No Hugging, No Learning

Meghan Daum’s tough, smart, wonderful collection of essays.

Photo by David Zaugh
In The Unspeakable, Meghan Daum pokes at how “human experiences too often come with preassigned emotional responses.”

Photo by David Zaugh

There’s something both enticing and paradoxical about calling your book of personal revelations The Unspeakable, especially when you tack on a winking subtitle like And Other Subjects of Discussion. The name of Meghan Daum’s new essay collection promises transgression and absolute candor, pledging that what’s unsayable won’t be left unsaid. You can just hear the breathless, cheesy tagline The Unspeakable might have if it were not an essay collection but instead a movie from the 1950s: These shocking truths were shrouded in mystery … until now!

But Daum’s brave, funny compendium would not be at home in such sensational packaging. Nor, for that matter, does the book have quite the unity that Daum gamely tries to give it in the introduction. “At its core,” Daum writes, laying out her pitch, “this book is about the ways that some of life’s most burning issues are considered inappropriate for public or even private discussion. It’s about the unspeakable thoughts many of us harbor … but can only talk about in coded terms.”

I’m not sure I agree with her assessment of The Unspeakable’s central theme. (Though I understand why she makes it: A “sincere but mediated assemblage of personal anecdotes spun into intelligent reflections on being alive” probably wouldn’t sell many copies.) Daum’s disclosures—which “aren’t confessions,” she specifies, but “events recounted in the service of ideas”—include: She was relieved when her cancer-stricken mother finally passed away. She spent much of her life resenting the elder Daum, a theater teacher who dressed up “neediness” as “fabulousness.” She doesn’t want children. This is the “central sadness” of her marriage. Games, vacations, and the fragrant totems of foodie culture bore her. (“I do not enjoy most activities that are commonly labeled ‘fun,’ ” Daum notes, with mordant pleasure. “I am weary of happiness, both as a word and as a concept.”) She dislikes working too hard for things, preferring to stay within her comfort zone. “Though I probably shouldn’t admit this,” she admits, “the activities and pursuits in which I’ve achieved any measure of success are, without exception, activities and pursuits that came easily to me from the beginning.”

Daum is not simply unburdening herself with this litany of unflattering facts—if they are indeed unflattering, rather than forgivable and human. She offers the examples in order to interrogate sentimentality, the myths we wrap around our lives. Like Leslie Jamison, whose essay collection Empathy Exams was published earlier this year, Daum pokes at how “human experiences too often come with preassigned emotional responses.” This brooks-no-malarkey pose feels genuine—but Daum complicates it as well. In the essay “Honorary Dyke,” Daum frames a lifelong attraction to butchness as an allergic flinch from all the butterfly barm of femininity: the baby showers, the dating rigmaroles, the cosmetic rites, the self-absorption. “It’s not that we don’t want to take care of our families or have beautiful, meticulously kept homes or that we can’t have strong opinions about furniture upholstery,” Daum says of “aspirational dykes.” “It’s that we’re going to express these opinions … with a certain anti-girliness, a certain lack of bullshit.” Her sense of belonging later wanes a bit when she accompanies her trial-girlfriend to a gay bar—all “unironic mullets” and “mafia wives”—and realizes “I was not a lesbian so much as someone who appreciated a good haircut.”

In “The Dog Exception,” Daum explains why she associates Malamutes with unicorns. Dogs are “incapable of phoniness,” she writes, “immune to manufactured emotion or self-engineered cuteness.” She grew up in a household that prized “substance”—so much so that her mother urged her, at 7, to devise a more impressively original message for her birthday cake than “Happy Birthday, Meghan.” (They wound up with “Happy Birthday, Animal Lover,” an inscription that, in its flirtation with obscene innuendo, seems like karmic comeuppance for terrible parenting.)   

