|March 20, 2018 | Letter No. 11
There’s something about December: the onset of early nights, the intensity of the commercial gift-giving season, the next year and all its wide-eyed promises looming before us — it all inspires reflection. We reflect not just on the current year, but also on the accumulation of all the years that came before it. Our 11th issue features some phenomenal writing that wrestles with the art of self-reflection, and I’m so happy to share that with you this week.
Whitney Cummings’s comedy, from her stand-up to her scripted work on the CBS Show 2 Broke Girls,
is brimming with skillful and endearing candor. In her essay “Miss Codependence,” Whitney guides us (and herself) through a journey of recovering from too-niceness. Being “nice” to others can so often mean not being nice to yourself, and Whitney’s piece does a phenomenal job of spelling out that uncomfortable truth.
Next up, we have “Eight Dresses,” by the stunning novelist Jami Attenberg. I love Jami’s piece for its lilting diaristic tone, for the way she explores the writer’s mind through the eight dresses she chooses to take with her on her book tour for Saint Mazie.
Jami’s meditation ends with a knowing, universal declaration, one you’ll feel through your clothes to your bones: “I can’t justify to you the hypocrisy of both wanting to be noticed and not noticed at the same time.”
In “Hearing the Call,” Lena takes us back to the early, uncertain days of her career, when she didn’t even know that she was on the path to creating such a career. While working a thankless internship and trying to solidify herself as both a critic and an artist, 23-year-old Lena has a call with an admired male director. The call, his voice, represents some incomplete yet visceral truths for her about the way women are treated in creative industries and all work for that matter.
Next, we have a great interview of Lucy Flores, the young Nevada politician running for Congress in the city’s fourth district, conducted by none other than our brilliant associate editor, Laia Garcia. When you learn of Lucy’s incredible story — she grew up in an immigrant family of 13 children, she earned her GED after getting an abortion as a teenager, and at 31 she was elected to the Nevada State Assembly — you’ll understand why her supporters call her #FierceFlores. In a time where election news is mired in awful stories about GOP supporters and the like, Flores’s tireless advocacy for reproductive rights and domestic violence is a necessary American story.
Finally, we introduce our Love, Lenny column, a recurring feature where the fantastic clinical psychologist Dr. Lian Bloch
advises our readers on relationship problems. I told you this issue would be about getting in your heads! Our inaugural question is from a young woman grappling with the prospect of leaving her older partner, who is interested in starting a family, an issue I bet a ton of you will relate to during this family-gathering season.
Thanks for reading Lenny No. 11. Can’t wait to hear what you think.
Doreen St. Félix
By Whitney Cummings
Hi, my name is Whitney, and I’m really nice.
I’m nervous writing this essay. I’m terrified you may not like it. What if I waste your time? What if you don’t think I’m funny? What if you think it’s boring, or, God forbid, not as good as the other letters on Lenny? What if you don’t “like” it on social media? What if you leave a mean comment?
It’s only recently that I’ve learned to coach myself through this self-abuse: “Whit, you’ll survive even if some random stranger thinks this sucks.” That coaching of my inner monologue is a daily course correction I do because I have a “disease” called codependence. DOWN BOYS! When my therapist first suggested that I was codependent, I was confounded because I wasn’t dating anyone. I thought it meant you were in a bad relationship with someone else, when it really means you’re in a bad relationship with yourself. That’s how misused the term is, much like “genius,” “hilarious,” and “starving.” A simple definition is that codependents can’t tolerate the discomfort of others.
In a 12-step meeting for codependence, I once heard a man say, “In this program, we are pathologically thoughtful and obsess over other people’s problems to avoid our own.” I got a pit in my stomach because I felt like he had been reading my journal. How did he know that I was obsessed with solving other people’s problems while my own life was a scalding-hot mess? I couldn’t stop buying people overpriced candles, yet I had not paid my rent. Did he know I was giving people numbers of doctors and therapists I myself wasn’t going to? And helping people through breakups while I couldn’t make time for myself to floss?
