It's very difficult to write about Shrill, Lindy West's debut essay collection, without being effusive. When you finish the final page, your immediate impulse is to gush at anyone who will listen about how accomplished it is, about how West further demonstrates her unparalleled intelligence, humour and empathy throughout. Of course, none of this is entirely surprising, given that West has long been a cultural treasure. In the years she has been writing about feminism, fat, choice and how we can all be better, kinder human beings, she's developed a loyal following of readers who look to her to make some sense of this cruel, toxic mess we're in.
West came to prominence through her writing for The Stranger and Jezebel, and has since gained further notoriety through work at GQ and The Guardian. She founded the destigmatizing social-media campaign "Shout Your Abortion," and, for This American Life, she bravely interviewed her biggest troll, revealing unimaginable compassion toward a man who adopted her beloved, deceased father's image to harass her on the Internet. With grace and wit, she's taken on the ubiquity of rape jokes and fat shaming, and lifted the veil on the abusive tenor of our online conversations. In short, West has become a much-needed beacon of solace and reason in an increasingly vitriolic world.
With Shrill, West compiles both her experiences of living in the public eye, and her relatable private struggles, further solidifying her reputation as one of the more important voices working in feminist commentary today. Part memoir and part cultural analysis, each essay takes us through an aspect of her life, from lacking fat female role models, to peeing her pants in third grade, to period shame, to her abortion, to once failing to fit in a seat on an airplane. Some of the book is certainly laugh-out-loud funny, as West writes with her signature irreverence and light conversational tone, while other parts are painful reminders of her (and, subsequently, our) vulnerability. She delves deep into the personal to reveal the universal, and the final result is entirely affecting.
Beyond being hilarious and smart, one of the more compelling aspects of Shrill is West's ability to write reflectively on pieces she's already put out into the world. Many essays are actually an analysis of the writer's own impact, and how her bravery in publicly addressing "controversial" issues has had an effect, for better or worse, on her private life. (You know, controversial issues such as "people deserve dignity and respect.") In "Hello, I Am Fat," she discusses her 2011 decision to stand up to colleague Dan Savage's writing on the "obesity epidemic," and in doing so gifts the editor an incredible amount of understanding. "Like all of us, he is sometimes slow to find the right side of the issue."
This openhearted approach is signature Lindy West – an offering of profound benevolence that her detractors refuse to return in kind. No place is this more evident than in her piece "Slaying the Troll," where she discusses interactions with the online harasser who adopted the persona of her deceased father. The essay looks plainly at how there is no "winning" when it comes to trolls, no block or mute function that will salve the torment, no silence that will make it stop. A few years ago, after publicly sharing the very real effect the grotesque gesture had on her, she got a surprising e-mail apology, and later interviewed the offender to get at why he would do such a terrible thing.
"He hated his body. He was miserable," she writes in Shrill of the conversation. "And reading about fat people, particularly fat women, accepting and loving themselves as they were, infuriated him for reasons he couldn't articulate at the time."
In having this difficult interaction in full view, West confirms what we already know about the connection between unkindness and insecurity. On the subject of abusive trolls, she says, "I don't wish them any pain. Their pain is what got us here in the first place." Impossibly – and admirably – she offers forgiveness.
There is a passage in Shrill in which West notes that a fellow comedian – now her husband – once called her "a really, really radically good person." It's a description that she follows up with a joke, but it's apt for someone who consistently goes out there, at great risk to herself, to make the world better for all of us. While West is certainly bold, unapologetic, comedic and even brash in her delivery, there's an undeniable root kindness to everything she gives us, a writer so transparently invested in bringing her readers comfort in a world that offers so little.
Yes, it's hard to discuss Shrill without being effusive. It's hard to write about it without offering gratitude, and pullquotes such as "this is the best and most important book I've read all year." But it's certainly no exaggeration to say we're all very lucky to live in a world where Lindy West exists.
When she writes, "I hope I helped," you want to enthusiastically respond, "more than you can ever know."