Memoirs written by women are a complex genre. Oftentimes female authors are overly self-deprecating in order to appear humble. It is as if being self-confident or unapologetic would make them less appealing, less readable. When you don't like the character the author creates of themselves, that feeling extends to the author as a person. Perhaps because women are the main consumers of memoirs written by women, there is an underlying pressure to make women readers like and relate to you. A current of judgment dominates how much one can expose of themselves. So there is a self-censoring of the freedom to speak the truth.
Still, a forced image of modesty can come off as contrived and unbelievable. As the reader, you don't buy into the way the author is presenting herself. The books that become truly influential to people in a meaningful way are written by women who strip themselves down to their core and look you dead in the eye. There is no space for being bashful in books like Erica Jong's Fear of Flying or Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray Love. These women were not afraid to be disliked for their decisions, passions, desires, or secrets. They had the self-assurance to know that the realness of their story is more relatable than a social construct of how a woman should present herself. Sheila Heti's book How a Person Should Be is one of these rare gems that every woman should read.
Heti's book was originally published in Canada in 2010, and just recently in the U.S. How a Person Should Be is centered around Heti's quest to uncover this philosophical riddle: who am I really? And is that the person I should be? Also, how does this person compare to others? This type of existential crisis is one that everyone has experienced at one point, and those who are most analytical probably continue to experience it every day of their lives.
Reading Heti's book is like watching someone dissect themselves in the mirror with a dull scalpel. The pain she causes herself to expose her insides and understand how they function is at the same time totally unnecessary and absolutely essential. In order for Heti to understand how to love, she has to destroy everything, to see if it even matters. It is through her destruction that creation is manifested.
The way that Heti deals with the relationships in her life is as opportunistic as it is pure. Most notable are her dynamics with her best friend and her lover. With her friend Margaux, Heti encapsulates the complications of female friendships. The intertwining of identities, the boundaries so easily blurred, the dependency, the fights, and the making up. With her lover Israel, Heti is brave enough to admit all the darkness, grime, and shame that can be involved with lust. She says things most women are afraid to even think, and characterizes a primal urge that is completely irrational and totally consuming. The sexual connection she experiences with Israel embodies the weakness of desire, and the strength it takes to face reality. The contradictions Heti explores by peering into the gritty underbelly of these relationships are fascinating, and her willingness to participate in examining her motivations is admirable. She expresses the ugliness that she sees in her actions with such skillful prose that to forgive her for her follies is inevitable. The talent of her imagery and her unique writing style makes even the most uncomfortable moments beautiful to read.
The content of Heti's book has common themes of love, heartache, friendship, yearning, sex, ambition, questions of career, and the pursuit of purpose. Yet how she examines these subjects is what is exceptional about How a Person Should Be, and why I found it one of the most potent modern literary achievements in the memoir genre. Even if your life is nothing like the life Heti has lived, there is still much to learn from her psychological process of learning who she is. I highly recommend this book, which is powered not only by Heti's theoretical mind, but also her vast artistic talent.