I was like, oh my God, I could start a cult! Is there a way to have a positive cult?”
Lindy West, sitting in a Columbia City restaurant with a glass of wine in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, realized her guru potential a few days earlier, when some 1,200 people turned out to hear her read from her memoir, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, at Seattle’s Town Hall. The energy was effervescent, the applause pew-shaking.
She’s joking, of course. West would never start a cult, certainly not after the conversation we’d just had about gurus in Lifetime movies literally always turning out to be criminals. But West already has fans around the world devoted to her shouty, sincere brand of writing, and in the last few months she’s met a lot of them, on a rapid-fire book tour across North America and the UK, reading, meeting, greeting, signing. The wine and coffee are both necessary.
Rather than inspiring blind devotion in her readers, West inspires a self-acceptance that allows them to devote themselves to their own well-being in a real, qualitative way. In Shrill, she’s unapologetically noisy about “shameful” things—abortion, fatness, gender politics, rape culture and misogyny. In a world that doesn’t want to hear it, that’s a powerful model for women, for fat people, for marginalized or mistreated communities of many kinds.
Shrill is the crystallization of West’s work, begun as a writer at The Stranger, honed at feminist website Jezebel, among other culture sites, and lately unleashed on an international scale at GQ and The Guardian. It’s memoir-by-crucible, a documentation of West’s “transformation from a terror-stricken mouse person to an unflappable human vuvuzela” fueled by childhood shame and adult suffering at the hands of the digital mob. In everything she writes, whether about politics, body image, farts, Harry Potter, or reviews that hilariously ruin your favorite movies (miss you, Love Actually), West aims at making the world a fundamentally better, happier, funnier, saner and more humane place. For everyone. But she’s done suffering for it.
Scanning the benches at Town Hall looking for enough free real estate to wedge myself into for West’s May 25 reading, I felt giddy seeing people from so many unconnected corners of my life. Writing about someone whose life is an open book is hard, but writing about someone you’ve known for 20-plus years is, oddly, harder. Lindy and I went to the same elementary and middle schools and spent 10 years in the same choir—in which we wore the amazing palazzo pants-based uniform that makes an appearance in Shrill. We toured Europe wearing matching T-shirts and thought our captive plane-mates would appreciate us bursting into organized song (I’m so, so sorry). We spent a week every summer at choir camp, first as campers and later as counselors, where we sang and danced and did arts and crafts and had talent shows and elaborate bead ceremonies. All true.
In fairness, you’d be hard-pressed to find a journalist in Seattle who doesn’t know Lindy West. She started at The Stranger in 2006, as an intern in the theatre department, before becoming a regular freelancer and then a full-time staffer. Her work from those days sounds very “Lindy West”—loud, sarcastic, as many ALL CAPS as she pleases—if a bit more strident than her current tone.
“There’s so much in there that’s just mortifying,” she says. “There’s lots of ‘edginess’ because it was really fashionable and cool, and I was still learning how to be a writer and still especially learning to be a socially responsible person. I hadn’t thought through the repercussions of how we talk about people and power differentials, and I still thought it’s ok as long as you’re joking. Yeah, please don’t read anything of mine from before 2014.”
Nah. That would cut out career pivots, such as her Sex and the City 2 review (“Burkas and Birkins”), which Roger Ebert tweeted about—a massive signal boost for a young writer. “It is 146 minutes long, which means that I entered the theater in the bloom of youth and emerged with a family of field mice living in my long, white mustache,” West wrote. “This is an entirely inappropriate length for what is essentially a home video of gay men playing with giant Barbie dolls.”
But the later you go in her Stranger days, you can hear West becoming less cool with general meanness. “Oh, turns out we can actually be sincere and go out of our way to be kind to each other, and that’s actually more powerful than being a sour little shit!” she laughs. “We evolve. I just started to become enamored of sincerity, and the friction between sincerity and irony.”
