Emily Ratajkowski’s ‘My Body'

Emily Ratajkowski’s ‘My Body’ ★★★¾

Emily Ratajkowski, for those unacquainted, is an actress and model – with the kind of face and body that has defined her whole life. She rose to mainstream fame in Robin Thicke’s infamous Blurred Lines video, and has since starred in Gone Girl and graced the catwalk at countless fashion shows. Her body has made her a millionaire, but it has undoubtedly come at personal cost.

These essays, better described as a loose memoir, are her attempt to reclaim the narrative, use her voice, and work through the sticky complexities that come from being in her line of work. Her perspective is fascinating, vulnerable, conflicted. She is articulate about the challenges of selling her image while wanting to retain ownership over it. In ‘Buying Myself Back’, an essay previously published in The New Yorker, she writes about a sleazy photographer early on in her career who took nude photos of her, ostensibly for a magazine shoot, only to publish the rest of the roll of film years later when Emily had risen to fame – in glossy coffee-table style books for which she didn’t earn a penny. The distinction may not be visible to all, but it’s an important one. So what, people might think – she was a willing participant in the shoot, why does it matter what the photos are used for? But it does matter, in a world where the power is so frequently taken from women and wielded by powerful men.

She is unflinchingly honest about her experiences as a victim of sexual violence, writing in a clear-eyed way about the self-doubt and self-loathing that creeps in in the aftermath. In fact, the whole book is unflinchingly honest about all sorts of things: how she felt her mother place her value on her beauty from a young age, how modelling became a vehicle for influence and not just money (against her better judgement), the serotonin boost at seeing hundreds of thousands of likes tick up on a single Instagram post.

‘Through the years, I’d developed a necessary and protective immunity to the frequent disappointments and rejections that came with modelling… I didn’t care if my image ended up on a billboard or in a magazine as long as the check cleared. I wasn’t interested in fame or notoriety, just the cash, or at least that’s what I told myself. In New York, I broke my own rules; I let myself imagine the power, beyond money, that other women seemed to have gained by becoming successful.’

The essential problem is that the money and power necessitates playing the game. However much it is a feminist act to commodify your body and use it to make a living and build a public persona (which I wholeheartedly support – make that money!) you are still essentially doing so within the oppressive white, patriarchal power structures of that industry.

‘The women who gained their power from beauty were indebted to the men whose desire granted them that power in the first place.’

I won’t be the first person to point out where this book falls a little short: it’s her perspective alone, and doesn’t always scratch much beyond the surface. If you’re going in expecting a searing interrogation of western beauty ideals, the (fe)male gaze, and what can be done to make the industry fairer, you’re not going to find it. But it succeeds in being a frank first-person account of a life very few of us will ever truly understand.

I know it gets a bit silly to fractionise ratings in this way, but I went back and forth on how to rate this and so settled on 3.75 stars: not quite illuminating enough to be 4 stars, but well-accomplished as an articulate and thoughtful perspective we don’t often hear.

P.S. I picked up a signed copy of this book in Finsbury Park’s delightful Book Bar. If you’re in London, be sure to pay them a visit! Emily had recently stopped by for a signing and they have lots of events with high-profile authors.

Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward, an illuminating, brutal memoir of loss in the Deep South ★★★★½

At the beginning of her harrowing, lyrical memoir, Jesmyn Ward tells us: ‘telling this story is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But my ghosts were once people, and I cannot forget that.’ 

Through this slim book, Jesmyn humanizes these ghosts – the five dead young men, boys she grew up with in the rural South, and tells their stories. Through her thoughtful, introspective storytelling, these men are not statistics but real people with hopes and dreams – even if they were always lingering just out of reach. 

Born and raised the Mississippi coast where ‘where the dirty gray Gulf lapped desultorily at a man-made beach ringed by concrete and pine trees’, Jesmyn was no stranger to poverty, discrimination, addiction, and abandonment. Her father left the family to pursue his dreams (and other women), and her mother worked tirelessly as a housekeeper for rich white families to keep Jesmyn and her three siblings fed and clothed.

“Both of us on the cusp of adulthood, and this is how my brother and I understood what it meant to be a woman: working, dour, full of worry. What it meant to be a man: resentful, angry, wanting life to be everything but what it was.”

In a place with little hope of a better life, the men in her life turn to drink, or drugs, or crime. Jesmyn herself narrowly escapes – she attends a Christian private school, paid for by the rich white family who her mother works for. She’s the only Black girl for long periods of school, and endures constant, grinding racism. But at least the chance at an education offers her a potential route out of the cycle of poverty, the ‘cycle of futility.’ 

“This was like walking into a storm surge: a cycle of futility. Maybe he looked at those who still lived and those who’d died, and didn’t see much difference between the two; pinioned beneath poverty and history and racism, we were all dying inside.”

It’s a complex heritage, a place that may offer little in the way of economic opportunity but a lot in the way of community, and a place that pulls Jesmyn back time and time again. Amongst the relentless grind of survival, there’s freedom and friendship – even if fleeting – on hot summer nights when Jesmyn and her siblings or cousins or friends roll down the windows and drive along the coastal highway, or sit sipping warm beer in the park, listening to music turned up loud. It reminds you they were just children, forced to grow up too soon.

