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Conversations With Writers Braver Than Me #17: Samantha Irby

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If you want people leave you alone, try reading Meaty by Samantha Irby in public. I did that a few months ago on a plane to LA, and received the strangest looks as I vacillated between laughter and tears with the speed and facility of a crazy person.

I loved the book. I was so moved by it, but also found it so funny. Irby, known best for her hilarious blog, Bitches Gotta Eat, is the rare comedian who touches you deeply as she cracks you up with straight talk about everything from her middle-aged thumb-sucking and Crohn’s disease (how very much it makes sex and dating suck) to condescending white people and her dead parents.

While I feel sorry for Irby, who was orphaned at eighteen and absolutely wish my parents no harm, I must also admit I envy her artistic freedom. We talked at length on the phone about the burdens and liberties that come with being a parentless writer.

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The Rumpus: Not long ago I was reading your book on a plane to LA and I swear to you people were looking at me like I was crazy because one minute I was just crying my eyes out, and then about twenty minutes later I was cracking up. The book is both so touching and also just so balls-out honest, and I think that’s what makes it funny, too. You hold back nothing. This might sound crass, but how much of that has to do with not having parents anymore? It’s so sad that they died when you were young, and that your life with them was also so tragic, but it must be liberating as a writer to have no one to worry about.

Samantha Irby: It’s incredible, and I hope that you don’t hear that as my being callous. I’ll say I miss them, but I mostly miss the idea of having parents—because it would be crazy to miss my actual parents, you know, ‘cause they were both sick and old and dying and messed up, because my dad was an alcoholic. So I don’t miss that. I certainly don’t miss seeing my mom in a wheelchair in a nursing home. I miss the idea of sort of having adult parents that you can talk to in a normal, human way and have them relate. I love the idea of sitting down and talking to your mom as an adult mom. I’m into that because I don’t have it. I’m sure if my mom was alive, every time she called me I would be like, “What?” I miss having people I can easily borrow money from. Like everybody, I sometimes get crackhead broke, where it would be really embarrassing to ask people for money, and I think, If I had a dad, and that dad had a job, this is when I would call him. But as an artist, not having parents is really the jam. I can say whatever without worrying. There’s no one to whom I couldn’t say, “Fuck you.” I say what I want.

Rumpus: Wow. How freeing. I mean, I certainly don’t want my parents gone, but I’d like to feel more at ease about putting myself out there without worrying about upsetting them. It’s not even as if I’ve really done anything bad. I’ve just been a real, flawed human. But I have a lot of inhibition about letting them—and the rest of the world, I guess—know that.

Irby: And as an artist, if my parents were still around, I don’t know that I would be this free. I don’t know that I would be who I am. I don’t know that I would be writing, and I certainly don’t know that I’d be writing about the stuff that I’m writing about. I’d like to think that my personality has always been sort of upbeat and outgoing, but if there were someone who was like, “Yo, don’t write about your vagina on the Internet,” I don’t know if I’d be like, “You know what, dude? I think I’m gonna do it anyway.” I can’t say for sure.

Rumpus: How old were you when your parents died?

Irby: Eighteen. I don’t even know how to even be shamed in a child way anymore. I don’t even know what that kind of shame would even feel like. I do have a boss, and he has a wife. He’s a really nice, gentle kind of person. Sometimes when I write bad things he’ll say, “Oh, I read that thing you wrote, and it just broke my heart.” And I’ll just be like, “Shut up.” He would maybe be the one person whose judgment I would even pause to consider, but he doesn’t care, and I don’t just walk around talking shit all the time. I’m not on the train like, “Yo ass out.”

Rumpus: It’s not like 24/7 stand up?

