Imitation of Life

“Authenticity has long been a major interest of mine,” Meghan Daum avows in The Unspeakable, her most recent collection of personal essays. Oprah and Dr. Phil could make the same claim, but Daum has been exploring the topic with a reporter’s eye for detail, and often with acuity, for the past decade and a half. It unites the pieces in My Misspent Youth (2001), her first volume of essays, published when she was thirty-one, in which she dissects “the tendency of contemporary human beings”—herself included—“to live not actual lives but simulations of lives.” In the title essay of that book, which first appeared to some notoriety in the New Yorker in 1999, Daum—burdened by the debt she had accrued from attending Columbia’s writing MFA program and other fiscally unsound choices she made as a creative-class aspirant in Manhattan—announced she was leaving the city behind for Lincoln, Nebraska, where she’d been twice before for a journalism assignment. The capital of the Cornhusker State is thinly veiled in Daum’s novel, The Quality of Life Report (2003), about a “lifestyle correspondent” for a New York TV-magazine show who decamps to the fictional midwestern town of Prairie City to broadcast segments that do little more than confirm her East Coast audience’s preconceived notions about flyover country.

In the early aughts, Daum moved to Los Angeles, where she has continued to anatomize false appearances. Her adventures in real estate in Southern California make up the bulk of the memoir Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House (2010), a fitfully self-deprecating account of “what happens when . . . your identity becomes almost totally wrapped up not in who you are or how you live but in where you live.” Since 2005, she’s been an op-ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times, covering what she calls “social politics,” and often pointing out the impossibility of nuanced—authentic?—thought in a clickable, tweetable twenty-four-hour news cycle. (As of this writing, her two most recent columns for the paper were on landlines and the controversy surrounding Rolling Stone’s article about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia.)

Imitating, fraud, myth, and performing are words that appear frequently in the ten essays that make up The Unspeakable, which sets out, in Daum’s words, “to examine the tension between primal reactions and public decorum,” a disconnect that she is capable of portraying with particular sharpness, especially when mining her own life. Yet in this book, as in My Misspent Youth, Daum is quick to assert that the pieces are not “confessions,” categorizing them instead as “events recounted in the service of ideas.” In her strenuous disavowal of the term, Daum can sound defensive: “While some of the details I include may be shocking enough to suggest that I’m spilling my guts, I can assure you that for every one of those details there are hundreds I’ve chosen to leave out.”

As it turns out, not much in The Unspeakable registers as “shocking.” (The title of the volume itself also borders on the hyperbolic: Does a discussion of Joni Mitchell—whose songs, Daum insists, are also not confessions—really fall under the purview of “the ways that some of life’s most burning questions are considered inappropriate for public or even private consumption”?) Daum is frequently honest and candid, but few of her self-assessments are as discomfiting as she imagines them to be. Take, for example, this observation, which appears in the otherwise astute “Difference Maker,” about Daum’s experience as an advocate for children in the foster-care system and her own recent, deep ambivalence about not wanting kids: “That was my particular view, which was colored by my own particular experience as a young person who couldn’t stand being young—in other words, a twisted view.” Is it really so outré to think this way about childhood, a time that many find confining and miserable?

If Daum does make a shocking admission, it’s in the preceding paragraph, in which the writer puts forth a regrettable comparison: “And though I had grown up a million miles from anything resembling physical abuse or neglect—if anything I’d been overparented, oversupervised, vested with far too many unmeetable expectations—the foster kids I met seemed alienated from their own childhoods in a way that felt familiar to me.” This inapt identification would seem to be a perfect example of a tendency among the better-off (again, Daum does not exclude herself from this category or pretend that she hasn’t engaged in this behavior) that she diagnoses in Life Would Be Perfect: “It’s the temptation of so many suburban-raised children”—she grew up primarily in Ridgewood, New Jersey—“to invent tales of adversity, to create hardscrabble mythologies out of life histories marked by little more than field hockey games and orthodontist appointments.” Despite Daum’s awareness of her own foibles and contradictions, her keen perception sometimes falters when considering the lives of others.

