Yet, and happily, Girls Gone Old is dazzlingly good. The personal essay is, after all, an (overly) familiar genre, and there is something both refreshing and satisfying in watching Helmsley provide a master class in making it new(er).
Sadly, however, you may have heard about the book via outlandish right-wing fulminations and trolling against its author by right-wing media personalities and their acolytes. Helmsley’s post-Charlottesville interview at Salon with that website’s politics writer, Amanda Marcotte, has been seized upon by the deplorable and proud (boy) contingent, merely because she dared to identify “male fragility” as a powerful current in that August orgy of hate.
Class and race issues also flowed into convergence with male fragility to create mayhem and fatalities in Charlottesville. Yet Helmsley and Marcotte’s focus on the male fragility and rage on such prominent display in Virginia that weekend is a necessary intervention in how we understand these events.
The fevered testosteronic response to this discussion was predictable. Q.E.D. Yet it is baffling if you actually watch the interview, and see that it was utterly devoid of rancor. Helmsley and Marcotte shared a baffled bewilderment about the male fragility writ large in riot. They grappled for answers about how to cope with it, and perhaps reach a place where angry men douse their backyard torches, stifle their chanting and trolling, and place their white polo shirts, tan khakis, and camouflage back in their closets. Indeed, they couldn’t offer any concrete solutions beyond encouraging men to talk about their feelings and raising men better. (Knitting was also mentioned.)
So when right-wing sites and broadcasts such as NewsBusters and The Morning Blaze provided their utterly predictable screeching vituperations in response, the result was an object lesson in why what might be dubbed “Male Fragility Panic” (MFP) has become such a recursive nightmare. When the sexism and misogyny that suffuse society take on phantasmagorical shape – as they did in Charlottesville and its aftermath – one cannot even name it as such without being gas lit (at best) or metaphorically burned at the stake on social media as some sort of hysterical feminist witch.
Yes, yes, there is no such thing as bad press. But it is a disservice to the achievement of Girls Gone Old that “male fragility” has stolen all the focus thus far. Helmsley’s essays have a kaleidoscopic quality, shifting and reshaping as they go. They reveal as much about the dense web of relationships and shifting milieus in which we exist as social beings as they do about the author’s own life.
Girls Gone Old is unsparing in its depiction of the dynamics of Helmsley’s relationships with lovers, frenemies, drug buddies, dealers, and online communities. There are blows against the patriarchy, sure. But taken as a whole, the collection also creates an unerringly artful sociology of class, addiction, technology, and the inescapable gravity of celebrity.
Not to say that incisive explorations of sexism and femininity are not a key element of the book. In “Killing Me Softly: On Elliot Rodger and the Power of No,” Helmsley interrogates the seeming simplicity of “No Means No” as it plays out in the contested and violent landscape of Facebook and friendships with men that seem to vaporize (or worse) when sexual advances are turned down. Her indictment of male fragility in the face of refusal – and the terror that often accompanies it for any woman in the way of it – is utterly damning:
I believe that the empathetic no is most women’s default no, because somewhere along the lines we internalized it not just as politesse, but as a survival tactic. Sometime in our lives, we either learned or observed that it was better to be careful with our small nos. That some men might react to them as if they were being attacked with a real weapon.
Helmsley acknowledges the messy complexities and complicities of gender relations as well, even when they get uncomfortably close to home. The title essay plunges into a world that rarely touches the male author; save, perhaps, for the postage-sized author photo on a back cover: What should an author look like on their book? How do they present? Helmsley tackles her own experiments in this fraught arena with candor and ferocity, tallying up the high risks and shallow rewards:
Since I chose to do this, I can say, upon reflection—the gains were pretty meager. I ended up having to deal with more fuckboys than fans, and in the communications I had with a lot of the male readers of my writing, that undercurrent was always there, and never really seemed to morph into anything more substantial. Yes, they wanted to fuck me (false success), but it never really evolved, as far as I could tell, into some deeper appreciation of my work (real success). I’ve learned that women can use their physicality, but they will never be able to control what happens once they do.
Once I’d turned them on, it was hard to turn them off.
It was hard to get them to focus.
It was hard to get them to read.
(Did I mention that the cover star of Girls Gone Old is a slightly blank/slightly beatific Squeaky Fromme? More on that later.)