Irby: No, no. I know how to be normal and eat dinner. But last night I was at dinner with some friends and I was talking about this friend of mine who was cheating on her husband, and I was just like, “Yeah, so, she was fucking this dude, and blah blah blah,” and my friend who was with me was like, “Oh man, you don’t ever hold back.” I was like, “No, I don’t.” But who wants to be around that person who’s like, “I know something, but I’m not gonna tell it.” I feel like it’s these experiences that get us through, and I feel like if my parents were alive, my mom would get this ’cause she was super progressive and independent or whatever. But if I was like, “Listen, mom, I know it upset you that I said ‘pussy hole’ on the Internet, but it’s about the shared experience. It’s about making somebody else feel better because they too have a pussy hole,” and I feel she would be like, “Okay.” Not “awesome,” but “okay.” But I don’t have to worry about it because, you know, my phone never rings no matter what I put on the Internet.

Rumpus: What about siblings or other relatives?

Meaty-by-Samantha-IrbyIrby: I have three sisters who are considerably older than I am. They’re twenty, seventeen, and fifteen years older. It was sort of like having four mothers. But we’re not traditional, and we’re not very close. We all kind of live in the same area, but I wouldn’t take a bullet for any of my sisters, just to put it plainly. If one needed a kidney, I’d be like, “Oh really? You don’t know anyone else who matches you?” I know one of them reads my stuff and loves it. She sends it to her friends. But the other two are a little more conservative, so I don’t think they read my stuff. But again, we’re not very close, and if they did read it and didn’t like it, I would just be like, “Well, I don’t care.” I don’t worry about hurting their feelings because I don’t write about them. So I’m like, “Because I don’t write about you, you should take that and shut up about what I wrote. Or I’ll just start writing about you.”

Rumpus: I rely on my parents’ inability to Google. Even though I’m forty-eight and married for the second time, I’m still worried about my parents thinking I’m a grown-up person who has sex or doesn’t always do the right thing. I guess most normal people don’t put evidence of those things out anywhere for their parents to find, but I want to feel like I can. I had a bad experience with that once. I wrote an essay for Marie Claire about getting divorced at twenty-seven, after at twenty-three marrying my second boyfriend ever. I didn’t know when or how you were supposed to have sex with new people. At twenty-seven, I had only gone around the bases with like two guys. I had no idea, like, how many dates do I show a nipple? And does that count as sex? I had no fucking idea. So I wrote an essay about it for Marie Claire about kind of landing on Planet Single. I asked my father to please not read it. He promised he wouldn’t, but then one day he called me and said, “I have written you a ten-page letter about what a disappointment you are, but my therapist won’t let me send it to you. I didn’t read the article, but people told me what it’s about, and my therapist won’t let me send you this letter because my therapist knows that you’re very defensive, so I’m not going to send you the ten-page letter about what a disappointment you are, but I just want you to know that.” When I tell that story, it sounds crazy to me, but at the time, it completely blocked me. I couldn’t write for years, and in ways, I’m still recovering from that as a writer.

Irby: My mouth is hanging open.

Rumpus: It was devastating to me. And then I wrote a “Modern Love” essay for the New York Times about my parents’ relationship and its effects on me, and he got very upset about that. We’re not speaking right now. I just needed a break so that I could figure out who I am and what I think without that influence, but I’m still kind of reconciling this whole thing of writing about myself, writing about my experience as a daughter, and feeling uninhibited. I kind of wish I could send him off to another planet where he can’t read anything from this planet. But I can’t do that, so this is a dilemma I live with.

It’s awful to say, but I wish I had the liberty that you do.

Irby: Oh no, I feel you. I mean, that doesn’t offend me at all. Like listening to you, I am getting all cringy for you because I understand. I feel bad for you that you’re an adult who has been married and you can’t write about your sex. You’re a writer who can’t write about a big part of your life. It feels like you can’t write about this big part that a lot of people write about, that a lot of people are interested in hearing about. Sex is one of those things that everybody wants to talk to you about, because they want to feel like they’re normal, like you’re normal, like the things they’re doing are the same things you’re doing. Or, what are you doing that they aren’t doing? Everybody wants to talk about it all the time. I feel so bad that you’ve got to sit down at your computer, and the first thing you think about is how you wish your dad wouldn’t read it. That, like, hurts me. And I want for you to have—I mean not enough to do something to your dad—but I want for you to have that freedom. Could you just say, “Listen, dude, don’t ever talk to me about what I write?” Is that possible?