At Jezebel, her work split between joke news—“Every Outfit Shelley Long Wears in Troop Beverly Hills, Ranked,” a celebrity-branded booze taste test video—and heavier pieces like the delightful video “If Comedy Has No Lady Problem, Why Am I Getting So Many Rape Threats?” which features West reading monotonously through her deluge of rape threats after writing another pivotal piece in her career: “How to Make a Rape Joke.” Much like wrapping your dog’s pills in bacon, West knows how to deliver the goods in a scrumptious yet totally necessary package.
From “How to Make a Rape Joke”: “Male comics: this is not an issue of your oppression. You guys know that ‘thought police’ isn’t a real thing, right? Nobody is taking away your right to talk about rape, make jokes about rape, or use the word ‘rape.’ No cunty feminist killjoy is citizen’s-arresting you and taking you to brain jail for your shitty rape joke.”
At The Guardian, her work became even more pointedly personal and political—her version of a New Year’s article was, “What I’ve learned about diets: punishing your body is not taking care of it.” She addressed Black Lives Matter, the backlash against political correctness, #ShoutYourAbortion and much more, including the gloriously photo-driven “My wedding was perfect–and I was fat as hell the whole time.” Don’t read the comments.
As of this writing, Shrill, which was released by Hachette Books in May, sits snugly on The New York Times’ bestseller list for humor books, along with Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling and Lena Dunham. Its essays travel more-or-less chronologically through West’s “most embarrassing and traumatizing moments put into a book for strangers to judge,” as she put it at Town Hall. That’s true, but it’s also a memory box for treasures—stories of her well-matched (or wonderfully mismatched, depending on your attitude) parents, her cherished friends and her own love life, leaving behind the men who hid her for the man who loves her, proudly and publicly, every day.
Lindy was always really funny, but I remember her being more comfortable as the quieter half of a comedy duo. She and our friend Claire were co-counselors at choir camp, and they made a list of joke rules for their campers that was the unqualified hit of the week. One memorable gem: “No sitting, only standing or lying down,” the resulting physical comedy of which was pretty much the funniest thing a group of 10-year-old girls had ever experienced.
Shrill’s penultimate chapter, “Slaying the Troll,” was her first piece for This American Life (her second, “Tell Me I’m Fat,” aired June 17). In it, West confronts the Internet troll who impersonated her dead father to harass her on Twitter, and actually gets an apology from him. It’s one of her most famous pieces of writing, a compelling narrative flooded with her bottomless grief over her dad’s death and her compassion for the angry man who used that grief against her. It’s vulnerable, honest and incredibly funny. It also hijacked the narrative of her public life. That’s not a bad thing, but there’s much more to West than being a “troll-slayer.” And who wants to talk forever about how awful the Internet is, let alone be the lightning rod for so many of its cruel wackos?
Lindy West’s Internet is not the same as your Internet or my Internet. Given the mounds of ideological dog shit left flaming on her digital front porch every day—by male comedians who think she’s filching their joke freedom, conservatives who think she’s into baby murder, body shamers who think she has no right to be happy and fat at the same time—it’s not surprising to hear that she’s inching closer to abandoning social media altogether.
“How accessible do I need to be? How successful do I need to be to justify becoming a hermit?” she asks. “I want to be an eccentric hermit, who occasionally does very long reception lines where I sign books and have intimate eye contact with people. That would be ideal for me.”
Until then, watching her engage with the people constantly attacking or questioning her in bad faith is a delight; watching her dismiss them demands popcorn. When a rant about how obesity is a drain on the healthcare system (or whatever other specious bullshit argument) crops up on her page, seeing the ranter rage in response to a “tl;dr” from Lindy is a joy to behold. She’s become fireproof.
If she quit the Internet, she’d miss the positive community of supporters, of course, but she can find other ways to stay in touch. Perhaps you’ll subscribe to her email newsletter, Butt News? West is winding down on the popular perception that writers need to brand themselves online to get ahead. She laughs, “I kind of think the idea that Twitter and Facebook are necessary for professional journalism success is a myth that someone in Twitter’s marketing department invented.”
