September 20, 2016
In stores today: Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck
by Melville House
Britney Spears. Amy Winehouse. Miley Cyrus. Whitney Houston. Farther back: Sylvia Plath. Mary Wollstonecraft. And so on.
As Sady Doyle writes in Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… And Why, out today, “She’s everywhere once you start looking for her: the trainwreck.”
Since time immemorial, it seems, our culture has enjoyed, even cherished, the spectacle of women torn down in the public square—reduced to jokes, heaped with scorn, and run off the rails of public discourse. In Trainwreck, Doyle asks what these women’s crimes have been, and what it says about us that we make such a spectacle of their destruction. With intelligence, compassion, and ferocious sense of humor, she helps us see one of the most ubiquitous, and least understood, figures in contemporary life: the female trainwreck.
Here’s a passage from the opening of the book—something to read while you’re waiting in line to get your copy.
She’s everywhere once you start looking for her: the trainwreck.
An actress known for light, bubbly romantic comedies and teen dramas throws a bong out of a thirty-sixth-floor window, to the dismay of assembled police officers. Her neighbors tell the press that she’s been talking to herself, and that they suspect a psychotic break. A timeline of her “meltdown” appears on Jezebel. Late-night comedians have grist for months.
A reality-TV star appears on the cover of Vogue, causing massive backlash and speculation as to whether the magazine has “killed” its prestigious brand. The woman is rumored to have leaked her own sex tape. She once accepted thousands of dollars to accompany a wealthy man on a date. In the Vogue issue in question, she’s posing with her fiancé and newborn child. Readers threaten to boycott the publication.
An actress’s “fuck list,” naming every man she’s slept with, is circulated in advance of her upcoming reality series. A musician’s “fuck list,” naming every man she’s thought to have dated, is printed up in Helvetica font and sold as a T-shirt online.
A pop star known for her drug use and troubled relationship is found dead in her apartment.
A pop star known for her drug use and troubled relationship is found dead in her hotel bathtub.
A pop star known for her drug use and troubled relationship remains under her father’s conservatorship due to mental incompetency. Ticket sales for her Las Vegas shows are through the roof.
It’s easy to look at these women and see what they did wrong, tally up their sins and errors: insensitive, provocative, promiscuous, off-the-wagon, crazy. It’s easy to tell yourself, this is not my story. But I’d wager good, hard money that, if you got the chance to speak to any of these women, they’d tell you that these are not their stories, either.
The privilege of controlling your own narrative is easy to take for granted. It’s easy to confuse for a right; to assume that, of all the people in this loud and crowded world, you’re the person best suited to tell the world who you are, or what you are, or what your actions and emotions mean in context.
Yet we know that narratives can be stolen, and weaponized. We’ve seen it happen again and again. Say the words “celebrity trainwreck,” and the image immediately appears: young, pretty, most likely blond, and in some degree of high-gloss disarray, pinned between the club and the door of her limousine by a wall of flashing cameras. She’s drunk, or she’s high, or she’s naked, or she’s crying—or she will be, anyway, by the end of the night. The cameras are there to testify to her impending doom. They’re there so we can watch it happen. Hence the etymology, actually—just as people are supposedly unable to avoid staring at a gruesome wreck on the highway, you know that this person is going to suffer, horribly, exceptionally, and you won’t look away, because you enjoy it. The theft of narrative is where this begins, because, on some level, becoming a trainwreck simply means that the public assumes the right to control how you can define yourself: Kim Kardashian, for example, cannot be both the star of a sex tape and a blushing bride on the cover of Vogue. We’ll mock and scorn her for being the one, but flat-out punish her and Vogue both if she attempts to be the other. It also means losing authority over your own decisions. Some lose that authority literally, by being put in jail or in hospitals or under the conservatorship of their parents, but more often, it’s simply a matter of establishing them as “troubled”; as “out of control”; as people who don’t know how to live their own lives.
But it escalates from there. All too often, losing your story also means that if you make decisions people don’t like—after a certain point, in this process, every decision you make will be one people don’t like—they feel entitled to hurt you. It means being subject to a hostile, unasked-for, all-consuming intimacy: having other people claim ownership over your body, your sexual history, your medical history, your emotional life, your future. Having them feel entitled to scream slurs at you, or threaten your life, or call your employer until you’re unemployed, if you don’t follow instructions. Nothing is off-limits: After Whitney Houston died, ABC News published the information that the coroner had found scars on her chest consistent with breast implants. It had nothing to do with her death—she had drowned, and breast implants have never, to my knowledge, risen up of their own accord and drowned their owner—but the world was, apparently, entitled to that information.
This isn’t “the cost of fame,” some necessary price one pays for being a public figure—or, if it is, it’s only in the sense that everyone is a public figure, because it happens to “civilians,” too—people who post unflattering pictures of themselves, or irritate one too many people with their personal blogs, or say stupid things on Twitter. And it isn’t simply a matter of getting punished for wrongdoing—or, if it is, we should all be worried, because this specific wrong-doing tends to sneak up on people from behind, when they haven’t intentionally or knowingly broken any rules. No one becomes a musician hoping to be placed on someone’s celebrity death watch list. No one takes her first drink hoping to become an alcoholic. And no one—I am almost entirely certain—has ever had sex assuming that the experience will later be summarized on a popular novelty T-shirt.
And yet, here we are. With the stories we have; with the experience of constantly witnessing somebody else’s wreckage. Once we start to realize that it can happen to anyone, we can begin to ask why it happens at all.