Well, here’s a case where getting a little behind on my book reviews has certainly had an impact on how I discuss the book. I read the memoir before the social media storm erupted around Dunham’s depiction of her seven-year-old self peering at her baby sister’s vagina and later, as a teenager, bribing the same un-cuddly little sister into being a more affectionate somewhat as “a sexual predator might.” A third controversial reference to her sister suggests that when they shared a bed, teenaged Lena sometimes masturbated while her younger sister was asleep in bed next to her. Never having had a sibling, I have no idea how normal or abnormal this behavior is, but it certainly has gotten the young actress, who is a polarizing figure anyway, into a huge controversy.
Before a right-wing website labelled her a pedophile for those scenes in the book, few reviewers seem to have commented much on those passages. Did they make me squirm a little uncomfortably while reading them? Absolutely. But did they make me squirm any more than various other things in the book — Dunham’s depictions of her family life, her boundary-challenged relationship with two different therapists, numerous sexual encounters with different men in her life? No. The entire book is witty, well-written, and eminently squirm-worthy. There’s no suggestion anywhere (to me, anyway) that Dunham is holding her own life up as anything but a complete mess. As the subtitle suggests, her experiences are more along the lines of “cautionary tale” than “role model.”
For my money, Dunham’s exploration of her baby sister’s private parts falls firmly into the category of childhood exploration (can a seven-year-old, who presumably has no sexual feelings herself, actually be a pedophile?); her reference to masturbating next to her sleeping sister is one of a thousand examples of stunningly poor judgement in the book; and her comparison of herself to a sexual predator while trying to get her sister to kiss or cuddle with her is a clear case of where her editor should have said, “Lena, cut this metaphor — you may love it, but it’ll cause you more trouble than it’s worth.”
I think the book suffers a little from the common problem of memoirs written by people under 3o — it feels as if Dunham is too close to the events she’s writing about to have any real perspective or insight into them. But she certainly is a sharp, witty writer who doesn’t mind shining a harsh light on her own faults and shortcomings. Whether that light will turn out to have been too harsh for her future popularity, only time will tell.