Discussion of author’s portfolio Discussion of writing style Humor Humour Review of memoir Review of new book

How to recognize your own particular monster – Broken, by Jenny Lawson

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be Jenny Lawson, the witty author and “Bloggess“, this book will explain a lot. Broken (in the best possible way) is about just how “broken”, in the sense of mentally and physically unwell, Lawson is, but ultimately the reader is left with the impression that for all the brokenness, there are still positive aspects and upsides in her life. So the title of the book is appropriate: it does mean broken, but in the best possible way.

Review


An unsparing memoir

Fredrik Backman’s Anxious People provided the reader with a sense of identification with the anxious people in his novel, and a sense of normalcy by comparison. That was a novel, though: Broken is a memoir, and the funny parts – which are typically Lawson and outrageous, self-deprecating and vividly imaginative – are interspersed with diary-like chapters about the medical conditions which she has to deal with.

“Anyone who has read Jenny Lawson’s work knows that the 47-year-old writer suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. Once, it made her finger swell up like a Ball Park hot dog. Another time, her ankle got so big that it looked as if she were wearing a ‘single nude leg-warmer stuffed with apples.’ Often, flare-ups leave her bedridden or send her rushing to the emergency room; she has joked that she wishes the condition had a sexier name, like ‘the Midnight Death’ or ‘Impending Vampirism.’ It is a painful, incurable autoimmune disorder that affects everything from her shoe size (it fluctuates) to the way she experiences rain (her symptoms worsen).”

Emily McCullar, The Rise (and Occasional Dips Into Despair!) of Jenny Lawson, in Texas Monthly, May 2021, rtrvd. May 31, 2021
Broken (in the best possible way), by Jenny Lawson (Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; illustrated edition, April 6, 2021, hardcover, 304 pp.)

The funny side of adversity

Lawson does not “suffer from” these conditions, in the sense that her life is ruined by them, and she laments her predicament. She baldly states what is happening to her, and what her health status is. She deals with things as best she can and manages to find the upside to some aspects, such as a new course of treatments that has made things better. And of course, having a sense of humour definitely helps.

I would’ve liked to say I laughed often and hard, like with her previous books. I did laugh, but more than laugh, I was deeply touched by her humanity, her bravery. There is no doubt that these problems are serious, real and chronic. But like many readers and many of her fans, I also felt recognition and an echo of some of her experiences within myself – I felt empathy.

Lawson’s previous two memoirs, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (2012) and Furiously Happy – A Funny Book About Horrible Things (2015), were tremendously successful, probably because of her rather unusual gift for describing – as the one sub-title says – horrible things about her life in a really hilarious, over-the-top, yet deadpan way. By the time her second memoir, Furiously Happy, was published in 2015, her fans knew all about her childhood, her eccentric family, her husband, Victor (his middle name), and her daughter, Hailey, now 16 years old.

Hailey, Jenny, and Victor Lawson at their home in San Antonio in early 2020. 
Courtesy of Jenny Lawson (Source: Emily McCullar, The Rise (and Occasional Dips Into Despair!) of Jenny Lawson, in Texas Monthly, May 2021, rtrvd. May 31, 2021)

In Furiously Happy, her writing became more candid than in her first foray into writing and, as a result, it was darker. She wrote about her rheumatoid arthritis and severe depression, which includes crippling anxiety, OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) and ICD (Impulse-Control Disorder). These conditions were made more difficult to deal with after the success of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, which made her famous and plunged her into a stream of public engagements and fan meetings. Consider that much of the humour in her books relates to her great discomfort with social engagements, particularly making small talk at parties.

She started out as an unpaid blogger in 2006, which provided some kind of distancing between her and her readers. Subsequently, apart from having obtained celebrity status and becoming an established author (while still dutifully blogging), she and Victor started running the “Nowhere Bookshop”, a real book store, in Alamo Heights in San Antonio, Texas, in 2019. I can imagine that all of this is tough for a person with avoidant personality disorder, one of the manifestations of her depression.

Dealing with celebrity

In Broken, readers get glimpses of the difficulties she experiences in coping with and managing the concurrent treatments required for the arthritis and depression. Sometimes this balancing act goes awry and one medication causes other symptoms or triggers other conditions. She gives detailed descriptions which, at least at first glance, are blackly humorous, but when you think about it, not so funny after all. One example is the medication-induced lupus she develops, which is followed by a diagnosis for tuberculosis:

“That’s why the doctor checks my blood all the time and that’s why I had to go in to see if I was dying from a disease I’d last heard of on Little House on the Prairie. Victor offered precious little sympathy as he considered setting fire to all the parts of the house that I’d touched, so I texted a more sympathetic friend, who was all, ‘OMG, you have TB?!’ and I was like, ‘Well that’s what the bloodworm said, ’ and she was like ‘JESUS, YOU HAVE BLOODWORMS TOO? HOW ARE YOU EVEN ALIVE?’ and I was confused for a minute until I realized that my phone had autocorrected ‘blood work’ to something scarier than ‘blood work’. But with my luck, yes, I probably have bloodworms too.”

