Lena Dunham reinvented the oversharing style on her hit show, Girls. What will her first book do? Meghan Daum meets TV’s hottest property and talks psychotherapy, sisterhood and why she can’t keep a secret.
On a recent afternoon in Brooklyn, Lena Dunham and her sister, Grace, met up at a local hangout. Grace was nursing a sprained ankle she sustained a few nights earlier, after, by her account, "tripping into a pothole while running out of a queer-poetry reading." Dunham was concerned about the injury but also enchanted by the phrase, and had been repeating it to people everywhere she went over the last several days.
This came as little surprise to Grace, since appropriating events from her family's life is standard practice for Dunham. In her first book, Not That Kind Of Girl, Dunham writes about her sister, her parents and herself with a ferocious, hilarious and occasionally worrisome candour. It's the same candour that defines the spirit of her hit show, Girls, only more concentrated and probing, almost as if the stage directions in an episode script had spiralled off into their own crazy back stories.
Not That Kind Of Girl might best be described as a primer for millennial women negotiating the path to adulthood. Dunham modelled the book loosely on Helen Gurley Brown's 1982 best-seller, Having It All, the women's advice guide that cemented the infamous phrase and that Dunham, who discovered it when she was 20, found perversely inspiring. "Despite [Brown's] demented theories, which jibe not even a little bit with my own distinctly feminist upbringing," Dunham writes in her book's introduction, "I appreciate the way Helen shares her own embarrassing, acne-ridden history in an attempt to say, 'Look, happiness and satisfaction can happen to anyone'."
At 28, Dunham may be entering the pantheon of gurus a bit prematurely, though in fairness, her life so far has been nothing if not examined. Not That Kind Of Girl traffics heavily in stories of psychotherapy, toxic relationships and questionable personal choices, refashioned as highly comic if also uncomfortable anecdotes-turned-life lessons.
One such lesson involves Grace coming out as a lesbian to her sister during Grace's senior year of high school. Though Grace wasn't quite ready to tell their parents, Dunham was unable to contain herself and revealed the news for her.
"What I didn't say in the book is how it messed up our relationship for, like, two years," Dunham says now.
As Grace remembers it, Dunham couldn't last two days, keeping the news to herself.
"It was not two days," Dunham says. "It was a month. You came out to me, like, a week into shooting Tiny Furniture" - Dunham's 2010 feature film - "and I didn't tell Mum and Dad for, like, a week after we wrapped."
Grace rolls her eyes. "Without getting into specifics," she says, "most of our fights have revolved around my feeling like Lena took her approach to her own personal life and made my personal life her property."
"Basically, it's like I can't keep any of my own secrets," says Dunham. "And I consider Grace to be an extension of me, and therefore I couldn't handle the fact that she's a very private person with her own value system and her own aesthetic and that we do different things."
Not That Kind of Girl is dedicated to Dunham's family, to her boyfriend - Jack Antonoff, a guitarist for the band Fun - and to "Nora". That would be the writer and director, Nora Ephron, who in 2011 sent Dunham an email saying she loved Tiny Furniture. Ephron became Dunham's mentor and close friend until her death in June 2012, at which time Dunham received another email, this one from an editor at The New Yorker who knew of Dunham's relationship with Ephron and was interested in having her write a short remembrance. Dunham was in upstate New York shooting the second season of Girls and she immediately went into her trailer and poured out 2000 words on her laptop. The piece ran on The New Yorker's website the next day.
Shortly after that, David Remnick, the editor took Dunham to lunch. They shared memories of Ephron, and he asked to see any work Dunham had that might be right for the magazine. It happened that she'd been toying with some personal writing and, in August that year, an essay entitled First Love appeared. By that October, Dunham had a reported $3 million-plus deal from Random House for Not That Kind Of Girl, which would contain all new material and seek to impart guidance on issues like sex, dating, work and friendship. She was then 26 and had, until very recently, been living with her parents.
To suggest that Dunham is too young, privileged and narcissistic to be dispensing advice to anyone is to add very little to the conversation about her place in the culture. A frequently repeated Dunham quip (which she lent to her Girls alter ego in the show's first season) serves as the ultimate pre-emptive strike against public invective: "Any mean thing someone's going to think of to say about me I've already said to me, about me, probably in the last half-hour."
Since Tiny Furniture, which was shot for $25,000, set her career in motion and helped her score her deal for Girls, Dunham has functioned as a proxy for the collective aspirations and insecurities of her generation, or at least a certain educated, mostly white, mostly urban-dwelling microdemographic therein.
Dunham writes, directs and acts in Girls, and since it debuted in mid-2012, Dunham has not been a media darling as much as a media obsession. But her fame may have less to do with her anointment as her generation's chief representative than with her refusal to be famous on anything but her own terms.
Dunham has been seeing therapists since she was 9. She was given a diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder at 11 and began taking medication for it at 14.
She writes about her psychiatric struggles in Not That Kind Of Girl, and a chapter recently excerpted in The New Yorker is a madcap reminiscence of the teachers, therapists and psychotropic drugs that defined her childhood. But Dunham considers herself not just a neurotic New York kid, but also someone who grapples with mental illness in a real and continuing way.
"Once, before I got on medication, I was so freaked out and OCD'd," she said, not exactly sotto voce, in a coffee shop in West Hollywood. It was a few days before the Emmys, and she was recounting a story in which her mother, desperate to get her to bed, gave her a quarter of an Ambien.
