On a recent afternoon in Brooklyn, Lena Dunham and her sister, Grace, met up at a local hangout. Grace was nursing a sprained ankle she sustained a few nights earlier, after, by her account, "tripping into a pothole while running out of a queer-poetry reading." Dunham was concerned about the injury but also enchanted by the phrase, and had been repeating it to people everywhere she went over the last several days.
This came as little surprise to Grace, since appropriating events from her family's life is standard practice for Dunham. In her first book, "Not That Kind of Girl," which will be published this month, Dunham writes about her sister, her parents and mostly herself with a ferocious, hilarious and occasionally worrisome candor. It's the same candor that defines the spirit of her HBO show, "Girls," only more concentrated and probing, almost as if the stage directions in an episode script had spiraled off into their own crazy back stories.
"Not That Kind of Girl" might best be described as a primer for millennial women negotiating the path to adulthood. Dunham modeled the book loosely on Helen Gurley Brown's 1982 best seller, "Having It All," the women's advice guide that cemented the infamous phrase and that Dunham, who discovered it when she was 20, found perversely inspiring. "Despite [Brown's] demented theories, which jibe not even a little bit with my own distinctly feminist upbringing," Dunham writes in her book's introduction, "I appreciate the way Helen shares her own embarrassing, acne-ridden history in an attempt to say, Look, happiness and satisfaction can happen to anyone. "
At 28, Dunham may be entering the pantheon of gurus a bit prematurely, though in fairness, her life so far has been nothing if not examined. "Not That Kind of Girl" traffics heavily in stories of psychotherapy, neurotic meltdowns, toxic relationships and questionable personal choices, refashioned as highly comic if also uncomfortable anecdotes turned life lessons. One such lesson involves Grace coming out as a lesbian to Dunham during Grace's senior year of high school. Though Grace wasn't quite ready to tell their parents, Dunham was unable to contain herself and came out to them for her.
"What I didn't say in the book is how it messed up our relationship for like two years," Dunham said, sipping a smoothie as industrial-grade Vitamix blenders roared in the background.
As Grace remembered it, Dunham couldn't last two days keeping the news to herself.
"It was not two days," Dunham said. "It was a month."
"It was about a week," Grace said. "It was about two weeks to one week."
"You came out to me, like, a week into shooting 'Tiny Furniture,' " — Dunham's 2010 feature film — "and I didn't tell Mom and Dad for like a week after we wrapped."
Grace rolled her eyes. "Without getting into specifics," she said, "most of our fights have revolved around my feeling like Lena took her approach to her own personal life and made my personal life her property."
"Basically, it's like I can't keep any of my own secrets," Dunham said. "And I consider Grace to be an extension of me, and therefore I couldn't handle the fact that she's a very private person with her own value system and her own aesthetic and that we do different things."
"Not That Kind of Girl" is dedicated to Dunham's family, to her boyfriend and to "Nora." That would be the writer and director Nora Ephron, who in 2011 sent Dunham an email saying she loved "Tiny Furniture." Ephron became Dunham's mentor and close friend until her death in June 2012, at which time Dunham received another email, this one from an editor at The New Yorker who knew of Dunham's relationship with Ephron and was interested in having her write a short remembrance. Dunham was in upstate New York shooting the second season of "Girls," and though she rarely interrupts work for any reason, she immediately went into her trailer and poured out 2,000 words on her laptop.
"The opportunity to be friends with Nora in the last year of her life informs the entirety of mine," she wrote. "I am so grateful. " The piece ran on The New Yorker's website the next day.
Shortly after that, David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, took Dunham to lunch. They shared memories of Ephron, and he asked to see any work Dunham had that might be right for the magazine. It happened that she'd been toying with some personal writing, and in August that year, an essay titled "First Love" appeared in The New Yorker. Remnick edited it himself, and because of Dunham's shooting schedule, the two met and went over copy-edits at his apartment — "he was literally telling me what 'stet' meant," she says — and Dunham quickly became friends with his entire family. By that October, Dunham had a reported $3-million-plus deal from Random House for "Not That Kind of Girl," which would contain all new material and seek to impart guidance on issues like sex, dating, work, body image and friendship. She was then 26 and had until very recently been living with her parents.
To suggest that Dunham is too young, too privileged, too entitled, too narcissistic, neurotic and provincial (in that rarefied Manhattan-raised way) to be dispensing advice to anyone is to add very little to the ever-expanding, very much already-in-progress conversation about her place in the culture and her overall right to exist. A frequently repeated Dunham quip (which she lent to her "Girls" alter ego in the show's first season) serves as the ultimate pre-emptive strike against public invective: "Any mean thing someone's going to think of to say about me I've already said to me, about me, probably in the last half-hour."