Broken, by Jenny Lawson, p. 162 – 163, Am I even still alive?
Photo by Lisa on Pexels.com

“That’s why the doctor checks my blood all the time and that’s why I had to go in to see if I was dying from a disease I’d last heard of on Little House on the Prairie. Victor offered precious little sympathy as he considered setting fire to all the parts of the house that I’d touched, so I texted a more sympathetic friend, who was all, ‘OMG, you have TB?!’ and I was like, ‘Well that’s what the bloodworm said, ’ and she was like ‘JESUS, YOU HAVE BLOODWORMS TOO? HOW ARE YOU EVEN ALIVE?’ and I was confused for a minute until I realized that my phone had autocorrected ‘blood work’ to something scarier than ‘blood work’. But with my luck, yes, I probably have bloodworms too.”

Broken, by Jenny Lawson, p. 162 – 163, Am I even still alive?

(I laughed at her reference to Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder – it’s also the first thing that comes to my mind when I read the word ’TB’.) This is fairly typical of Lawson’s writing style: plenty of uppercase and exclamation marks, and the odd swearword. She writes how people talk – loosely and randomly with lots of slang. The chapter on the debates that she has with her editors, called “Editing is hell. Mostly for editors.”, is the funniest thing in the book for me. She also writes verbatim how she reasons, which involves a random, normal thought turning rapidly into ridiculousness. Even the most mundane thing can become, in her head, a great big Wagnerian opera redeveloped by the scriptwriters of Schitts Creek.

The “better” side of a problem

She makes humour from the frequent, cringeworthy but hilarious communication and interaction difficulties that she experiences, but by the end of the book, the reader knows that she is funny despite her conditions but also a little because of them.

She has this knack – a mercy I suppose – of being able to find upsides to her problems. She finds happiness in her family, her friends, new medicine that works, collecting buttons, laughter, stuffed animals, rain, her funny husband. The particular way that her mind works makes her aware of things that most other people just let slide by or ignore, such as a strange, small insect on the sidewalk that most people wouldn’t even see.

Deeper feelings

In Broken, she is even more honest and revealing than in the previous books, and her writing segues from irreverent humour into descriptions of soul-piecing despair and almost poetic streams-of-consciousness.

“In some ways it’s a relief to feel the pain of coming rains. It assures me that the storms in my head are real too. And that they will, as well, pass in time. I wonder if there’s a weather pattern for depression. A barometric pressure for anxiety. A bad wind for sleeplessness and fear. I wonder why I’m so much rain in bones and fog in thought. I wonder why distant hurricanes scream inside me and why sometimes the air grows thick and too heavy, leaving me a stranded sailing ship on a too-still sea for as long as the depression settles.
I move my other hand to the window. The heat of my hand creates an aura that surrounds it, as if I can finally see the invisible parts of me that stretch beyond the boundary of my skin.
It’s raining, I whisper.
How do you do that? Victor asks sleepily. How do you always know?
It’s easy, I say. Although ‘easy’ is not the right word.
I feel it in my bones.

Broken, by Jenny Lawson, p. 205, I Feel It in My Bones
Photo by Josh Hild on Pexels.com

“In some ways it’s a relief to feel the pain of coming rains. It assures me that the storms in my head are real too. And that they will, as well, pass in time. I wonder if there’s a weather pattern for depression. A barometric pressure for anxiety. A bad wind for sleeplessness and fear. I wonder why I’m so much rain in bones and fog in thought. I wonder why distant hurricanes scream inside me and why sometimes the air grows thick and too heavy, leaving me a stranded sailing ship on a too-still sea for as long as the depression settles.
I move my other hand to the window. The heat of my hand creates an aura that surrounds it, as if I can finally see the invisible parts of me that stretch beyond the boundary of my skin.
It’s raining, I whisper.
How do you do that? Victor asks sleepily. How do you always know?
It’s easy, I say. Although ‘easy’ is not the right word.
I feel it in my bones.