"But sometimes if you stay up too long on the Ambien, it makes you hallucinate," she said. "So I started saying insane stuff to my parents like, 'I'm a basket of oranges being thrown over a wall!' And my dad was like, 'Oh, my God, this is the moment when her neuroses have turned into full-blown mental illness.' But I was just having a weird reaction. And the next day I went to see a psycho-pharmacologist, and we were able to figure things out. But I think there's a part of my parents and a part of me that are consistently excited and surprised that I am in any way functional."
Dunham's mother is the photographer Laurie Simmons, her father the painter Carroll Dunham. Simmons, who's known for photographing miniature scenes she stages with dollhouses and other objects, took a lot of nude self-portraits when she was in her early 20s. Carroll Dunham's oeuvre includes sexually explicit renderings of voluptuous women with genitals that look like mouths. Dunham has often said that despite having many hang-ups, nudity isn't among them. And while it may be reductive to link that fact directly to her parents' explorations of the female form, her bond with them sometimes appears to have the qualities of an artistic collaboration as well as being a source of security.
Dunham dedicated Not That Kind of Girl to her family, Nora Ephron and her boyfriend Jack Antonoff, a guitarist for the band Fun. Photo / AP
Not That Kind of Girl devotes an entire chapter to platonic bed sharing, and Dunham is unapologetic about the force with which she claimed what she saw as her rightful territory. "Around 1am," she writes, "once my parents were finally asleep, I would creep into their room and kick my father out of bed, settling into the warmth of his spot and passing out beside my mother, the brief guilt of displacing him far outweighed by the joy of no longer being alone."
Dunham stopped sleeping with her parents at 12, at which point Grace, who is six years younger, began crawling into bed with Dunham, an arrangement that lasted until she left for college. Grace, who has recently graduated from Brown University, is now living with her parents in Williamsburg, where they recently moved. Passionately focused on social activism, she is currently helping to bring a political component to Dunham's book tour, by combining their shared interest in women's health and reproductive rights with the publisher's interest in selling lots of books. Needless to say, Dunham's tour won't resemble the typical experience of most first-time authors.
All of her events, which include onstage conversations with writers like Zadie Smith and Curtis Sittenfeld, have already sold out. Thanks to Grace's efforts, many will include on-site representatives from Planned Parenthood. Grace has also helped organise writing workshops that Dunham will conduct with young women from the communities she visits.
No matter how high her profile rises, Dunham's sensibility will almost certainly continue to elude as many people as it captivates. Her mainstream success aside, she is not a mainstream artist. Which is really to say that she is an artist, a traditional auteur whose body of work probably already contains some classics.
Not That Kind Of Girl may or may not become a classic, but it's a good book: witty and rife with the kind of comedic flourishes that characterise early Woody Allen books like Without Feathers and Side Effects. As indebted as Dunham feels to Ephron, she's a very different kind of writer. Whereas Ephron was cool and unflappable, Dunham is interested in the least cool aspects of herself. Like Allen, she is vulnerable and ridiculous.
But unlike Allen, whose detractors were generally willing to acknowledge his talent even if he wasn't their cup of tea, Dunham will most likely find herself denigrated by her critics as a dilettante and a fraud rather than as someone whose work they simply don't care for. There are many possible reasons for this: her age, her sex, her looks.
Her foray into the literary world will also surely be met with the question of "why?" Why would someone want to publish what is essentially a book of personal essays when she already has a hugely popular television show whose episodes function in many ways like personal essays anyway? Why would someone working in high-end cable TV, which is arguably today's most vital entertainment medium, extend her reach into one that's ostensibly dying? After all, the trajectory of female essayists and cultural critics (see Ephron, Joan Didion, Dorothy Parker) has traditionally been to parlay their literary bona fides into more lucrative work in Hollywood.
The answers, perhaps, lie in Dunham's original inspiration, Helen Gurley Brown. If Brown's definition of "having it all" was ultimately as facile as it was untenable, Dunham's interpretation may be rooted in her commitment to the idea that personal experiences, especially women's personal experiences, are valid and necessary as subject matter.
Of course, there's a very good argument to be made that there are too many people writing about their personal experiences these days and not enough willing to report from the battle lines that exist outside their own heads.
But even if she doesn't tackle the Big Issues for a few more years, the fact is that she's still just 28. When Ephron was 28, she was a reporter for The New York Post. When Didion was 28, she was editing at Vogue; she had quietly published her first novel and was nowhere near the sensation she would become. When Parker was 28, she had finished a stint as a drama critic for Vanity Fair. None of them at that point had found their way to the issues that would come to define them. And despite the monumental platform Dunham has been given, that's probably true of her too. She's everywhere, but she's still not there yet.
That might have a lot to do with why people find her at once so exciting and so exasperating.
To Dunham, the most useful reaction to this endless onslaught of reactions is to keep working. These days she is editing the fourth season of Girls and is in the early stages of writing a novel "about a professional woman entering her 30s and her relationship with several complex father figures". She does, admittedly, thrill in the sight of her name in The New Yorker. She has also learned to cope with the cognitive dissonance that comes from receiving more good fortune than seems right for one person.
"I've had a lot of moments in my career where I've had to just say, 'I'm picking my jaw up off the floor and carrying on,'" she told me. "Because you don't get much work done with your jaw on the floor."
Adapted from The New York Times Magazine
Not That Kind Of Girl (HarperCollins $34.99) is released on October 1.