The summer before I turned twenty-eight I took a road trip from Fort Collins, Colorado, to New York City in a VW Jetta with my bipolar, heroin-addicted boyfriend, Christian. On the way, we slept huddled together in the back seat of the car in Walmart parking lots and ate soup out of cans. We took pictures of our feet and abandoned buildings and Jesse James’s house. We made love in a wheat field. Once in the city, we spent three nights in a hostel and three nights communing with Sid Vicious and Arthur Miller in The Hotel Chelsea. The first night at the hostel all our cash was stolen a few inches from our sleeping bodies. While I tore the room apart, cursing at the top of my lungs, Christian calmly looked in his wallet, “Come on, Kid. Let’s go get some lunch.” For two days we had exactly four dollars. We bought hot dogs and water on the street and watched a free play in Central Park. It was all so romantic and tempestuous and sexy, much like Christian.
He was a tow-haired man-child, five years my junior, whose whole life revolved around making literature. He was determined to be a latter-day beat, not through imitation, but through being authentically alive. He was always either causing havoc at crap jobs — showing up late every day to wait tables at a Mexican place in Loveland and then indignantly quitting by punching his boss in the nose — or making next to nothing at pretty sweet gigs like one at a book bindery. (He made me a journal at that job that I wrote in during our travels.) Otherwise, he was in English classes at Colorado State University or at a bar like The Vault, where we met one night after my own lit. class, or hiding away writing his own masterpiece. No kidding, Christian was the real deal.
So why did we decide to gallivant across the country together? We never really asked each other. Christian was always up for sucking the marrow out of life, and I wanted a taste myself, so when the idea came up, there was no question. We were on the road. I was selfishly in it for the memories, for the feeling that every moment was pregnant with meaning and potential for greatness.
The problem is the meaning and potential I was chasing weren’t my own. The whole time we were having these adventures I knew this wasn’t my real life. I’d just finished grad school after teaching sixth and seventh grade for two years. Before that, I’d escaped a toxic marriage that lasted only a year, something I fell into trying to escape deeper childhood toxicities. I had no idea where I was going next, but I knew this was just a diversion, an experiment. I knew I couldn’t really be spontaneous and free of worry and full of joie de vivre. It just wasn’t in my DNA. At least not for the long term. I’m a list-maker, an alphabetizer, a color coordinator. But back then I couldn’t reconcile the qualities that make up my real self with my desire to be a writer. The notion of fleeing to a new city, freeing myself from the mundanity of my daily goings on, fed my writer side and woke me up. But I couldn’t sustain this pace of living most of the time, and this fracturing of self made me feel like a big fraud. How could I be a good writer and a stable individual? I couldn’t even do drugs right. Before Christian, I’d smoked pot, sure, but nothing else. The one time I mixed a couple of Christian’s drugs with him I threw up, peed my pants, and fell asleep at a stranger’s party all within about an hour. I couldn’t hang, as they say. It was for the better, I suppose. My dear Christian would only live five summers after that road-trip summer, ending his journey in Portland, Oregon, with an overdose of heroin, his favorite drug.
In those days while I was exhaustedly looking for a reprieve from myself, Christian was just being, not trying to be. He’d stay up all night at my apartment writing, listening to Thelonious Monk, and rattling off recommendations, “You’ve gotta read Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It’ll change your life. And Naked Lunch. And Franny and Zooey.” He’d make me lists of things to read, to listen to, to experience. He was a good guide. But in his own life, outside of his art, he was as lost as I was.
Despite his setbacks — the addiction he couldn’t shake, his dead father who taught him to like prostitutes, his damaged mother who hoarded little dogs, his inability to ride the ebbs and flows of his bipolar mind — Christian gave everyone around him permission to be more themselves. He wanted to hear everyone’s story without reservation or judgment, and once he’d captured it in his mind, that story became a way for him to see more beauty in the storyteller. He always found the beauty, even in the ugly or mundane. (Once, I took him to Whole Foods just so we could marvel at the color of the produce. As I’d suspected, he was in total awe.)
