To Renew Your Friendships, Be Radically Transparent
When I revealed deeply personal details of my life in my memoir, my friendships changed in ways I never expected
I was already a bit of a mess a year ago, just as the world changed forever. I bit my nails, pulled out strands of hair. I stared at the ceiling some nights, convinced I could hear a faint, constant ringing. “Aren’t you nervous for your book to come out?!” people asked. “Not really,” I answered. I don’t know why it felt right to lie. Not right — essential, as though only by performing cool-girl calm could I show my panic who was boss, shove it back into its hole.
I have struggled with anxiety throughout my life, but this wasn’t the generalized hovering kind I was used to. A specific worry dominated my waking life: that when my memoir was published, people would hate me. I took that worry and divided it into dozens of worries, like a baker shaping individual balls from one big mass of dough. I thought about who exactly was going to hate me and how. I imagined what they were going to think, what they would say about me, and it was like pressing “play” on a lifetime of insecurities. All my fears, all the things I hated about myself. It was a long song.
Of course I wasn’t arrogant enough to think everyone in my life would run out and buy my memoir. But just the idea that some of my tenderest truths, my deepest shame, would be out there for all to judge — it sent a ripple of terror through me.
I tried to soothe myself, thinking there wasn’t anything that damning in the book. Or that private, really. Right? Just — mentally scanning its pages — a little promiscuity, my sister’s addiction, my parents’ divorce, my alcoholism, marital infidelity, obsessive relationship with a heroin addict, a miscarriage, an abortion, violent sex, drug use, oh my god I can’t publish this! That was the cycle.
I started to pathologize the impulse to write all of this down in the first place. Who does that? For solace, I turned where I always turn: books. I had kept to a strange literary diet while writing, afraid of unwittingly emulating others’ style. But now, on the eve of publication, I felt I could read whatever I wanted. I devoured other women’s memoirs, comforting myself thinking, “See? Her life was even more fucked up than mine and she’s still standing. People don’t hate her!”
What actually happened when publication day arrived? Nothing. Published-author friends had warned me it would be anticlimactic, and they were largely right. I put on a dress and lipstick and attended my launch party alone at the dining room table. I couldn’t see the friends and family who’d gathered to celebrate on the screen, but I could feel them, and after the event, I drank a seltzer and scrolled, smiling, through their loving texts.
For the first time in my life, the truth I broadcast about myself and the truth inside me were in perfect alignment.
Weeks passed, and I felt lighter and lighter. Judgments about the book took their place on the internet. I heard from some people in my life who read it. Their responses were overwhelmingly supportive, if also sometimes shaded by shock or pity. But that wasn’t why I began to feel I could float. It was because for the first time in my life, the truth I broadcast about myself and the truth inside me were in perfect alignment.
I began to think back on performances of my self throughout my life, the many identities I sustained, that we all sustain, at once. I thought about the intricate — exhausting! — ways I concealed parts of myself in certain contexts in order to try to appear as the wildest party girl or the most fun girlfriend or the smartest writer or the best mother. By writing honestly about my life, I had brought those disparate threads together. Here it all was: good, bad, ugly. There was no longer anywhere to hide.
This kind of honesty has the effect of editing your contacts. Think about the people in your life who make you feel the worst, the ones around whom you feel, in my mother’s unforgettable phrase, “like an unmade bed.” Now imagine what would happen if they could find out exactly who you are. Your weaknesses, obsessions, habits, longings, all the ways you’re not normal, whatever that even means. Some might cross the street when they saw you approaching. Excellent! Some might stop sending you their boring Christmas letter. Praise the lord! Some might not want their bratty kid coming to play at your house anymore. Joy of joys, why didn’t I do this sooner!
The ones who know you, who see you, who love you, will be there through it all. And the others will fall away. Naturally, effortlessly. I found it so liberating to know these people didn’t need me. I didn’t need them either.
What’s even better is that once we free ourselves from the performance of normal and let bad vibes see their way out of our lives, there is room for new energy in the spaces left behind. There’s room for new projects and, more importantly, new people. One of the best parts of this year has been receiving letters from readers who have told me so candidly, so beautifully, about their own experiences. I’ve also befriended other women who have written their lives, who took similar risks to bare their darkest selves. These open, funny people are my people, and they bring me such comfort by telling the truth about themselves.