Since "Tiny Furniture," which was shot for $25,000, set her career in motion and helped her score her deal for "Girls," Dunham has functioned as a proxy for the collective aspirations and insecurities of her generation, or at least a certain educated, mostly white, mostly urban-dwelling microdemographic therein. She is perhaps to the millennials what J. D. Salinger was to the post-World War II generation and Woody Allen was to the baby boomers: a singular voice who spoke as an outsider and, in so doing, became the ultimate insider.
Dunham writes, directs and acts in "Girls," and since it made its debut, to much critical exuberance, in the spring of 2012, Dunham has not been a media darling as much as a media obsession. But her fame may have less to do with her anointment as her generation's chief representative than with her refusal to be famous on anything but her own terms. It's entirely possible that she's an icon precisely because she doesn't speak for anyone else, because she has the exceedingly rare ability to be 100 percent herself, 100 percent of the time — or at least to come off that way. This would be a remarkable achievement for anyone, and for someone who is both young and female (conditions that historically have not been the most favorable for marching to the beat of your own drum), the combination of extreme self-reference and extreme lack of vanity feels almost like a supernatural power. Her body is both celebrated and reviled for its ordinariness, and on "Girls," she often films herself from unflattering angles to which she'd never subject her cast mates, highlighting her imperfections and playing down her assets because, she explains, "that's how the character sees herself."
If Dunham were a band, she'd be the grubby, unglamorous indie kind whose members are easy to like until they get popular, at which point there is no choice but to hate them. But because it was Dunham's fate to arrive on the cultural scene both grubby and unglamorous yet somehow already popular, she emerged, in some sense, pre-hated. Her book, too, has been subject to what can only be described as an anticipatory antipathy. Articles about her entrance onto the literary stage tend to be followed by comment boards where words like "talentless," "overrated" and "hack" are in heavy rotation. The problem with this is that Dunham, though she might not be to everyone's taste, is anything but a hack. Yes, she had some uncommon advantages (her parents are successful artists who raised her among all manner of bohemian intellectuals in a SoHo loft her mother had occupied since the early '70s). Yes, there's an unmistakable luck involved in getting HBO to develop your show when you're 24. But Dunham is an extraordinary talent, and her vision, though so far relatively narrow in focus, is stunningly original. For all the comparisons to Ephron and even to independent female filmmakers like Nicole Holofcener and Miranda July, the artist to whom she's most analogous is Allen. With her awkward screen presence, her preoccupation with sex, her frank exploration of her own neuroses and, above all, her willingness to play the part of herself almost to the point of caricature, Dunham has ensured that her work be guided by her own persona, which in turn has been shaped by the twin forces of profound anxiety and exhaustive (though, again like Allen, somewhat roving and undisciplined) intellectual engagement. Plus, of course, extensive therapy.
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Lena Dunham (left) with her sister, Grace, and their mother, Laurie Simmons, in 1993.
Credit… From Lena Dunham
Dunham has been seeing therapists since she was 9. She was given a diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder at 11 and began taking medication for it at 14. She writes about her psychiatric struggles in "Not That Kind of Girl," and a chapter recently excerpted in The New Yorker is a rather madcap reminiscence of the teachers, child therapists and psychotropic drugs that defined her childhood (think of it as an updated, glossier version of Allen's mythical upbringing under the Coney Island Thunderbolt, though instead of his mother's overdosing "on mah-jongg tiles," Dunham's parents fretted over whether her psychologist was helping with her sleep issues). But Dunham considers herself not just a neurotic, overanalyzed New York kid, but also someone who grapples with mental illness in a real and continuing way.
"Once, before I got on medication, I was so freaked out and O.C.D.'d," she said, not exactly sotto voce, in a coffee shop in West Hollywood, where several people clearly recognized her but were pretending not to. It was a few days before the Emmys, and she was recounting a story in which her mother, desperate to calm her down and get her to bed, gave her a quarter of an Ambien.
"But sometimes if you stay up too long on the Ambien, it makes you hallucinate," she said. "So I started saying insane stuff to my parents like, 'I'm a basket of oranges being thrown over a wall!' And my dad was like, 'Oh, my God, this is the moment when her neuroses have turned into full-blown mental illness.' But I was just having a weird reaction. And the next day I went to see a psycho-pharmacologist, and we were able to figure things out. But I think there's a part of my parents and a part of me that is consistently excited and surprised that I am in any way functional."
Dunham's mother is the photographer Laurie Simmons, her father the painter Carroll Dunham. Simmons, who's known for photographing miniature scenes she stages with dollhouses and other objects, took a lot of nude self-portraits when she was in her early 20s. Carroll Dunham's oeuvre includes sexually explicit renderings of voluptuous, often cartoonish women with genitals that look like mouths. Dunham has often said that despite having many hang-ups, nudity isn't among them. And while it may be reductive to link that fact directly to her parents' explorations of the female form, her bond with them sometimes appears to have the qualities of an artistic collaboration as well as being a source of safety and security.
