In one of the final chapters of Lena Dunham’s new memoir Not That Kind of Girl, entitled “Therapy & Me”, Lena describes her first anxiety-ridden experience of sitting down as a germophobic, obsessive-compulsive nine-year-old with a prospective shrink. It is a “quirky, self-destructive Lena” moment, like so many moments in her book, and her show Girls, and so it would be nearly unremarkable if it weren’t for the subtext:

originalThe first doctor, a violet-haired grandma-aged woman with a German surname, asks me a few simple questions and then invites me to play with the toys scattered across her floor. She sits in a chair above me, pad in hand. I have the sense she will gather all kinds of information from this, so I put on a show that I’m sure will demonstrate my loneliness and introspection: Bootleg Barbie crashes her convertible with off-brand Ken riding shotgun. Tiny Lego men are killed in a war against their own kind. After a long period of observation, she asks me to share my three greatest wishes. “A river where I can be alone,” I tell her, impressed with my own poeticism. From this answer, she will know that I am not like other nine-year-olds.

“And what else?” she asks.

“That’s all.” I leave feeling worse than when I went in…

Subtext? Super-needy, all-too-prescient Lena, understanding that she is about to be evaluated and scrutinized, makes a show. It is not exactly a truthful show, but it is also not a dishonest show—it is a demonstration of the intensity she’s actually feeling, and she shows it off to the extent that she feels it needs to be heard. And it makes her look poetic.

It sounds an awful lot like what has been said about Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls, now through three seasons, as well as her recent memoir, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned, a $3.8 million dollar publicity triumph for Random House that has been hailed by a highly disparate literati: from Judy Blume to George Saunders to Zadie Smith to the entire staff of Style writers for the New York Times. Say what you will about Lena, she’s certainly got fans, many of whom brandish her the new voice of a new age of womanhood.


But she also has enemies, as anyone who’s read a review on the Internet can quickly see. And it’s not just with rightwing bloggernauts, as one might think. Maybe you read the New Republic’s review, by James Wolcott, which calls Not That Kind of Girl a “callow, grating, and glib” retelling of a life that has become a lifestyle brand. Wolcott draws the picture of Lena Dunham as the type of girl who had the Times shoot her upscale-bohemian Tribeca 16-year-old vegan birthday feast—because it actually happened, but in a more curatorial way. Since her breakout film, Tiny Houses, Wolcott suggests, Lena has increasingly lived within the arty realms of the New York cultural elite (her mother and father are both artists), under the obsessive aegis of the media. Cover pieces have made grand allusions to the next Woody Allen, or a new J.D. Salinger, but Wolcott argues it all away: those guys were mature. Lena, on the other hand, spews young, unfiltered quippy humblebrags, and lathers them in an irony she can easily slip out from.

“Everything is copy, everything is material” was the credo of Dunham’s friend, mentor, and creative godmother Nora Ephron, who is one of the book’s dedicatees, and it is a motto that Dunham could suitably sport as a tattoo, if her epidermis has sufficient ink-room. But converting first-person fodder into finished copy usually entails a longer cycle of maturation and memory storage than eat-barf-repeat… Dunham operates on a much tighter time-loop and a much laxer filtration process, the inappropriate, often insensitive, nearly always self-centered blurting of unedited thoughts forming the basis of her comedy of embarrassment and incontinence.

Ouch. Well, much as I love Lena Dunham, after reading Not That Kind Of Girl, I can’t really deny Wolcott the point here. Where the audience and characters of Girls can sometimes lend some breathing room to the drama of Hannah Horvath, no one is there to counterbalance Lena’s rants about any of the following: the whole-grain pancakes and greek yogurt of her childhood; the condoms in her potted plants; scenes of drug-blurred quasi-rapes; overdescriptive illustrations of her own female anatomy; ill-planned cocaine usage; overdescriptive (and overindulgent) illustrations of: the contents of her purse, the reasons she loves New York, the kinds of e-mails she would send if she were just a little braver or crazier. All of these remembered and lived moments—which must be and are very intimate and real for the writer—are highly, embarrassingly vivid; but they’re also wrought with a strange shoulder-shrugging levity that makes it so unbearably unreal. It’s like taking the things in your life that have wounded you the most, and calling them jokes, and hoping they turn out that way. As she says herself in the chapter about her maybe-rape/maybe-not-rape story, “I’m an unreliable narrator.”

But there is more to Lena Dunham than that. What we have loved about Girls is the honest deconstruction it has brought to some of our longest-living legends, namely the deconstruction of sex. On Girls and in her memoir, we find repeated evidence—much to Dunham’s dismay—against the picture of Sleepless in Seattle or You’ve Got Mail. Sex is sloppy, ugly, fumbling, and frustrating. In Dunham’s work we also find repeated evidence of the cost of love and sex, of the physical and psychical and spiritual toll such a connection with a person leaves us with. For an age wherein such connections are downplayed or relativized, this is a huge statement. While Lena’s forays are detailed enough to make anyone wonder if she’s being brazen for the hell of it, I’d think less of her if she stopped at the sex. Instead, she talks about how lonely it makes her, how hours in the bath won’t change how she feels, how the dramatic self-appraisals don’t make it any better, either.


In fact, these moments of genuine honesty, usually hidden behind all the filthy pulp she uses to tow the reader in, are the highlights of her book. She talks about being afraid of everything, of having been afraid of everything since she was a small child. The anxiety that ceases her in the most awkward moments. She writes perceptively about her sexual exploits as a distraction against her loneliness. She writes with winsome candor about being nude on screen: “I didn’t look elegant, beautiful, or skilled. This was sex as I knew it.” She even understands that her understanding of herself is oftentimes a coping mechanism to keep the “hospital feeling” away.

They are few and far between, though. Mainly, I was disappointed to be brought to the Lena Dunham that had made mistakes but was not willing to sit with them. Many of the exploits and slip-ups are opportunities to parade the kind of zany life no one lives but wishes they could. This makes her comfort less comforting and more alienating. It may up her cool, but it certainly downs her personal import. There’s a moment where she’s heartbroken by a jerk, and trying to figure it all out, and she says this:

When I’m playing a character, I am never allowed to explicitly state the takeaway message of the scenes I’m performing—after all, part of the dramatic conflict is that the person I’m portraying doesn’t really know it yet.

Despite her best efforts, I feel like that is where most of the book remains: a character who wrote a book with wild and trivial stories, and any takeaway message that’s going to be gotten—well, it’s going to happen implicitly, somehow. And the takeaway message is that, for better or worse, she is a spokeswoman of our time. Lena Dunham is the contemporary human being—lonely, neurotically afraid and self-centered. Puppeteering her life with dramatic re-renderings, so that someone, the right one, for crying out loud, will stop watching and come love us.