In romantic relationships, I was drawn to real fixer-uppers. I mean, if you’ve Googled me, you probably know what I’m talking about. I’ve dated people who are literally illiterate. Another one of my trusty mental-health professionals says that if I walk into a room of people, the broken people in attendance will “glow” to me. I could enter a party and within five minutes be in an all-consuming conversation with a thrice-divorced narcissist managing various addictions. My dream guy has always been Eminem. I just feel like I can change him, you know?
I couldn’t say no to save my life. I even found myself in sexual situations I had no interest in. I’ve slept with people because “they drove all this way.” My vocabulary was littered with obligatory phrases like “I have to” and “I’ll just swing by for an hour.” I routinely sabotaged relationships with my seeming altruism. Let’s just say I’ve purchased more than one custom gift with a boyfriend’s favorite NFL team’s logo on it from Etsy. After a breakup, my take was always “I loved him too much.”
But it was very hard to convince me that I wasn’t just, like, an amazing person. I buy so many Diptyque candles for people! How can I possibly have a problem? In recovery, I learned that the difference between codependence and being nice is motives. Essentially, if I drive you to the airport because you can’t afford a taxi and I expect nothing in return, that’s benevolent. But if I drive you to the airport secretly hoping you’ll like me, owe me, won’t abandon me down the line, or to control your perception of me (i.e., I want you to think I’m nice), that’s codependent.
I had always had a hunch something was wrong because I could give but I couldn’t receive. I could give someone nice jewelry, but when they tried to buy me a two-dollar coffee I would resist to the point of it getting awkward. And if someone gave me a gift, I viewed it like a grenade. I would have to wait until you left to open it because I was so worried I wouldn't receive it well enough. My dear friend Beth gave me necklaces with my dogs’ initials on them, and I stressed out that she didn’t know how much I love them. I’ll Instagram them looking resplendent under the Nashville filter and tag her, send her photos of me wearing them so she didn’t think I was lying, and yet I still felt a pang of guilt that I didn’t deserve such kindness.
Eventually I hit my codependent bottom when some family members got sick and I martyred myself to the point of getting pneumonia and NOT NOTICING I HAD IT because I was too preoccupied with other people’s problems. I started going to Al-Anon meetings. I had heard about Al-Anon because I have a lot of addiction in my family and had gone a couple of times to try to manipulate other people into going. My therapist finally gave me an ultimatum that I had to go because talking about my problems simply wasn’t enough for me to change my behavior and dysmorphic perceptions. I had to roll up my sleeves and rewire my brain.
When I started going to meetings, every time I heard someone share, I related so much it felt like they had hacked my e-mails, or at least my Amazon account. I learned that as a codependent, I give too much so the scorecard is uneven in order to subconsciously re-create my childhood circumstances of feeling victimized and invisible. I.e., if you’re not going to make me feel bad, I’m going to be so nice to you that in comparison, you seem like you’re an asshole. GOTCHA!
My role growing up was the peacekeeper. My home was stressful, and putting out fires was the only way I could feel seen and like I had a modicum of control amid the emotional pandemonium. When my parents fought, I would put on improvised performances or fashion shows in our living room to try to distract them. Fussing over narcissistic people was how I kept in their good graces and how I felt safe. Worrying about other people’s problems (or perceived problems) was a habit I developed very early on. It worked as a child, but once I grew up, this coping device was a weapon I kept using even though I was no longer at war.
After being in recovery for codependence, I still get to be nice, but my motives have had to change. Today, my struggle is to do only 50 percent in my relationships. That may sound weird to some people, but my default is to do about 90. I once heard a woman struggling with codependence share her goals for the holidays: “This year, I am going to do half of everything I think I should do: half the cooking, half the gift-buying, half the party-going.” That sounds pretty simple, but for someone whose self-worth is contingent on others’ approval, it’s climbing Mount Everest.
Recovery is not without its cataclysmic life changes. I lost some friends who preferred me when I was a doormat. As my friend Kevin says, “When you get healthy, the sick get angry.” I still panic that mitigating my codependent impulses will make me less successful professionally, since needing people’s approval is historically what propelled me to work so hard. If I actually had self-esteem, would I ever work as hard again? The answer is no, but that’s OK.
