Day 1,944*: Likability Comma Mine

The asterisk above is because after I labeled my last one Day 1,917, Belle commented that she had it as 1,931. She’s way more likely to be right than I am, so I’m adjusting. It’s actually the second time in the history of Off-Dry that I’ve realized the day count was off. You wouldn’t think it would be so difficult–well actually, if you met me (or if you’ve read my book), you might see that cold hard facts are… not my strong suit, okay?

Anyway, hi! Happy My Day 1,944! I wanted to share a new essay by an incredible writer named Lacy Johnson. It’s called “On Likability,” and it’s about the ways that we–all of us, but especially women–limit and contort and lie about ourselves in the service of being liked by everyone. It’s such a good read: brilliant and rousing and almost comically timely for me, because the threat and fear of being disliked have been coming up a lot in my life recently as part of what I, and now you, will call BathGate.

BathGate started when I took–wait for it–a bath a couple of weeks ago and got so caught up in scrolling through Instagram on my phone that I lay in the tub while the water ran out and for twenty minutes afterward. I thought it was kind of funny, and I also realized it had been the most purely enjoyable half-hour I’d had in ages, or at least since I heard Brett Kavanaugh yell “I like beer!” a hundred times on national television. So I posted about it on Facebook. Soon after, another writer–someone I’d only ever had the warmest interactions with, a “book twin” in that her own debut came out shortly before mine did, so we often shared advice and anxieties over navigating the process–asked in a public comment if I was “trying to be offensively white feminist.”

I assumed she was joking at first. But she wasn’t. She further commented that the post epitomized white privilege, that I was bragging about having time to lie in the bathtub “while other women are trying to figure out how to survive.” She said I gave off Mean Girl vibes and by the way, other women writers were sending her private messages agreeing that both my bath and my general deal were alienating.

It was so out of the blue, and so hostile, that I didn’t know what to make of it, and requests for more context got me nowhere. So I did what I always try (and sometimes fail) to do with criticism that feels off-base: assume that a kernel of it might be true, hold that kernel lightly, and see what develops.

Because, yeah. I was born into a white, middle-class, two-parent family. Through no merit of my own, I started life on second base. That fact alone brought me a lot of opportunities to either seize or waste. I seized them, and then I worked my ass off to make the most of them–but that’s work that less privileged people might have never even gotten the chance to take on. I’m not struggling to survive (except internally). The world gives me the benefit of the doubt at all turns (as long as it won’t inconvenience a white man). I’m the kind of woman who people probably assume reads Goop. (I’ve actually never read Goop, but I get that I still seem goopy.)

In other words, I’m sure I embody white privilege sometimes. I just didn’t think I was doing it by taking a flipping bath.

So I moved on…for a day. And then the new Tana French book I’ve been excited about came out, and I wanted to ask Facebook who else was reading it, and I seriously froze up. Would it sound like I thought all women could afford to buy new hardcover books, or that women had lots of time to read? My mind kept returning to those private messages my bath objector had described, to what people might be saying about how out of touch I was, thinking real women had two seconds for Tana French.

I told John I was kind of freaking out. “Okay, so that’s loony,” he said. “Reading books is a normal, standard thing that women do.” So I wrote the post–partly because I really wanted to know, but also not to let petty bullying spook me–but all along I was silently chastising myself for being an instant-gratification, hardcover-buying jerk who wants to read mysteries while the world burns.

A few days later I went to a play, and it was such a joyous experience that I wanted to tell the world about it. But it was a big national touring production, not cheap to attend. I wondered if I should mention in the post that it was the first time I’d been to the theater in six or seven years, just to forestall the impression that it was an everyday thing for me. Again I imagined what the unnamed women would be saying about me in PMs and group texts, and I said it in my mind for them:

“It must be nice to have time to go to the the-a-tah.”

“Oh, she’s on the main floor, too. No second-balcony seat for Miss Entitlement.”

“How many meals for a poor family could the price of that ticket cover?”

*****

That night I had a dream about being back in sixth grade, on the losing side of a girl triangle. You know what I mean, right? You remember.

