By Sally Franson
(Editor's Note: A couple of weeks ago, my dear friend and UMN classmate Sally Franson and I were chatting about our mutual dissatisfaction with the final couple of episodes of Girls. Out of nowhere, she said something quite brilliant about the show, character, and therapy culture. I wasn't surprised. Every conversation with Sally contains at least a couple moments of utter genius. I asked her to turn what she told me into an essay. Below she delivers in spades. Enjoy.)
Once, some time ago, I was drinking green tea with an old friend and talking about my problems. I use old in the sense that he was aged: in his seventies, an artist like me. Unlike me, he had grown up in rural China. I was younger then, and knew less than I do now, yet in the paradox of youth I thought I knew more. I was worrying over the bad things that had happened to me; I was trying to figure out why. I worried and worried until my friend held up his hand, but kindly, the way you halt a toddler before he careens into the wall. “You Americans,” he said. “You always want to manage your suffering.”
Suffering, it seems to me, emerges from two sources. The first is the terrible fear that we are unlovable. The second is the terrible fear that meaning does not exist. The former, for some of us, might never be relieved. The latter we try to relieve through various addictions and obsessions, but it can only really be lifted through art. Yet the purpose of art isn’t to make suffering manageable, or comprehensible; it’s simply to make us feel less alone in it. Suffering in its purest form – as in, its original manifestation in the body; as in, that deep, nameless ache beneath our ribs – is universal, everlasting. In art this deep namelessness can be held in the silence between words, chord progressions, chunks of paint on a canvas. In life, however, we have difficulty staying with it. Our index finger careens in a circle, desperate to assign causality. We want someone, or something, to blame, be it our parents, our genetics, a condition parsable by the DSM-V. So we go to therapy. Or we take our meds. Or (and here I claim my positionality) we do both. Healing neurosis through this kind of work is valuable and necessary, especially for creative types, but what happens when the work we do in life in order to create art starts leaching into the art itself?
It’s happening more and more in literature, this turning to pathology as a narrative gesture. But the problem with the therapeutic narrative is that it’s predestined and stale. Marilynne Robinson calls it a “mean little myth,” a bungled effort to make suffering tidier. Which may work as a survival tactic as well as any other mythology, but it’s a real buzz kill in stories. Chekov, who implored his fellow writers to “shun descriptions of a character’s spiritual state,” would be alarmed by the trend, for the therapeutic narrative stands in opposition to the Creative Writing 101 admonition to show, not tell. And, more importantly, in opposition to the lateral, non-predestined maneuvers required for the creative process to bear authentic fruit.
In an essay entitled “Narrative Dysfunction,” a brilliant postmodern continuation of Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” Charles Baxter argues that the dysfunction in contemporary fiction and drama can be boiled down to this quest for blame, which is the engine of so much contemporary storytelling (including, oh, approximately ninety percent of memoirs). “The perplexed and unhappy,” Baxter writes, “don’t know what their lives are telling them, and they don’t feel they are in charge of their own existence.” Ergo, we create stories that search for the source of our discontent; the unhappiness and confusion must have a locus, and if we can only find that locus, then we’ll be okay.
And of course we Americans want to be okay. We are a chubby, comfort-driven people. We also live in the end times of a consumer culture; buying stuff is supposed to be the thing that makes us okay. And it does, temporarily: a charlatan’s panacea. But then it does not. What are we to do? During a bad time a few years back I spent weeks on the couch watching daytime television, and despite the fact that I felt dead inside I convinced myself that life could be sunny, and orderly, and good, if I could only purchase a Swiffer vacuum. That I could not buy a Swiffer vacuum, or that when I did buy a Swiffer vacuum I felt more guilt than happiness, made me more depressed. Which is different than sorrow. There is nobility to sorrow. It shares an Indo-European base with the Sanskrit sūrkṣ: to care about. Depression lacks ferocity. It is the affliction of the impotent, the put-upon. If the Talking Heads were befuddled in the eighties by the beautiful house and the beautiful wife, these days there’s a lurid, entitled demand for both. “Where is my beautiful house?!” we cry as we watch reality television. “Where is my beautiful wife?!” Which might as well be the battle cry for HBO’s hit show Girls, and the reason the show and its creator, Lena Dunham, bug the shit out of so many people.