Rumpus: No, he and his wife wanted to draw up a legal document. They said that they were going to a lawyer to find out if they could get a document that would keep me from being allowed to write about them, which isn’t a thing that exists.

Irby: That is so insane to me!

Rumpus: And also my stepmother called to tell me that if my father has a heart attack and dies after reading something I wrote, it will be totally my fault.

Irby: Dude, how do we get you away from this? That’s my mission. It’s insane. I have a similar sort of thing where people I’ve dated have been like, “How do I know you’re not going to write about me?” And the first thing I say is, “You’re fucking flattering yourself for thinking that’s even on my mind, and also there’s no way to guarantee I won’t write about you other than you not being fucked up. So don’t be fucked up, and I won’t talk shit about you on the Internet.” So, I take it you’re not doing a memoir, because you don’t want any drama?

Rumpus: Well, I am. I’m writing pieces of it, and the big irony here, Samantha, is that my two day jobs are, one, I help people write memoirs, and I’m always telling them to get over their inhibitions about offending anybody, and two, I teach workshops for a non-profit storytelling organization called TMI Project, where I get people to reveal the part of the story they don’t want to tell. So the dilemma for me now is, okay, I took a year leave from my dad, I got a little braver, I published some stuff. Actually I published two anthologies this year, and I have another coming out in the fall. One of them is a reproductive rights collection, in which I wrote about my two abortions. I didn’t tell my dad that this book exists. I hope he’ll never find it, but I did it and I published it. And so I’ve felt a little bit braver in the past year with my dad off to the side, but now how do I go forward, how do I go from here? I mean, I don’t want to never see him again.

Irby: Yeah, okay, so I’m very sweet and nice, but I got a big asshole streak. If somebody in my life handed me a legal document, I’d be like, “All bets are off, bitch. You just changed the nature of this relationship.” I’d be like, “Yo, I can’t go through my life like waiting for you to die so I can tell these stories. I want them out there, I want to be writing them. Here is one. If you can’t handle it, fine, then you can’t handle me.”

I’m grateful that I had to be an adult and grow up and do all of this stuff so early because my not-giving-a-fuck age started way earlier than a lot of people’s, and the freedom feels so much better than the fear. Although I’ll share with you that some of my shit makes me want to throw up when I put it out there. My essay in Meaty about sucking my thumb, for example, that is the hardest shit I have ever written, telling people that. I’m about to be thirty-four, and I have no cure. I thought about going to a hypnotist just because it would be hilarious to write about, because of course everything’s got to be for a goddamn joke. But I did a signing and someone brought up the thumb essay, and she was like, “Thanks for writing about that,” and she said, “I still twirl my hair.” And I was like, this is different, but okay. My immediate thought was, Oh my God, I forgot that’s in here. It’s funny, some people might speculate whether or not I’m wearing a diaper or wonder whether the scars I wrote about are exactly where I say they are or think about me peeing on some dude, or whatever it is. That doesn’t get to me, but then I’m like, Oh my God, all 150 people in the room who’ve read this book know that I suck my thumb, and it makes me cringe.

Rumpus: What is it about that? Is it that it’s a behavior as opposed to something that happened to you, like your Crohn’s?

Irby: There are a few things about me that I feel speak to a sort of weakness, like my struggle with my weight, which is really not that much of a struggle because I’m not fighting very hard. I think that’s the sort of thing where people are like, just get it together, just go to the gym. I always eat lettuce. I think the thumb is in that same vein where it’s like, are you kidding? This is a problem I’m having as an adult, this is a coping issue. The two things are both coping mechanisms that speaks to some sort of deeper problem that isn’t being addressed that maybe should be.

Rumpus: Those were the places in your book where I laughed because the way you put things is funny, but I still had so much compassion for you.

Irby: Thank you. It’s the weirdest thing. I would eat a whole pizza and not care, but I’d wake up with a cracked red thumb, and I’m like, Oh, you are the worst.