As central as gender is to Hemsley’s endeavor, her sharply-observed takes on class and celebrity culture are just as much at the heart of Girls Gone Old. Helmsley comes from a family that scrabbled hard to keep its fingernails on the lowest rung of the middle class and sometimes came up short. It is this frantic, desperate energy that fuels pieces such as “12 Flash Non Fictions,” in which Helmsley recalls a listing for an Irish castle that her mother kept in a dresser as “(t)he dream in the drawer.”
Helmsley’s particularly unique and acidic take on celebrity is also worth exploring. So many examinations of the peculiar gravity of celebrity run top down or bottom up. The psychology of the star or the fan. But Helmsley’s essays often stride into the less explored territory of the near-acquaintance, the hangers-on, and rivals. “My Icon Hates Me” is a classic of this genre – a rollicking and disquieting glimpse of obsession, crossed wires, and the pain of outgrowing one’s influences as felt on both sides of the equation. “Ghoul Girl Grows Up” takes this unnerving proximity to notoriety into even darker territory, tracing Helmsley’s adolescent fixation on
Charles Manson’s celebrity murder cult (Hello, Squeaky!) to a mercifully brief correspondence with serial killer Richard Ramirez.
These strands of gender, class and celebrity often weave together to powerful effect. “The Rape Book” excavates the roots of desire, fantasy and violence in Helmsley’s preadolescent diaries, the screen tests of Andy Warhol, Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “It’s So Easy,” and close readings of Mork and Mindy and Little House on the Prairie. And in her essay on the most-overexposed and most-terrifying figure in American life (“Playing the Donald Trump Game”), Helmsley takes Trumpism beyond the man and into the very sinews of culture by using a Trump-themed board game of the 1980s as a launching pad for a withering dissection of privilege and its impositions.
As a teenager in the 80s, Helmsley buys the Trump game as a birthday gift for a wealthier friend named Gwen who covets it. She recalls that they never even played the Trump game together. Instead, it is a brutally snide remark about money from Gwen’s father that fuels the essay’s icy rage about the corrosive culture of flaunting wealth so identified with Trump:
It’s strange to think about the insecurities that must plague men like Gwen’s father, men who present themselves bigly. They like that word, too, bigly (“big league”), they also have a weakness for the expression “big time.” Why do bigly men who have access to so much still feel a need to degrade those who don’t, to humiliate them, to remind them when they are being given something, or twist it around, claiming that something has been taken from them?
As political scientists dig into the 2016 election results, they are finding that it is not the so-called “white working class” who form the bulk of Trump’s electoral base, but rather a slightly more affluent stratum of ragey white voters: male and female. It is precisely this demographic and its posture that fuels the Trump movement, and which Helmsley captures so precisely.
The personal essay also has a bias toward memory, and as its title underscores, Girls Gone Old proves how powerful a gravity reminiscence can wield on our trajectory and personality. "2001: An Internet Odyssey" takes the reader back to the moment when the Internet was just starting to obsess and overwhelm us. It’s an essay in which Helmsley reminds us that LiveJournal could be a rapacious a destroyer as Facebook, and that the web always has been a sordid and score-settling place.
The essay that closes the book, “Vagaries of the Demimonde,” is even more extraordinary. It’s an extended meditation on addiction, despair, and healing in a late 90s/early aughts New York that somehow oscillates between its squalid past and its onrushing gentrified future that startles with its chilly matter-of-factness. Recalling the Tompkins Square Park of that era, Helmsley writes:
Callie and I were never put off by the downtrodden, but she was much more friendly and tolerant of the transit punk rock travelers who also hung out in and around the park. I liked to imagine we were part of a larger, more romantic tradition, something I couldn’t see in their aggressive panhandling, and hostile pitbulls. In them I saw a ruthlessness born of desperation.
The personal essay in Helmsley’s hands becomes an often-understated but relentless self-interrogation, never veering into self-pity or mythmaking, and opening up vistas far beyond the self. Girls Gone Old is about what it’s like to be a woman, and young, and gullible, and fucked up, and callous, and addicted, and smart past your years, but not truly wise until you’ve been hurt a hundred times and in a hundred unique ways. It’s also about living with hopes, and having those hopes dashed, and finding ways to push on past hope. Without hope. Having discarded hope, mostly.