[Updated] You Were Already Going To Love Melissa Broder’s Essay Collection But We Reviewed It Anyway

by Emily Hunt

SO-SAD-TODAY-Cover.jpg
When you realize you're going to die but Sephora is forever.
Melissa Broder fetishizes vomit, and the world fetishizes Melissa Broder. A poet in the metaphorical daytime (Publishing Genius & Tin House) and a confessional, pithy, anxiety-riddled Twitter sensation by proverbial night, Broder caused a media frenzy when she finally untied the strings to her internet-enabled mask and revealed herself as, well, an actual living human being. And a human being who we might already know, no less.

It must have been an incredibly frightening decision—this somewhat calculated but nonetheless poignant reveal, given the premise of her brand. Broder created the @sosadtoday account as a sort of last-ditch response to a particularly intense period of panic attacks, and it covers a range of anxious and depressed emotions molded into gif-friendly catch phrases. “If I have the right pubic hairstyle will I be whole?” asks one. “Wake up/try not to think about you/think about you,” echoes another. Sad and vulnerable, but short and sweet.

The fact that the limited-character format of Twitter was the genesis and, really, core of the So Sad Today brand made me regard her plans to publish a book—a collection long-form personal essays—with an initial skepticism. Broder, however, seems to maintain the ironically chatty tone of the So Sad Today Twitter while working within the much more vulnerable and, frankly, much sadder heart of the So Sad Today book.

In general, Broder handles the transition well. Yet specifically, there are structural issues in So Sad Today that make it hard to embrace purely for its literary merit (as opposed to biases introduced by hyperbolic, clickbait-y hype). It opens with one of Broder’s stronger essays, “How to Never Be Enough,” which hosts the book’s rather apt first line: “Bringing a child into the world without its consent seems unethical.” That sentence in itself would be a viable @sosadtoday tweet, but Broder explains this rather nuanced phenomenon with profundity and humor. She can’t imagine a “nirvana” greater than the womb (who can?), and she juxtaposes the purity of the prenatal infant with the unavoidable fucked-upness of the living human with an observation at once incredibly specific and universally true. I’d like to thank the doctor who delivered Broder if only for this sentiment, heartbreakingly sad and inescapably funny:

“...[T]he doctor who delivered me said I was pretty… He obviously had shitty taste in babies. If he’d called me ugly I would have spent the remainder of my time in the hospital trying to convince him I was hot. But he liked me. There was definitely something wrong with him.”

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A series of Tweets from @sosadtoday (via Twitter)

Yet sometimes these moments of brilliance in So Sad Today are followed by nonsensical aphorisms. When discussing the over-aggressive nursing methods she had as a baby, Broder falls into a laziness that causes her otherwise inherent comedic talents to wash over a reader. She views her zealous nursing as a metaphor for the human need to fill an insatiable, gaping hole in the soul. Fair enough. Yet instead of building upon this theme, crafting the essay insomuch that a punch line here would make structural sense, Broder skips straight to aphorism, writing “One titty is too many and 1,000 are never enough.” Such a payoff, however catchy, is empty in this moment. Its meaning is ambiguous in context, and I rather suspect Broder just liked the words. It’s almost as if she’s constructing a retweetable tweet; and she’s succeeded. That, however, does not a good essay make.

These very high highs and very low lows, the shining comedy and structural confusion, characterize a large part of So Sad Today. “Love In the Time of Chakras,” a recollection of one of Broder’s first jobs in San Francisco at a tantric center, flits between different structural techniques to the point that the chronology of the events is convoluted. Yet mic-drop lines like “He was addicted to Oxycontin, negged me and smoked all of my cigarettes. By hour three I knew he should be my boyfriend,” make wading through the chaos worth it.

Still, Broder’s poetic talent, and the intrinsic structural intelligence that comes with it, begins to reveal itself in “I Want to Be a Whole Person But Really Thin.” In this essay, Broder lays bare her history of disordered eating—anorexia, binge-eating, obsessive calorie counting, and the dangers both physical and emotional that result. “I am an eat eater of numbers…I am a vanity eater…I am an eater who enjoys structured magic,” she begins the first three paragraphs respectively, and continues this almost war-like chant of “I am an eater,” throughout the entire essay, twisting her own narrative into the hymn. Broder is an eater who is a good feminist, who is a bad feminist, who is a hypocritical feminist. She is an eater and a woman who, like many, refuses to “let herself go” yet fetishizes the freedom of doing just that. Broder is an eater and a writer who has managed to address the complicated and nerve-wracking discussion about feminism and eating disorder—as if the kind of eater you are indicates the kind of woman you are as well. Border doesn’t have the answers but offers up honesty in its stead. “I am a superficial woman of depth,” she ends. And I think she’s a feminist.

