Allowing a Female to Own Her Genius: Talking with Alana Massey


I was introduced to Alana Massey’s writing via her 2014 essay, “You’re Right, I Didn’t Eat That,” a meditation on her compulsive pursuit of thinness and the emotional and physical toll it exacts on her. This essay, like many of her pieces, went viral, retweeted and shared amongst women who knew that another would relate, even if she herself did not. “Me too,” we said to each other and ourselves.

In her debut essay collection, All the Lives I Want, Alana is as erudite and deeply introspective as she was then, examining her many selves through the lives of other, public women. By turning her critical eye (honed in divinity school) on figures as varied as Lil’ Kim and Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, and Anna Nicole Smith, Alana demonstrates an acerbic, wickedly funny purview which is as incisive as it is tender, cultural criticism which is intellectually rigorous but with none of the stodginess. Her writing feels markedly and intentionally feminine, not just because of her subjects but because I always finish her pieces with the feeling that each one was written specifically to me, in a way that feels almost epistolary. Which is to say that I always find them when I need them. These are essays about and for women, written with a lyricism, an ease, that feels enticing and warm, more conversational than proselytizing.

The book came to me on a cold morning last December and when the plain packaging fell away, I held it in my hands, gilded and shiny as a present. In so many ways, it is.


The Rumpus: One of my favorite things about the essays in this collection is that they remind me of cultural moments that I’d forgotten, but that rematerialized in my memory as soon as I read about them. Once you mentioned it, I could instantly remember the countdown to Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen’s eighteenth birthdays, the public’s obsession with Britney Spears’s body. It’s not quite nostalgia because there is no longing in it, but your ability to vivify these forgotten moments is really magical.

Alana Massey: I had the same reactions when I was going through the documents and headlines about these stars, where I had a more specific memory than most do about an injustice done to a celebrity, but really deep-diving into the particular cruelties and the widespread, sometimes relentless pathologizing of them sort of took me back. The sense of unease was still very present when I saw women presented in a certain way, described in ways that were diminishing or willfully obtuse about the realities of their lives. It made me even angrier and more ready to write the book in the way I did, which was with a sort of subdued rage that I deployed in dry humor more than open hostility. It is a coping mechanism I use in my everyday life, too; when I feel misrepresented or attacked, I try to say something funny that is about the broader issue, okay? Rather than just declaring woundedness.

Rumpus: Does that come from a fear of being too honest in your writing? Too vulnerable?

Massey: I don’t fear excessive honesty or vulnerability as much as I fear over-disclosure that doesn’t lend itself to my creative intentions, which is almost always to make my personal experience apply more universally. I have inherited a very Protestant, perhaps even puritanical belief, that my writing should have a purpose, some use in the world that readers can walk away with. And people are more likely to engage when they have some sense of intimacy with the writer, but that backfires if you say too much or give so much detail that the experience you describe becomes foreign to them, rather than one they can see themselves in.

The best piece of writing advice I ever got was my first week as a BuzzFeed staff writer, where I was one of the people hired to write lists about like, twenty-eight cats who were sitting on top of the fridge like assholes and why Voldemort would make a good boyfriend. The person at training said, “Take yourself out of the post enough that the reader thinks they wrote it themselves.” It is what compelled people to share those things: it felt personal to them because all the jokes were understood, all the particularities were made vague enough to resonate, but it was still all very true and thoughtful. Now, that was intended for lists about corgis and introverts and funny signs but I found it super applicable for essays. Take out the jokes, references, and anecdotal tidbits that make my personal stories susceptible to reader alienation, judgment, or boredom and you connect more easily. So my writing isn’t dishonest but the personal elements are selected with extreme care and most are omitted.

Rumpus: Personal essays remain an often maligned form of writing. I think that this is at least partially because they are seen as feminine or a feminized art form. You are obviously an amazing critic, but you are very present in your writing, which I think benefits the pieces in this collection especially. It feels like a memoir, but not necessarily a memoir of the self, more so a kind of cultural memoir. Are you opposed to this label being attached to your writing?

Massey: I’m not opposed to there being an aspect of this book identified as memoir, I just don’t know that it fits the form especially well. My whole writing career started with me writing entirely about myself, my experiences, and then trying to relate them to a broader or more universal idea about modern life, womanhood, etc. I think the disdain for the memoir genre is distinctly gendered, we believe that men who write about themselves are writing about the universal because we believe that men are the default human identity while women who write about themselves are gazing inward and being selfish. That said, I think more of what I was trying to do here was cultural criticism and I put myself in the book because I bristle at the idea of objective criticism in this context.

Rumpus: It kind of relates to how the “objective” perspective/writer is always and only seen as a white man. Only men are allowed objectivity or have objectivity projected onto them.

