A few chapters into Untamed, Glennon Doyle opened one of her essays with, “I have a son and two daughters, until they tell me otherwise.” Just like that, I knew I was safe reading this book. There is an acceptance of the reader here that I found quite powerful. It isn’t just that Doyle is sharing a lot about her past, her traumas, her hopes, her mistakes, her triumphs. It’s that she is willing to take the time to make us feel welcome in these pages.
Also, props to her and her publisher for the one-word title with no subtitle. That’s a power move.
I first heard of Doyle when she was a guest on Justin Baldoni’s Man Enough podcast. She shared a story, also in this essay collection, about a time that her kids had friends over. She asked if anyone wanted something to eat: all the boys said yes, right away; the girls looked at each other as if trying to figure out a collective answer, and then one of them responded in the negative. Doyle claims this demonstrates a difference between how we socialize boys and girls—the former look within, the latter look to each other when making decisions. It’s an interesting idea vaguely reminiscent of Eugenia Cheng’s ideas of ingressive and congressive behaviours. Anyway, I was intrigued enough by what Doyle had to say that I bought Untamed, bolstered by my bestie’s positive words about it as well.
I was not let down.
There’s a lot about Doyle’s life that I can’t identify with. She was raised in a relatively conservative Christian upbringing, which led to her marrying her boyfriend when she discovered she was pregnant, having three kids with him, before finally divorcing him at forty and falling in love and marrying a woman. This story unfolds in bits and pieces, not always in order, in Untamed. But as the title of the book implies, Doyle’s thesis is far more general than these specific experiences might imply: often, in our lives, we feel like we have to follow a script. We have to do what is expected of us. We are, Doyle says, tamed. Her journey, then, was one of untaming herself, or as she puts it:
I decided that if I kept doing the “right” thing, I would spend my life following someone else’s directions instead of my own. I didn’t want to live my life without living my life. I wanted to make my own decisions as a free woman, from my soul, not my training. But the problem was, I didn’t know how. A few weeks later, I opened a card from a friend that said, in bold, capital, thick black lettering: “Be still and know.”
OK, that got me.
I’ve told this story before on my blog, but basically, when I was wrestling two years ago with the prospect I might be transgender, I was awake in bed one Sunday night, turning it over in my head. “Ok, if I’m a girl, what would my name be?” I asked myself. Then I did what Doyle describes in this essay: I went deep into myself and knew. The name Kara just felt right to me in a way that was indisputable.
But beyond that, Doyle’s idea of being caged by her life until she decided to start living it on her own terms resonated so much with my experience of transition. I spent the first thirty years of my life being told at every turn by our society that I was male—and that this came with certain expectations. To be transgender—and to transition—is ultimately an act of untaming oneself. It’s a declaration that you will not let society dictate your identity any more. It certainly would have been easier for everyone if I hadn’t come out. That’s the message our transphobic society, sometimes with the help of hefty legal sanctions, is trying to foist upon trans people, particularly trans youth. Yet, as I said last year, I have never been happier than I have been since deciding to transition. Because now I am living my life on my terms.
So even though Doyle and I don’t share many experiences, her words felt true for me. Even though I’m not a parent, her thoughts on raising kids made me think a lot about how I interact with young people and the impressions I want to leave. Even though I’m not in a romantic partnership, her thoughts on how to love her partner—while also loving herself—made me think a lot about the friendships in my life that provide me the support and succour we often associate with romantic relationships. At every turn, Doyle’s writing had something in it for me to discover, muse about, and ultimately take into my heart.
I read this book in a Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago—and then I had a bad week, during which I read nothing, before finally picking up a crappy fantasy novel (on purpose) the week after that. But I’m glad that if I had to enter a brief reading pause, Untamed was the book the preceded it. Even now I can feel the fire in my belly that Doyle’s words lit as I read it. If, like me, you are a white woman, you will probably come away feeling like you want to push back against cisheteropatriarchy—at least I hope so. I won’t claim to speak about how women of colour might read this book—Doyle acknowledges she has made missteps when it comes to being antiracist, and since I don’t know much about her public platform beyond this book, I’m not sure I can comment.
So even though I greatly enjoyed this book and, four months into 2022, it’s the best non-fiction book of the year for me so far, I won’t say this is universal. But there is power here. Perhaps the best moment in the book is when Doyle reminds us to “feel it all.” She’s referring to all our emotions, even the ones we usually consider negative. She’s reminding us it’s OK not to be OK, that we can’t be happy all the time, even if that’s the grift society pushes on to us. It’s a sentiment I have long tried to express to my ride or die as she navigates difficult and emotionally tumultuous changes in her life.
In a world where women are so often told we are not enough in so many ways, Untamed unapologetically calls out this bullshit and reminds us that we are enough—but we have to start playing by our rules instead of the rigged playbook we grew up with.
Oh, and she’s funny too.