A couple of weeks ago my husband asked me if I had heard of a writer named Glennon Doyle, because he was reading a big profile of her in The New Yorker magazine. Well, I hadn't, but with a million and a half Instagram followers hanging on her every word, maybe I should have?
So I started her most recent book, Untamed, to see why so many people were drawn to her advice. For a few chapters I was like, well, okay. Her writing was punchy and readable and certainly much more fun than Eckart Tolle, whose classic, The Power of Now, had been my previous read. She was good at setting up scenes, how she met and fell in love with soccer star Abby Wambach.
Apparently some readers have been upset by the ways she changed since her first books; they liked the Glennon who was saved from bulimia and alcoholism by Christianity, by getting married and becoming the mother of three children. They didn't like the idea of ditching her husband for a woman and dismissing a lot of her own previous advice, particularly since they had taken so much of it so fervently to heart.
Well, I didn't have any problem with the lesbian relationship or ditching the paternalistic aspects of Christianity. I didn't disagree with her ideas about being honest with yourself, living your most beautiful, most authentic life and all that. The causes and charities she directs her followers to support—immigrant children at the border—are important. So I kept reading, entertained, only brought up short occasionally by her hammer-on-the-head style of attributing quotes to herself and others that just don't sound like things people IRL would actually say. Canned sermons forced into dialogue grate on me.
Untamed was beginning to seem to me like an odd new hybrid. We've long had a tradition of the trainwreck memoir, the author describing the trouble she got into and how she survived it, leaving the reader to take what she can from it by way of inspiration. I'm thinking of Anne Lamott's charming first memoir, Operating Instructions, in which, with endearing self-deprecation, she describes her experience of having a baby on her own. Another was I'm Dancing As Fast As I Can, Barbara Gordon's 1980 memoir about her addiction to Valium. It was just her story, without further prescriptions for the reader. I thought I was doing the same thing with Accidental Addict: Reader, here's what happened to me when kindly, well-meaning doctors prescribed me Xanax and Oxycodone. Heads up!
Then we have our trusted advice columnists—Dear Abby and Ann Landers, of course, and, more recently, Amy Dickinson and Carolyn Hax. Cheryl Strayed's answered queries collected in Dear Sugar were particularly insightful, I thought. But the advice of these women is valued because they have wisdom. They seem intuitive. In the case of the popular Brene Brown, her advice comes from years of research and interviews with other people.
But here's Glennon Doyle, all navel gazing. I suppose she intended to be disarmingly confessional in telling how she cheated at vote counting to be a homecoming princess in high school. I wasn't worried about the cheating, I just thought it was sad and baffling that she somehow thought being a homecoming princess was such a worthy goal in the first place. She's mistaken if she assumes the rest of us all started from a place as clueless as she did.
Now she lives her life at breakneck speed, writing it all down as fast as she can, with precious little time to look back and reflect and give events some perspective. Hey, she's pretty sure she's solved last week's problems; she'd better get it down and explain what she's learned. People write her, "Oh, Glennon, what shall I do?" and then she tells them.
One of her biggest tenets seems to be that we should live without caring what others think. Okay, except nobody cares what others think more than Glennon, especially since she's commercialized her private life. She says she's now strong, happy, and confident, but claims that makes it harder for other women to like her. Somebody got up at one of her talks and said as much, and clearly that bothered her. She complains that women just can't like other strong, happy, and confident women. Not true! I admire them greatly and am always looking to befriend that kind of positive energy. I just don't see her in this category.
Still, I kept reading along, a half-hour each morning on my Kindle while pedaling my stationary bike. If other younger women found her helpful and comforting (and that definitely seems to be the case) who was I to be so judgmental?
And then, in a chapter called Invaders, Glennon writes about her struggles with depression and anxiety and gives "five pro tips for those who live too high and too low."
1. TAKE YOUR DAMN MEDS "Jesus loves me, this I know, for he gave me Lexapro." So cute. If anybody judges you for taking your prescribed medicine? "Tell them sweetly to fuck all the way off."
2. KEEP TAKING YOUR DAMN MEDS She likens going off meds because you're feeling better to folding up and throwing away your umbrella because it's not raining anymore.
Um, how about finding a way to get well enough mentally that once in awhile you can stand in the rain? Standing in the sunshine is more fun without the umbrella anyway.
Having struggled with the effects of having been on Xanax, Oxycodone, and yes, Glennon, Lexapro, and resisting that "return to myself" she touts by going back on the meds, I want to say that I feel a lot more empowered by having healed myself than by having my doctors keep up the prescriptions.
I absolutely would not judge another woman for taking psych drugs if she felt she had to, but it seems to me that Glennon Doyle's defensiveness is just as judgmental in reverse. It takes a whole book to explain how psych drugs can be bad for people in the long run, and Robert Whitaker did it beautifully in Anatomy of an Epidemic. Glennon Doyle is trying to be the patron saint of empowerment for women and then encourages them to stay drugged? Robert Whitaker asks how it is we came to be a society where something like a third of the women have been convinced they have a brain imbalance that needs "correcting" with pharmaceuticals. Wouldn't it be better to find out what it is about our lives that has so many of us so depressed?
Taking or not taking anti-depressants or anti-anxiety benzodiazepines is not a moral question. It's not even a question of empowerment. The question is, in the long run, are these drugs helping your precious brain or hurting it? I know how I voted in my own case and I'm so glad. I don't care if Glennon Doyle needs to take Lexapro or her pal Elizabeth Gilbert wants to reference the casual tossing back of Xanax as she did in Eat, Pray, Love , (which I remembered as I suffered the tortures of the damned in withdrawal from that poison) but she is in no position to be advising women they should follow her lead and stay drugged. She's as judgmental of people trying to go off their Lexapro as she feels people are of her staying on it.
I imagine this beautiful, no doubt charismatic woman will continue to live her life in this very public way, and it's bound to be entertaining. So watch if you want—she definitely wants you to—but please ask yourself if she really seems like a person worthy of providing the guidance you might seek.