BY STEPHANIE SHAMP In the pursuit of not wasting my time, I generally only read memoirs that are:
A. Recommended by a close friend
B. Written past the age of 40
C. Dark with funny moments or funny with dark moments
D. Profoundly moving
I’m sorry to report that Not That Kind of Girl meets none of my basic requirements. Fact is, Lena Dunham’s life is just not that interesting. Born to two artists and raised in what is never directly said but implied to be a middle-class home with her younger sister in New York, Dunham is the definition of “STARS! THEY’RE JUST LIKE US!” From a normal childhood she lived well, made friends, made bad decisions, lost friends, made good decisions, finished high school, went to college, banged some dudes, changed colleges, fell in love, graduated college, fell out of love, and then went on to create, write, direct and star in the cultural phenomenon that is HBO’s Girls. In other words, the standard narrative arc of a mid-twentysomething gals’ life in New York at the dawn of the 21st century, right? As if. The rule of thumb in the memoir genre is if the subject is not relatable his/her life must be a teachable moment and an inveterate narcissist/compulsive oversharer like Dunham is your go-to gal when. Every. Moment. Must. Mean. Something.
Not That Kind of Girl is told in time-traveling non-linear form, meaning we don’t start with birth and end with the present. Instead, Dunham picks moments from her life that can serve as a widescreen onto which she can project the themes she wants to express. Her book is broken up into five sections: Love & Sex, Body, Friendship, Work, and Big Picture. The titles of the essays that anchor the book — e.g. “Take My Virginity (No, Really, Take It)” or “I Didn’t Fuck Them, But They Yelled At Me” — have Dunham’s characteristically blunt charm. Within these cleverly titled essays, people from her life like family members or one of the many jerks she dated will reappear and do something that proves whatever point she’s trying to make.
We find out in “Love & Sex” that when Lena was five, she was asked by a drunk British woman at a gallery opening “what our parents did if we were ‘bad girls’” and Dunham’s instinct, even at a young age, was to say something extreme rather than the boring truth. She falsely accuses her dad of punishing her by sexualy assaulting her with a fork, reflecting that “It is a testament to his good nature that, after the British lady repeated my ‘hilarious’ story to a group of adults, he simply scooped me up and said ‘I think it’s someone’s bedtime.’” To me, this is testament not only to Dunham’s patient father but to her own lifelong history of seeking negative attention.
Another manipulative moment comes in “Love & Sex” when Dunham discusses how she made a habit of luring potential lovers into “platonic bed sharing.” Basically, she slept with men in her bed but didn’t have sex. Not for a lack of interest. She writes, “I writhed around like a cat in heat hoping he’d graze me in a way I could translate into pleasure.” Eventually she figures out that she was just torturing herself as well as damaging her reputation and understanding of romantic relationships, writing “my bed was a rest stop for the lonely, and I was the spinster innkeeper.”
In “Who Moved My Uterus?” from “Body” we’re informed that Dunham has endometriosis, a painful condition that can cause irregular bleeding and, at worst, infertility. Unsurprisingly, her reaction is melodramatic: “I can’t do any of what I had planned. All I can do is survive.” Of course I cannot tell any woman how to cope with such a diagnosis, but Dunham’s reaction struck me as overwrought for a completely manageable illness.
In “Is This Supposed to be Fun?” she writes about the difficulties of enmeshing her pre-fame friends in her current social circle, and concludes with this careful-what-you-wish-for aside: “I thought I would keep my friends, and we’d make new, different memories. None of that happened. Better things happened. Then why am I so sad?” Because Lena Dunham, that’s why.
I really enjoyed hearing from her parents, who appear to express the same “what are we going to do with you” frustration that I was feeling by midway through the book. In the introduction, Dunham writes about a fight she had with her understandably furious mom over her disrespectful and tasteless fashion choice (pink leggings, banana print crop top) for a visit to the Vatican. I ended up relating far more to Dunham’s parents and sister, and I sincerely admire their patience and support for her life and work.
In the end, the problem with Dunham as unrelatable/unreliable narrator presenting her life as a series of teachable moments comes down to the fact that she doesn’t seem to have learned anything from her 28 years on Earth. That may seem to some like a silly critique for a memoir, which after all is about the author’s life and experiences, but Dunham is so self-absorbed that she never stops to consider how the events of her life and the decisions she makes affect others. Plus, she’s so busy observing her own life she never seems to make time to actually live it. Her default response to every triumph or tragedy is “this will make a great story.” Be here now, Lena, be here now.
It’s just like her show — everything is about Hannah, the character she portrays on Girls. There’s really no difference between Hannah and Lena that I could see, except for obviously different success levels, but I’ve only watched one season. I couldn’t get through any more episodes of Girls because I hated Hannah and all her self-indulgent friends so fucking much that watching any more would have brought on an anger stroke. I’m all for showing women as more than the Madonna/whore trope we’ve been subjected to for all of recorded history, but the girls on Girls are utterly awful: selfish, manipulative, vain, passive, spoiled, and self-aggrandizing. It’s not surprising I didn’t like Not That Kind Of Girl because the characters on Girls (Marnie, Jessa, Shoshanna, and Adam) are in the book doing the same stupid shit they do in the show and then whining about the consequences or philosophizing about the exact same inane shit Dunham contemplates in the book. While she has created an undeniably popular and culturally-significant show and fashioned herself as an indie-girl icon for legions of brainy-but-awkward girls, she has not lived enough of a meaningful life to tell me or anyone what she’s “learned,” as her book promises right on the cover.