It’s fitting that writer and actress Lena Dunham begins her debut book with a section on love and sex. The first chapter is titled “Take My Virginity.” The taking of the virginity happened with a young man she met in the college cafeteria:
I didn’t tell Jonah* I was a virgin, just that I hadn’t done it “that much.” I was sure I had already broken my hymen in high school while crawling over a fence in Brooklyn in pursuit of a cat that didn’t want to be rescued. Still, it hurt more than I’d expected and in a different way, too—duller, less like a stab wound a more like a headache…. Afterward we lay there and talked, and I could tell he was a good person, whatever that even means.
The rest of Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Girl Tells You What She’s “Learned” reads like diary entries chronicling Dunham’s most formative, awkward romantic experiences: the time she said as a pickup line, “I only get BO in one armpit;” the time she had an instant messenger boyfriend named Igor who turned out not to exist; the time she spent two years in “ambiguous sex hangouts” often involving prescription drugs with a misanthrope named Joaquin. Just as Dunham regularly undresses on screen as the lead of her HBO series, Girls, here she undresses for her readers. As she invites us to see all the unflattering angles and curves, the effect is both funny and discomforting.
Dunham, the child of successful Manhattan artists, has built her thriving career on the appeal of the over-share. In a recent interview with NPR, Dunham hints at “a compulsion” to live a highly public personal life. She says this sometimes concerns her because of how it might affect her family and friends, but not necessarily herself. “The term over-sharing is so complicated because I think it’s gendered,” she says. “When men share their experiences, it’s bravery; when women share their experiences, people are like, ‘TMI.’…Society trivializes female experiences and so when you share them, they aren’t considered as vital as their male counterparts.”
Even if Dunham is right, still many women have blossomed careers from the seeds of their most painful, embarrassing, or broken experiences. In harrowing detail, Mary Karr recounted her childhood rape and her mother’s mental breakdown in The Liars’ Club, setting the stage for two more memoirs on sexual awakenings (Cherry) and alcoholism-cum-Catholicism (Lit, a favorite of mine). Jeannette Walls starts The Glass Castle with the story of burning herself while trying to cook a hotdog alone as a toddler. After a few days in the hospital, her jobless, nomadic parents pick her up without paying the bill, telling her it’s “the skedaddle,” like a game. Susanna Kaysen (Girl, Interrupted), Kay Redfield Jamison (An Unquiet Mind), and Elizabeth Wurtzel (Prozac Nation) all made their mental-health scares a topic of polite conversation in the 1990s. And Anne Lamott has spent a portion of each of her five memoirs examining her butt, her belly, and her body odor, not to mention her abortion and alcohol abuse, which eventually led her to Jesus.
In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Lamott urges writers to “Write toward vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable.” Twenty years later, Lamott’s edict almost seems superfluous, like telling a journalist to fact-check her reporting. Vulnerability—via memoirs, blog posts, social media feeds, public talks, and sermons—has rarely seen better days. The more personal details are shared, and the more painful or embarrassing those details are, the more we celebrate the sharer, labeling them brave and courageous. In a political or church context where leaders have lied to us or let us down, we are suspicious of what we hear from authorities with positional power. Instead we grant the most authority to those who wield confessional power, to the people who will tell it like it is.
Brené Brown, a social scientist whose viral TED Talk has enshrined her as today’s Vanguard of Vulnerability, says, “Courage is borne out of vulnerability, not strength.” Indeed, some of the best essays that CT has published this year—Halee Gray Scott’s “How I Beat Back the Darkness after Rape,” Jonathan Merritt’s “A Thread Called Grace,” as well as many of our Testimonies—have resonated precisely because their authors are willing to give words to wrenching experiences. As readers know how far we are from “having it together,” we sigh with relief, then gratitude, knowing others are also hobbling along the road toward healing and wholeness.
But for all the good that has come from such vulnerability, there is a dark side that we in the faith community have yet to acknowledge. I realized this recently at a gathering of Chicago-area Christians featuring talks from three local leaders. During his talk on creativity, the first speaker suddenly shared that he had been molested as a child, then struggled with sexual addiction and drug use for a good part of his life. The audience sighed and murmured, but then he moved on to “living a creative life” before leaving for the evening. I felt like I had walked in on him naked—even though he was the one disrobing. He had opened his story to the chapters with the hardest, scariest parts, then shut it before we could read the rest. I had no context—or relationship—to sustain the story of his life. I responded similarly last year when a ministry leader wrote about giving birth to a daughter who died 40 minutes later, just one day after the tragedy occurred in her home. Even though writing about her experience surely allowed her to process and grieve, it felt too soon, too raw, for us her readers to respond with anything but shock.
In a world of spin and corporate speak, there is ample and honored space for from-the-gut storytelling. But in our rush to share our most vulnerable selves, I worry we have forgotten what vulnerability is for. “Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them,” Brown writes in Daring Greatly (emphasis mine). In other words, vulnerability is all about relationship. We share because we want to relate deeply to others. We divulge details to build trust, to be heard and know we are accepted. While bloggers and speakers have a kind of relationship with their audience, rarely can we on the other side of the screen or auditorium bear such stories with the honor and dignity they deserve.
Instead of becoming a pathway to relationship, vulnerability, it seems, is being used to gain attention, praise, and even power in the public square. This is arguably what Dunham has done, to the tune of a $3.7 million book deal. To be sure, Not That Kind of Girl is so often funny and poignant precisely because it’s so personal, and for this I recommend it. But as much as I appreciate Dunham’s storytelling, I have often felt (as have others) that her nakedness, physical and otherwise, is being used rather than offered. We take in the most embarrassing folds and creases of Dunham’s naked public self, without asking whether all the nakedness is good for her person, or for us. Granted, you won’t see many Christian leaders getting naked like Dunham does (and for that, can I get an amen?). But you do see such leaders confessing sins and shortcomings and dark pasts in inappropriate times and foolhardy ways. When vulnerability is unfettered by boundaries, it can become another way to earn spiritual points. It can feel like a performance of humility, as self-aware of a peacock surveying its own tail. None of this is good for our leaders or the people they lead.
In Not That Kind of Girl, Dunham writes that her mom, artist Laurie Simmons, “invented the selfie,” taking photos of herself using a Nikon with a timer in 1970s New York. “She perfected the art of the vulnerable candid with an unclear purpose.” In the Christian blogging and writing world way, we are perfecting the art of the vulnerable, too. Many of us have done so to build community, offer healing to others, and attest to God’s goodness in our lives. But now it’s time to examine whether our vulnerability has a clear purpose. If it doesn’t, it’s probably best to put our clothes back on.
Editor's note: The original title to this article included the phrase "Sorry, Brené Brown," a reference to the embrace of vulnerability prompted in part by her popular TED Talks. The post goes on to mention that Brown herself recognizes the appropriate settings and relationships for such sharing, so we regret misrepresenting her teachings in the initial title.
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