The lesson for Lena: better to be boring
Personal writing is a blood sport, writes Donal Lynch, and Lena Dunham is looking like its latest casualty
The dilemma of the personal essayist, David Sedaris once said, is not what to write but what to leave out.
When humour is your metier then this becomes all the more important. The really juicy, funny stuff about your life is also generally unprintable. For years, I wrote in the first person for this newspaper and each week I'd face the same problem: which incidents from my sordid existence would make good copy while not leaving me feeling exposed or excommunicated from my family afterwards.
It didn't help that I was very young when I started. Like a toddler just learning swear words, I reached for the easiest, most sensational anecdotes and learned the hard way - one newspaper chopped up a personal writing piece and, without bothering to check with me, reported it as breaking news - that almost everything you write will be taken entirely literally. There was no protection against something like that because, after all, I had put myself out there. But from then on I knew that if you stick your head above the parapet it may well get chopped off. In our little country, the real pros of the personal writing game understand the rules: keep it safe, keep it boring, keep it cosy.
Lena Dunham is none of these things. Still in her 20s she has made herself the most in-demand young television writer and performer in the world by being honest and brave in her writing, and daring in her performance (she is famously unselfconscious about her body).
Girls, the HBO series which she writes, produces and stars in, was originally hailed as the successor to Sex and the City but it is so much cleverer than its glossy predecessor. It won a huge, loyal following and Dunham, small, pudgy and witty, became the unlikely poster girl for a generation.
It seemed like only a matter of time before a publisher offered her a dump truck of money - $3.7m to be precise - to write her memoirs. The resultant effort produced the funny, poignant Not That Kind Of Girl, a sort of mixture of autobiography and how-to manual, which became an instant bestseller when it was released earlier this year.
In it she writes acerbically about sex ("it was the only time I believed someone besides me existed"), and cystitis, masturbation and therapy ("I've called my therapist from beaches, speeding vehicles in Western states, crouched behind a Dumpster, in the parking lot of my college dormitory and from my bedroom 10 blocks from her office").
Like Hannah, her character in Girls, her instinct is to share everything, ick-factor be damned. Perhaps for this reason the book also contained one essay in which she wrote about playing with her little sister in their family's driveway. Dunham was seven at the time and the sister was one - an infant. Dunham writes that "curiosity got the best" of her and she opened her sister's vagina only to call for her mother when she found the toddler had "six or seven pebbles in there."
In another passage she describes trying to persuade her sister to "kiss her on the lips for five seconds" by offering gifts of sweets or coins. "Basically, anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl, I was trying," Dunham writes.
This passage seemed to slip past a lot of reviewers (who were possibly more concerned with the entertainment value of the book than working themselves up into a lather of outrage) but not Kevin Williamson of The National Review, who wrote that there was no "non-horrifying" explanation of Dunham's behaviour toward her sister. The Girls writer has confessed to being a child molester, he insisted, and we should all be appalled. It wasn't long before Fox News et al jumped on the bandwagon and they got their pound of flesh when Dunham was forced to cancel several dates on her book tour (for which tickets were going for over €200 a pop).
What else could she do? There must have seemed little point in explaining to people, who have clearly never been human, that small children do sometimes tamper with each other's bodies, and no, that's not child molestation - a seven-year-old cannot be a sexual predator. Why would they listen when they weren't listening to the now-grown -up sister of Dunham, who is adamant she was not abused? They were too busy enjoying what Philip Roth called "an ecstasy of sanctimony" and taking every word in a comic-memoir entirely literally. This, they seem convinced, is Dunham's inadvertent mea culpa. Gotcha Lena!
It was reported on Tuesday that Dunham is now threatening to sue those who call her a child abuser. That's an entirely understandable reaction, but perhaps it might be better to consider those hurling that slur to be dust under the chariot wheels. She might take a leaf out of the page of the late, great Nuala O'Faolain. Appearing on The Late Late Show to promote her era-defining memoir Are You Somebody? the first question she faced was: "you seem to have slept with an awful lot of men?"
"Only two that counted" she retorted, visibly upset. "And that's not many." From presumed-slut back to confessional heroine in one quip; Nuala's honesty was not dimmed by the prurient body count and Lena should not let manufactured hysteria silence her.