Where Am I Now? by Mara Wilson

Available for purchase here.

As the name of this blog would imply, I’m a bookworm. I was a shy, quiet kid whose idea of an outdoor activity was taking whatever I happened to be reading out onto the patio. I slipped paperbacks into the pocket of my pink windbreaker (oh, 90’s fashion, how did we ever allow you to happen?) so that I could catch up on the exploits of Kristy and Mary Anne or Elizabeth and Jessica. So, in the lexicon of pop culture, there is perhaps no fictional figure I ever identified with as much as I did Matilda Wormwood.

I never owned my own copy of Roald Dahl’s childhood masterpiece, because, like his heroine, I had a deep and profound adoration for the mysticism and magic of the public library, but I did check out their copy so many times that between the years of 1994 and 1997 it’s possible no other child in Northeast Philadelphia got to read it. #SorryNotSorry.

Mara Wilson played Matilda in a film version so perfectly written, cast, and executed that I almost shy away from watching it as an adult for fear that my overly critical brain will pick apart this gem from my childhood. Wilson’s face is the face of 90’s nostalgia, playing the sweet, cute, curious kid we all empathized with in our favorite movies.

Wilson’s memoir touches on the years between her child star years and her re-emergence as an adult, working as a fresh and funny playwright, author, and storyteller. Her history is eminently relatable–she came from a sweetly stable life in suburban California where child acting was simply one option for after school activities, and she grew up with all of the awkward dithering of navigating the hierarchy of middle school friendships and the horror of first crushes, while she still manages to tell her story of growing up with OCD and the power of story in helping her realize that she had a treatable condition that didn’t have to consume her.

No memoir ever put to paper was written absent of tragedy, but Wilson’s was not the product of the excesses of fame or the indulgence Hollywood has for addiction, but simply from the loss of her mother at a tender age, due to breast cancer.

I can’t imagine my world without my mom now, so for Wilson to peel back the layers of her loss and share with the world how not having a mom right before the age a girl needs her mother the most is one of the most daring and empathetic aspects of her personal story. And the way her family and acting community extended their kindness towards her to help her through the loss is proof positive that all is not ever as dark as we perceive it.

Wilson is more clear-headed about her position in life than most people our age in general, even more so for someone who was processed through the fame machine. She’s been her own advocate for her mental health, survived great personal losses, and had to adjust her professional expectations all while balancing high school, and now, as an adult, she’s telling her story the same way she once consumed them. She is, in fact, much more like Matilda than anyone could’ve guessed twenty years ago.

Memoirs and Mental Health

Up until this past year, memoirs have never really been high on my to-read list. It’s one of the reasons I’m grateful to have stumbled upon that seemingly long-ago post on XOJane that inspired this endeavor. I’ve read the stories of fascinating women leading amazing lives. There’s a body positive mom who was tapped for a TED talk, a barrier breaking TV host and journalist, a descendant of a Nazi officer trying to make sense of her family’s past, an iconoclastic, world-traveling artist, and the Queen of the Geeks, to name just a few (full list here). And no matter what kind of lives these women are living, they all share common characteristics: they foster community, they inspire their readers, and they all have experience living with mental illness.

Artists across all media and genres seem to share a collective experience with mental illness: depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder. Art has been therapeutic for people living with mental illness since long before we had words to define them, which explains the tendency to create as a method of coping. But as much as art is therapy for the artist, it’s a catharsis for the audience. Art is the light in the darkness, the words, pictures, and sounds of what lives inside our own minds, letting us know we are not alone at the moments we most need to feel a connection.

Mental illness, which is so unfairly stigmatized, is not like diabetes or cancer or high blood pressure, the physical ailments to which it is so often compared. The organ affected by mental illness is the one programmed to detect problems, but if someone lives long enough with depression, anxiety, etc. they become almost impossible to dissociate with reality. It makes de-stigmatization all the more important, so that those who suffer will know that living in pain and fear isn’t permanent, and that they can move beyond it. It is only by allowing us to speak our truths that we can relieve the burdens of others.