Massey: It is never by accident that certain critics end up writing or talking about particular artists, films, books, etc. Usually they have skin in the game; they are either fans or antagonists already. Their critique of any form of art is the result of their entire history of engaging with art, knowing where it comes from, what it feels like to experience it, and inevitably, that will be informed by personal attachments that were developed along the way. I think those attachments are good; I think they make our lives richer. I don’t think saying something to the effect of, “Look, I am especially sympathetic to Courtney Love because of experiences I had as a small girl so please understand this essay with that context,” is a show of weakness or even vulnerability; it is just a statement that I’m human and my memory is what informs my present mind, just like every other person on this planet.

Rumpus: Okay, now about Courtney Love: I don’t know her, but I am familiar with her as a cultural reference. How rude is it to say that I think of her and quite a few other like troubled, druggy white women as a kind of phenomenon that can only exist because they’re white and monied and cute. I don’t know if Courtney Love would be able to exist, culturally or literally, if she were a black woman.

Massey: I think that’s entirely true—we wouldn’t be nearly as forgiving of her if she were black. Like, Whitney Houston is someone whose struggles with drugs and relationships were similarly played out in terms of erratic behavior and we were SO much crueler to Whitney Houston, who was just profoundly more talented than Courtney Love and more beloved when her career and life were going well. Society and culture turn on black women in a way that they don’t turn on white women (as quickly). It’s why Madonna can still get away with being sexually explicit and provocative to a certain extent in her public life but the public ridicules Lil’ Kim for anything resembling the same in this, shunning, diminishing way.

Rumpus: Today, I reread your essay, “You’re Right, I Didn’t Eat That.” It’s one of my favorites from you, a piece that I find myself constantly returning to. Do you think that there is a connection between the belief that thin women just are that way without any intentional effort and the idea that feminine genius is kind of incidental, occurring without any conscious or considerable effort on the woman’s behalf?

Massey: I think there’s definitely overlap in the way that men expect women to be effortlessly thin, or accidentally thin, or just predisposed to thinness in a way that doesn’t require women to be thinking about it and the way they want women’s genius to manifest. If a woman creates something that is multilayered, deep, revelatory, and complex, men often want to be the ones who explain all of those elements back to her, as if she was just thinking her magical thoughts and they come out brilliant, that she didn’t labor over them intensely. They want to be the ones to name the depth in them, to recognize the beauty in them, rather than allowing a female genius to be the owner of that genius and to say, “Oh yes, these levels of meaning, this strategy, and indeed, this genius, were all my design.” It comes up a lot in the writing about Lil’ Kim, Britney Spears, and Anna Nicole Smith, three women whose genius is always considered like, something mostly white male critics realized years later rather than something they orchestrated themselves.

Rumpus: It’s like the highest compliment you can pay an athlete or performer is that they look “effortless.” I think, there’s something transgressive about women saying “Actually, this took a lot of effort, thank you.” I thought about that especially in the essay on Lil’ Kim, who is a woman I always think of as being “owed” tremendously. You wrote that you discovered her exceptionally early. Do you think that you knew who/what she was, on a cultural level, as an eleven-year-old?

Massey: I don’t think I knew who and what she was as an eleven-year-old in 1996, at least not her cultural significance and artistic genius. I had no language or learning around the profound importance of black women’s voices and visibility being used as instruments of revolutionary social commentary, inversion of stereotypes, or resistance to white supremacy or existing labels and ideas around them. I mean, I realized, “Whoa, this lady is cool and sexy and doing something I haven’t seen done before,” but I didn’t know what that meant in a broader context, both to the music industry and to the culture. It took growing up and coming to admire her on my own terms and watching the narrative turn so violently and vilely against her that made me really get upset and seek out a language with which to describe it. I will never fully relate to it as a beneficiary of white supremacy and a white feminism that values my sexual self-expression in a way that doesn’t honor that of black women like Lil’ Kim, but I can do what I can to push up against it and call it what it is.

Rumpus: There is a girlish quality to Lil’ Kim, a playful element which she never grew out of. You write about girlhood and girlishness frequently, and with such a tenderness, especially in the essay on Sylvia Plath. I have this theory that we’re all perpetually girls. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt like a woman. In a sense, I feel like I’m kind of in this protracted girlhood. Do you think of yourself as still inhabiting girlhood?

Massey: I am very defensive of girls and the idea of girlishness in part because I find myself very defensive of children in general and in part because I do feel this same sense that I’m still very much a girl. I think girls are smart and fun and most of all, human in a way that we don’t fully acknowledge. We say, “Oh you’re still just a girl” as if that part of life doesn’t count when it is arguably when the stakes are higher than at any other time in our lives. It is when our brains are absorbing so much about what it means to be a person in our corner of the universe, negotiating our value and finding pieces of our identity that then inform who we become, how we behave, and how we see the world. I feel the same way about the idea of boys and boyishness. When people say, “Stop acting like boys and be men,” I’m like, “Um, have you met men?” Give me the sweet, goofy, tender, and physically and emotionally clumsy demeanor of boys over toxic masculinity any day. I think that children, both boys and girls, are more earnest and tender and honest and more given to having fun and letting joy take over their whole beings than adults. Children are also full of just as much despair as adults, but we don’t fully recognize it in them, and we are reluctant to identity sadness in children as anything but a phase or an overreaction.