The novel isn’t linear, but instead weaves its way through the timeline of Jesmyn’s life and the deaths of these five young men. The structure took a little while to get used to, but really came into its own when the narratives converged for the penultimate chapter, the death of her beloved brother, Joshua. The final chapter zooms out from her personal tragedies and takes a look at the statistics – of being poor, Black, and from the rural South, of incarceration, discrimination, and the historical context into which these five men were born and died. My only quibble would be that she could have taken this further, and woven it throughout, to really drive home the pernicious and enduring effects of racism. 

Her writing is elegiac and restrained, even as she writes about events and circumstances that have caused her unending sorrow. Jesmyn writes as she is still trying to process and make sense of what happened to her. It’s engrossing and beautiful, and hard to look away from. 

Book Review | The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls’ first memory is sustaining third-degree burns as she attempted to boil hot dogs on the stove – at age three. Raised – and ‘raised’ is being generous to her parents – by eccentric nonconformists Rex and Rose Mary, Jeannette and her three siblings have a pretty astonishing story to tell.

It’s astonishing because I’ve never read a memoir quite like it. It is so harrowing and dark, and yet told with a levity and a compassion that makes it easier to read that it would otherwise be.

Rex and Rose Mary determine that their family will live a nomadic lifestyle, ‘doing the skedaddle’ when things go south, and pitching up in another American small-town nowhere. Rex is a habitual drunk and chain smoker, and Rose Mary is trained as a teacher but prefers to spend her days pursuing her art. Neither accept a penny of charity or government assistance, and both are some of the most astoundingly narcissist characters – people – I’ve ever read about. They live in abject poverty and the children are frequently hungry, dumpster-diving for discarded items, and eating cat food more than once. Putting food on the table is not the top priority for Rex and Rose Mary, and they can’t quite understand how they got to be lumped with such a responsibility.

‘‘…I was hungry.’

Mom gave me a startled look. I’d broken one of our unspoken rules: we were always supposed to pretend our life was one long, and incredibly fun, adventure.’

There are truly horrifying anecdotes – their ramshackle house in Phoenix, AZ has no air conditioning, so in the summer they would leave all the windows and doors open at night. The young Jeannette wakes up one night to find herself being molested by a paedophile who has broken in. But the anecdote takes on a somewhat magical feel when Jeannette and her brother Brian go paedophile hunting in the middle of the night, two children on a mission for vengeance. This is the astonishing (sorry for overusing this adjective, but it fits) way in which many of these stories are told – particularly for the young Jeannette, there is no blame, derision or hatred of her parents for the way they left the children wide open to danger; only an acceptance that they had to fend for themselves, and would become stronger and more resilient in the process.

‘When Dad wasn’t telling us about all the amazing things he had already done, he was telling us about the wondrous things he was going to do. Like build the Glass Castle.’

But it’s not simply enough to paint these parents as neglectful monsters (although with the facts on paper, it’s hard to argue anything else). Jeannette speaks with particular fondness of her father, who, one Christmas, takes them all out to look at the night sky in order to pick a star as their gift. Jeannette is particularly close to her dad, his ‘mountain goat’ who swears he’ll never let her down, even as he does – time and time again. Despite frequently going hungry, wearing holey clothes and with no safe space to do her schoolwork, Jeannette excels academically. One night she accepts a ride home from a stranger, who asks her about her future plans. Pre-teen Jeannette regales her career ambitions to the silent stranger. ‘For the daughter of the town drunk,’ he says, ‘you sure got big plans.’

As Jeannette and her siblings grow older, the shine starts to fade and they begin to realise that the way they live is not the way that normal people – happy people – live. The last quarter of the memoir recounts her life as she moves away and begins life on her own terms. I wished that this part of the book gave us a little more in the way of introspection on what had happened in her childhood, especially with the distance of time and geography to provide the space to reflect. There were many moments in the novel that took on a romanticized sheen, which was deeply unsettling. But as I reflect, I don’t think any of us can deny someone their story, and the way in which they choose to tell it – even if all evidence points to an uncomfortable truth: that this was a terrible, deeply dysfunctional childhood, and Jeannette was lucky to make it out alive. I’ll say it just one more time: astonishingly told. This one will stay with me for a long time.

Book Review | Know My Name by Chanel Miller

TW: rape, assault

This is a stunning, harrowing and incredibly powerful real-life account of Chanel Miller, once known only as ‘Emily Doe,’ who goes to a party on the Stanford University campus and wakes up hours later in a hospital bed, having blacked out and been raped.

In her powerful testimony, Chanel excavates her trauma and bravely puts it on the page for the world to bear witness to. Her rape is horrific, and horrifically mundane. We know this happens – society engrains in us from a young age how we need to be responsible for protecting ourselves from sexual assault.  But what comes after isn’t talked about as much. There’s the trial-by-media, the incel trolling, the countless victim-blaming. But there’s also the years – quite literally years – of it being dragged through the courts.

‘I’d expected the legal process to be composed of a back-to-back sequence of dramatic court scenes. Nobody had warned me about the waiting, the floating formless months in between, the way it demanded all of you, then none of you.’