*****

The next day, I recalled how much time I’d spent in early sobriety thinking about likability, mine. As I started venturing into the world with a clear head, I realized I’d spent decades contorting myself into whatever shape would make me most likable to friends, colleagues, and goddamn random acquaintances at any given moment. Being liked was, if not my deepest need, certainly my loudest one. It meant acceptance, which meant community, which meant safety. So I did all the things I thought would secure those things. I agreed with all sides of a discussion; I never asked for help; I made myself so mild and unthreatening and self-deprecating that no one else would ever need to knock me down, because I’d already done it for them.

And then I quit drinking and realized that if I was going to make it, I had to let that definition of likability go and replace it with one that gave me room to have ambitions and needs and edges and a little fucking self-respect. (Which didn’t at all mean abandoning decency and kindness and sensitivity, mind you–just the desperate need to be everybody’s go-to gal, their faithful retriever, their frictionless mascot.) Later, when I started to write again, it became even clearer that if I couldn’t live with the risk of some people disliking me, I could probably still have a nice little writing career but I would never be able to do the kind of work I really wanted to do.

That’s what settled it. Because I didn’t drag myself back from the edge of oblivion to chicken out of doing the kind of work I really want to do.

By the way, that’s one reason I deliberately didn’t shy away from the topic of privilege in Nothing Good Can Come from This. I’ve had a little blowback from readers. An online reviewer said it would have been “cuter” if I’d addressed it just once or twice. Well, maybe. But I’m not trying to be cute, you guys. I’m trying to explain my thorny, lucky, deeply compromised life to you and I don’t know how to do that outside the frames of work and gender and class. At various stages of editing I could hear the voices of future readers in my head, just like I heard those women last week:

“She spent what on that bag?”

“Is it absolutely necessary for her to talk about sex?”

“How hard could her job have really been? It’s not coal mining, for fuck’s sake.”

When I listened carefully, some of the voices were giving me useful notes: telling me I needed to add a line, give readers a little more to go on. But the rest were just telling me to be milder and nicer and smaller…more likable. I can’t live or write by what those voices say anymore, not as a sober person, and if it means I sometimes err on the side of having too much edge, I’m okay with that. I’ll find my balance over time. In the interim, as Johnson says in her essay, “the truth is not a request, is not a question, requires neither permission nor forgiveness.” In my case, it means you are absolved from having to find me cute, or reasonable, or (god this is hard to even type!) wholly likable. I just want you to know I’m truthful.

*****

BathGate made me even surer that the path of risking universal acceptance is the only path forward. Because that craving to be liked, and the deeper fear of being disliked, came back fast. My cells have not forgotten what it was like to be twelve and the subject of a whisper campaign because something about me that was fine yesterday became wrong, wrong, wrong overnight. So it’s good for me to practice being okay with not being everyone’s particular cup of tea, and to remember that when I do fuck up, I can own up to it without putting my own head on a pike, or otherwise doing the work of bullies for them. To bring it back to Lacy Johnson’s words:

We can be wrong sometimes. We can make mistakes. Sometimes really big ones. We can be crude and vulgar. We can change our minds. We can say something wrong — or better yet we can say something that is unpopular but right. We can admit that we have sometimes loved the wrong person or gave away too much of ourselves in exchange for fame, or favor, or fortune. We can tell the stories of our addictions, our falls from glory, our kink, our abuse. We can tell the hard truth we learned at rock bottom, and we can admit that it is precisely by climbing back from that lowest place that we have drawn power and strength. We can let ourselves be vulnerable enough to admit our most unforgivable errors, to find our way back from the brink of oblivion, and even if no one likes the story we have to tell, there is no story — none at all — that makes any of us unworthy of love.

I actually need to hop in the shower now, so I’ll leave you with that quote. But read the whole essay! THERE WILL BE A QUIZ. Like it or not.

Day 1,944 (more or less).

17 thoughts on “Day 1,944*: Likability Comma Mine

  1. The Left isn’t going to win the hearts and minds of Middle America with such politically correct shame tactics. How ridiculous, petty and full of guilt your friend must be! Nobody in their right mind is offended by your bath. Also, ditch the social media –it’s full of narcissists and phonies.

  2. I’m with Shannon on ditching the social media. After numerous Facebook fasts and binges, what you say above has made the link between FB and mean school group comments concrete for me. Our need to be seen to ‘fit in’ whilst at the same time ‘be unique’ is amplified on social media. And social media criticism and comments are not mitigated by the social norms of physical communication.

