What If Heather Havrilesky Is Right? Ask Polly’s Columnist On Having All The Answers
If you were to write a book, the be-all end-all of everything you've learned so far in this life, what would you call it? I Don't Bloody Know, perhaps, or I Thought *This* Was the Point Of Everything But It Might Be This Other Thing, I'm Not Entirely Sure. That's if we're honest. But the nut-brown bookcases full of "best-sellers" at your local Barnes & Noble, a few paces from the stack of inspirational quote woodblock desk-ornaments, are overloaded with books promising I HAVE THE SECRET, Be Better Immediately, Buy This Book And Join The Rest Of Us In Our Monied Bliss. In her newest book, Heather Havrilesky, the author of Disaster Preparedness, and the sometimes blustery, always empathetic voice behind the Ask Polly advice column, is offering a radically meek sales proposition: What If This Were Enough?
The shruggie question mark at the end — it kills me. Put a question mark after any self-help tome and it's instantly funnier, more human (Awaken The Giant Within? by Anthony Robbins; Good To Great? by Jim Collins). It works for fiction, too (The Slap? by Christopher Tsiolokas). I love it and I love this book. Havrilesky has written it for anyone who has ever eased a wobbling scoop of bone marrow off the wood slab onto a piece of sour dough toast and wondered: is this it? It is for anyone who has ever pulled up Safari on their phone, taken a RHONJ quiz, and then worried out of the blue that they are dying. Through a series of essays that dig into expectations vs. reality, she unpacks that insidious feeling you have that it is not enough. You are not enough.
The problem with defeating the virus is that everyone else around you is participating in the hallucination. Everyone else seems to be clapping their hands along and having a good time.
I actually started to look the most closely at the absurd levels of insane pressure that we feel in our lives when I had two small kids at home and I was just feeling like a failure every single day.
"I read texts that say things like, 'Happy Mother's Day to a bunch of amazing moms!'" Havrilesky writes in the essay "lost treasure," concerning an elderly neighbor from her childhood who collected bits and pieces ("treashuh") from the forest floor on her daily walks and glued them into junk sculptures. "And I think 'I would not personally classify my mothering as amazing.' But I will still spend at least a block texting back 'Have a great day!' with multiple heart emojis."
Sometimes, there is true gratitude there, but, as often, "you feel like a soulless robot: 'Yayyyy go moms, heart heart heart'," Havrilesky tells Romper in a flat voice I wish I would replicate here, "like you just can't conjure the team spirit that you need to, and there's a certain kind of agony in that."
This is the starting point — that agony — the illness we sense from a poison we can't yet identify. It so happens that parenthood is often the time you first feel the tension of this at full bore, says Havrilesky over the phone from Los Angeles, Calif.
"I actually started to look the most closely at the absurd levels of insane pressure that we feel in our lives when I had two small kids at home and I was just feeling like a failure every single day." Beyond that, though, is a place where you give fewer fucks. "Once you commit to seeming like a cheerful normal mom, you're pretty fucked from then on out, because it's an impossible thing to do," she tells me. "There is no possible way to be successful at all the roles you have as a woman with kids, so the only way forward is to abandon those pressures." And once you do, you think, "What was I striving for anyway? What was the point?"
This is the person I have been dying to talk to. The person we all wish would be our friend. Will you be my friend, Polly? I want to ask. I ask, instead, about the alienation you can feel even among other women battling the same invisible forces as you; among other moms.
It's very difficult, says Havrilesky. "At this most vulnerable point in your life you're forming a new friend group that has been chosen for you — I think there's something purgatorial about that. And I have done an awful job of it, let me just say. I have emerged with friends, and we have stood the test of time, but there were many many times people were not speaking to me."
The trap is that the more we want to be liked, the more we try to inhabit other people's lives, the more we fail at all of it.
"I was living in those empty spaces, sprucing up darkness that would never lift. I was haunting their failures, a bystander," Havrilesky writes of her long-ago attempt to make her relationship with a sad divorced dude happen, forever tidying his abandoned love nest in a plot of Los Angeles that seemed oddly sunless. Here she hits on something universally familiar. We are having real trouble knowing how to live. Or, as as the "death test" on TheSpark.com put it, years before I went to work for its corpse, "Would you rather be loved and forgotten, or hatefully remembered?" We don't know. I changed my answer several times to see how it affected my life expectancy.
I have believed for some time that everyone deserves one letter to Ask Polly in their lifetime — one emergency phone-a-friend to Heather Havrilesky for their particular brand of existential crisis. Through her columns on The Awl and, since 2014, New York Magazine's The Cut, Havrilesky has created a space to question the big, foundational things about our lives that torment us. The subtext of specific grievances — missing out on a job, being back-stabbed, being dumped, feeling adrift and unlikeable — is often a soft, sinking guilt, a worry that somewhere we took a wrong turn we can't undo. "You're not some secret monster," Havrilesky counseled someone recently in her column. I tell myself that at least once a day as I glare at people on the subway steps, fail yet again to sand my edges, am pointy instead of round with my family.
There's a time for making mistakes, and you quickly age out of it.
In contemporary adulthood, she writes in the chapter "adults only," "the longing, the anger, the envy — all of that should have been lifted away decades ago, evaporated, whisked away by linen blends and decaf coffee drinks and probiotics."
We have been transported to the realm of the grownup; the time of making mistakes and learning and changing and being messy is now over:
"Everyone should appear calm and properly hydrated now. Everyone should claim to feel just right in their terrible shorts, their legs crossed like Europeans, their temples graying by the minute, their pleasant expressions saying, 'I see your point, I understand, and that is also true.' Everyone should be smiling with their eyes and talking with their hands. They'd like more pasta, but they could also live without it."
