In some ways, this feels like the book I’ve been waiting for my whole life.
I have been calling myself a feminist since I was a but a shy, sheltered 16-year-old, diving headlong into Alice Walker, Gloria Steinem, Erica Jong, and Inga Muscio to impress my first girlfriend while my friends were mostly still reading Michael Crichton and Star Wars novels. It’s a designation I still proudly claim. And yet, while those vital writers remain some of the most formative of my literary life, in the many years since my first, earnest baby steps, the concept of feminism has evolved into something more nuanced and … let’s say customizable, both in its meaning to me personally, and its place in modern society. Not all women are feminists (even if, in theory, they should be). Many men still won’t claim to be feminists (even if, in practice, they are). I think it’s fair to say that just calling yourself a feminist isn’t even a particularly radical act anymore (even for a man), so much as it’s just another feed, or filter, or bubble—a signifier—a lens through which we do or don’t view the world. Something else it is likely not, is an ethos that will ever be adopted wholesale (even if it’s someday legally and/or numerically achieved), and understanding why that is is maybe more important, and more useful, than endlessly trying to will it into existence. Thanks to the political weaponization of basically all media, the age of choir-preaching social movements is enjoying its imperial apex with no end in sight even as I type this sentence, but the harder, more emotionally draining work that will (hopefully) bring us out of the echo chambers and into a brighter, more thoughtful, and more open-minded future is that which finds ways to push beyond all those bubbles, and filters, and feeds, and gets us to actually listen to each other again; gets at the core substance of what makes us human.
And so, Lindsay Lerman’s What Are You feels like the book I’ve been waiting for, because it is undoubtedly a feminist text, but it is one written for—and arguably even to—everyone. Men and women. Boys and girls. It takes that time-honored 2nd wave mantra—“the personal is political”—and selfie-mode flips it for the age of #MeToo and millions-strong Women’s Marches, but also goop-style self-care and Spotify branded Feminist Friday playlists. Feminism may not be radical anymore—but because of that seismic shift, we’re now seeing whole new generations of women writers speak to their own experience of womanhood in broader, messier, and more revealingly honest terms than ever before. To put it more bluntly, it’s a lot easier to write about your actual feelings when you don’t have to spend the first 100 pages convincing people you’re allowed to have them. The personal will always be political, but with so much of the heavy lifting done, the political has never before felt so personal.
Addressed to a multivalent, catchall “You,” What Are You feels instantly unique in its confrontationality as Lerman seems to be, at first anyway, working through a cumbrous back catalogue of erstwhile lovers—some requited, others not—some cherished over time, others rotted black with age—some good, some bad, most decidedly in-between, but all meaningful—all tributaries to the “river” she now “holds in [her] hands”; all pieces of what she understands as her present-day “self” (a slippery bugger of a thing which she doggedly seeks to isolate and define throughout). Early on, she refers to the book as an exorcism, and it quickly becomes clear what she means: What Are You is a disentanglement from ghosts; a reckoning with the past. As she glides fearlessly from one self-immolating Dear John letter to the next, splitting her heart wide again and again, she draws for us a circulatory map, from the earliest, most painful lessons of girlhood, through the breathtaking dangers of headstrong adolescence, to the endless cycles of growth, decimation, and rebirth that we eventually come to think of as stable adulthood. The further along you go, the bigger the map unfolds—upward and down, out and around, and eventually back in upon itself—until it becomes something closer to a globe; an entire world of doubts and desires; of hard-won truths and profound uncertainties.
Most of the “Yous” in question feel distinct, and all are intensely personal, but it’s not always easy to tell which, if any, are the same You revisited (though I’d be willing to bet that the recipients will know exactly when they’re being spoken to). By writing ostensibly in the second person, but maintaining authorial command via the first, Lerman spares no one—least of all herself—in autopsying these romantic dead. Each one took something from her, but each one gave her something as well, even if that something was (perhaps, more often than not) a better understanding of the countless ways in which men can (and do) hurt the women they claim to love. Her incisive interpersonal snapshots are somehow both as intimate as diary entries, and as universal as our greatest songs of love and heartbreak, and through them a kind of photomosaic effect begins to take hold. This one was cruel in the right way. That one was kind in the wrong one. This one was beautiful, but selfish. That one was brilliant, but lost. One in particular—perhaps the worst of the lot—posed a key question somewhere along the way, which she claims as her own and revisits time and again: “Are you ready to suffer?” Whether this is with regards to his love, her work, or the nature of life in general, the answer is, and for Lerman seemingly must be, a definitive yes. But when you step back from all these heartrending portraits in miniature, the larger picture revealed is that of a woman who survived; who conquered them all (save the best, the only one worthy, who died too soon and caused a suffering all his own); who breached every barrier they threw up, swam hard against their sea of pressing shadows and grasping limbs, and surfaced to pen the last word on every single one of them. Lerman isn’t content to just return the male gaze here. She dazzles it blind.