Healing is not linear. If you have mental illness, even if you are being treated and feel in control, you will have another valley. Do whatever you have to do to ride out the darkness safely. It has passed before and it will again. If someone you love is living with it, you will say or do the wrong thing. They will be unresponsive and emotionless and maybe even mean, but don’t stay away because of it. Everything passes, even the worst of times. And the stories shared by the wonderful, wise women I’ve read this past year are proof that life, ridiculous, funny, tragic, beautiful, strange life, is possible and rich in all its complexity. There is never a need to opt for a permanent solution to a temporary problem, but there is great need to join the chorus of people living with mental illness and their loved ones, stripping away the stigma and sorrows until we no longer suffer losses because of it.

I’m Judging You by Luvvie Ajayi

Available for purchase here.

I’m an atheist and have been for about ten years, but it’s hard to deny the spark of the divine in Luvvie Ajayi. An ad for her book popped up on my Facebook feed several months ago, with a blurb featuring my imaginary fairy godmother Jenny Lawson extolling her virtues, and if Awesomely Luvvie wasn’t a thing I’d have spent the summer languishing with need.

Luvvie Ajayi is a magnificent force. She hates kitten heels. She extracts pop culture moments from major political events and peels back the layers of pop culture moments to reveal the underlying political significance. She toys with language on a Shakespearean level and when English fails to provide the necessary oomph she creates new words. She’s the Sophia Petrillo for the social media age, only instead of being the Italian grandma we never had she’s the wise friend we’ve always needed. She judges us because she cares.

Ajayi wants us to be better people, whether we’re attempting to navigate the murky waters of dating while dealing with the stupidity-inducing haze of really good sex, or while we’re trying to dismantle the patriarchy or take our society beyond the stagnant waters of white supremacy. She speaks only her truth but excoriates her readers to understand that all women cannot speak for each other. She calls out a society that sees Europe as a rich, diverse continent where a plethora of languages and cultures converge, but sees Africa as a monolith–or worse, a country. She even uses her nickname of Lovette (Luvvie) instead of Ifeoluwa because she tired of tongues that can manage names like Galifianakis butchering hers.

Ajayi, despite the solemnity of her subjects, is fun. She made me laugh out loud during an essay on institutional racism. She chastises those who would consider doing exactly what she’s railing against with the exasperation of the mom friend who is capital-D Done. She uses her social media acumen to turn the online community into a desirable place to be–oh Universe, grant into the hands of every teenage girl I’ve ever taken care of a copy of I’m Judging You.

Ajayi calls herself to task as often as she does others. She is a woman of enormous accomplishment, and with such, a concurrent level of responsibility and a certain level of privilege. She quotes Luke (the book of the Bible, not Skywalker): “To whom much is given, much is required.” and takes the lesson imparted to heart. She judges herself, and us, because we as individuals and a society, deserve to be the best versions of ourselves. Reading this book is a good start on that journey.

Life in Motion by Misty Copeland

Available for purchase here.

Ballet is a beautiful art form, despite my near philistine level of ignorance of the nuances surrounding a dance or workshop. I don’t know a plié from a jeté, and if pressed to critique a performance I’d fall short. So my interest in Misty Copeland is purely from the aspect that she is a breaker of barriers. She’s the first Black principal dancer for a major American ballet company, and her memoir chronicles the story that brought her to such a feat.

In many ways the fact that Copeland still had the opportunity to be the first African American dancer in 2015 is a telling barometer for where our country stands regarding equality, for those readers who haven’t been convinced by the epidemic of civilian murders at the hands of police.

Ballet is classically known as a rarefied art form. Those who can attend performances take pride in the exclusivity of their club, which is one of the many ways in which it’s problematic. Another is chronicled in Copeland’s memoir: the physically punishing demands the dance makes of the body. Copeland describes having the “perfect ballet” body until her very late onset of puberty, and the pressures put on her to lengthen (read: lose weight) her body after the normal flux of hormones caused her breasts and hips to sprout.