    Thank you for writing this. I also like heather platt’s writing on being a (white) woman of privilege, and about the impact of our cultural denials e.g of colonialism etc. You also know your stuff, you express yourself carefully, your writing resonates for many.

    I think most of us are skilled at being over adaptive, presenting ourselves in the best light and now we have FB and other platforms to present our best curated self. Shaming and shame are powerful acts and emotions. I imagine you are familiar with them but I also appreciate Brene Brown’s writing on shame, and Jon Ronson’s book ‘so you’ve been shamed’ is scarily good. Who needs conspiracy theories about who controls us or how, when in general we can be relied on to keep each other small.

  3. I don’t think it’s about being liked or disliked. I think it’s more that some of us wish that you cared more about the less privileged and that you would use your platform to address injustice. It’s the ‘reading a mystery while the world burns’ thing. I personally wish that more people were less easily distracted and more active in finding solutions. But you are doing a lot with quitting drinking and you are speaking up about that major issue destroying so many lives. No one can be everything and solve all the world’s problems. So I suggest that those who feel you aren’t doing enough to heal the world just scroll on bye (pun intended).

    1. Makes sense. And I think it comes down somewhat to a public/private split. For instance, my husband and I do a fair amount with a local organization focused on housing homeless addicts without requiring them to be sober first. It’s really important to us partly because we think safe, stable housing is a human right, not a reward for good behavior, and also because data shows that it’s much easier for folks to get sober once they’re off the streets (which seems like a no-brainer, but a lot of housing organizations require sobriety *before* shelter). But we’re involved in that and other causes (particularly ending the national rape kit backlog) as private citizens. I think it’s so easy to dilute a platform or voice, and so it’s best for me to personally speak where I have the most credibility, and amplify/support other voices in their areas of expertise. I’m still just figuring out how to be a *writer,* though! So I imagine my philosophy will continue to evolve if I’m lucky enough to build an ongoing career. But I imagine I’ll always be strategic about where to direct my energy, while understanding that there will always be people who interpret that as lack of concern.

  4. The Lacy Johnson essay was achingly eloquent– thank you for sharing. (And it also taught me my new favorite word: “apostasy.”)

  5. Don’t get me started! I “like” the first two comments but not in a stupid Facebook sense of like . Your colleague book twin was the mean girl . She used social media to put out there a snarky criticism of you . Isn’t this something that belongs in the me too movement ? Females publicly shaming , undermining their peers as non feminist? when Blasy Ford testified to the pain she felt from her ( ok, alleged)
    Assault from Kavanaugh the part that resonated the most was the boys’ laughter. Mean girls are just as destructive as mean boys wreaking havoc on our psyches. And , last I heard
    There are mean girls and boys in every demographic, not just privileged white.
    You used your recovery wisdom to not let you buy into this . I agree, ditch social media. It is a fertile platform for bullies and the inwardly desperate to be liked. Oh, and is it just a little possible that the book twin was a little freaked by your recent success? Time to pull the rug out from Kristi? I know a mean girl when I see one. She could have given you face to face feedback as a fellow writer if she had a concern. Social media is for cowards.

  6. Wow-what a powerful essay that I will share with many friends. I have never seen this topic encapsulated in a way that resonated so strongly with me. So many things are focused on making us shrink into a small version of ourselves. A chief one right now is to aim the word “privelage” as an arrow to the heart. I do have privelage and I have faced a male dominated field and succeeded on those terms gaining many scars to my soul. I am still figuring out how to stop playing small due to the feedback of being “too much.” How much honesty and goodness has been lost?