Rumpus: So, there’s another tiny aspect to the thing with my dad, which is that there’s a small amount of money that when he dies, he keeps saying I’m going to get.

Irby: I was going to ask, but then I thought that was tacky.

Rumpus: My husband and I live really close to the bone, we don’t have money. We could really use some! Even though it’s not a lot, for us that money would be life changing, but I feel like it’s hush money.

Irby: My fear is that you hold back and hold back and hold back and be a good girl, you do what he wants, and then he dies and you find out somehow he rearranged the will, and you get nothing. Then you’ve spent all this time not doing what you want to do, and you get nothing anyway.

I don’t like that he’s doing this to you. “Don’t write what you want to write about. Don’t embarrass me. I might disown you. Don’t write about me or I will take legal action against you, and be nice and be good or I might not give you this money.” I mean, that’s so much for you to be holding back. And he’s got like a therapist who gets a vote on his interactions with you. I feel like you’re fighting a losing battle.

Rumpus: I’ve got all this pressure to not offend or embarrass him.

Irby: Girl, at forty-eight years old though?

Rumpus: I know.

Irby: I mean, your decision is your decision, but come on. I don’t know if the people you usually interview jump down your throat, but I’m doing it. You don’t have to be spiteful and petty like me. I’d send him something overnight and would be like, “This is the autobiography I wrote,” and the first page would be, “So I’m fucking this dude on my period, and he shit on me.” Um, that’s ’cause I am spiteful and petty, so don’t go out of your way to put it all in his face. But I feel like as women we have so many voices in our heads saying be this, be that, do this, don’t do that, don’t be that. I feel like your dad has to be one of the smallest voices in your head. His voice has to be smaller.

This is the freedom of the dead parent. I don’t have to have that reverence, that lightness and goodness. I don’t have to do any of that.

Rumpus: That’s amazing.

Irby: But here’s something. My dad’s lawyer brings her dog to the animal hospital where I worked, and I was in Chicago magazine, which is like the type of magazine your Jewish lawyer orders for her office. My dad used to drive her to the airport, and he’d have me in the car with him. He was like her chauffeur. And one day she was like, “I checked out your blog, and oh, the language, and oh, whatever,” and you could tell that she was waiting for me to apologize. So I just didn’t say anything, and then we had an awkward silence, and I was like, “What do you want me to say? Sorry? Or I’m ashamed? Tell me what you want, ’cause I don’t have the deference thing because there’s no parents around to shame me, so I get to look you in the eye as an adult and ask you what it is you’re trying to do to me. How are you trying to make me feel?”

Rumpus: Wow, what did she say?

Irby: She didn’t say anything. She just stood there and was just like, “Well, it was shocking to me.” And I was like, “Okay, but what am I supposed to do with that? Do you want me to tell you I’m sorry? I’m not sorry. I’m sorry you read it. If you can’t be supportive, I’m sorry you read it.” I don’t want anybody to put their shit on me. My dad used to say, “Never say, ‘I’m sorry.’” He used to say, “Sorry is for sorry people.” Growing up fat and being told you’re undesirable, you almost automatically start apologizing for yourself. I’m sorry you have to look at me cuz I’m gross. I’m sorry you have to move over because I take a little more room or whatever. You’re constantly saying, “Oh excuse me, pardon me, excuse me, I’m sorry.” And it’s one thing for me to say it because of my low self-esteem or however I’m feeling, but I can’t have a whole happy life and love myself if I’m walking around apologizing. So now when people sort of do that shit, like when they expect you to be ashamed of something, I just think, “Who are you to demand an apology of me?” And that’s sort of how I feel about your dad. Who is he to demand that you, Sari, live in a way that pleases him? He gave you life—thanks for that—but you’re not out murdering people. As an adult, you have to live in this specific way for him, or have to apologize for the choices you’ve made. Why? Because they offend him? Why is his being offended something that you should feel responsible for? Maybe he’s too much of a prude.