These are personal grievances against the culture of the dance, for the record, not a slam against Copeland or the incredible amount of work she’s put in to mastering her craft or achieving her high rank. A dancer tapped to perform with Prince and who has been credited with bringing ballet to the masses who may otherwise never have a chance to discover the majesty is a force to be reckoned with, not an emblem of my own reticence.

Copeland’s life started out in reduced circumstances. She grew up with a rotating cast of stepfathers and moved from house to house with her many siblings while her mother struggled to provide for them. One of the great joys of her memoir is learning that, while famous, Copeland is not alone among her siblings in achieving success, and they are doing extremely well for themselves.

Copeland learned that she was a natural dance talent while taking classes at an after school center, where she dazzled her teachers with the speed with which she mastered her classes. Over the remainder of her teen years she attended workshops and camps where she distinguished herself amid dancers with double and triple her years of training. She even resided with one of her teachers for a long stretch of time so she could follow a more rigorous dance curriculum, an offer made after her teacher saw the cramped circumstances Copeland was living in one night after class.

This, more than any other passage, highlights our social problem with perceived merit. Copeland’s dance teacher was horrified at the idea of her star pupil being crammed into a tiny flat with her siblings, but where was that compassion for her siblings? Where was the influx of support for the children who were just as young and in need of a leg up but hadn’t yet displayed a remarkable–some would say exploitable–gift? How many children are being denied the opportunity to develop the skills that will earn them self-reliance because we don’t see it? Why do we demand that the people who struggle with poverty prove they deserve a shot while those born in the upper echelons are presumed to belong there?

This is not a question of how many Misty Copelands have we deprived ourselves of because of the arbitrary standard of “merit”, but how many of those who weren’t remarkable athletes or artists have we condemned to a cycle of poverty because we couldn’t make a buck off their talents. This is an acknowledgment that young Misty deserved healthy food and a safe place to spend her afternoons regardless of her talent. This is a call to do better.

 

Bad(ass) Feminist by Roxane Gay

Available for purchase here.

There are some books that I feel flat-out unqualified to read. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace has been eight pounds of big, blue judgment haunting my bookshelf for ages. And Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay has been staring me down from my nightstand for over a year, taunting me with its sleek font. “You’re not worthy of reading this.” said the cover. I was aware of its cultural importance as a book, and had only just learned of the panache of the woman behind it. So I let my own insecurities curtail my interest. It’s a bad habit of mine.

It’s a shame I existed for so long in that paradigm of needless self-deprivation, because for all her serious academic acumen and brilliant analysis of cultural issues both serious and frothy, Gay is eminently down-to-earth and relatable. Hard to imagine a woman on earth who can’t find a way to connect with her, while she debates the merits of pink (and traditional femininity in general–Gay is an unabashed girly girl who loves fashion and once live-tweeted the September issue of Vogue) or calls out the centering of white voices in stories about people of color *cough*The Help*cough*.

In Bad Feminist, Gay calls out the feminist movement and herself as a feminist. Neither are perfect, and the former is riddled with problematic history and tactics that persist to this day, in our supposed age of enlightenment. And no one feminist is a “good feminist”. I can count the ways in which I could be accused of hindering the movement: I shave my legs, I wear makeup, I chose a traditionally feminine career, I am absolute shit with money and all things regarding cars–fixing them, maneuvering clogged highways, parallel parking them, etc. On that last front, I apologize to all women everywhere who had some sexist male in their life use my personal crappiness as justification for some form of casual misogyny that they leave like slug slime in their wake.

The point is, which Gay makes so clear so well in the breadth of essays in Bad Feminist, is that a movement comprised of people, is inherently flawed, because we are inherently flawed. And we could strive for perfection in ourselves and our philosophy, which is an admirable but pointless cause, or we can simply try to be better. Better, like listening to women of color and making sure we (white feminists) add our voices to their concerns. Better, like not allowing affable men to hide behind their veils of likability when they rape women. Better, like calling out microaggressions when we hear them instead of allowing a “nice” person to slide because they “mean well”.

We can also be better by not letting a book’s pedigree intimidate us, but that might really be more of a me problem. What can I say? I’m a Bad Feminist.