Dunham talks to her parents every day and sees them a few times a week unless she's out of town. And although she writes to them in her acknowledgments that "I'm sorry I keep doing this to you," the truth is that her depictions of their limitless patience and their exceptional ability to balance family life with artistic ambition can come across as almost idealized, a modern-day, cosmopolitan version of Laura Ingalls Wilder's fictionalized rhapsodic portrayals of her beloved Ma and Pa. In a chapter about attending the same summer camp her mother went to as a girl, Dunham admits that her own memories are permanently entangled with her mother's. "Certain images, though vivid to me, are from stories she told me in bed. For example, I never roasted dough on a stick and then filled the hole left by the stick with butter and jam. That was her."
"Not That Kind of Girl" devotes an entire chapter to platonic bed sharing, and Dunham is unapologetic about the force with which she claimed what she saw as her rightful territory. "Around 1 a.m.," she writes, "once my parents were finally asleep, I would creep into their room and kick my father out of bed, settling into the warmth of his spot and passing out beside my mother, the brief guilt of displacing him far outweighed by the joy of no longer being alone."
When Dunham began working on "Girls," she briefly moved out of her parents' apartment and got her own. But she found it almost physically impossible to be by herself in the space. "I'd go there, make a few phone calls and go back home," she said, and eventually she gave the place up. Two years ago, she bought a modest one-bedroom in Brooklyn Heights and moved out for real, but shortly after that she met her boyfriend, Jack Antonoff, a guitarist for the band Fun, and he moved in. (They've since relocated to a bigger place that Dunham says "feels less like my place and more like ours.") At the time they met, Antonoff, then 28, lived with his parents in New Jersey when he wasn't on tour with the band. An accomplished neurotic in his own right — he has been public about his medication history and his anxieties, including an occasionally crippling germophobia — he seems like Dunham's perfect match. "When I met Jack, I said to my mom, 'I met this guy, and he's obsessed with dying, too, and he lives in his parents' house!' "
Dunham stopped sleeping with her parents at 12, at which point Grace, who is six years younger, began crawling into bed with Dunham, an arrangement that lasted until she left for college (and resumed whenever she returned home). Grace, who graduated from Brown in the spring, is now living with her parents in Williamsburg, where they recently moved. Sleek, composed and passionately focused on social activism, she is currently helping to bring a political component to Dunham's book tour, by combining their shared interest in women's health and reproductive rights with the publisher's interest in selling lots of books. Needless to say, Dunham's tour won't resemble the typical experience of most first-time authors. All of her events, which include onstage conversations with writers like Zadie Smith, Mary Karr and Curtis Sittenfeld, are already sold out. Thanks to Grace's efforts, many will include on-site representatives from Planned Parenthood. Grace has also helped organize writing workshops that Dunham will conduct with young women from the communities she visits, driving home the message that any woman writing about her personal experiences is engaged in an inherently political act.
"I find the idea of doing anything but this version of the tour embarrassing," Dunham said. "And probably if I examined the reason for that, I would see that I want to make clear that the utterly self-involved, politically disengaged character I play on 'Girls' is not who I am."
In her activism, Grace is hyperattuned to the notion of privilege, particularly white middle- and upper-middle-class privilege. She has taken a significant advisory role when Dunham has been called out on the Internet and elsewhere for showcasing a bubble of white, college-educated flâneurs and even romanticizing (or at least finding humor in) their idleness, to an extent that alienates if not baffles audiences whose experiences lie elsewhere. Although some of the grievances leave Dunham perplexed, she insists that the conversation around race privilege is both welcome and fruitful.
"It doesn't feel good to be criticized, obviously," Dunham said. "But I was really grateful that so many people had a way to communicate their feelings and that I had a way to hear them. Still, it was frustrating that some of the people who were defending me had really flawed logic. People were like, 'There weren't any black people on "Friends"!' Well, that's a problem, too."
Dunham says the worst Internet-related experience of her career came in December 2012, when Gawker got hold of her book proposal and posted all 66 pages of it.
"They posted it with a list of 72 reasons I was the dumbest human on earth," she recalls. (There was no such list, but to her there might as well have been.) "It felt like such a violation to put my unedited work out into the world. As a writer, there is nothing more violating. I would rather walk down the street naked — no surprise — than to have someone read my unedited work."