Over the past five years, I’ve worked my ass off to re-parent myself and change the neural pathways that were crystallized as a child. I’m proud to say that today, when someone gives me a gift, I can receive it with grace. I can say no and not be wrought with guilt. I routinely employ phrases like “I’m overcommitted this week” or “I’m at capacity, but check back with me in a couple of months.” When I say no, I don’t over-explain or apologize profusely. I understand on a soul level that I can’t give what I don’t have.
Right now, the only person’s approval I need is that of Lenny’s editor, which means I have to end this. In closing, the bad news about all this is that if we ever meet, I won’t sleep with you out of guilt. But the good news is you can buy me a cup of coffee.
Whitney Cummings is a comedian. Her HBO special I’m Your Girlfriend airs January 23.
By Jami Attenberg
Pack light, I whisper to myself as I stand in my closet, staring at the clothes rack. A mantra for a five-week book tour. A life in carry-on luggage. Four countries, 20 events. All those season changes, all those topographies. Pack light, even though what I’m about to do is heavy, standing in front of rooms of people, presenting my wares, my brain, my book, my self.
I try to channel Ferrante, the invisible novel goddess, but I suspect she’s tougher than I am. I think about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, how fantastic her clothes are, her grasp of bold color inspiring, but I’m a recovering punk, a New Yorker, and I’ll skew black and gray till death. Then I try to slip inside the mind of Patti Smith, who wears the same clothes over and over till they’re threadbare, and then she just has some fabulous designer friend make her some more. But I’m no rock star; I’m a novelist. I want to look presentable for the people. I want them to think I’m an OK person. Look at that nice woman up there. Let’s buy a book from her.
So I take eight dresses with me. Also one pair of jeans, a sweater, and a T-shirt and some leggings, for all the yoga I’m going to do, ha-ha-ha. I make a deal with myself that the first thing I will do upon entering every hotel room is unpack my dresses. I invent a ritual for safety. Then I pack them in the suitcase and pray for loose folds, clean lines, and literary accomplishment.
My last book was about a morbidly obese woman, and I lost track of how many people greeted me on that tour with, “Oh, but you’re not fat at all.” I am sorry to report that this fucked with my head a little bit. I wrote a great book, but people only noticed my appearance. Over and over. It takes a toll. Yes, I am not fat, but I am not thin either, is what I thought to myself. A hazy kind of fee paid for success.
On the festival circuit this time around, I notice other authors’ attire, all the women looking gorgeous at the cocktail parties. The boys have it easy, I think for the millionth time in my life. They can get away with murder: a button-down and jeans, call it a day. They’re presumed brilliant. Meanwhile, every day I check into another hotel, hang the dresses, brush them straight with my hand. I post another picture of myself in a hotel room on Instagram before I leave for the night. This is me, this is where I am, this is what I am wearing. Here is how I look.
A true story: on my first book tour, ten years ago, a male bookstore owner hugged me too long after an event at his shop. “I could tell you were special by your picture,” he said. I wondered if he’d even read my book.
It certainly doesn’t matter what I look like when I’m in the act of writing. All I’m concerned with is transferring the contents of my head as delicately as possible to the page in front of me, as if I were conducting the most fragile of surgeries, a heart transplant, perhaps. And no one cares what their surgeon looks like. In fact, we want them to wear a mask.
One night, early on in the tour, in a tight dress made of purple wool, I don’t make it home, not to my home anyway. I have an excellent time, but I find myself not wanting to wear the dress again. My dresses are about me and my tour and being independent and strong and focused on getting to the other side of this adventure. I don’t need anyone else’s fingerprints on me, however invisibly. I pack it in the bottom of my bag. So now I’m down to seven.
