“I don’t have a publicist, so you don’t have to worry about that,” says Lena Dunham with a twinkly laugh, seconds after she breezes into the homey Brooklyn Heights, NYC, eatery where we’ve agreed to meet. The 28-year-old, best known for playing hipster hero Hannah Horvath on Girls, makes a great first impression. She’s gorgeous—glowing skin, sleek pre-platinum bob, matching black-and-white printed shorts and blouse—and genuinely delightful (a word I do not use lightly) from the moment she greets me until the moment, one hour later, we hug goodbye.
On this sunny Sunday afternoon, we’re here to discuss the actress/writer/director/producer’s highly anticipated memoir, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned,” which I’ve binge-read over the previous 36 hours. The book, released on Sept. 30, has been making news since 2012—when The New York Times reported that Dunham received a very sizable advance for it—and is bound to occupy the zeitgeist well into 2016. (That is not a typo.) The $3.5-million question: was it worth it? There will be as many opinions on that as there are ill-fitting rompers in Hannah’s closet, but for me, the answer is yes.
Or at least, yes if you tend to see memoirs as a means by which to be comforted about your own misadventures.
Not That Kind Of Girl is a set of personal essays, emails and listicles, in the style of Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? or Nora Ephron’s I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections. It was the late Ephron, to whom Dunham’s book is dedicated, who encouraged her to publish it in the first place.
It’s both light (her meet-cute with best friend Audrey Gelman; time spent working at a posh childrenswear boutique whose frou-frou wares she suspects will render its male clientele impotent in adulthood) and dark: the very first line, “I am twenty years old and I hate myself,” foretells accounts of Dunham’s lifelong struggles with anxiety and OCD (“I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for therapy”). Additional topics include lecherous grade-school teachers, opportunistic Hollywood types and sexually aggressive Republicans. The last subject, which culminates in a chapter called “Barry,” outlines the assault she experienced in university—one she’s still hesitant to directly refer to as rape.
“I made a choice that I wanted to tell the story without trying to say rape because you don’t write something like that and then put it away. That’s an experience that will be with me for my whole life,” she says. “My fear about putting it in the book was that it would become a memoir about rape. But I also think it’s important to put in because it informed a lot of the relationships that came after. I spent a lot of time trying to come to terms with what had happened, thinking, No, maybe I’m a person who likes rough sex; maybe I’m a person who has complicated feelings about boundaries when it comes to sex. The answer I came to was that that was not true.”
The fact that, as she writes, “the act was committed in a haze of warm beer, Xanax bits and poorly administered cocaine” is a complicating factor: “I think that’s still the really central conflict for a lot of girls who have engaged in non-consensual sexual experiences,” she says. “I was out and I was high and I was drinking and I wanted to be loved.”
Dunham is obviously aware that this essay could ignite a firestorm. Her dream is that women with similar experiences will feel validated; her nightmare is that it will trigger negative reactions or prompt the real-life “Barry” to make contact. (Later, when discussing some of the pseudonyms she employed in the book, she says: “I didn’t want to name him Lester the Molester, but I thought it was a lateral move, name-wise.”)
Let it be noted that we hit on this highly personal topic roughly five minutes after we met. Dunham says she doesn’t believe in secrets, but admits that the time she once drank a diuretic tea to the point of acute colitis—as she reveals in the chapter on her adventures in dieting (excerpted in FLARE’s November issue, available now via Next Issue or the FLARE app)—was “a big deal to write about—but I thought it was important to share what dieting and drinking Ex-Lax tea can lead to.”
Dunham’s body is at the centre of the conversational vortex that surrounds her; earlier this year, feminist website Jezebel very un-feminist-ly offered a $10,000 bounty to the first person to pony up unretouched shots from her February Vogue shoot, then noted in the resulting post that the retouching largely consisted of “slight tweaks.” In person, Dunham appears light in spirit and in form, so much so that this cultural low point seems even more ridiculous than it already is.
As for the brief period of manic dieting that she recounts in the book, replete with daily food journals? “All I wanted during that time was a croissant, or to kill myself,” she says. “It was weird because I had never cared about being fat up until that point. And I didn’t really care after. These days, I eat when I’m hungry and I don’t when I’m not. But if you had told me that then, I’d be like, ‘Go f-ck yourself.’”
Also on her GFY list: the “Sunshine Stealers” she writes about in a chapter entitled “I Didn’t F-ck Them, But They Yelled at Me”: older men in the Hollywood machine whom she encountered when her star was rising, who were hoping to swipe a little of that luminescence for themselves; looking, as she writes, “for some new form of energy, of approval. It’s linked with sex, but it’s not the same. What they want to take from you is way worse than your thong in the back of their Lexus. It’s ideas, curiosity, an excitement about getting up in the morning and making things.”
She doesn’t get into specifics (“You know what’s not classy? Naming names”) but says she’s since become less susceptible to their advances. “I understand the signs and I can step away. I also feel like my career is no longer dependent on relationships with guys who have won Oscars. And that’s a great feeling.”
The Internet buzz about her balling book advance, however, did steal a little of Dunham’s sunshine, partly because she grew up in a household where money wasn’t spoken of, and partly because she couldn’t imagine the same thing happening to a man. “I never want to pinpoint misogyny when I don’t think it’s the cause of what I’m dealing with,” she tells me, “but that was definitely one of those moments when it was very hard to imagine a male author and TV actor being placed in the same situation, where they had to defend being given that advance.”
Needless to say, there’s no money talk in Not That Kind of Girl, nor is there any significant writing on fashion. Dunham loves clothes—she describes a recent Giambattista Valli fitting, which I later realize must have been for her pink-and-red Emmys confection, as like “watching someone conduct an orchestra, it’s so f-cking cool”—but abandoned an essay she was writing on the subject. “I love fashion, I love getting dressed, I love the things I get to wear on the red carpet even if the fashion police don’t,” she says. “But I don’t like how linked it is to our culture’s obsession with women’s bodies.”
For this reason, she prefers decorating, having moved into a new apartment earlier this year with her boyfriend of two-plus years, musician Jack Antonoff of Fun and Bleachers.
“He’s the most awesome person in the world,” says Dunham. “If I’m ever in danger of crying in an interview, that’s why.” He’s the reason, she says, she was able to write about “Barry” at all. “To be met with this absence of judgment and this understanding that you’re not damaged and you’re still sexual and you’re still whole; he told me everything I didn’t know I needed to hear,” she says.
As our interview concludes, Dunham is off to record a voiceover for Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time—“I play this crazy woman named Betty, so once a year I get to go and hang out for an hour and make weird noises”—and will spend the upcoming week filming the final episodes of season four of Girls, before embarking on a 12-city book tour. She’s insanely busy, yes, but also insanely happy. “I like being alive now,” she says, “more than I’ve ever liked being alive before.”