One ordinary summer’s afternoon American writer Lindy West received a message from her dead dad. Paul West had recently passed away from prostate cancer. But there he was, sitting at the piano, in a Twitter profile with the username “PawWestDonezo”. The bio read: “Embarrassed father of an idiot. Other two kids are fine, though.” The location? “Dirt hole in Seattle.”
The fake Twitter profile was just one of hundreds of abusive messages West, an outspoken feminist, fat activist, and GQ and Guardian columnist, received daily online. But this time it was persecuting her grief. West wrote an article for Jezebel expressing her pain and shock. Unexpectedly, the troll emailed to apologise, admitting it was “the lowest thing I had ever done”.
The episode is the most gripping of a mixed batch of anecdotes in West’s unvarnished memoir Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, often drawn closely from her previously published articles. We learn about her abortion (she is a co-founder of the #ShoutYourAbortion social media campaign), her spats with her former boss Dan Savage, her crusade against rape jokes in the comedy scene, and how she “came out” as proud and fat.
Central to West’s writing is removing gender norms that dictate it’s a woman’s “job to be decorative”. Getting straight to the point, she opens Shrill with the “taboo” topic of periods. West describes a “chocolate fountain” that “turn[s] my pants into a crime scene once a month”, how periods are made from “hot brown blood [that] glops and glops out of your private area like a broken Slurpee machine”, and the weird sensation of using tampons that “cork up your hole”. For West, periods are no more disgusting than faeces or urine, but she diagnoses society’s disgust as misogyny.
Love her or hate her West is a polarising voice in the United States. She can be funny and, at her best, as with her chapter on trolls, honest and vulnerable. But her penchant for MAKING A POINT IN CAPITAL LETTERS and her love of crude humour often detracts from much-needed nuance. Ultimately West wants to “kick down the boundaries that society has set for women – be compliant, be a caregiver, be quiet” and erect her own, more bold and brazen definitions. It’s a shame, then, that the word she wants to reclaim – shrill – often only serves to drown out everything else. EA
Quercus, 272pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 4, 2016 as "Lindy West, Shrill ". Subscribe here.