Choose Your Own Disaster: Millennial Women and Tackling Taboos
As both a celebratory break from academia and a post-breakup distraction, I checked out a bunch of books at the library towards the beginning of winter break. The first book I read was Choose Your Own Disaster by Dana Schwartz, a memoir written in the style of a personality quiz. While I found the quiz aspect of the book to be distracting from the narrative, what was most interesting to me about this book was the second-person point of view, which is rare for a memoir, or at least in the case of my nonfiction reading experiences. Nonetheless, it made Schwartz’s experiences more personal, which is perhaps what she was going for.
Courtesy of the blurb on the back, Choose Your Own Disaster is “about the millennial experience and modern feminism and how the easy advice of ‘you can be anything you want!’ is actually pretty difficult when it seems there are so many possible versions of yourself you could be.”
Admittedly, I discovered Dana Schwartz and the innerworkings of her mind on Twitter. What I like most about her is her ability to say exactly what she’s thinking. Her tweets, and her writing in general, are a work of observational comedy, but not so over-the-top like John Mulaney’s stand-up. She’s smart. She beats you to the punch line. My friend Arbela told me to read her book, and so once finals were over, I indulged. It only took me a few days to finish it, on my commutes to work and downtime at the host stand. And like most books I finish, especially by women closer to my age, I was left with the feeling of wanting more.
The book itself was released last June, when Schwartz was twenty-five. Twenty-five may seem young for someone to write a memoir, but hey, Miley Cyrus wrote one when she was sixteen (I say “wrote” generously here). We often forget how much a life can contain, and age has a lot to do with it. It’s easy to brush over the fact that people in their twenties can in fact have a significant amount of life experience. Not one upbringing or childhood or personal history is the same, especially for Millennials.
While Choose Your Own Disaster masquerades itself with self-deprecating humor, it actually covers heavy subject matter. We learn that Schwartz struggled with an intense eating disorder resulting in depression while she was in college. When I first started reading the book, and found out that Schwartz went to Brown, I immediately shifted into a judgy state of mind, like “Oh, okay.” But I pushed all assumptions aside when I realized I was going back on my own beliefs - failing to acknowledge that there’s always something more beneath the surface. Despite what she was going through, Schwartz created an outlet that made her famous: the GuyInYourMFA Twitter account, based on guys in her writing workshop class. It’s safe to say we’ve all met different versions of the tall skinny white guy who thinks The Catcher in the Rye is a masterpiece and writes minimalist poetry about chain smoking and women’s body parts (and can get away with wearing a beanie year-round, but let’s face it: white guys can get away with a lot of things these days). Last summer, a guy I went to high school with came over and criticized all the writing I’d done over the course of a year, and when I asked to see some of his writing, he showed me a story he wrote that opens with a guy masturbating in the shower (you’ll be pleased to know this was published in an Irish lit journal).
What I related to the most in this book, though, was Dana’s quest for social acceptance among various groups of peers. And of course, her inner romantic, and naivety about guys, whether she be in New York or on a post-grad trip in Europe. We both have experienced a slew of guys varying in awfulness and/or awkwardness, commitment-phobic and self-righteous in their own ways. Of course, not all of them have been bad, but most of them have done something to make us write about it. There are things that Dana hits hard on the nail, like hanging out with a guy she knows deep down isn’t into her, but keeps spending time with anyway. After they finally sleep together, the guy says “I’m only going to hurt you.” And this is what she had to say:
“Here is the thing about assholes: they seem to believe that by outwardly declaring themselves assholes, they absolve themselves of all responsibility for subsequent assholery. ‘I will hurt you,’ a boy warns, and then hurts you, and then you’re left blaming yourself because you knew what you were getting into. They act like being an asshole is like being diabetic or a professional mime. Sorry, this is just an unchangeable fact about my life and who I am. A boy can walk through his twenties in bulletproof armor if he tells every girl he ever sleeps with in advance that anything bad that he’ll ever do is her fault.”
I wanted to practically shout at the page “YES! THIS! SOMEONE PUT THIS SITUATION THAT SO MANY WOMEN HAVE EXPERIENCED INTO WORDS!” We want to believe that we mean something to someone even if they are making us feel horrible deep down. We like the chase, until we let ourselves admit that it wears us out. We want to believe that we’re special to emotionally unavailable people, that maybe we’ll be the one who opens their eyes to their own bullshit, and fantasize about the relationship that never could be. At the beginning of my junior year of college, a Tinder guy broke things off with me after two dates claiming that he didn’t like how emotionally attached he was getting, and then proceeded to invite me to his apartment two days later and said he didn’t care if I met someone else. Yet I still felt like it was my fault when I later confronted him about what he put me through. “I told you before we’re just friends,” he’d said.
Throughout the book, Schwartz describes several instances of putting herself in situations that forced her out of her comfort zone, like going to a “makeout party” with a group of new-ish friends at a warehouse, even wearing a corset. She subsequenty dated a lawyer who was into BDSM. Before all of this, she slept with a married Brown alumnus her senior year of college. While these are supposed to read as dumb (albeit comical) decisions, it’s still understandable why she did these things. She wanted to prove something to herself, that she’s capable of tapping into different sides of herself. One part of the book that made me laugh was when she’s describing a date in which The Lawyer invites her over to workout with him, and she gets tired of working out and goes back to his apartment to wait for him. “You pull a book from his shelf (Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman) so when he comes in, you can be reading - the perfect image of the shy intellectual love interest. See? the book will say. I’m more of a reading type than working-on-the-treadmill type.”
Speaking as someone who grew up shy and bookish and at times socially awkward, and is trying to navigate adulthood with some of these traits, I really resonated with Dana Schwartz. I feel like women are often pressured to be consistent with their identities and personalities, that we have to pick one part of ourselves to stick to. While Dana Schwartz is a self-described introvert who loves books and staying in watching Netflix, there’s this desire to be hot, adventurous, and charming. But who’s to say that she can’t be all of those things?
I admired how open Schwartz was with her battles, her complicated relationship with her body and food, and her social and dating life. Talking about mental illness, eating disorders, and casual sex are subjects that are taboo and often shushed away for the sake of not making people uncomfortable. But now more people, especially women, are being candid about these things, which is good. These things are part of people’s truths, and who are we to deny them? They’re not going away anytime soon, so now is as good a time as any to start accepting the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of people’s lives, and being more open to hearing about them.