It seems that every so often, a memoir shoots up the charts, only to have its journalistic integrity questioned months later as the pendulum swings from adoration to suspicion. From James Frey cowering on Oprah’s couch to “This American Life” debating a warning label for David Sedaris’s essays, the universal truth in nonfiction memoirs is that the accuracy of events will, at some point, be questioned.
Her readers obviously don’t care whether her book is fact or fiction. The memoir debuted at the top of the Washington Post and New York Times nonfiction bestseller lists, and at the recent Gaithersburg Book Festival, Lawson was mobbed by avid fans who greeted her with screams, a standing ovation and handmade gifts.
No one in the audience questioned whether she had embellished any of her story. In her introduction, Lawson writes, “This book is totally true, except for the parts that aren’t.” She added that disclaimer to sidestep any threat of being sued — and perhaps to give her family a friendly loophole in case they need to fend off charges of reckless parenting over some of Lawson’s more outrageous reminscings.
That excuse, though, rings untrue. That her family would object to her writing now seems somewhat far-fetched to anyone who has followed Lawson’s career. She is hugely popular online, and she’s detailed her life on the Web for years, first as a parenting blogger for the Houston Chronicle, later on her site TheBloggess.com and even as a reviewer of pornography for a sex-toy company.
Lawson relishes revealing plenty about her life, except perhaps just how much she may exaggerate about it. Fall into her writing, though, and she proves that a memoir need not be exact to be enjoyable. She removes the onus of perfectly reported recollections and leads her readers down the rabbit hole of her memories. (The rabbit, of course — for fans in the know — would be stuffed and wearing some sort of period costume.) The result: a satisfying, blithe tale of a curious adulthood and curiouser childhood.
The book skims through a series of comic essays, akin to Sedaris if he were an anxiety-stricken Texas mother with a fascination with the zombie apocalypse.
Lawson’s childhood was spent in poverty on the outskirts of a tiny town in West Texas — her swimming pool a cistern meant for washing pigs, her winter shoes bread sacks and her pets a flock of wild turkeys that trailed her to school. Even while recording certain traumatic events, including her father’s attempts to entertain her and her siblings with a gruesome hand puppet made from a freshly dead squirrel, she writes tenderly of the life she led as a child.
Her writing may be an acquired taste for some, especially with the high animal body count, the constant cursing and the occasionally disjointed manner. For her many fans (myself included), the randomness only adds to the charm. She writes often of a crippling anxiety disorder that forces her to hide in bathrooms after humiliating herself at cocktail parties: “I’ll blurt out something . . . to fill the awkward silence, but for some reason the part of my mind that doesn’t have a filter can think only about necrophilia, and the part of my brain that recognizes that necrophilia is never an appropriate topic yells, ‘NECROPHILIA IS BAD,’ and so then I panic and hear myself start talking about why necrophilia is bad, and the part of me that is slightly sane is shaking her head at myself as she watches all the people struggle to think of an appropriate way to respond to a girl at a cocktail party who is against necrophilia. I feel sorry for those people.”
Her readers smugly assure themselves that they would never be “those people” and would happily wind up in the bathroom with Lawson, laughing at her tall tales.
The humor also allows Lawson to dwell lightly on some of the more painful parts of her life — those memories that the title suggests might be best left repressed. She skims past her anorexia; she makes light of her anxiety disorder; and while she knocks you out with the sorrow of her miscarriages, she has you laughing by the next page.
The tale is meandering, though never boring. She enters high school, the only goth girl in a sea of cowboys. She finds love in the witchcraft section of a bookstore. She pulls back the curtain on the human resources departments of her various employers over the past 15 years to reveal the cynicism behind the smiles. And she finds her footing in the world of blogging, where quirkiness is queen.
The plot, though, is never the point. It’s following the strange paths down which Lawson’s mind wanders. Unlike with the memoirists who have come before her, there’s never a question about her journalistic integrity. Did a cougar casually stroll through her back yard last week? Does she really have a zombie kit stashed under her bed? Who cares? The world Lawson inhabits, however much invented, is a glorious place to be.
Melissa Bell is director of blog engagement at The Washington Post.
LET’S PRETEND THIS NEVER HAPPENED
(A Mostly True Memoir)
By Jenny Lawson
Amy Einhorn /Putnam. 318 pp. $25.95