“Honorary Dyke,” by far the worst essay in The Unspeakable, is marred not only by lapses in logic but by sheer fatuousness. “Over the years, I believe I’ve gotten as close to the inner lesbian sanctum as a straight girl can get,” begins one typically wearying declaration, a version of which many real—make that authentic—sapphists have heard a hundred times before from heterosexual women desperate to seem less boringly conventional. (Daum discusses her husband in all but two of the essays in The Unspeakable.) “Even if I don’t officially belong to the club,” she writes, “I am a de facto member. I am an honorary dyke. (I am so thoroughly one that I’m allowed to use the word dyke in the transgressive, reappropriative manner that real lesbians do.)” I’m allowed to: This presumption and brattiness sets the tone for most of the piece and sabotages Daum’s attempt at a witty cultural précis of femininity (as does the outmoded expression “girl posse”). “You are no doubt at this moment silently quibbling with me over several of these examples,” Daum says after listing her self-anointed-lez bona fides (“My preferred scent for soaps and lotions is—you guessed it—lavender”), a tally that is followed by her honorary-butch qualities. But no amount of equivocating mitigates the writer’s obtuseness here. If anything, “Honorary Dyke” is a reminder that Daum’s claim on authenticity can seem disingenuous, more like a front for faux outrageousness. The essay has all the authenticity of a piece written for the website of a women’s magazine for the sole purpose of social-media reposts. (I should add, though, that it wasn’t; all ten essays here were written exclusively for this book.)

Meghan Daum, 2014.
Meghan Daum, 2014.

Despite these missteps, many of Daum’s essays in The Unspeakable reveal shrewd insight. “Matricide,” which opens the book and is its best piece, unsparingly recounts Daum’s complex and at times unkind thoughts about her mother even as—or especially when—she lay dying from gallbladder cancer. Sorting through her own conflicted filial feelings leads Daum to assay the even more difficult, painful relationship between her mom and maternal grandmother: “For my mother’s entire life, her mother was less a mother than splintered bits of shrapnel she carried around in her body, sharp, rusty debris that threatened to puncture an organ if she turned a certain way.” “Matricide” is filled with such indelible metaphors and unforgettable images, as when Daum recalls her mom’s silently furious reaction to her own mother’s pride in her teddy-bear collection: “I saw my mother’s hands curling into tight, livid little fists. They were the same fists I made whenever I heard the outgoing message on my mother’s answering machine.” Paradoxically, the frank disclosures in “Matricide” help make it the most compassionate piece in The Unspeakable. It also includes a poignant aperçu: “In the history of the world, a whole story has never been told.” Daum is referring to the near impossibility of reconciling your own experience of a person—especially of your mother—with someone else’s. But the remark, profound in its simplicity, reminds us that to have a point of view means to close off other possibilities.

Daum’s own story almost ended too soon, as she describes in “Diary of a Coma,” which fittingly closes the collection: At the age of forty, she nearly died from a bizarre bacterial infection caused by flea bites. Like “Matricide,” this essay—interspersed with the increasingly grim prognoses written on her medical chart during her hospitalization—adroitly punctures many of the pieties surrounding death, the subject around which “the tension between primal reactions and public decorum” is most pronounced. Of her friends who are beseeching higher powers for her speedy recovery, Daum writes: “They say they’re praying for me but chances are they’re really praying for themselves. They’re praying that whatever is happening to me never happens to them or anyone they share a bed with or tuck into bed at night. Which is exactly what I’d be praying for in their situation.” Her near-death experience affords no supernatural visions of light, no voices, only a stark, stony nothingness: “In this particular situation at least, dying would have been like falling off a log. Actually, it wouldn’t even have been that dramatic. It would have been like flipping a light switch when your eyes are already closed. It would have merely been a matter of going from unconsciousness to nonexistence.”

If “a whole story has never been told,” then Daum, at the end of this sobering essay, suggests that we must rely on mere fragments of multiple narratives to keep us afloat: “There is only the unlikely if ever-present possibility that life is just a string of stories inside a coma.” The thought is perverse, outlandish—and terrifyingly genuine.

Melissa Anderson is a frequent contributor to Artforum.