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).

Day 1,826: In This World, There is a Kind of Painful Progress

A friend of 20+ years called last night. You could say it’s been a complicated relationship, the same way you could say Mt. Rainier is a pretty big hill. We’ve hurt each other at times like only two people who know each other very well can do. We’ll talk every day for a year and then either drift or storm apart for the next one. He made me so mad last year that I all but slammed the door for good on my way out.
But I HAD to send him my book. Not because he’s in it–though he is–and not because he’s thanked in the acknowledgments, though he’s there too. Just because there were a few people who needed to have it in their hands for it to feel fully real to me, and he was one of them, which frankly sort of annoyed me. I didn’t sign it or include a note, just shoved the galley in an envelope and sent it off and didn’t wait around to hear back.
“You wrote a fucking beautiful book,” he said by way of hello last night.
“Well, thanks,” I said, a little shy.
“It’s EXACTLY your voice,” he went on. “Like everything you are as a person is reflected in those pages. I mean I LITERALLY heard your voice in my head saying every single word.”
Now I was starting to perk up a little. (Compliments will do that.)
“I mean, don’t get me wrong, I wanted to shut you up a few times,” he said, laughing. “But it was you. For better or worse. You translated the
thing that makes you YOU into book form. I don’t know how the fuck you did it.”
“This is seriously the greatest blurb I’ll ever get in my life,” I told him, and I meant it.

We talked for another couple of hours, and I guess he heard something in my physical voice too, something I was holding back, because every so often he’d circle back and ask “Are you okay? Really, are you okay?” In recent years–since I got sober–I’m usually the one asking if he’s okay. At times it’s seemed like he’s forgotten that I still have problems, too.

 

The third time he asked I said, “I’m FUNDAMENTALLY okay, yes, but…” and gave him the full download on something that happened this month, a head-spinning turn of events involving someone I was close to that blindsided and hurt me. It’s also the kind of situation where anyone looking to judge me would have a glorious CORNUCOPIA of options to choose from. Based on our history, I sort of expected an astonished eye roll from my friend *at best,* so I went ahead and tacked on everything I assumed he was thinking: that I’m a dumbass, that I know I have no real right to feel grief, that I should just be happy things didn’t turn out even worse, and did I mention I’m a dumbass? and so on.
He cut my litany off. “Kid,” he said–he’s been calling me ‘kid’ since around the time he turned 40 while I was a mere 37–“shut up. OF COURSE you feel grief. That’s  heartbreaking. I’m just sorry you have to go through it.”
“Well, the problem is I’m essentially a much stupider person than I thought I was and…”
“STOP,” he said. “You are not stupid. At WORST you’re maddening and confounding. God, you know I hate it when you get hurt.” I was about to say that, uh, maddening and confounding actually are pretty bad ‘worsts,’ but for once common sense prevailed and we moved on to other quotidian sorrows, his and mine.
Just before we hung up, he said “The thing you need to remember is I’m ALWAYS going to be in your army. I’m always going to have your back. Even if we have another blowup–“
“Which we will,” I said.
“–Which we will, it doesn’t matter. We’re permanent. And whenever you forget that, just listen to the song.”
“I will,” I said. Of course I knew which song. In that way if no other, we have twin language.
I thought then of the speech Harper makes at the end of Angels in America, about the net of souls surrounding the earth. I wanted to tell him how fast I realized after we first met that he’d be in my own personal net of souls, and how for a while after I quit drinking I thought maybe I’d been wrong, but finally I’d landed on that same word: permanent. A neutral word that leaves room for drift and flow, private jokes and alienation, deep disappointment and deep love.

I wanted to tell him all of this (though I suspected I’d told him before, drunk) plus just how much that net has come to MEAN to me in this dizzying last year or two–how carefully I’ve tended and even more carefully added to it, with a jeweler’s eye and maybe the eye of a coach, too, putting together a team for the long haul. I wanted to explain that’s why I’m grieving now, because part of my net fell away. But also to explain that my friend’s ongoing presence in my life–his warm, maddening, loving, confounding, worrying, permanent presence–tells me the net is there even when I can’t see it, or feel it.

But it was late–3 a.m. his time, which made it midnight here. Which made me gasp a bit and said “Oh! Oh, wow. As of this very minute I’ve been sober for exactly five years.”