One can argue ad nauseum over how self-aware the show is about its characters’ privilege and these characters’ inability to take responsibility for anything, including their privilege (I myself think it’s pretty self-aware), but what I am more interested in than the show’s cultural context is the abrupt left turn it takes toward a therapeutic narrative model in the last third of Season Two, now available in toto on DVD. Before this, Girls careened rather pleasantly between slapsticky Gen-Y humor and wistful, Louis C.K.-inspired profundity. Or, to think about it another way, between entertainment and art. It was content to be taken seriously, but not too seriously. Which is why some critics railed against its narrow lens and others defended its Right to Niche. But the light touch of the series falls away in episodes seven through ten. What’s left is nothing more nor less than textbook, DSM-able angst.
By this point in the season, our fearful protagonist Hannah Horvath (played by Lena Dunham) has crumpled under the stress of an e-book deal and a bad breakup, lapsing into full-blown OCD in a way she hasn’t since high school. Lots of counting, lots of obsessing. She busts an eardrum with a Q-Tip, busts the other to make it even. Prior to this revelation there has been not even a whispered reference to this severe affliction in the show, though in episode ten, the season finale Adam, Hannah’s ex-boyfriend, asks if the thing from high school is back, which implies, clunkily, she had confided in him at some point. Until now Hannah has been a riot to watch: an impulsive, pleasure-seeking missile. The kind of missile dramatists dream of, for her actions are often mystifying, even to herself. With the relapse into OCD, and the subsequently tedious therapy visits, medication discussions, and symptom management, Hannah’s buoyant energy deflates, and with it the hum of her storyline’s engine. The focus settles not on her actions but on her inaction, her self-sabotage, and in trundles the grim introspection of the overly pathologized. “We don’t know why you have it,” Hannah’s mother tells her over dinner. “We’re still married, we never raised a hand to you…it’s not our fault.” To which Hannah shoots back, “Well, it’s genetic, which is sort of the ultimate ‘your fault.’”
A funny line, and revealing, but where can a therapeutic narrative go after the locus of the character’s not-okayness has been located? The answer is: nowhere, really. Hannah falls apart, and because we know why, because the answer has been given to us as neatly as an Ativan prescription, it is terrifically boring to watch. “I feel like I’m unraveling,” Hannah tells her Adam. “I’m really, really scared.” This is a moment that has potential to crack the viewer wide open in the way only art can, a moment in which our mutual, essential brokenness can be shared, but we are cut off from Hannah’s suffering; there is no room for anyone else under the lumbering weight of her diagnosis. I can’t help but wonder, and sadly, how much more authentic this moment might have been if we had no idea why Hannah was unraveling, if her emotional state and subsequent behavior remained reasonless, unwitting. If the deep namelessness might have been maintained.
A similar narrative problem occurs with Jessa’s character at the end of the season, when the recently divorced, troubled free spirit (played by Jemima Kirke) pays a visit to her n’er-do-well father. In the emotional climax of episode seven, Jessa slumps, infantilized, on a swing set with her father, angry that he has spent so little time with her over the weekend. The conversation is terse until Jessa bursts into an accusation that will sound unhappily familiar to anyone who has tried to translate a revelation that occurred in a therapist’s office to real life. “You have no idea, do you,” she tells her father, her face puffy with the cyclonic swirl of tantrum. “How much time I’ve spent waiting for you. How much shit I’ve taken because you’ve never taught me how to do anything else!” Father and daughter fight over abandonment and mutual unreliability until finally Jessa cries, the camera lingering on her tearstained face, “I’m the child! I’m the child!”