I don’t do a whole lot of apologizing, girl. And I want you to get out of that, too!

Rumpus: That’s why I picked you. I knew you were going to say that.

Irby: I’m gonna call you every week and be like, “Yo, don’t feel sorry for shit!” I don’t. Let me tell you, I got an email from somebody who reads my blog. You know, like during this whole book thing, I used to post once a week, I tried to post like once a week. It’s a big commitment. I was doing a lot of book stuff, trying to write a fucking book. Some asshole has the nerve to send me an email talking about, “God, girl, update your blog more.” And I was like, “Bitch, you mean this free thing that I put on the Internet on a regular basis that brings nothing but joy to your life? I’ve gotta apologize to you for not putting it up more?” She was like, “Where have you been, what are you doing?” What nerve to demand an explanation from a stranger on a free blog on the Internet. I mean, some people just bleed you dry. For some people it’s never enough. You are never going to be enough, you are never going do enough, so fuck ‘em.

Rumpus: You don’t feel that it’s wrong for me then to tell this story? It’s my story. I don’t want to tell it to be hurtful, but it’s my story.

Irby: It’s your story. The lessons you learned from that experience are yours, and you should feel free to write about them.

Rumpus: I just wanted to run that by you, and see if I’m a really horrible person after all.

Irby: No. Here’s one of the things from my own life: I should have never been born. My fucking Crohn’s. My joints are destroyed and I’m hobbling around. Every time I sit in the bathroom for twenty minutes and text a dude, I think, you know, I never should’ve been born, and they knew, they knew. The doctor told them. But even if he hadn’t, my mom was forty and my dad was fifty. These were people who made a conscious decision to have a child and have their actions affect that child for the rest of her life. Your dad, he knew what he was doing. He was a grown-up, he wasn’t under the influence of anything or anyone. Whatever he decided to do during your childhood was a conscious choice. And maybe it sucks for him to see your interpretation of it, but that belongs to you. You were a kid who experienced his actions. You’re not writing about his childhood, you’re writing about your childhood, and seeing him through your prism is something you’re entitled to. When my dad punched me in the fucking face, two weeks before that I had seen Full Metal Jacket, and it came on TV again. I went into the living room where he was sitting and I made him watch that beginning part, you know, where the dude kills himself because he’s so bullied, and my dad was like, “So you think you’re trying to tell me something with that?” And I was like, “Well shit, I was hoping. Are you not picking up what I’m trying to tell you?” I guess my one regret is that he doesn’t get to read his adult daughter’s account of some of the things that happened from the perspective of a cognizant adult. The stuff I said to him when I was a teen, it’s easy to write that off as kid shit. I still love my dad, but I wish I could sit him down and write a beautiful essay about our life together or aspects of our life together, and give it to him and have him read it and see what life was like for me, if he was willing to see me as an adult. You know, you have ownership of everything in your life. You can write about it, and you don’t have to soften the words, you don’t have to change anything. It’s yours.

Also I just want to say, too, that I would understand if you didn’t write about him, or things that scare you. I would get it if you didn’t. ’Cause I don’t feel like people say that enough either. I’ll champion you to the end if you do, but I also get it and won’t judge you if you don’t. Sometimes shit has to happen first. You’ve gotta have a break, or somebody has to die, or you have to reach a fed up point in order to break free.

But you know, I mean, girl, we’ve gotta look at people’s intentions toward us. Anyone who would try to shut you down or shut me down is a person who doesn’t want the best for you. If I got on the phone today and I said, “Oh, girl, listen to your dad, don’t write your truth,” I’m not a person who has your best intentions in mind. And you should be like, “Thanks Samantha, good to talk to you,” and write me off as a person who doesn’t care about you—because I don’t if I tell you to shut yourself down.

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Featured image by Joe Mazza at Brave Lux. 


Sari Botton is a writer living in upstate New York. She is the editor of Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Village Voice and more retrograde women’s magazines than she’d care to recall or admit to. She tweets at @saribotton. More from this author →