Rumpus: Sylvia Plath has become like an archetype for a certain type of sad, literary white woman. Her depression has been romanticized and also commodified in a way that you touch on in your piece.

Massey: I think her depression has been more romanticized in the criticism of her harshest detractors than by her actual fans. I think her actual fans relate deeply to her genius and her experiences. I think that she’s the archetypical sad, literary white woman because she’s the easiest target by dying so young and having so small a body of work that was indeed mostly self-focused. Vanessa Willoughby explored her connection to Plath and the dearth of similar writings by black women in a tremendous essay called, “Black Girls Don’t Read Sylvia Plath”: the white woman with depression is the only one she had access to because publishers, libraries, and bookstores don’t prioritize the written interior lives of black women. I think the commodification of it is not so much about commerce as homage: a way to memorialize her that yes, costs money, but so do most things. They get tattoos and wear shirts and carry tote bags adorned with her words and her face because these items are extensions of our bodies, of our interior worlds that live under the skin they adorn.

Rumpus: You write a lot about your own body as well as the physicality of other women. You were one of the first women I’d ever read who was really honest about the amount of time, energy, and resources you expend to maintain a certain physical appearance. It reminds me of this quote I read about how women rarely want anything as much as they want to be skinny/thin. Do you think this is true?

Massey: It is really important to me that there are conversations around the work that goes into thinness in the same way I think there need to be conversations that highlight the work that goes into almost everything women do. There is this idea that effortlessness is virtuous and appealing in a woman because we as a society don’t want to grapple with the fact that women have deep, profound desires that are being acted upon, whether that is by becoming and staying thin or cultivating intellectual or creative brilliance. We want women’s genius and beauty to be accidental, part of her very essence rather than something she worked hard for. We are still uncomfortable with the idea that women do real labor, and part of my writing and in this book especially is to say that women’s identities are rarely the result of incident and accident, especially famous women. I don’t know if I can speak for all women on their desire to be thin. I do believe that the desires and minds and identities of women who are thin are bestowed more value and visibility in the world and that if there is a desire for thinness, it is likely rooted in witnessing how much more validation thin women get in the world.

Rumpus: I watched The Virgin Suicides after reading your essay, which is one of my favorites in the entire collection. The film and book, because they are communicating the girls through the imagination of boys, kind of treats them as a single entity, a five headed hydra. They even seem to move, in certain scenes, as a single unit. The writer Durga Polashi said that her primary identity is that of a daughter and I’ve kind of adopted this sentiment for myself. The place that I write from, my most developed identity is that of a daughter. For you, it seems like it may be “sister.” Not only your actual relation with your own sister, but the manner in which you write about these women.

Massey: This is a tough one because I’m someone who always bristles when a woman is being treated poorly and their defenders identify them as “someone’s wife, daughter, and a loving mother” as if only familial relationships justify a woman’s existence. At the same time, I have always felt like I belonged to people, that I have a moral obligation to do right and even to stay alive because I don’t belong only to myself. I feel this most acutely about my sister, I think I’m hers and she’s mine. She is the person I remember loving first and most ferociously. My essays on Mary Kate and Ashley and on The Virgin Suicides were some of the hardest to write because it’s a love so heavy it hurts sometimes. You know how when people are down on themselves, people say, “I wish you could see in yourself what I see in you”? My litmus test for knowing who or what I most “am” is knowing that the person I want to know my thoughts about most is my sister and I kind of imagine it is the same for her. I think she hung the moon and summons the wind.

Rumpus: There’s a lot of mythological imagery in The Virgin Suicides essay, and theological elements elsewhere. Do you consider yourself religious? I know that you went to divinity school, which influences your criticism.

Massey: I lost what was a very devout religious faith somewhat suddenly when I got to divinity school and thought it would be gone for good. But I can’t stop looking at the world and trying to make sense of it and coming back to the shape of the cross. It’s funny, I thought only the essay about Lana Del Rey, Fiona Apple, and Dolly Parton was especially religious but nearly every review and interview has brought up some element of the book’s moral instruction or theme of redemption. I’m not even from a religious family but there has always been a pull toward Christianity, toward the audacious idea that peace will be delivered and that death will be conquered, indeed it all already has but we must wait for the day and hour, by a foreign boy born in a manger. I don’t believe it all to be true but I’m seeking out the still, small voice of God who will tell me it is again.


Author photograph © Don Razniewski.