At dinner I squint at my multidirectional, scratch-scrawl handwriting in a notebook stuffed with crumply bits of paper with more notes on them (some in highlighter!) and make a joke about my super-professional prep job. “It’s more professional than my system, which is no system because I hate interviewing people,” Lindy says, joking-not-joking. At this point, the “no, but really, I’m a mess” bit seems as much defense mechanism as brutal honesty. Now that she’s expected to be a role model, and even more intimidatingly, an expert, it seems important to make her weaknesses clear, in a narrative that is sharpening its focus more and more on her strengths.
During a Q&A at Town Hall, people asked West about raising kids to be feminists, confronting those setting un-feminist examples, what men can do to live better lives and be better feminist allies. “People want me to give advice on everything, and I really don’t think of myself as a particularly put-together person,” she says. “I’m not a disaster, and I’m a good person I think, but I don’t know how to do all these things. I’m just a writer. There is a sort of flattening and an idealization of who I am as a full human being that is a little bit alarming.”
Alarming, maybe, but not surprising; it’s part and parcel of burgeoning celebrity, the kind where, for the person on the rise, the cool kids from middle school and childhood math teachers show back up in their life. Which, West emphasizes, is genuinely, amazingly cool—but weird.
Online, West can be an Internet Boudicea raining hilarious feminist fire down upon the misogynist hordes, articulate and self-assured. In real life, she’s just as funny and confident, but with an earnestness that invites earnestness from other people. West loves at full-throttle—her husband, true-crime TV shows, books with dragons. She cherishes her family. She adores this city. She misses her dad. The “high school friends” photo op at her wedding was one of the biggest I’ve seen.
I had a boyfriend who ended up being a horrifying jerk to me, and Lindy still only refers to him by a ridiculous name. I always appreciate it.
But she’s also always late on her car tabs and has unpaid parking tickets (she’s getting to it!). Life has a lot of gray area, and the Internet is always standing by, ready to catch her in a perceived double standard. “You can’t consume media and not make a million compromises every second, because everything is terrible,” she says. “If I lived my values 100 percent, I couldn’t watch Game of Thrones or Dateline, and I can’t give up every single thing. It’s like, I understand veganism, and I can’t do it! I’ve gotta pick my battles here. I’ll pay attention to where my meat and dairy come from, make sure I’m not destroying endangered fisheries or buying slave shrimp, but you still have to live your life. I don’t know, maybe that makes me a rationalizing fraud, but I can’t live my values 24/7, because my life would have nothing in it.”
Over the course of our dinner-wine-coffee interview, West ends up laughing and saying, “I have a different answer that I would give to Gemma the person, but for the purposes of this interview…” more than once. She’s isn’t being cagey; she’s smart enough to play things close to the vest. She has a literary agent and tells me that she “is in talks” with a Hollywood agent, before realizing that she needs to go off the record.
She’s got a few more book ideas kicking around—but no more memoirs for a while. She’s hoping for something that’s just jokes. “I think a funny, fat lady TV show that isn’t condescending or pandering, or makes being fat either a tragedy or a central premise of the show, would be amazing,” she says.
Though West is very quick to claim she’s not famous, she’s making peace with the fact that, in Seattle, she can’t go many places anymore unless she wants to interact with people, because it’s inevitable. “I’m starting to understand why celebrities shave their heads and attack photographers with an umbrella, because if you’re Britney Spears-level famous and you can’t go to the grocery store without people taking pictures of your groceries and putting it in the New York Post, it would be completely debilitating. And I’m on a one-millionth-percent scale of that.”
If her star keeps rising at this trajectory, that percentage will change. Whether she’s living the life of an eccentric hermit or Instagramming poolside in a bangin’ swimsuit, or even if she’s finally writing something that’s just jokes, West is dedicated to helping people stop wasting time and energy worrying about saying the right thing or looking the right way or agonizing over what to eat at the airport. She’d rather we all laugh more and care for one another better—give fewer fucks about the stuff that doesn’t matter and more fucks about what does. Like love. And farts.