Things are starting to feel a little heavy with the dresses a few weeks after that. I’m in a hotel in Dupont Circle when I notice I’ve started sighing when I hang and straighten them. I’m contemplating the dresses in a new way. This past summer, I cut off four inches from my hair because it was heavy with stress, and I felt different afterward. The dresses remind me of those inches of hair. They start to carry an energy with them, airports, air-conditioning, Xanax, red wine, tight smiles, that one thought in the morning on repeat every day: Did I say the right thing, did I charm them, did anyone even hear what I said?
It’s just these dresses and me, though; we’re in it together. They’re the only constant in my life besides the speech I keep giving, and the Internet, and, faintly, the short story I keep hacking at on my desktop.
Of course, three-quarters of the way through the tour, I get my period and I wish all I had brought were sweatpants.
In New Orleans, I have a few days off, and I visit a friend’s house while she packs for her own trip. It seems like she’s taking everything in her closet for a one-day visit to a local city. She watches me watching her and says, “I think it’s my one vestige of PTSD from Katrina. I feel like whatever I take with me is whatever I'll have for the rest of my life.”
A few days later, it’s my birthday. I check into a fancy hotel in Dallas. I eat an enormous cheeseburger and fries, and then I return to my room and decide to treat myself to ironing my dresses, however pointless the act. Unfamiliar with the hotel iron’s settings, I singe one of the dresses. Six remain.
Three days after that, while checking into a hotel in Austin, I realize I’ve left the black sequined dress behind in … Mexico City? It must have been Mexico City, but that was weeks ago. It’s the only place I wore it, to a wonderful dinner out with my traveling companions there. I brought it specifically for that dinner. How did I lose the thread on it? Doesn’t matter. Now I’m down to five.
On the way to Portland, the final stop of the tour, I get bumped from a flight, and the next flight after that gets delayed. I end up traveling for 16 hours straight. An airport angel offers me a complimentary United-club-lounge pass for the day. I sit there for eight hours, snacking and watching Master of None in its entirety. It is in that lounge that I spill soup on my dress. Four dresses left.
At the Wordstock Festival in Portland, I meet for the first time Heidi Julavits, co-editor of Women in Clothes, a wonderful compilation of women’s feelings and experiences about their attire. I tell her I’ve been thinking about all the dresses I’ve been wearing. She suggests I read Joan Didion’s legendary packing list, which the author kept taped inside her closet door for years. Cool, glamorous Didion, she who effortlessly straddles that line between fashion and literature. I am wary of reading this list. I mean, all hail Queen Didion, but that woman never had to control-top anything in her life. I end up quite liking it though — mainly because it includes bourbon and cigarettes. It turns out I’m not the only one who clings to my vices along with my dresses.
As I leave my final panel, a friend, writer Beth Lisick, is in the audience, and she hugs me. She tells me I looked glamorous up onstage, and I want to collapse into her forever. I can’t justify to you the hypocrisy of both wanting to be noticed and not noticed at the same time. I was only relieved that she had seen me that way. All along, I thought it might be true and it was.
Jami Attenberg is the author of five books of fiction, including The Middlesteins and, most recently, Saint Mazie (@jamiattenberg).
Hearing the Call
For a while in my early 20s, I thought the way to really snag boys was to become an indie-film critic. After all, what is sexier than a woman who can expound upon Fassbinder’s lesser films and hold court on the subject of Hal Hartley’s use of Dutch angles in his Henry Fool series? Who scores more than a gal who knows her Tom Tykwer from her Wim Wenders? Who deserves more cunnilingus than the chick who gets the difference between Nicholas Ray and Nicolas Roeg?
If hot tail was the goal, you may ask, then why didn’t I become a bottle-service girl at one of Jay Z’s elite clubs or act like any fun sporty character played by Cameron Diaz between 1998 and 2010? Because, dear reader, I was after something rather specific: a nerd with an unearned bad attitude and a sofa body. A misanthrope in a cardigan. I liked my men the way I like my dogs — broken, afraid of humanity, and obsessed with me. I wanted someone who ridiculed everyone and everything except my beauty and intellect.