Recently I’ve felt in someone else a similar kinship, the same permission to free myself and find beauty on the road to figure out what the heck we’re all supposed to be doing here. That person is Lena Dunham.
Lena Dunham, the writer, director, producer, and star of the HBO show Girls and the movie Tiny Furniture, is awkward and quirky and self-absorbed. She’s (some would say overly) confessional. Her expectations of life are incredibly high. Some might say they’re crazy presumptuous and entitled, but I won’t because I don’t think they are. Dunham is like a child who is taken to the circus, sees the elephants dance, and decides that she’d really like to take one home. Much like Christian, she doesn’t know her own limitations. This, among other things, is why she’s the sexiest woman alive.
We never know what she’s going to do next, probably because she’s not entirely sure herself. After reading her new memoir, Not that Kind of Girl, rewatching all of season three of Girls and experiencing the first episodes of season four, I’m in love with Dunham’s courage to essentially fuck up on camera and on the page.
Her character on Girls, Hannah, has lots of experiences that are based directly on Dunham’s life, and just watching them on screen makes me squirm. For example the episode where Hannah tells Adam she’s moving to Iowa for grad school just moments before his Broadway debut. She’s completely earnest in her belief that this news should make Adam happy because they’d both be working toward their dreams, together but separate, being artists. She is excited for herself, and she wants him to be excited, too. Unfortunately, Hannah fails to consider how Adam might feel about losing her, or at least his proximity to her. She fails to be empathetic. Watching that moment was excruciating for me and, at the same time, a huge relief. Haven’t we all been this type of fool? I certainly have. The type who believes, if only for a moment, in the collective unconscious so much that we’re confident our most beloved companions can share in our joy to the same degree that we do?
Or what about the time Hannah lands that sweet “advertorial” job at GQ just to go off on her boss and coworkers one day, questioning their very moral fiber and intentions of ever being real writers and genuine human beings? Ouch. That was painful to watch. That was such a young-person mistake. She thinks she knows her worth, and she thinks she’s worth a lot, but she fails to acknowledge that the people around her also have worth and dreams and talent.
But she doesn’t want to see herself in these corporate people because she sees them as sellouts and quitters. They mostly haven’t written their own stuff in a long time, and Hannah is afraid of being sucked into the black hole of making money to pay the bills to live in the city so she can make the money to pay the bills. She’s determined and smart and undeterred and unapologetic. And all these things give her, and her creator, a certain sex appeal. Since a good deal of sex is psychological, this isn’t all that surprising. Times like those when I was afraid I wasn’t enough, when I felt totally adrift, remind me of when Dunham, through Hannah, reminds herself that, not only is she enough, she is multitudes, as Whitman so courageously proclaimed.
Lena Dunham airs a lot of her dirty laundry through her writing and her theater. She shares fumbles as easily as triumphs. She says to us, “Let’s get naked together. It’ll be okay. My body’s not perfect either.” And she goes first. For this, she’s often criticized, not unlike her confessional predecessors Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, et al., who laid it all out, unafraid to show the rawness of being alive, and in return to be called “shameful,” “self-absorbed,” and “immoral.” The thing is, Dunham’s not seeking absolution through her confessions. Just the opposite, I believe. Through her art, Dunham is working out her life, and in doing so, she’s making the path just a little less scary for the rest of us. In this way, Ms. Dunham is also like my Christian. Unapologetically real.
Lena Dunham is ultimately just a person searching for answers to the same questions the rest of us are after: Can I become my best self? Will the world allow it before it rips me to shreds? Can I trust myself to choose the right path?
In her uncertain confidence, Lena Dunham is chasing after herself with wild abandon, and without judgment, she’s giving us permission to do the same. That kind of openness is refreshing in a culture that would like nothing more than to tell us all we’re bad, dirty whores for desiring a passionate life.
Ms. Dunham, you’re the sexiest woman alive. I’m thirty-eight years old, and I hope someday to be as sexy as you.