Girl Afraid

So Sad Today: Personal Essays BY Melissa Broder. Grand Central Publishing. Paperback, 224 pages. $15.

The cover of So Sad Today: Personal Essays

The Los Angeles–based poet Melissa Broder writes about the hot-pink toxins inhaled every day by girls and women in a late-capitalist society (a few evocative phrases from her latest book: “diet ice cream,” “pancake ass,” “Botox flu”) and the seemingly impossible struggle to exhale something pure, maybe even eternal. “I tried to stuff a TV / in the hole where prayer grows,” she wrote in her pummeling 2012 collection, Meat Heart, which was followed by the searing Scarecrone in 2014. Here, from her website, is her version of an author’s bio: “when i was 19 i went thru a breakup, smoked weed all day, got into ‘crafting,’ gained 20 lbs on fake cheese product and studied astrology.”

Her writing can have a tossed-off aesthetic: that sense that she cannot muster the enthusiasm to capitalize properly, those ironic scare quotes around a hobby as traditionally feminine as “crafting.” And yet her biography—like most of Broder’s work—conveys an odd kind of hope. Great pain can lead to transcendence. As her work has evolved, Broder has written more directly about depression, anxiety, and mental illness. In her first essay collection, So Sad Today, she suggests that there is something daring and perhaps even liberating in wearing these conditions like badges of honor.

Though she’s suffered from generalized anxiety all of her life (she describes her first day on Earth this way: “They probably put me in a room with, like, twenty other babies. Immediately, I’m sure I compared myself to all of them and lost”), in 2012 Broder began enduring the most severe panic attacks she’d ever experienced. She tried going to a shaman, who banished bats and rats and a “shield-shaped being” from her sternum. She also tried Twitter, which worked even better. Realizing there was unacknowledged depression lurking beneath her anxiety, Broder registered for the handle @sosadtoday and began anonymously tweeting little nuggets of poetic gloom, made darkly funny by her wry voice. “american horror story: waking up,” she tweeted. Also: “how many licks does it take to get to the center of my core underlying issues.” Etc. As @sosadtoday, Broder’s voice is a mixture of therapy-speak, pop-culture ephemera, and jokes about unfulfilling sex (“your son doesn’t know where the clitoris is happy mother’s day”). The account has taken off, racking up almost 300,000 followers, including seemingly jubilant celebrities like Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus. In May 2015, with the announcement of the book deal for this essay collection, Broder outed herself as @sosadtoday in an interview with Rolling Stone. “In my poetry, I never want anything pop-cultural or time-sensitive,” she said in the article. “I want my nouns to be primal. Whereas with this, I got to write about the fantasy of having sex at Whole Foods.”

Though Broder has referred to @sosadtoday as a “character,” all of the essays here are about the actual Melissa Broder, often in extravagantly intimate detail. We learn of her fantasies about puking during sex (in the essay “My Vomit Fetish, Myself”) and her preference in porn. We learn that she used to be in an open marriage, and we read the sexts from the fling that broke her heart so badly that she and her husband decided to go back to monogamy. We learn, harrowingly, about her struggle to get sober (she has been for close to a decade) and the seemingly more benign vices that now satiate her addictive urges: nicotine gum and the Internet. “The Internet has given me the dopamine, attention, amplification, connection, and escape I seek,” she writes. “It has also distracted me, disappointed me, paralyzed me, and catalyzed a false sense of self. The Internet has enhanced my taste for isolation.”

The Web is also a fantasy factory, where it’s easy to read too much into silences, project your desires onto people you know very little about, and set your expectations perilously high. One of the book’s most contemporarily heartbreaking moments occurs when Broder meets in real life a man with whom she’s been exchanging some wildly imaginative dirty text messages. “It felt cinematic in a bad way,” she recalls of their first night together. “After all the sexting we both had too much to live up to.” In moments like this, So Sad Today feels reminiscent of Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, as both authors artfully explore feminine abjection and the gulf between fantasy and reality.

Broder is often at her most potent when she’s exploring the pressure to be a “good” feminist in the midst of our culture’s external-turned-internal pressures to stay thin, likable, and fuckable. One of the funniest (and saddest—those are inseparable bedfellows with Broder) essays in the book is a Nora Ephron parody called “I Don’t Feel Bad About My Neck” (“My neck is okay. It’s holding its own”) that turns into a laundry list of the body parts and behaviors Broder does feel bad about, eventually becoming a scathing indictment of a society that can make a woman feel guilty just for existing. But, as ever, there’s a bleak beauty in the way she articulates her lowest moments. “I just cannot seem to give myself that hug of the divine mother,” she laments, in a voice reminiscent of her poetry, “that is like baby baby baby it’s okay.”

Broder is, all told, a better poet than essayist. Not every piece can sustain that sharp, stinging tone of her tweets, and a few of them just fall flat, and then revel a little too much in their flatness, like Tao Lin at his most irritating. But the collection’s last two pieces are stunning in a way that actually captures that “primal” quality Broder said she saves for her poems. The first is about her husband’s struggle with a chronic illness and the difficulties and joys of creating an untraditional marriage. The last, perhaps the most powerful, is about her sobriety and her decision to immerse herself in—and even parody—the unpleasant emotions she’d spent most of her life running away from. “I know I have an ocean of sadness inside of me and I have been damming it my entire life,” she writes. “I always imagined that something was supposed to rescue me from the ocean. But maybe the ocean is its own ultimate rescue—a reprieve from the linear mind and into the world of feeling.”

Lindsay Zoladz is New York magazine’s pop-music critic.