Hence my blogspot, which I tended to like an herb garden: Champagne Wishes and Celluloid Dreams: Lena’s Movie Diary. I sat in my freezing Ohio apartment, watching Criterion Collection VHS tapes and recording my thoughts, making my way through the French New Wave, the Czech New Wave, jumping to the British ’90s, skipping Japanese film entirely and living to regret it. When our local video store went out of business, I purchased over 200 VHS tapes at 50 cents apiece. I cataloged them by genre, then director, creating a videotape baseboard around my room. The first time I went to third base with my college boyfriend, we were watching the classic lesbian indie The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love. When we broke up, I wept to All the Real Girls for days on end, wishing that David Gordon Greene and his fellow graduates of North Carolina School of the Arts would sweep me up and invite me to operate the boom on their next low-budget art-house effort.
I was making movies too, little ones, setting my tripod up and filming myself in a blonde wig with an open bathrobe, like some sad Gena Rowlands impersonator from deepest Long Island. Soon, I set to work on my first “feature film,” which clocked in at 59 minutes, barely qualifying as a bloated skit. Shot on shaky digital video in dorm rooms and my parents’ bedroom, I was only bold enough to think it could qualify as a movie because of the Cassavetes I was checking out of the school library (and the Andrew Bujalski movies labeled as “mumblecore” that had taught me about Cassavetes in the first place). My father told me you had to choose, critic or artist, but I reminded him that Truffaut and his friends had all begun as critics with their own very important magazine. And anyway, my blog ran almost only rave reviews. I’ve never been particularly interested in hating things.
I graduated and knew I needed to do something but wasn’t sure what. One failed internship tumbled into another as I applied to work, unpaid, at a magazine focused on independent film. I imagined myself in a buzzing open-plan office full of adorably shaggy boys, in heated debate on the relative merits of the newest Polanski. “Don’t forget he raped someone!” I’d yell, and they’d act put out but be privately moved by the strength of my convictions. I’d edit my movie by night and write trenchant reviews of Swedish thrillers by day, and by the end of my first week I was sure I’d have a boyfriend — maybe even two, fighting for my love via a mixtape battle.
But when I reported to work what I found was a single room, windowless and bleak, with two employees, a copy machine, and an elderly landline. My job would consist of calling low-level advertisers to bother them for unwritten checks, taping back together a page of notes ripped up in frustration by our managing editor, and staring blankly at a putty-gray wall. I ate lunch across the street alone, a big piece of naan bread and a Diet Coke, reading the dating column in the free newspaper and wondering where I was supposed to go next. At night, I played with my movie footage on my failing laptop until my eyes went blurry.
I may have worked there for three weeks or three months. I honestly don’t remember, as time condensed into a single image of an empty Scotch-tape dispenser begging for a refill it would never get. Every day, I counted the hours until I could feign a stomachache and still get credit for an almost-day of work. I liked to read back issues of the magazine, searching for clues about how people got where they wanted to be. The articles were written mostly by freelancers, and occasionally I was asked to do a final proofread, for which I was both unqualified and unmotivated. As I’ve often said, no one is more entitled or more full of self-hatred than a girl who has just graduated from college with a liberal-arts degree.
But one afternoon something happened — I think their freelance fact checker got sick — and I was asked to make a few phone calls to confirm quotes and details for an upcoming piece on independent-film luminaries with new work on the horizon. I scanned the list, and my eyes lit up when I saw his name. His work was niche, but his breakout film — made in the late 1960s, when he was in his early 20s — was a favorite from my stack of obscure VHS treasures. It told the story of a self-and-sex-obsessed boy with impeccable taste in film. The kind of boy I probably thought I’d meet in the dream of this windowless room. He was now at work on a documentary of some kind, its logline mystical and obscure. I dialed a cell number, and a warm Southern voice greeted me: “Well, hello.”
I explained who I was, where I was calling from, and proceeded to list the basic facts of the article. “Yup,” he’d answer. “Sure. Why not, sounds about right.” It took only a minute or so to get our story straight.
“Thank you very much. I’m … a very big fan of yours,” I told him.
He laughed, pleasant and surprised, which turned into a cough. I had been warned he wasn’t well. “Well, maybe I’m a fan of yours too,” he said.