  7. I just finished reading your book, Kristi, and it really hit home for me, as I am in the stages of getting real about my own red wine consumption, and thankfully doing a lot better than I was. I have cut back a lot and have begun to care more about my own health, and gotten a tiny bit of self-worth back as well. It feels good. And now your post above has also made me think about how I deal with my lifelong desire for likeability, and how it has shaped me and the paths I have taken in the world. Wow! This is so revealing for me, and as I turned 61 last month, I realized just how much of my life has been monopolized by this ridiculous fear. And as for BathGate, I think it symbolizes the need people have sometimes to lash out because it triggers something within them; something unsettling, and they choose to lash out at you, as the author, and taker of the bath, and I am glad you wrote about it, because it is something that needs to be hashed out. This stuff happens a lot these days, it seems (the lashing out). I read your book and was not appalled by the fact that you spent $1,700 for a handbag. I wouldn’t do that myself simply because I can’t afford it, but I know some people can, and I am OK with that. But, I could relate to the desire to celebrate; to the need to feel good about yourself; and to the basic human trait that we all share – that need and desire to be OK, to feel like we are worthy and – dare I say it – liked. But, liked by ourselves. That sense that we like ourselves without needing to hear the confirmation from friends, spouse, bosses, etc, for validation. Thank you for writing as you do! I love it. It made me feel, in this time of coming to terms with my own addiction, and other big things I am dealing with in my life these past few years, that I am OK, and I am not the only one struggling, and there is strength in me that I didn’t know I had.

  8. My first thought was your friend really isn’t your friend which lead me to think about the people I have moved on from. Some people want you to stay on the rung of life they are on, others lash out when you unknowingly hit a button in them. We all do and say things that hurt others. It is more to point if it is done knowingly or not. A real friend would have had that conversation with you in private and not on the World’s stage of FB. Nightly and sometimes during the day when I get that icky feeling, I do my daily inventory to keep me clean. Make amends as I can and hopefully do it as soon as possible. You took a bath for 20 minutes and got lost on your phone. I fail to understand how that is privileged. That just happened to be the way you slowed down that day and took some me time. I’ve done the same thing on car rides with others driving, etc. I’ve learned in the past 2 1/2 years to stop editing me for other people to feel better. I’m tired of selling myself out for others to feel better.

  9. Kristi, when I read your book I also had the “she spent how much on a handbag?!!!” reaction. And when I saw that you simply owned it, it was kind of a relief. As a writer of personal essay, my work would be double the length if I included every thought in my head to provide a caveat. Yes, sadly, there are people out there just waiting to school you, me, everybody. Good for you for looking for the seeds of truth and then sharing YOUR truth.

    1. I had that ‘she spent what?!’ about MYSELF. 😉 I was thinking that if I ever get famous, that bag would make a great donation to one of those black-tie auction events benefitting addiction treatment!

  10. You know what Kristi, don’t change a thing. Keep writing about bathtubs and purses. I have your book in my purse and follow your blog, I’m trying after 40 years (I’m in my 60’s) of anxiety, depression and alcoholism to finally tackle my demons with intensive outpatient therapy program and finally stop drinking, and it’s rough – and it’s your book in my purse, not any other books written by women on getting through all of this and coming out on the other side. It was real, raw and resonated with me. I was not born of privilege, not even close, but through sheer will got an education, a career and even managed to buy an $1,800 purse. I now work with people of privilege, born into families that expectations were that they go to collage, marry well and have great careers. But I also see and hear them judge “poor people” as if they don’t have aspirations of their own and don’t have the will to overcome them – many, many of us do, I did. And guess what, in my poorest days living in a camp trailer in a crappy trailer park in Arizona taking one college class at a time and working two jobs to survive alone with my daughter – I found time to take a hot bath and read a fucking book! Don’t change a thing. Penny

    1. Penny, I love that you have my book in your purse! When I first signed the contract and we were talking about whether it should be a hardcover or paperback, I advocated for paperback for that *exact reason*–I had this image in my mind of a woman tucking it into her bag so she could read a bit here and there. The other reason I wanted paperback is that they’re much cheaper and I wanted the book to be accessible to people who might not have the cash for hardcover. (That’s not entirely selfless either, btw–I wanted the book to be *read* and lower cost (or no-cost, via libraries)=more readers. 😉 ) So thank you for making my purse-book fantasy come true.

  11. This piece was so helpful to my daughter and me. Right after school yesterday we went to the local bookstore and bought your book. We’ll both read it next. Thank you.

  12. Good heavens…I just don’t get it. The “class-shaming,” the accusations of “alienating” people when you’re sharing aspects of your life. Problems are problems and addiction is addiction; neither discriminate. Should you feel guilty for your life? No. Should you have to apologize for taking a damn bath? Yeesh.

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