As she recounted this episode last month, Dunham sat on the vaguely urine-smelling stoop of a SoHo clothing boutique. Her dog, a terrier-poodle mix named Lamby, was on her lap, and he periodically convulsed into coughing fits because, Dunham explained, "he has allergies to himself." Passers-by routinely stopped to say hello and sputter out praise.
"Thank you so much," Dunham said again and again — to a middle-aged black woman; to a tanned and slender young blonde who, in a rather brilliant malapropism, said, "I'd be remorse if I didn't stop and say how much I love your work"; to a pizza waiter who asked, "Do you mind if I call you Lenna?" ("Not at all!" Dunham chirped.)
Dunham appeared to genuinely enjoy these interactions, though the switch in gears sent her voice up in pitch. In these moments, she sounded almost like Shoshanna, the "Girls" character who's the most eager to please and the most heavily invested in the notion of conventionality as a form of social decorum. "Have the best day!" she cried, moving the fans along while also subtly giving the impression that were they to stick around a bit longer, she might become their friend. "I love your outfit! Those shoes are amazing!"
No matter how high her profile rises, Dunham's sensibility will almost certainly continue to elude as many people as it captivates. Her mainstream success aside, she is not a mainstream artist. Which is really to say that she is an artist , a traditional auteur whose body of work, like it or not, probably already contains some classics.
"Not That Kind of Girl" may or may not become a classic, but it's a good book: witty and wise and rife with the kind of pacing and comedic flourishes that characterize early Woody Allen books like "Without Feathers" and "Side Effects." As indebted as Dunham feels to Ephron, she's a very different kind of writer. Whereas Ephron was cool and unflappable, Dunham is interested in the least cool aspects of herself and the world around her. Like Allen, she is vulnerable and ridiculous. In the perennial battle between maintaining dignity and playing out the joke, the joke always wins.
But unlike Allen, whose detractors were generally willing to acknowledge his talent and his place in the canon even if he wasn't their cup of tea, Dunham will most likely find herself denigrated by her critics as a dilettante and a fraud rather than as someone whose work they simply don't care for. There are many possible reasons for this: her age, her sex, her looks, even the market value of the real estate she grew up in. Her foray into the literary world will also surely be met with the question of "why?" Why would someone want to publish what is essentially a book of personal essays when she already has a hugely popular and influential television show whose episodes function in many ways like personal essays anyway? Why would someone working in high-end cable TV, which is arguably today's most vital entertainment medium, extend her reach into one that's ostensibly dying? After all, the trajectory of female essayists and cultural critics (see Ephron, Joan Didion, even Dorothy Parker) has traditionally been to parlay their literary bona fides into more lucrative work in Hollywood. Dunham, though she will continue to make television and films, has done things in reverse.
The answers, perhaps, lie in Dunham's original inspiration, Helen Gurley Brown. If Brown's definition of "having it all" was ultimately as facile as it was untenable, Dunham's interpretation may be rooted in her unwavering commitment to the idea that personal experiences, especially women's personal experiences, are valid and necessary as subject matter. Having it all may be a tall order, but saying it all — and in all sorts of ways — is a worthy goal.
Of course, there's a very good argument to be made that there are too many people, young women especially, writing about their personal experiences these days and not enough willing to report from the battle lines that exist outside their own heads. And Dunham's alter ego on "Girls," Hannah Horvath, a pathologically solipsistic aspiring personal essayist, is a prime example. In making her so, Dunham uses her work on the screen to wink at the conceits of her work on the page.
But even if she doesn't tackle the Big Issues for a few more years, the fact is that she's still just 28. When Ephron was 28, she was a reporter for The New York Post, "specializing in froth," as she once noted. When Didion was 28, she was editing at Vogue; she had quietly published her first novel and was nowhere near the sensation she would become. When Parker was 28, she had finished a stint as a drama critic for Vanity Fair, and she and her compatriots were still working out seating arrangements for the Algonquin Round Table. None of them at that point had totally found their way to the issues that would come to define them. And despite the monumental platform Dunham has been given, that's probably true of her too. She's everywhere, but she's still not there yet. That might have a lot to do with why people find her at once so exciting and so exasperating.
To Dunham, the most useful reaction to this endless onslaught of reactions is to just keep working. These days she is editing the fourth season of "Girls" and is in the early stages of writing a novel "about a professional woman entering her 30s and her relationship with several complex father figures." She does, admittedly, thrill in the sight of her name in The New Yorker — or, more precisely, take thrill in her parents' thrill at seeing her name there. She has also learned to cope with the cognitive dissonance that comes from receiving more good fortune than seems right for one person.
"I've had a lot of moments in my career where I've had to just say, 'I'm picking my jaw up off the floor and carrying on,' " she said, stroking Lamby as his self-allergies sent him into another hacking fit. "Because you don't get much work done with your jaw on the floor."
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