Indeed, for all my years of sensitive lad posturing and rooftop-proclaimed feminism, I felt shame at how casually and repeatedly What Are You cut me to the quick, outlining my own past failings with the opposite sex in exacto-knife prose. All the times I was too distant or callous; too possessive or paternalistic; too pushy or manipulative; too drunk or high; the times I broke trust; the times I remained silent in the face of wrongdoing; the times I came off like an asshole, or a psycho, or a self-pitying, narcissistic fool; the times I maybe even came off as dangerous. Even if I couldn’t see it in the moment—even if I didn’t feel it within my “self”—looking back on my life through the lens of this book, I knew them afresh, and I ached for each dredged memory of a time when I could and should have done better. I would challenge any man who calls himself a feminist or an ally to read this book and not see yourself somewhere in it; to read this book and not, at least for a moment, despair, both at the folly of how enlightened you thought you were, and the magnitude of all the work you’ve yet to do.
That said, once you swim way out into What Are You’s oceanic depths, the femininity of it all takes a little bit of a back seat to even larger concerns. The “Yous” start to feel less like shitty ex-boyfriends, and more like discreet pieces of Lerman’s own psyche personified (though by the time I figured that out, the difference seemed almost semantic). Consequently, as she tags into more internally pitched battles (artistry vs. ambition, recklessness vs. fear, self-destruction vs. hope) What Are You becomes less a book about being a woman, and more a book about being alive (though, to be clear, still and always very much a book about being a woman alive). It grapples with the most untenably enormous of philosophical questions: what it means to take risks (and the very real difference between taking risks as a woman and taking them as a man); what it means to know one’s self (ditto); what it means to be an artist (to live!), and what it means to truly live (are you ready to suffer?). And in being so ferociously honest throughout—so radically generous with both her voracious outer life and her inspired inner one—Lerman arrives at these big questions having earned the authority to answer them. Maybe not for everyone—I think even she would concede that the codification of “authenticity” as a singular, achievable quality is deeply problematic and kind of stupid—but definitely for herself, and probably for more folks than most. If gurus and sages and philosophers and priests have earned the right to wager guesses on these matters, then Lerman has too, and for me, her best guesses hit powerfully home.
In this way, What Are You deserves two of the most elusive and improbable descriptors a piece of writing can be afforded in our era of perpetual, ephemeral content churn: this book feels both dangerous, and timeless. From here forward, for as long as people continue to pick it up, it will matter to them. They’ll read it, and it will change their lives. They’ll quit their shitty jobs; leave their lousy partners; make their own bold confessions. They’ll learn new languages; buy plane tickets; talk to strangers. They’ll dance, and sing, and love with abandon. These things may help, or they may not, but the trying is the point. The not knowing is the point. The living is the point. This book will make you question everything. If you’re stuck, it will help you get unstuck. Wherever you are in life, it will make you want to get up and run until you absolutely fucking drop. And wherever you drop, it will make you look around, take a deep, wondrous breath, and immediately start imagining where you might run to next.
It is, in many ways, the book I’ve been waiting for my whole life, which is not to say that I’ve come away from it feeling like I now finally know and understand the feminine experience (I learned long ago that the most important thing for any man to know and understand about feminism is that it’s a moving target, and that women are not a bloc to be known and understood en masse, regardless of what our various filters and bubbles and feeds might have us believe), but rather that it is a book that lets you in—lets everyone in actually—on a bit of the secret; both a key, and a door, to at least one woman’s most intimate and closely guarded experience of a life lived to the utmost. The constant push and pull between independence and desire; the tidal ebb and flow of needing to play the roles carved out for you, and also wanting to break free of them when you just can’t stand it one second longer; the warring urges to possess and consume everything life puts in your path, and to be possessed and consumed entirely by one other perfect soul. It’s all there, and in the end, we are all part of the “You,” to whom these words are addressed. I feel unbelievably lucky to have gotten to read them and write about them here. What Are You is a dangerous read for the ages. May we all take the risk.
What Are You, by Lindsay Lerman. CLASH Books, June 2022. 188 pages. $15.95, paper.
Dave Fitzgerald is a writer living and working in Athens, Georgia. He contributes sporadic film criticism to DailyGrindhouse.com and Cinedump.com, and his first novel, Troll, is set to be released early next year. He tweets @DFitzgerraldo.