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Actor Emily Kinney shares her signed copy of So Sad Today with 1.5 million followers (via @emmykinney)

“I Want to Be a Whole Person But Really Thin” signifies a turn for the better in the collection. Most of the following essays showcase Broder’s talent for storytelling. She’s able to construct a narrative both detestable and mournful of love with the man she sexts (while in an open relationship with her husband); of two weeks in diary form of her anxiety as she switches medication (“It’s like I got this. Then mental illness is like, “No, I’ve got you,” she writes); and of the progression of her secret vomit fetish, from childhood to adulthood. This latter essay reads almost like an out-spewing of confessionals, the intimacy and intensity of Broder’s words accelerating the essay’s pace to a breakneck speed—quite a feat for a piece about a vomit fetish, with a touching finale no less.

She is able to reveal all of this—neuroses, personal shortcomings, regrets, addictions, shames, mistakes—without evoking our pity. Which is good. We don’t like to pity things—the feeling doesn’t sit well in our stomach and we don’t seek it out. It’s the reason why we might avoid walking past a nearly comatose homeless person on the street (an occurrence that Broder doesn’t touch upon in So Sad Today, but is certainly imaginable within her repertoire of many quotidian tragedies). Broder knows this and thus bridges this gap—we relate to her, feel for her, are shocked by her, but don’t exactly pity her because, well, she’s clever as Hell.

Broder’s strongest piece is ironically about her marriage and husband, subjects upon which the author has only grazed to this point. “I Told You Not to Get the Knish: Thoughts on Open Marriage and Illness,” shows a wisdom and clarity of thought has been previously missing in So Sad Today (though that was probably the point). Broder weaves dialogue into the essay with seamless and realistic aplomb, discussing the complexities of marriage to a chronically ill person with a tone that is both honest and sensitive. Perhaps because the essay doesn’t take place entirely in her own head and her own universe, it is here we see the heart of Broder. We see an ache that is not, as she would say, curated. “I Told You Not to Get the Knish” is the antidote to the bulk of So Sad Today, which tends to rely on a steady rotation between confession and tag line. The images she recreates are haunting, the emotions tangible and unpretentious. “What can we hope for in a marriage but to keep seeing things anew?” she asks in the essay’s bittersweet resolution. “With the people we love, it is so easy to stop seeing them at all.”

The misery memoir is a complicated balance—that of dark vulnerability and likeability—but it’s one that many writers, and many female writers, are achieving with an increasing ease. I first think of Man Repeller’s Leandra Medine, whose incredibly candid discussions of fupas, diets, and anxiety somehow just make the fashion maven that much more enviable. Medine—a front-row guest at NYFW and beyond—has made a wildly successful business sticking confessional prose in a place where it might otherwise not belong; that is, the world of high fashion and luxury.

I think of Lena Dunham, whose Not That Kind of Girl was met with that same strange combination of hyper-idealized fawning and vitriolic disparagement that has characterized much of her public career. The brutal, often controversial honesty with which Dunham writes is, on one level, noble. Certainly, penning such intimate details about one’s inner-life (never a pretty thing) must have been a frightening endeavor. But Dunham, already the star, head writer, director and creator of a hit HBO TV show, was paid a notorious $3.7 million from Random House to write Not That Kind of Girl; if anyone is in a position to reveal all, it’s her.

Melissa Broder, literary poet-turned-pop culture figure for the millennial generation, is an interesting deviation within such company. “I want to be in control of my whiny cunt levels! If I alienate you,” writes Broder, “I want to curate that alienation. I want to craft the persona that turns you off. I don’t want the real me, my vulnerabilities and humanity, to leak out and make you run.”

Broder is in control, because she’s writing this book. She isn’t screaming out into a void. We aren’t reading about her darkest secrets and histories on an anonymous blog. We are reading them in the book that she wrote and published. The persona of which Broder speaks, the one with the vulnerabilities and humanity, is the persona that draws us, rather than repels us. And this is why I’m ambivalent about confessional pop culture figures despite their brilliance: even with all their anxieties, shortcomings, and disgusting bits, it’s hard to really feel them. But should I feel them? Why don’t I? Do you? If So Sad Today has taught me anything, it’s to never assume that I’m actually right.

So Sad Today by Melissa Broder is now available

Update 3/21/16, 14:25: An earlier version incorrectly cited a @SoSadToday tweet as addressing a "public hairstyle" when in fact it was a "pubic hairstyle."

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