I read with no little fascination the New York Magazine profile of Lena Dunham, the 33 year old, relentless over-sharer who was famously on the cover of Vogue looking cute as a button, quite contrary to her public persona which is of that bloated freak of a gal who resides in the heart of all of us from the age of 16 on.
Dunham has annoyed me ever since Girls, and as she says, she’s “not for everyone”. I resisted watching Girls, because of the intense humiliation of not only the characters but because of the shame it woke in me. I felt a regression to my most vulnerable age, dumped into a group of malignant and mysterious betters. Camping appears to be another exercise in spectacular maladjustment with the incandescently well-adjusted Jennifer Garner playing the near-psychotic, crazy-ass convenor of a bunch of thoroughly neurotic celebrants. My toes curl with embarrassment just thinking about it. It’s like every bad party you’ve ever been to, rolled up into one miserable half-hour.
From what fresh hell does all this arise? Dunham herself recounts that many of her producers or editors used to say, “Love the piece, hate the main character”. The main character was always, of course, Dunham.
I grew up with a neurotic woman, who was occasionally formally completely insane, seeing the CIA or CSIS in her neighbor or tennis partner’s plans, or barricading herself in the house unable to answer the phone because it was tapped or go out because she was followed. She was mostly sane, but in those sane periods she was often malignant, and most particularly to other women who she would go after until she had reduced them in her mind, and sometimes in her social circle to prehistoric slime carrying every nasty quality she could evoke. This, of course, was the projection of her own sense of inadequacy, her own sense that she was about to vanish. Once split off from the object of her hatred, she acquired a new lease on life and felt good for a considerable period of time.
As a result of being a handmaiden and guardian of her sanity – luckily my father stood the main burden – I was for many years attracted to friends who were borderline crazy. Most people spend their conversations complaining and worrying, but I chose the ones who were most inventive in that, who could beckon the dark, the malignant, see power used for ill, every acquaintance a bully or a user or some man who’d done them wrong, and so on. Many of them were like Dunham, who is nothing less than brilliant in her demonstration of shame and inadequacy. I’d listen, attempt to mitigate, felt myself disappearing, as I did in my relationship with my mother, because to people like that, no one else truly exists. They are just that desperate to survive. They confront their own erasure in every painful moment and take your soul as recompense.
Dunham seems to be inflicting upon herself ever deeper humiliations, removing her uterus, photographing her blown-up body in more and more unattractive ways, even at her most vulnerable, in a hospital bed, visible stitches and transparent underwear and always way too much fat. She is a walking performance piece of grotesque narcissism, invoking failure with every Instagram post. That she has 3,000,000 followers demonstrates that a lot of people feel that vulnerable, that lost, that inadequate to the terrors of modern life. I had to look up all the psychoactive drugs she is prescribed. Keeping her on the rails is an apex achievement of Big Pharma.
I’d guess she’s lost and I’d also guess she’s taking her followers with her. But maybe not. I collect stories of women who have sacrificed their health and sanity to fame achieved by retailing their neuroses. To them, as the earned-it nurse to madness, I prescribe this one thing, the thing that my mother did which led her to stability: find something really hard to master, and then master it. And once you’ve done that, find something else. Get your brilliant mind off your tiny precious self. Because when you save yourself, you save us too.