself quaking with rage, filled with unwelcome recollections. Props to Dunham for shining a light on this shit. I only wish she'd named names.

The most moving chapter, and my favorite (other than the food diary), is titled "Who Moved My Uterus?" In it, Dunham describes coming to the slow realization—slow because doctors are often really useless when it comes to women's pain—that she has endometriosis. She memorably describes the condition, where the cells that line the uterus grow outside of it, as "hundreds of seed pearls working their way into soft pink velvet," and her musings about the possibility that it will make it harder for her to fulfill her lifelong dream of being a mother are resonant and thoughtful. She's been told to have children as soon as possible, but fears curtailing her life to accommodate babies. Imagining what it would mean to "get started," as a doctor tells her to do, she writes: "I resent them. Their constancy, their intrusion on my free time and my naps and my imagination and my heart."

This is Dunham at her best, using her superpower and her superstar status for good: telling her stories, regardless of whether it's brave or crazy or stupid to do so, and helping to create a world where all of us can tell our stories, too.

Emily Gould is the author of the novel Friendship and founder of digital imprint Emily Books.