There’s a splintering of the self after her assault – known only as ‘Emily Doe’ in the media, her individuality is robbed from her – she’s reduced to a drunk and nameless young woman who went to a frat party and ran into trouble. She resolves to ‘keep the selves separate’ in an attempt to go on living.  She lies awake each night, for ‘sleep is vulnerability,’ she is ‘unsure how to inhabit’ her body. She talks about the ‘dismembering’ that happens when victims seek help, of putting yourself under a microscope in a plea for justice, in a bid to halt this epidemic of sexual violence.

And whilst her rapist is developed in the court of public opinion – and the court itself – into a three-dimensional human, an Olympic-level swimmer, young and mislead, homesick, unused to drink and parties – Chanel’s identity is erased. And that is what she powerfully reclaims in this account. She does stand-up comedy, she is a doting sister, she adopts an old dog, she is inspired by her immigrant mother, she makes art. She is a full and whole person. She is not the sum of what he did to her.

‘The friendly guy who helps you move and assists senior citizens in the pool is the same guy who assaulted me. One person can be capable of both. Society often fails to wrap its head around the fact that these truths often coexist, they are not mutually exclusive. Bad qualities can hide inside a good person. That’s the terrifying part.’

Chanel is incredibly eloquent, writing with a beautiful and simple lyricism that throws her suffering into sharp relief. During the scenes where she is waiting outside the courtroom before her first testimony, I felt physically sick anticipating her having to re-live her trauma and be torn apart on the witness stand, accumulating and losing ‘points toward the unspoken tally.’ Such is the power of her writing that it is impossible not to come away from the book feeling a deep, profound empathy for the unimaginable pain she endured, and a deep respect for her strength.

What was unexpected – and so very effective – was the explicit contextualising of this story within a bigger picture of patriarchal entitlement, of male rage, of the failings of the justice system. Chanel is on campus when Elliot Rodgers, angry that he couldn’t get a date, went on a killing spree that left six young people dead. She talks about Philando Castile, murdered in front of his partner and daughter by a policeman who walked free. This story is very much her own – but it isn’t just her own. When her victim statement is published on Buzzfeed, it is seen by millions worldwide, many thousands of whom reach out to Chanel with their own stories, thanking her for her bravery. In having the strength to tell her story, she gives all victims strength and hope – they aren’t alone.

I’ll never be able to do justice to this memoir. It’s harrowing, riveting, and, ultimately, hopeful.

*****

 

 

In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park

“I realised that without the whole truth my life would have no power, no real meaning… The process of writing has been the processes of remembering, and of trying to make sense out of those memories. I understand that sometimes the only way we can survive our own memories is to shape them into a story that makes sense out of events that seem inexplicable.”

Notoriously repressive, brutal and secretive, it’s not hard to comprehend why anyone would want to escape North Korea – to the extent that they would risk everything to make the treacherous journey across the Yalu river, the narrow expanse of water that separates North Korea from China.

This is the journey that Yeonmi Park braves at the age of 13, swapping the known hell of one totalitarian regime for the unknown hell of another. The memoir is divided into three; the first part tells of her life in North Korea as a child; the horrors of famine and torture amongst the simple pleasures of playing with her sister and watching Hollywood movies smuggled into the country (‘Titanic’ is her favourite). It might seem hard to imagine such things coexisting, but in such circumstances, you find happiness wherever you can.

When things become unbearable in her home country, she plans to escape into China, and this forms the second part of her story. But no one could prepare her for what awaits, as she becomes a victim of human trafficking who is sold to buyers down the chain. The gender imbalance in China, particularly in rural areas, has left many single men unable to find a wife – so there is a high price put on Korean brides.

It might seem like a catalogue of horrors, but Yeonmi’s spirit and resilience shines through, and by the time we reach the third and final part of the memoir, rays of optimism for the future begin to break through – we cling to the hope of a happy ending for her and her family as they begin a new life in South Korea.

I saw Yeonmi Park giving a talk on YouTube earlier in the year, and it was unbearably moving. I can’t with a clear conscience give this book anything other than five stars as Yeonmi’s strength and courage, in the face of unbelievably harrowing experiences, should be an inspiration to us all.

The brutalities described in this memoir; the rape, torture, starvation, executions sometimes feel like too much to bear. But despite this, our young heroine’s relentless perseverance, even in the darkest of times, becomes the guiding light through an otherwise merciless journey. And despite the piling on of horror upon horror, it never seems exaggerated or implausible. Partly this is because I know enough of North Korea to know that what Yeonmi describes is true, and partly because her voice has a refreshing honesty to it; she is self-reflective and wise beyond her years.

Some parts of the story are hazy, sometimes the retelling is detached – almost clinically so – but if you criticise the book on this basis then you have missed a vital point. We tell ourselves stories in order to live; we do what we can to conceptualise our existence and make sense of our experiences. For Yeonmi, if this means keeping a certain distance between herself and her narrative; by not dwelling in indulgent detail on the horrors she has experienced, then that should be respected.

Yeonmi should be an inspiration to us all.