“Just because something is true doesn’t make it a good story.”
Lena Dunham has probably heard this maxim, one that is often repeated by grumbling college professors tired of reading hyperbolized dorm-room drama by self-indulgent English majors. By her own telling, Dunham was one such English major. Since then, the creator and star of the HBO series Girls and the feature film Tiny Furniture has always mined her own life experiences for story material. Tiny Furniture was even shot in her parents’ Tribeca loft, with her mother and sister playing those of Dunham’s character, who comes home to roost after graduation.
But there was always a sense, at least for fans of her work, that her stories may at least have fallen somewhere in between fiction and autobiography, especially after Girls completed its third season and her character Hannah’s life diverged from her own, hurtling off into its own trajectory.
Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned,” however, does a disservice to Girls, and Tiny Furniture, by revealing that the “characters” in those works are indeed based on real people who also are depicted in her memoir, and are now in their second or third iterations. When she writes about the chef she slept with while hostessing at a restaurant, or her job working at a froufrou children’s clothing shop, we can envision these scenes so clearly because we have already seen them onscreen. While they may be factually true, they certainly don’t feel new.
Such recycling of material is understandable considering that a 28-year-old only has so much to draw from, especially when all of her art is in some way, abstractly or concretely, autobiographical. But we are now left to wonder whether it is time for Dunham to write outside of her own experiences altogether. While she has often been accused of “oversharing” (something she recently and astutely labeled a “gendered” criticism on NPR’s Fresh Air), the greater danger she now faces is allowing her work to feel overdone.
From tragic chat room affairs to boundary-crossing therapy sessions, the memoir contains less laugh-out-loud and more cringe-deep-within-yourself kinds of tales, like the one about the time Dunham was five when a woman at a dinner party asked how her parents punished her when she was bad.
“My father sticks a fork in my vagina,” was her reply.
On one hand, revealing the more twisted parts of one’s imagination can be of comfort to some. Just as Dunham’s willingness to appear naked on Girls has done a lot to progress the conversation about the purpose of female nudity in general, these bizarre and often uncomfortable anecdotes will perhaps open up a safe space for many readers to admit to and share their own inner demons. But because these details are less about serving a story than they are about chronicling a childhood fraught with grotesque fixations, readers may feel more alienated than assured.
There are some truly important aspirations contained within the pages of this book: to help us acknowledge our most selfish insecurities; to make us question if we’ve respected ourselves enough, and if we’ve demanded enough respect from our partners. To point out how obsessing over our weight rarely brings us any closer to loving our bodies. To accept that the “awkward hookup” with that guy in college was probably closer to rape than we were prepared to admit. The problem then just might be that the material doesn’t yet lend the messages the power they deserve. In fact, in the chapter that Dunham has described in interviews as being about “date rape,” she doesn’t actually use that word herself, but gives it instead to another character who labels the act for her. Even then it’s still not entirely clear whether Dunham agrees. Not That Kind of Girl would have benefited from more zoom-out moments, some “I wish I knew then what I know now” framing.
In interviews and even in the YouTube advice videos she made to accompany the memoir, Dunham is among the most eloquent speakers of any age in unpacking issues of gender, sexism and even simply growing up. It’s frustrating then that she’s not yet able to incorporate this into her fiction. She writes about a tendency she’s had to feel outside of her own body during sex, watching herself from a distance like an onlooker. I wonder if she had this feeling while writing her book as well, failing to get to the meat of the story while clearly enjoying the telling of it.
Dunham dedicates Not That Kind of Girl to her literary idol (and briefly, before her death, mentor) Nora Ephron; she also includes Ephron in the Introduction and in one of the book’s cartoons. Ephron was 34 years old when she published the celebrated Crazy Salad, a collection of essays and articles she had written as a journalist, which is how she spent her 20s. She wouldn’t fully turn an eye to herself until age 42, when she wrote Heartburn, a fictionalized account of her marriage to the philandering Carl Bernstein. Somewhat to her credit, Dunham, at a mere 28 years old, has already matched what it took her hero far more time to accomplish professionally. But there’s something to be said for those years Ephron spent covering the women’s rights movement, politics and celebrity for the New York Post, Esquire and New York Magazine. What would eventually become the best of Ephron’s fiction were not just her own stories — they were, in some way, ours as well.
If only Dunham could do as Ephron did, if her immense celebrity weren’t standing in the way — pick up a reporter’s notebook, go out into that wide world and find her reflection in the stories of others. And while doing that, she just might create some new ones for herself.
In a chapter titled “I Didn’t Fuck Them, but They Yelled at Me,” Dunham dreams of another book she’ll write when she’s 80:
“It will be excerpted in Vanity Fair along with photos of me laughing at a long-ago premiere,” she writes, as if a lifetime of book deals were already on the table.
Hubris aside, we hope she does write that book at 80. We very much look forward to reading about the experiences — in all their outrageous glory — she will have amassed by then.