We Are All Lena Dunham: Why We All Want to Believe That We Are “Normal”

November 12, 2014

Trigger Warning: This post references topics such as sexual abuse.not_that_kind_of_girl_by_lena_dunham_WEB

Well, we are not exactly Lena Dunham. That would be weird.

A lot has been made of the revelations from Girls star Lena Dunham’s memoir. What may have been intended as a collection of awkward stories from her formative years has now cranked the internet controversy up to eleven. If you have not read the excerpts in question, just google them. The long and short of it is that Dunham, in her own words, compares herself to a child predator as she retells incidents of…erm…close contact with her little sister.

Dozens of writers and commentators have quoted Dunham’s words verbatim, letting her own stories speak for themselves. Thousands of people have tweeted and blogged, often their disgust to Dunham. Dunham has fired back by “rage spiraling” on Twitter and siccing her lawyers on people, threatening defamation lawsuits.

The whole time I took this in, I realized something.

There are a lot of people who consider Dunham’s stories icky at best and predatory at worst. There are some who cannot understand why she would share such things.

But if any of us were in Lena Dunham’s shoes, I think we would have done the same thing. We are not so different from her.

Here’s what I mean.

There Is Only One Way to Make a Grilled Cheese Sandwich

Remember when we were kids and our moms and dads were really the only point of reference we had? Everything they did was the way to do things.

There was one way to make a grilled cheese sandwich. Either you grew up in a home that ate triangular sandwiches, or a home that ate quartered sandwiches. Maybe you grew up in a “fluffernutter” home, or, like me, you had never heard of such a thing as a child.

When we were children, there was one way to set the table. There was one way to say grace before dinner. There was one way to put frosting on a birthday cake.

There was one way to do everything. It was Mom and Dad’s way.

And then, when we were eight or ten perhaps, we ventured over to a friend’s house. And we made a very important discovery.

Our friends’ moms made grilled cheese differently.

A Pretty “Normal” Childhood

This is what I am getting at:

Everyone, no matter who they are normalizes their experience. We assumed when we were children that everyone’s moms did things the way our moms did them. Our moms were normal. Our moms were right.

The experiences we had, especially as children, we assumed were normal. If we grew up going to church, we assumed everyone went to church. If we grew up in broken or dysfunctional families, we assumed that was normal.

There are a couple afternoon talk guys on the radio here in my town. Every now and then, they say something insightful. But I can tell that, generally, even at middle age, they normalize their experiences. They and their female producer speak honestly about being sexually abused as children. All three of them. And when you put three people in a room together with microphones who all had an experience, it becomes clear that they believe that everyone was touched inappropriately, or everyone kissed their cousins, or everyone was scarred for life before age ten. When Dunham tweets in her defense: “And by the way, if you were a little kid and never looked at another little kid’s vagina, well, congrats to you,” she is implying that normalizing mindset. She believes her experiences were universal and the rest of us are anomalies.

None of those things happened to me. So I know that they are wrong to normalize their experiences. But I just as easily take my childhood and say what I had was “normal.”

Worldly And Wise…Or Not

On a side note, I do not know what this phenomenon is with twenty-eight year olds publishing memoirs. I would be embarrassed to write a memoir at that age. We need to set some higher age minimum for memoir writing, because when you have lived less than three decades, maybe this is what you need to do to fill the pages.

Some of us realized when we were young that our experiences were not universal.

And some of us had to publish our memoirs at age twenty-eight and get a heck of a lot of backlash to realize the same reality.

The lesson that we might take from this is that a memoir like Dunham’s is perhaps meant to illustrate how worldly and wise her experiences have made her. But in fact, it actually reveals how small her world has been. She has surrounded herself only with certain kinds of people. She has only been to certain kinds of places. All of these people and places protected her for twenty-eight years and told her that she is normal, that everyone does the things she has done, that everyone will relate to her and love her for her story.

Many of us live in the same cocoon. It protects us and tells us that we are right, that the way we think is the only way to think, that our experiences are normal. It is only when we realize that our stories are not universal, not normal that we stop being self-centered beings and start having compassion for this world, not because we are all alike, but because none of us are really “normal.”

What do you think? Did you once believe that your experience was “normal?”

One response to We Are All Lena Dunham: Why We All Want to Believe That We Are “Normal”

  1. Hmmmm… that is an interesting question! I had always assumed my childhood was, well, normal. But as you point out it is all a matter of perspective. I have memories of going to church and doing VBS, grocery shopping with my mom, dancing to the Beach Boys with my dad, playing “lava” with my sister. But, to someone who had a different background, or even lived in another culture, those could all be things that are exotic! Either way, I think most of us would agree that I had a really blessed childhood.