 

I’m Just a Person by Tig Notaro

Available for purchase here.

Sometimes I feel like a walking garbage heap of a human being. This feeling usually surfaces while I’m reading the memoir of a contemporary woman, one who has spent our equivalent time on earth seeing the world, creating art, and fighting for the rights of humanity while I’ve spent that same time acquiring massive student debt and failing to master parallel parking. Yes, I can also throw myself a mad pity party.

Then there are memoirs like Tig Notaro’s, which details not her accomplishments (star of comedy, podcast, film, and music, not to mention her recently released Amazon series One Mississippi, which I binged over the weekend, thankyouverymuch), but rather the brief period of her life when she was assaulted with personal tragedy every time she turned around.

To wit: she was diagnosed with Colistridium difficile, a bacterial intestinal infection that can range from uncomfortable to fatal (Notaro’s nearly killed her), breast cancer showed up to attack while her immune system was still compromised, and her relationship was falling apart. And then, the ultimate tragedy, from which no medical treatments could rescue her–a freak accident claimed her mother’s life.

Notaro deserves a medal and a standing ovation for still standing after all she managed to pack into her 200 plus page memoir, and she exhibits enormous kindness towards the important people in her life, even as she bares open and dissects her complicated relationships with them in order to make some semblance of sense of her life.

She’s also bracingly honest. She treats herself as a character in her own story, and bares open her own flaws–the beginning concerns a lot of her early childhood, where she ditched school and ultimately dropped out, while still caring for her hard-partying mom.

I was raised to believe that the airing of dirty laundry spoke poorly of the one shaking the sheets, but I grew up to be a writer. Words are powerful and important. When written down, they are meditative and long-lasting, giving a voice to lived experience and creating a community across space and time, a collection of letters that let us know we are not alone and others are hearing us, listening, empathizing. Notaro’s words will prove healing for generations to come, but it is her unique voice that saved her from succumbing to the tragedies she was surrounded by. It’s important to share a story for the sake of others, but it’s equally important to speak for your own sake.

Bone Black by bell hooks

Available for purchase here.

If you only read one bell hooks book in your lifetime, first of all, don’t talk to me. Don’t talk to my friends, and in the event I ever buy nice clothes, don’t talk to my dry cleaner. But assuming you are a person who has a strict one book per author limit, Bone Black is not the bell hooks for you. Her most famous work is Feminism is for Everybody, but if asked for a personal recommendation, the one that changed my life is All About Love. Either of these would be better, as would her numerous other works, but not because Bone Black is lacking in either quality or beauty, but because the lens through which it must be read can’t be fully appreciated without understanding the important role bell hooks has played in shaping the core feminist movement.

bell hooks frequently writes in such a way that makes reality more magical than the realms of Hogwarts and Narnia, and though she’s writing through the framework of adulthood, academia, and the shifting paradigms of time itself, hooks identifies so cleanly and clearly with her child-self, and children in general, especially with her own foibles and temerity that ousted her completely from fitting the mold of proper sixties girlhood, that she unveils, without ever stating it, how one small twist of fate could’ve turned her into a woman like her mother, trapped and tragic, serving the needs of a man who had no consideration for hers.

How many fine minds and hearts have we lost to just such casual cruelty? There’s no way to overstate the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, and their goal to end police violence towards communities of color, but our society is inherently flawed in how we structure human worth around a given system of race, class, sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and the myriad smaller ways that elevate certain people above others for something absent of merit.

People born at the top of the pyramid are presumed worthy, those holding it up must prove their worth, and we accept this as function of a society that prizes equality when nothing could be less equalizing. bell hooks may have a singular mind, but what other talents and gifts have we as a society deprived the world of because they existed in someone we felt didn’t warrant opportunity?

hooks had some advantages–she was taught to see her black skin as beautiful and regal, even knowing society did not. But it was hooks herself, her strong sense of determination and self-advocacy, that placed her on the trajectory that lead her–and us–to a revitalized and revolutionary way of thinking about ourselves and our place in the world.