After my pre-ordered copy of Furiously Happy arrived in the mail last week, I went looking for my copy of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. I wanted to tweet a photo of the two books together—Jenny Lawson now has a running theme of taxidermied animals on her book covers; I think she should stick with it. The copy of her first book was not on my bookshelf under “L.” I briefly pondered if I had lent it to someone, as I am wont to do with books I love (I keep meaning to start some kind of spreadsheet, but laziness, am I right?). No, I hadn’t lent it to anyone.
Turns out I don’t actually own a copy of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. I have bought it several times over—but as a gift. It’s one of those books I just keep giving (to different people, not the same person, because that would be weird) because I know a lot of people who would appreciate the Bloggess’ humour, even if they don’t realize it themselves. And because that metal chicken will cut you.
Ordering Furiously Happy the moment I learned Lawson had another book on the way was a no-brainer. I actually ordered two, knowing I’d give the second copy to a friend. Whereas her first book is mostly a collection of blog posts and assorted musings, with particular focus, as a memoir might, on Lawson’s childhood and upbrining, Furiously Happy focuses more on living with mental illness. It features both direct and indirect confrontations with this demon—there are many stories about Lawson’s visits to therapists, arguments with her long-suffering husband Victor, and the difficulties that her depression, anxiety, etc., create in her daily life. However, there are also more meandering stories. She talks about her trip to Australia, where she stood next to a koala while dressed as a koala. She talks about her experience as a parent. This is a book about living with mental illness, yes, but it would be just as accurate to say that this is a book about living in general.
Because the truth that we are only now starting to acknowledge is that mental illness is more common than we want to think. Those who have it don’t always want to talk about it, because those who don’t shame them, blame them, or otherwise refuse to offer empathy when a cold shoulder will do. In the work-obsessed American society, mental illness is more synonymous with laziness and malingering than actual disease. Lawson demonstrates the harmfulness of this idea very early in the book (she actually quotes her own blog post that inspired the title of this book):
When cancer sufferers fight, recover, and go into remission we laud their bravery. We call them survivors. Because they are.
When depression sufferers fight, recover and go into remission we seldom even know, simply because so many suffer in the dark…ashamed to admit something they see as a personal weakness…afraid that people will worry, and more afraid that they won’t. We find ourselves unable to do anything but cling to the couch and force ourselves to breathe.
She returns to the cancer analogy later when she discusses her complicated relationship with medication:
Lots of concerned friends and family felt that the first medication’s failure was a clear sign that drugs were not the answer; if they were I would have been fixed. Clearly I wasn’t as sick as I said I was if the medication didn’t work for me. And that sort of makes sense, because when you have cancer the doctor gives you the best medicine and if it doesn’t shrink the tumor immediately then that’s a pretty clear sign you were just faking it for attention. I mean, cancer is a serious, often fatal disease we’ve spent billions of dollars studying and treating so obviously a patient would never have to try multiple drugs, surgeries, radiation, etc., to find what will work specifically for them. And once the cancer sufferer is in remission they’re set for life because once they’ve learned how to not have cancer they should be good. And if they let themselves get cancer again they can just do whatever they did last time. Once you find the right cancer medication you’re pretty much immune from that disease forever. And if you get it again it’s probably just a reaction to too much gluten or not praying correctly. Right?
Leaving aside the bizarre and scary fact that many people apply precisely this logic to cancer treatment (Chemo not working? Let’s try homeopathy! And prayer! Ummmm…), I love the way Lawson frames the issue here. I have not yet experienced mental illness in my life. I’m thankful for that. And I like to think I’m generally open and capable of empathy for people who do struggle with mental illness. But because I don’t really know what it’s like, and because I live in a culture that stigmatizes mental illness and those who suffer from it, I have a lot of internalized crap to deal with. It’s much the same as how, not being a woman and living in a sexist culture, I’ve internalized a lot of sexist views even if I consider myself an ally. Because I don’t, all my idiosyncrasies and distaste for certain social niceties aside, exhibit “craziness,” I have privilege. And that blinds me sometimes.
As I read Lawson’s metaphorical explanation of the common attitude towards medicating mental illness, I started to realize this was one of my blind spots. I had fallen into the trap of believing the binary narrative that drugs either work or don’t work, that we just over-medicate because it’s easier and more profitable for pharmaceutical companies. As with most things in life, the issue is just not that simple. It’s true that pharmaceutical companies don’t play fair. And it’s true that drugs alone can’t “fix” someone suffering from mental illness. But Lawson reminds us what we already understand: our brains are our most complicated organ, so the idea that we might treat their ailments in a simplistic way is facile.
So I appreciate the perspective that Furiously Happy offers me. As Lawson points out early in the book, her experience is not every person’s experience with mental illness. I get that. But whereas many of her fans are drawn to her through a kindred feeling of “getting it,” I’m drawn to her for two reasons. Firstly, she is hella funny. She’s a great writer, a great storyteller, and exhibits a keen sense of whimsy. Secondly, she is willing to share her story. Some people aren’t. Wanting to be more understanding of how people deal with mental illness doesn’t give one the freedom to pry into someone’s life—I do have friends who struggle with mental illness, and some are open about it while others aren’t. Wanting to be sympathetic doesn’t mean I can demand raw details from them. So I am grateful for people like Lawson who have the ability and desire to speak out about their struggles.
It’s natural to want to compare Furiously Happy with Let’s Pretend This Never Happened and rank them. For the sake of discussion I’ll say that I liked the first book better, in that I laughed out loud more often at more of her stories. I don’t necessarily think that means the first book is a better book, if that makes any sense. If you like either book you’ll like the other one, and you can also read them in either order. As far as I’m concerned, more Bloggess writing in the world is just better.
In the spirit of the Bloggess, here are some blurbs I might offer up about this book. You are welcome to use any of these in future printings, Ms. Lawson!
“Delightful, poignant, brave.”
“Inspirational, memorable, jaw-breakingly funny.”
“It was difficult to read this in public. People kept coming up to me and high-fiving the raccoon on the cover.”
“My lungs exploded with laughter. Literally. I’m typing this in the hospital, where I’m on a ventilator. I’m not letting them pull the plug until I finish the book.”
“Now that Amazon uses drones to deliver orders, does that mean I could bomb ISIS-controlled areas with this book? Because that might be more effective.”
“Worst fanfiction ever. There was hardly any street-racing, and since when was Dominic a raccoon? Zero stars.”
(Some of the blurbs may not be factually accurate.)
Seriously, not even sure why you’re still reading my review. Just read this book instead.
Probably should have put that last paragraph at the start of my review. Oh well, you live and learn.