The Breakdown Is Just the Beginning: Reese and Payton’s Rules for Life

Recently, I was bequeathed a second-hand copy of Reese Witherspoon’s book, Whiskey in a Teacup, […]

Stephanie Phillips / 10.29.19

Recently, I was bequeathed a second-hand copy of Reese Witherspoon’s book, Whiskey in a Teacup, by a friend who knows my fraught relationship with all things Witherspoon/Hello Sunshine/Draper James. When said friend handed over the tome on the school playground, my eyes rolled even as my breath caught: the hot-pink cover (because OF COURSE it’s hot pink) glistened in the sunlight, Reese’s face grinning coyly over the rim of a delicate china cup with a flower-print wallpaper in the background. 

It was all just too much. So of course I raced home and broke it open, hate-reading the “lifestyle advice” sections while my mouth watered over the recipes, many of which echo from my (and, I bet, your) childhood: dishes like cheddar biscuits, shrimp and grits, deviled eggs, fried chicken. My brain stored away ingredients and measurements for future reference for the dinner party I’ll never have; meanwhile, that same brain began a list of scathing critiques on this too-perfect, picture-ready capsule of Southern life and its attendant quaint sidebars: “How to Hot-Roller Your Hair,” “Nonmonogrammed Gift Ideas (If You Must),””Southern Conversation Starters” (oddly, none of them were “Our Racist Past and Present”), even “How to Catch a Frog with Your Bare Hands.” Oh, Reese!

And the pictures! Oh, the pictures. Here’s Reese carrying a basket of flowers through a garden looking as though a long-lost friend has just greeted her through the honeysuckle bush! Here’s Reese at a honky-tonk, standing by the jukebox with one leg bent up at the knee as though she’s about to square dance or chastely kiss a suitor! Here’s Reese tousling her hair at a light-flooded picture window! Here’s Reese perched before a fire on a chaise lounge reading a book with her glasses on! The aspiration of it all JUMPED OUT, reader. If only I could look so pleased/pleasantly surprised/coiffed in all my photos.

But the moment I had to slam the book down and phone a friend was when I reached the page on “Houseguests,” where Reese admonishes her fans:

For goodness’ sake: Don’t Talk About Politics! People’s politics don’t always align, and conversations about news topics can turn a lovely brunch into a war zone. When family comes to my house for a visit, we try to keep it about family, levity, children, and enjoying the time with one another.

Oh yes, by all means and for the love of God, let’s not have any hard conversations! Now I don’t know about you, but if the holidays don’t include fights, how am I supposed to know I was even with family? This list of approved topics is empty air. It all made me wonder if I’m the only one who remembers Reese and her husband’s arrests for disorderly conduct back in April 2013, when, intoxicated, she told a police officer, “You’re about to find out who I am.” Did that topic come up over the Witherspoon Easter ham? Are we in an alternate timeline where printed wallpaper and etiquette guidance and shirtdresses erase mug shots? “Life isn’t about perfection,” Witherspoon writes in between photos of herself looking perfect. “There is no rule book,” she writes…in HER BOOK OF RULES.

While we’re on the subject, another fraught relationship I maintain is with Ryan Murphy. I was there for both the beginning and the end of Glee (even the God-forsaken New York season), watching faithfully for my little fix of emotional manipulation every week. (And yes, I read and secretly agreed with Heather Havrilesky’s take on the show but I needed my weekly cathartic tears, y’all!) I even watched American Horror Story until I had my first kid and my life became American Hormone Story and I had to lay off the suspense. But the camp? Oh, I am here for it, and it makes a grand entrance on Murphy’s latest venture, The Politician, on Netflix. I am, as the younger folk would say, a Ben Platt stan, and I hate-follow Gwyneth Paltrow on Instagram, which of course means I binged the first season in under a week. While the characters’ arcs careened all over the map, I remained fixated on Platt’s face, its emotive appeal riveting. Do I hate Payton? Do I love him? I don’t know, but we are on a JOURNEY.

And it doesn’t hurt that the theme song is Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago,” its lyrics reading like a primer on grace:

You came to take us
All things go, all things go
To recreate us
All things grow, all things grow

We had our mindset
All things know, all things know
You had to find it
All things go, all things go

And later:

I made a lot of mistakes
I made a lot of mistakes
I made a lot of mistakes
I made a lot of mistakes

And still later:

We had our mindset (I made a lot of mistakes)
All things know, all things know (I made a lot of mistakes)
You had to find it (I made a lot of mistakes)
All things go, all things go (I made a lot of mistakes)

To reiterate: the narrator Made a Lot of Mistakes, which also happens to be the title of my unwritten autobiography.

“I feel everything,” Payton’s friend River tells him in one episode, which Payton echoes himself at the end of the season — and, as an everything-feeler myself, I felt that. I also felt it when, after the climax of his eight-episode arc, Payton admits through tears and breakdown that he is a bad person. Which really makes him the best kind of person: one who knows what a dumpster fire he can be.

And this is why I got on board with Payton, and why Reese’s book feels like McSweeney’s fodder: her public breakdown led to a public relations-engineered curation overhaul (girl’s Instagram page was birthed ONE MONTH after her arrest). Payton’s breakdown led to honesty. Arc one: breakdown leads to (appearance of) perfection. Arc two: (maintaining appearance of) perfection leads to breakdown. And then the real story (aka Season Two) begins. I’ll take arc two, Alex.

The other night I was standing in the kitchen wanting desperately to pull all my (IKEA, not fine) china out of the cabinet and start throwing it. My kids were being demanding jerks, wanting to be fed and such, making me feel that motherhood is constantly asking too much of me. Then my husband walked in and I thought, “You know what? MARRIAGE is asking too much of me too!” I felt trapped, and angry, and livid. It was an average Tuesday evening and I wanted to leave my life.

This happens often enough for me to know that if there is a dumpster fire, she is I and I am she. I am both an unreliable witness and narrator, at turns floored by grace and disgusted by the offensiveness of it; grateful beyond words for the dream come true that my family is and ruing the day I ever said yes to this patriarchal domestic nonsense, winking at Jesus with one eye while calling a PI on him to surveil his tactics. I…make a lot of mistakes. I feel everything. I am, so often, a bad person.

And, thanks be to God and a couple of decades that led to my own less public breakdown, I can say that now in total freedom. Because God himself calls me good. Which is either a sign of really bad judgment or evidence of something bigger than what I can see or feel in any given moment: the Reese ones where my hair sits just right and everyone around me believes my BS, and the Payton ones where I’m reviled and abandoned because the truth has come out and everyone — including me — finally sees it. Because of grace, the breakdown can be the beginning.

You came to take us…
To recreate us.