It's beautiful, hilarious storytelling you deserve to enjoy, but it's also an escape hatch. I think often of the guy in The Circle who drives off a bridge trying to escape the joiner pressures of the Facebook/Google facsimile; the only sane person in the book, with nowhere left to go.
"There's a time for making mistakes, and you quickly age out of it," explains Havrilesky to me of the feeling that everyone else must be happy and organized and you alone must be mad. "Women get pathologized for basically having simple desires that are specific to them, for wanting things, for existing even, for having a voice."
She delves further into the way that women are conditioned to assist, to acquire competence, in the essay "bravado," which looks at the way we sideline our own passions and interests and instead devote ourselves to helping others (men) achieve theirs. "That's the definition of a successful woman in our society, someone who brings good things to other people while neglecting herself," she tells me. "That's what a mother is." (See also.)
I wrote a letter to Ask Polly when my daughter was six months old. Scout's arrival had really blown my mind, I was full of love and suddenly heartbroken about living so far from home. I wrote a rambling email in bed as my husband slept next to me, and Havrilesky answered it 12 days later.
"We all miss our parents and our childhood homes and a million experiences we can never go through in the same way again," she wrote in a generous column that wended from a rumination on her husband's ill-fitting soccer coaching shorts to larger questions of place, "and then our parents die. And then our kids move away. Life is a series of losses. Look straight at the darkness of that. Feel it in your bones. And then resolve to do what you can with what you have."
I re-read her response probably a few times a year. For the people who don't get to have their midnight crises answered personally, there is this book. Even though What If This Were Enough? shirks anyone who might tell you that they have the answers to your life, and even though Havrilesky is uncomfortable in the position of guru — "I am treated like someone who has answers, even though I'm like, 'Whoa, here we go! Ride this ride with me, I'm not sure I have any answers at all!'" — her writing offers something to counter all the other messages we are being sent. She understands the power it has for all us secret monsters out here.
I am treated like someone who has answers, even though I'm like, 'Whoa, here we go! Ride this ride with me, I'm not sure I have any answers at all.'
"When you do extremely present active listening, when you're connecting with another person, that tends to present a weird kind of path forward, too," she says of the way writing advice, it its various forms, has helped her own life.
There's an essay in the collection about her mother's crooked, pine-needle-littered home with its creaky stairs and paper-thin windows that shudder as storms pass over top:
"I used to think that my mother's house was embarrassing, a ramshackle mess in a small town, nothing and nowhere. Now I know that my mother's house is the center of the universe. There is no other place like it."
What I took from Havrilesky's response to my letter — and what I take from this perfect collection of essays — is that there is no other place like our own version of this home. There isn't time to strive for what someone else has, to look over at their notes and race toward the same thing, because we're already on our way. This is it. We've already wasted enough time counting our likes and missing what's right in front of us.
Look — it's impossible not to be pat with this stuff, which is why the only permissible format for these thoughts is an anti-capitalist manifesto that weaves together The Sopranos with the weak "margarita mix" at that party you went to, and draws a line from the empty promises of Marie Kondo's "life-changing" ideas about tidying up to the question: what if Mozart had to plug his work on Instagram?
It's a book that can lead you to the revelation you've been waiting for someone else to deliver you. It brings your deepest fears out in the open — "You also just never know how much [people] dislike you because you have to, practically, continually get along," she admits to me — and also helps you see how those fears, they're nothing.
"The biggest and truest answers I've gotten in my life have come from calming the fuck down and asking myself, 'what do I care about?'"
It's a book that allowed me to see, rather than the unwashed, aging, reluctant Brooklynite who greets me in the mirror when I poke mascara onto my eyelashes in the morning time, the brave person who got on a plane with her future husband, a wedding dress stashed in the cargo hold; the hopeful weirdo who had her Australian passport stamped at LAX and rolled the dice on moving forward, wherever that took her. The person who, ten years later, is still here, yelling "CHEW WHAT'S IN YOUR MOUTH" at her two children, who will certainly make it harder to escape or move home, yet who have given her more than she ever could have wished for.
Havrilesky's voice was much rougher than I expected on the phone. It was the voice that tells us week in, week out, that you can be difficult and ambivalent and ask for what you want. "When everything is bent into a jolly shape, everything feels more mournful than it should," goes the first essay in WITWE. Later: "There are no buttons for 'sad!' or 'dark' or 'melancholy'" on Buzzfeed.
As she talks, she fills me in on the ways the law of entropy is playing out in an upstairs room in her Los Angeles home, where she lives with her husband, kids, and pups. A board game left out sits in the middle of a bunch of other crap. That abandoned board game is driving her crazy at present. "There's shit all over the room, let me be clear," she tells me. "It's not just one thing, but there are just problems all around me, and it's easy for me to experience everything that comes up in a day as something you want to push away."
If everyone else is selling you shit pickeruppers, Havrilesky is trying to argue that this shit is the stuff of life. The slightly wet string cheese, the lumpy Casper pillow, the massage voucher you waited a year to use that was just okay: life. Here she is, sitting on her dirty cloud zero feet off the floor in a cluttered third-bedroom, telling us, "Feeling how glad and happy you are to exist, it has to involve saying, 'I welcome all these bullshit things around me.'"
She has written a book of essays. But no book of essays has ever been so hellbent on making you feel better.