Yet Daum also knows that her tough “antischmaltz policy” is itself a posture, another writerly narrative. She allows us glimpses of gauze, from her precept that “the human heart is pretty pie chart resistant” to her faith (not borne out by her experience as an advocate for foster-care kids) that “nurture from a loving adoptive community” might “triumph over the abuses of horrible natural parents.” Dogs reduce her to a pile of goo, and ironically their lack of affectation only stokes her belief in a fanciful, cartoonish afterlife for pets. For all her straight talk, Daum wants us to understand that the dream of authenticity is its own kind of sentimental romance. Authenticity, she seems to say, is our buzzy shorthand for truth, which we count on to do what myths do: light up the dark, scary spaces. Confronted with the unknowability of an animal’s mind, with a perceived absence of counterfeit, we can’t help but “fill it with rainbows and wet furrylicious kisses.”

But reality versus our willful insulation from same isn’t Daum’s big theme, even if the introduction says it is. Instead, these essays do what essays often set out to do: trace the outlines of a self. They show an author exposing her particular being to the world, watching what happens, and coming to terms with the fallout. And they do it wonderfully, weaving a theory of identity as both unknowable and inescapable. “Not What It Used to Be,” for example, hearkens back to Daum’s first collection, My Misspent Youth, in its elegy for lost time. In middle age, Daum writes, “any traces of precocity I ever had are long forgotten. I am not and will never again be a young writer, a young homeowner, a young teacher. … The only thing I could do now for which my youth would be a truly notable feature would be to die.” This should give you a flavor of her wry, piquant voice. (Or try this: “Anthropologie … is to adult women what princesses are to little girls. It is a twirling motion in the form of an international brand.”) Yet despite the fading of some shiny sense of possibility, the “older self of our imagination never quite folds itself into the older self we actually become.” “Life,” Daum concludes, “is mostly an exercise in being something other than what we used to be while remaining fundamentally—and sometimes maddeningly—who we are.”

The Unspeakable is strewn with Daum’s attempts to lose herself, and with her slow, painful returns to center. She dabbles in gayness, in ill-fitting maternal roles. She tries, Emerson-like, to cast herself not as a human being but as a disembodied eye in the universe. (“Los Angeles is where I learned that your ability to see is sometimes only as good as your willingness to go unseen,” she writes at one point, wearing her invisibility at a gathering of Hollywood stars as a badge of honor.) There is a beautiful sway in these essays in and out of self-awareness. And as Daum tests the edges of who she is, the reader feels similar waves of identification and then distance, at times resonating intimately to a point the narrator makes, at times feeling that their two consciousnesses don’t overlap at all.

There’s a moment of arrival, or maybe just repose, in a late essay, where Daum seems to stake out her boundaries for good. “I’ll tell you what’s highly overrated,” she writes, striking a note somewhere between self-mockery and earned wisdom. (In Daum’s world, maturity is not mellow, but tart.) “Going outside your comfort zone.” She continues: “Stay in safe waters but plunge as deeply into them as possible. If you’re good at something, do it a lot. If you’re bad at something, just don’t do it.”

But Daum also succeeds in losing herself in these pages. The last piece, “Diary of a Coma,” recounts a terrifying bout of murine typhus, a rare bacterial infection that first takes away Daum’s words and then pushes her out of consciousness. The hyper-articulate voice we’ve come to trust describes the terror of aphasia, the dispersal of an inner life into fragments that can’t be grasped or said. Then, coming out of the illness, Daum writes, “I am locating the letters of the alphabet … I am coming back to myself. And I am no wiser or more evolved than I was before. There is no epiphany or revelation or aha moment or big click. There is no redemption. There is no great lesson learned. There is only the unknowable and the unspeakable.”

Which suggests, contra the promise of the introduction, that Daum’s “unspeakable” isn’t some transformative truth finally spoken once you work up the courage. It is what you get instead of a payoff. It is the silence after you’ve said all you can say and done all you can do (i.e. after you’ve lived a life on Earth). For Daum, maybe, it was the condition of drifting away from herself, as in a coma, and finding nothing but blank space—since, as she now knows and insists, you can never really be someone other than who you are.

The Unspeakable, by Meghan Daum. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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