YOU’D think that in this age of oversharing (while we’re on this, when will we tire of taking pictures of our food?) nothing would be considered too candid or bold. As far as sweeping statements go, safe to say that shock doesn’t sell as it did a decade ago. Thank you, Miley Cyrus, for leaving nothing to the imagination.
We’ve seen this in publishing too with more people taking the pen to share their thoughts on a host of issues, in memoir or in essay form. Lena Dunham and Roxane Gay, (whose essay collection I reviewed for this paper), are examples of writers who have chartered new course with their incisive commentary on pop culture, sexuality, body image etc.
To that end Los Angeles Times columnist and published writer, Meghan Daum, is brutally honest in the 10 personal essays she’s written in The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion. Her prose is formidable when she tackles loss, disappointments, dogs, Joni Mitchell and a near-death experience to name a few. But this is not a navel-gazing exercise or a confessional, which implies shame or guilt. She is clear in her introduction about the intent behind these essays: “I wanted to examine the ways in which so many aspects of contemporary American life … seem to come shrink-wrapped in a layer of bathos”.
Indeed when faced with adversity, we’re conditioned into thinking there’s a larger reason we have been dealt this hand. It’s unthinkable, forget unspeakable, to say that caring for our parents in their old age is a burden, a chore we’d rather do without — even if we genuinely feel that way. Take Daum’s essay ‘Matricide’ where she writes candidly about not having a good relationship with her mother — who she calls a narcissist suffering a midlife crisis — and her feelings on her mother’s death from cancer. “I had been slightly worried that when my mother actually died I’d be more grief-stricken than I’d anticipated, that I’d faint or lose my breath or at least finally unleash the tears that I’d been unable to shed all this time. But none of that happened. I was as relieved as I planned to be.”
On her dog’s death, she writes: “I won’t lie. Rex’s passing was the worst grief I’ve faced in my life so far.” So distraught is she that even today she says she avoids ‘The Rainbow Bridge’ — a poem about your dead pet waiting for you on the other side and being the first thing you see when you die; a real tear-jerker for pet owners — “at all costs”. This, incidentally and unsurprisingly, for I’m a dog lover like her, was my favorite essay. It encapsulated the dog-human relationship beautifully and articulated the emptiness one feels when their pet passes.
Who is this person you wonder who was relieved at her mother’s passing but breaks into tears whenever she thinks of her dog? She’s someone who admits that she sees her mother as disingenuous whereas with animals, what you see is what you get. This explanation may not be an easy pill to swallow, because we’re conditioned to love despite flaws, but Daum is unconcerned with perceptions; she only cares about telling her story in as honest a manner as possible.
She is not blind to her own flaws. Her book is no self-help guide, there’s no aha moments, no lessons to be learned here, yet there’s plenty of opportunity to reflect and try to relate. There are bold admissions that one may not frequently hear. In ‘Honorary Dyke’ she writes about being biologically heterosexual but “culturally lesbian” and how she feels guilty for disappointing some women but her actions come from her not identifying with any of the pink femininity that society shoves down our throats.
In ‘Difference Maker’ Daum writes about volunteering with foster children, the closest she’s come to parenting, I imagine. She writes about not wanting to have children, a refreshing admission in a culture where it’s expected that all women are driven by a biological clock and that not wanting a child makes you a freak. While she writes about her miscarriage in with candour (of course) she admits that her one regret is not giving her husband children which is not to be confused with her regret at not having children. This is certainly the reason behind her spending time with foster kids but here too she is sorry that she could not make a difference to kids in the fostering programme. The essay is also a brutal indictment on the foster care system.
In ‘Invisible City’ she writes about being invited to a dinner party “a games kind of thing” by her mentor Nora Ephron — the trailblazing truth-teller back in the day. Daum writes that she is surprised to be there as she’s the only non-celebrity among guests like Meg Ryan, Arianna Huffington, Steve Martin and Nicole Kidman to name a few. However, she realises she’s invisible — attempts at conversations are met with curt monosyllabic replies. And then there’s the game debacle itself when celebs get together to play charades. But true to form, she takes this awful evening in her stride, describing herself as “the human embodiment of a fly on the wall. Who amongst us has not wished for that experience?”
She’s not apologetic about not liking to cook, about wanting to stay in her comfort zone — whether with not wanting kids or not wanting to buy heirloom tomatoes because everyone else is — she is unabashedly honest. But this doesn’t make her unkind, unrelatable or unnatural. She recognises the complexity in belonging to a tiny percentage of women who feel motherhood isn’t their calling but still has names picked out for kids she doesn’t want. It is these complexities that make her human. She is simply speaking her truth and does it in a wonderfully witty manner.
The reviewer is digital editor of Newsweek Middle East.
The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion
By Meghan Daum