“If you live today, you breathe in nihilism…it’s the gas you breathe,” Flannery O’Connor wrote in a letter in the mid-1950s. Such nihilism is now pervasive, inflicting enormous cultural destruction. For many people, those venerable notions of the good, the true, and the beautiful now seem nonsensical in the age of Snapchat and Tinder. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but wonder what O’Connor, were she alive today, would have made of the people this worldview has produced—someone like Lindy West, for example, the author of Shrill, a memoir of the whatever-comes-out-of-my-head-is-justified genre. The book consists of pages and pages of unrelenting, tedious self-obsession—when it’s not wallowing in amoral grandstanding, that is.
Lindy West is overweight, you see. And, as she repeatedly tells us, she has been badly damaged, stigmatized, and persecuted throughout her life by her condition. “Please don’t forget: I am my body,” she writes at the beginning of one of many rants about the totalitarian nightmare that women, and especially fat women, experience in contemporary America. “When my body gets smaller it’s still me. When my body gets bigger it is still me. There is not a thin woman inside me, awaiting excavation. I am one piece. I am also not a uterus riding around in a meat incubator. There is no substantive difference between the repulsive campaign to separate women’s bodies from their reproductive systems—perpetuating the lie that abortion and birth control are not healthcare—and the repulsive campaign to convince women that they and their body size are separate, alienated entities.”
Well, for the sake of argument, let’s grant that Lindy West is not a “uterus riding around in a meat incubator.” Her later claim that “I knew I was smart, funny, talented, social, kind” is tougher to accept, given the contradiction between this warm perception of herself and her violent rhetoric.
West criticizes contemporary culture for dehumanizing and fat-shaming her, but when it comes time to talk about her abortion—she’s responsible for the viral “Shout your Abortion” campaign—she has no trouble dehumanizing people other than herself. Indeed, abortion raises no moral issue whatsoever for her. After her own abortion, she “went home, curled up in bed, and called the clinic (which had some vague, mauve, nighttime soap name like ‘Avalon’ or ‘Dynasty’ or ‘Falcon Crest’) still wobbling on the edge of hysteria,” she recalls. “Not for all the reasons the forced birth fanatics would like you to think: not because my choice was morally tortuous, or because I was ashamed, or because I couldn’t stop thinking about the tiny fingernails of our ‘baby,’ but because life is fucking hard, man.”
West says that her only qualms about the whole affair is that anyone would dare to have a moral view of abortion. “The truth is I don’t give a damn why anyone has an abortion. I believe unconditionally in the right of people with uteruses to decide what grows inside of their body and feeds on their blood and endangers their life and reroutes their future. There are no ‘good’ abortions and ‘bad’ abortions.” She sneers that her abortion was no more significant than the time she had a tooth pulled: “It was, more than anything else, mundane: a medical procedure that made my life better.” To the extent she offers a justification, it’s that having a child would have prevented her from going on TV—kept her from “becoming myself.” And nothing—certainly no non-baby with tiny fingernails—will stand in the way of the triumph of this gal’s will.
As for her weight, West wants to “reclaim her fatness,” and demands that the world find fat beautiful. Yet she also says obesity is the government’s fault, which seems like an acknowledgement that being overweight might be a problem. Among the purported public policy failures she discusses in her book are the existence of “food deserts,” unsafe sidewalks and parks, and an insufficient minimum wage. These seem dubious explanations for Americans’ expanding waistlines, but West’s main point is to deny any personal responsibility for her condition. She is a victim.
The aptly titled Shrill is yet another depressing example of the nothing-is-private school of vulgarity that Lena Dunham has peddled on her HBO series, Girls. (Dunham blurbs the book, thanking West for her “bravery.”) We’re treated, for example, to West’s graphic descriptions of her menstrual travails and puerile references to her defecations, as well as a supposedly harrowing account of an incident on a plane in which West was tormented verbally by a passenger who was irritated by her fumbling to get a bag in an overhead compartment. The person’s sin was that he evidently muttered, “Say excuse me.” West’s response? “I froze. Was someone being a dick to me? In person? At seven a.m.? In an enclosed space?” Rest easy, though. Our heroine defends justice by kicking his chair later in the flight and sarcastically saying, “Excuse me.” Rosa Parks has nothing on Lindy West.
But please refrain from offering any judgment on her behavior. Like the many pathetic college campus cry-bullies that now dot the landscape, West is ferociously intolerant of anyone who disagrees with her. She has blocked all conservatives and libertarians, at least the ones she has been able to sniff out, from following her Twitter account, seeking to create a comfortably safe space from which she can her issue offensive opinions without rebuttal or disagreement. Because she’s a victim, remember? A victim who, despite her supposed persecution by society, was somehow able to land book contracts, magazine columns, and television appearances, and is really only interested in one subject: herself. Ultimately she is more devoted to grievance mongering than to offering any real insights into what it’s like to be a woman today.