And here the conversation grinds to a halt, and along with it the arc of Jessa’s character for the season. She abandons Hannah at the end of the episode and disappears entirely for the final three episodes. Though ostensibly this is due to Kirke’s burgeoning pregnancy, in the world of Girls the narrative pressure of Jessa’s bad behavior has been released. Jessa abandons people because her father abandoned her. Jessa picks emotionally unavailable men because her father is emotionally unavailable. Check and mate. Let the healing begin.
Except drama doesn’t exist to heal, at least not on such an obvious level. Drama heals in the way truth heals, the way shadow is no match for light. But because the therapeutic narrative is a broken myth, the revelations about Hannah and Jessa ring false. In contrast, consider season three of “Louie.” Specifically for these purposes, season three, episode eight, an episode called “Dad.” Here Louie finds out from his uncle that his father, with whom he hasn’t spoken in two years, is ill. Shortly thereafter, Louie starts vomiting episodically. He also develops a rash, which prompts a visit to the doctor, who after giving Louie a clean bill of health, gently suggests somatization. Is anything else going on in Louie’s life that might be causing stress? “It’s hard sometimes,” Louie tells the doctor. “Boilerplate misery, alone in the world… But nothing new.” Then he brings up his father, and pukes again.
On the way to his father’s house, in Boston, the GPS mocks Louie. “It’s not like he touched your penis,” the Siri voice says. Louie bristles. “I just feel weird around him,” he says. This tentative confession is the closest thing we get to exposition in the entire episode. Indeed, no explanation is offered when Louie approaches the door to his father’s house and runs away as soon as a silhouette emerges in the glass. Nor when he starts running down the street and rips off his t-shirt and steals an orange three-wheeled motorcycle and drives it to Boston Harbor and jumps down onto the docks and steals a speedboat and drives it into the middle of the quiet ocean and starts to laugh. “Whoo!” Louie says. Until he stops saying it. Until he is quiet, and his face droops, pink with sweat and sun, and his body crumples against the boat’s white faux leather seat. He looks around him, and no one is there, and we jump cut to a shot further back, so that all that’s on the horizon is Louie and the boat and the vast empty ocean, and he tips his head back toward the sky.
In the end, to admit we are haunted by life to admit there is no discernable cause or remedy for this haunting, is to allow ourselves to hold light and dark in the palm of our hand. There is a tragic joy in claiming incomprehensibility. Because it feels truthful. And the truth sets us free. In contrast, by diagnosing characters with particular afflictions, be it OCD, or PTSD, for the purpose of narrative, by stripping a character’s behavior into such linear parts, we fabricate coherence and the art becomes complicit in the culture’s deceit. The best art comes from that inexplicable truth force that moves through the artist, into the work, and then into the receiver of the work, who will hopefully pass it on ad infinitum. “Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me,” wrote D.H. Lawrence. Such wind redeems the creator and the receivers of his creation; it breathes expansion into our cold contracted hearts. To reveal in art that which we do not and perhaps will never understand in life is not a failure of the art; in fact, it is the only art worth making.
 So says the Buddha, anyway, who knows more about these things than I do.
 My heart breaks to note Allison Bechdel’s latest memoir, Are You My Mother?, as one of the worst perpetrators to date, since Fun Home was so damn good and so (until the last few pages, anyway) so resolutely non-therapeutic.
 According to Marilynne Robinson, it goes something like this: “One is born and in passage through childhood suffers some grave harm. Subsequent good fortune is meaningless because of this injury, while subsequent misfortune is highly significant as the consequence of this injury. The work of one’s life is to discover and name the harm one has suffered.”
 And who, speaking of therapeutic narratives, attends an AA meeting in Episode 8 and honks out an expository, feelings-y monologue about their break-up.
 It seems worth noting that Dunham wrote this bit of dialogue for comedic purposes, and to that extent possesses some awareness of Hannah’s self-obsession, but the majority of the OCD-related content in Girls feels earnest to the point of turgidity.
 Or all of “Louie.” Forever.
 He even vomits while playing poker with Sarah Silverman.