Broken, by Jenny Lawson, p. 205, I Feel It in My Bones

A familiar voice

The list of chapters is not only pretty entertaining in itself, but is also a good indicator for just how zany the book will be, for instance: “That Time I got Haunted by Lizards with Bike Horns”, or My Dentist Hates Me”, or “The First Satanic Ritual I ever Saw”. These are interspersed with serious chapters, such as “Sometimes There is Beauty in Breaking”.

Along with empathy, I felt anger when I read her letter to the health insurance company which messes her around so cruelly (the greedy, stone-hearted bastards!!!), sadness and recognition when she explains exactly how the depression makes her feel, intrigued and a bit hopeful when she writes about the new treatment she is trying, TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation), in the hopes of lessening the depression symptoms.

I did laugh, honestly, I did a lot. But sometimes I had to stop reading because it is so true and so sad. Lawson’s voice, by this time, feels familiar, it feels a bit as if you know her, and therefore when she writes about something hopeful you share that optimism.

As her fan base grew into the hundreds of thousands, readers started wondering about the man behind the woman, Victor, her husband, and in Broken she writes about this guy who her followers say should be given an award for being the best husband ever.

He is the silent support behind his famous wife. He does not blog, and unless she says something about him, he does not get quoted. (At least not anything that this Internet sleuth has been able to sniff out.) I have often wondered about him, but suffice to say, since they have been married as long as they have, they must have something special in their relationship. What is that? Lawson explains:

“Victor once said that his favourite quote was Marilyn Monroe’s: ‘If you can make a woman laugh you can make her do anything.’ It’s true. Unless the thing you want her to do is put her cheese wrappers in the trash or stop touching the thermostat or not dress the cat up in baby clothes even though he looks amazing in them. Those are nonstarters.
But you can make her forgive you. And love you. And forget all about the dumb shit you’ve done that she can’t remember now but totally existed.
And she can do the same.
And sometimes that’s just enough.”

Broken, by Jenny Lawson, p. 174, The Secret to a Long Marriage
Photo by Maria Orlova on Pexels.com

“Victor once said that his favourite quote was Marilyn Monroe’s: ‘If you can make a woman laugh you can make her do anything.’ It’s true. Unless the thing you want her to do is put her cheese wrappers in the trash or stop touching the thermostat or not dress the cat up in baby clothes even though he looks amazing in them. Those are nonstarters.
But you can make her forgive you. And love you. And forget all about the dumb shit you’ve done that she can’t remember now but totally existed.
And she can do the same.
And sometimes that’s just enough.”

Broken, by Jenny Lawson, p. 174, The Secret to a Long Marriage

So laughter is the key to not only staying together but to staying happy, together.

Broken, but mended or accepted

The chapters in Broken are varied; funny or serious, personal or focused on her fans, about her inner thoughts or about her career as a writer. What stands out though is that the contents describes the book title: broken, but in the best possible way.

As she writes: “For good or bad, we are changed and touched and broken and mended and scarred. And those marks (inside and out) tell a story. They tell our story.” And finally “…we are so much less alone if we learn to wear our imperfections proudly, like tarnished jewelry that still shines just as brightly.”

“For good or bad, we are changed and touched and broken and mended and scarred. And those marks (inside and out) tell a story. They tell our story.”

“…we are so much less alone if we learn to wear our imperfections proudly, like tarnished jewelry that still shines just as brightly.”

Photo by Giallo on Pexels.com

Lawson’s particular collection of scars, pain and difficulties is depicted on the book’s dust jacket by artist Omar Rayyan, as a hairy, horned, many-fanged monster, carried like a fat cat in Lawson’s arms. It might look ugly, but it has a little bow in its hair, and is chomping on (or possibly burping up) flowers, it may actually be smiling, and it is tolerating a hug. It may be a heavy load to for her bear, but it is her monster, and it has its good sides:

“…there is something wonderful in embracing the peculiar and extraordinary monsters that make us unique. There is joy in accepting the curious and erratic beasts the force us to see the world in new ways.” (p. 282).

True, that. She might be broken, but she is broken in the best possible way.

This message is what makes the memoir worth reading and re-reading. You will be amused, but you might also recognize your own monster, just sitting there in a corner, waiting for you to hug it.


PS

In the header of this post there is my version of the monster that Omar Rayyan created for Jenny Lawson. I gave him werewolf legs, see? Got to have legs to get around in the forest where he lives. Ugly as he is, he is my monster.

Earlier books by Jenny Lawson

Highly recommended

“Furiously Happy – A Funny Book About Horrible Things”, by Jenny Lawson, Flatiron Books, released September 22, 2015
“Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A mostly True Memoir)”, by Jenny Lawson, Berkley Books, New York, 2012

Next post:

The final part of the review of Haruki Murakami’s new story collection, First Person Singular.

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