Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear . . . and Why

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This book surprised me. Sady Doyle lures you in with a lurid cover and faint promises of paparazzi-shaming but then hits you upside the head with a ton of historical and literary trainwrecks that leave you reeling. Brilliant use of the trainwreck-net to capture the lookie-loos who might not otherwise be interested in this detailed look at internalized misogyny and the role of women in culture. Who can resist a trainwreck? The important part of her title is the “… and Why” which dips into asking what it is that attracts us (specifically women) to ogling these wrecks and feeling better about our lives. She calls the book “a feminist anatomy of the trainwreck;” who she is, what’s she done, why’s she making us so mad, and what she’s done to offend us. “The trainwreck is alive. And for a woman to be fully alive is revolutionary.”

She takes us on a tour through various wreckage, starting with the queen of wrecks, Brittney Spears, but then zigging back to Mary Wollstonecraft, who I hadn’t realized was the 18th century’s version of a wreck, called an “usurping bitch” and her work “scripture, archly framed, for propagating whores.” We have stops in GamerGate, Tyler Swift, and then zing! we have Charlotte Brontë, on display for the two-years’ worth of pining letters for the man who didn’t love her back, and for her audacity to write (albeit under a man’s name). Doyle loves filling our heads with fantastic historical details about these literary legends, and then zag! here comes Courtney Love! Other “wrecks”: Billie Holiday, Princess Diana, Tara Reid, Harriet Jacobs (writer of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl), Sylvia Plath (her fans keep chiseling Hughes’s name off her gravestone!), Monica Lewinsky/HRC. Ones I want to dig into more: Anne Royall (first woman journalist arraigned as a common scold and sentenced to ducking in the Potomac), Theroigne de Mericourt (French Revolution’s trainwreck)

One of my favorite trainwrecks, Valerie Solanas, is not forgotten; one sick twist in her story is that her discarded play, Up Your Ass, now only exists with each page stamped “From the Collection of THE ANDY WARHOL MUSEUM.” Doyle points out that Norman Mailer stabbed his wife to settle an argument at a party and that William S. Burroughs shot his wife in the head while drunk, but “you are strikingly unlikely to ever meet someone who informs you that the notorious murder, William S. Burroughs, also wrote books. Norman Mailer served time in Bellevue, but somehow, an explanation of his life story tends to open with ‘author’ rather than ‘lunatic.’ [unlike Solanas]”

I’m especially interested in this phenomenon, because I hate the fact that when you bring up Virginia Woolf, most people will sigh and say “bummer” because of her suicide, overlooking the massive genius and the huge quantities of work that she left behind. Think about the reaction to bringing up DFW or Hemmingway –  people immediately leap to cry “Genius!” instead of swooning over their suicides. Or I say “Sylvia Plath” and visions of ovens pop in your head. Doyle says “Mental illness and addiction ruin women—make them sideshows, dirty jokes, bogeymen, objects of moral panic—but they seem to add to a man’s mystique… throughout history, men have built cults around the sacred, illuminating madness of Antonin Artaud, or Vaslav Nijinsky, or David Foster Wallace, or Jack Kerouac, or Iggy Pop, or Jackson Pollock, or Vincent Van Gogh. That list… reads Schizophrenic, Schizophrenic, Suicide, Drunk, Got So High He Can’t Remember the 1970s, Drunk, and Suicide. (Comma, Plus That Thing with the Ear.) Yet the diagnoses don’t end them, or even really define them. Instead, their struggles elevate them, make them special: We all understand that genius and madness are connected. At least, we do when the genius is male.”

This was a comforting thought from Doyle:

“If this keeps happening—if the disgraced women of history keep turning out to exist outside it, waiting for us on the road to progress decades or centuries ahead of where we expected them to stand—then one wonders what we’ll discover about all the women we hate today: whether attracting scorn and disgrace is not a problem, but a distinction; whether every woman who viscerally upsets us is not in fact moving a bit faster than the rest of us, standing so far ahead we can’t yet see her clearly, waiting for the world to catch up with what she knows.”

I was disgusted to find that Hugh Hefner bought the crypt next to Marilyn Monroe’s, “claiming her in death as he’d claimed the right to exploit her in life.” Hefner told CBS Los Angeles, “It has a completion notion to it. I will be spending the rest of my eternity with Marilyn.” In the vault above, the man told his wife to flip his coffin so he was upside down over Marilyn. Then she auctioned his spot on ebay in 2009 for $500k.

Mary Beard is quoted as tracing the idea of women speaking in public being a bad thing back to the Odyssey, Telemachus tells Penelope to go back to her loom, “speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all.” Muthos is the word used, “speaking with authority in public,” something forbidden to women in the Bible as well.