Grow Girl, by former actress and Blair Witch Project star Heather Donahue, had been sitting on my desk for a few weeks before I picked it up. It’s a memoir about how Donahue went from silver screen to marijuana farm. I was intrigued by the topic: There aren’t many honest accounts of a retreat from Hollywood that don’t follow a familiar, saccharine, redemption narrative, and Donahue’s choice to become a pot farmer definitely didn’t hit the same old beats. But the cover—a naked, grinning Donahue clutching a bushel of weed—was a major turnoff. I’m so glad Michelle Dean’s interview with Donahue in The Awl made me get over the unfortunate cover because Donahue (who doesn’t like the cover, for what it’s worth) is so wise and charming.
Grow Girl chronicles Donahue’s journey to Northern California, specifically a place she calls Nuggettown, to follow a hippie dude she meets at a silent meditation retreat. If the words “silent meditation retreat” make you cringe in horror almost as much as the phrase “my guru” makes you want to die, don’t fret—Donahue is a sharp-eyed observer of her communal surroundings. She decides not to move in with the hippie dude, a father of one named Judah who offers to support her on the proceeds from his own pot growing, and instead gets her own crib where she grows her own weed. (Reading a Q&A on Donahue’s website, you find out that not moving in with Judah was wise, since he was having threesomes with an engaged couple while they were together).
Ankling your job and becoming a marijuana purveyor is not as easy or mellow as it sounds. Donahue does backbreaking, anxiety-provoking work, mining humor from her physical maladies (the section where she has…um…gastrointestinal issues in a field while suffering from poison oak is hilarious, but is best avoided by those who don’t enjoy potty humor). But what really anchors the narrative is Donahue’s interactions with her fellow citizens in Nuggettown, who refer to themselves as “The Community.”
“The Community” sounds like a cult, because it is one, and Donahue’s keen voice is strongest when she’s describing their customs and foibles. For example, a “pot wife,” aka the long-term girlfriend of a pot grower, named Cedara discovers that Donahue feels stressed out. So she starts in on Donahue with something the writer terms “hippie chicken.” I’ll let her describe it:
Hippie chicken is when a hippie looks you right in the eye in a way that is, I assume, meant to generate a deep, if momentary, bond and to somehow connect you and said hippie in some kind of psychic fascia. It’s sort of like a staring contest, but those are funny, so no—it’s more like having someone stick a bayonet in your eyes, or drill a core sample through the back of your skull, or pin your pupils to a specimen box. it’s different from mere gazing, and like pornography, I know it when I see it.
The only way Donahue gets out of this particular round of hippie chicken is to tell Cedara she loves her.
In her Awl interview, a comparison is made between Donahue’s book and Eat, Pray, Love. Donahue says that they are both seeker books, books with a “flawed and chatty narrator who is sincerely trying to answer the question, ‘How to live?’ and willing to fail and fail again.” I didn’t find much common ground between the Elizabeth Gilbert juggernaut and Donahue’s book, but if you want to read an extremely authentic, engaging memoir from a woman who is indeed trying to answer that question, Grow Girl will delight you.