“I haven’t done anything,” I told him. “I’m working on a movie, but no one really seems to like it.”
“No one likes anything until 40 years later, see?”
I giggled. I guessed I was the proof.
“Do you happen to be in New York City?” he asked me.
“I am too, just for the night. Staying in something called the Meatpacking District, whatever that means.” His tone went deep but soft. “Where are you right now?”
“Eighteenth Street,” I said, hearing a little hitch in my voice.
“And when are you off work?”
“Anytime I like.” I was subtly imitating his accent. I was … flirting, maybe? I knew he was old now. Older than my father by nearly a decade. That isn’t my kind of thing, not even when it comes to seductive banter. I’ve always felt that we should use our 20s as an excuse to have sex with 20-somethings. But I couldn’t see his face, could only hear the voice that had narrated the film, which, come to think of it, was kind of pervy but—
“What if you came down here to my room, when you were all done, and we had dinner? Steak? You like steak? I’m on somebody else’s dime. And we could talk about movies and whatever the fuck.”
“I guess I could, maybe.”
“I like the sound of your voice,” he said.
I honestly can’t remember what happened next, whether I said I’d call back or whether I simply had to go. I know some form of good sense, the kind that has mostly protected me with a few painful exceptions, kicked in and told me I wouldn’t be in any man’s hotel room that night, no matter how critically acclaimed their screenwriting work. I would be home, at my parents’ house, where I basically shared a bedroom with a 16-year-old girl, Googling this man but never seeing him face to face. On the way home I heard him in my head: “I like the sound of your voice.”
A few days later, I decided that, no matter what I was going to be when I grew up, the uncompensated taping-together of ripped-up paper was not going to get me there. I quit. I also quit writing film reviews, no longer convinced it was my grand Wes Anderson theory that was going to nab me a boyfriend. In fact, I only ever dated one film obsessive, years later. We traveled together to Berlin, where I was walked through the Deutsche Kinemathek museum. As I stared blankly at the bountiful collection of Werner Herzog correspondence, he made it clear just how little he felt I really knew. I couldn’t gather the strength to say, “I know plenty. My knowledge is just different than yours.” We kissed underground on the U-Bahn and had sex in the small, utilitarian shower back at our hotel, and I felt like a drawer for someone else’s papers.
It was a relief to end that relationship and return to watching Clueless on Saturday afternoons alone, just as it was a relief to quit my internship at the magazine. After I did, I began editing my film with a new intensity, shifting scenes around and grabbing at frames and rethinking the whole structure, until finally someone offered to screen it publicly. I watched through my fingers, recognizing every mistake, but I watched.
That was seven years ago, and about this time last year I saw the filmmaker’s obituary. It wasn’t an above-the-fold one, but respectably placed, planted securely in the back half of the Arts section. It didn’t pay much mind to the film of his I’d loved so well, but it did say he was a critic and an artist. Both. He never chose. I couldn’t help but think men usually don’t have to.
In the time since that phone call, I’ve received, and resented, the advances of older men who think they have something to teach me. I’ve written of men leaning too far into the passenger seat to kiss me good night, men who remind me of an aged uncle at a bar mitzvah. I’ve noted unwelcome back rubs, invasive questions, nearly imperceptible but utterly humiliating disrespect for personal boundaries. It would be easy to dismiss the man on the phone who, sight unseen, invited me to his hotel room for a steak using a voice that could melt butter or scare a small child depending on the mood. But reading his obituary, I felt nothing but gratitude, not just for his work but for the feeling he gave me that day. Of being heard, of being seen in a room with no windows. He had invited me out to play.
Lena Dunham is not immune to the charms of a Southern gentleman.
By Laia Garcia
From our earliest brainstorming meetings, we always knew the Nevada politician Lucy Flores was “totally Lenny” and a woman we wanted the rest of the world to meet. Lucy, who is currently running for Congress in Nevada’s fourth district, is a most vibrant example of how the personal is the political. She’s a Hispanic woman who grew up in a family of 13 children. Their mom left when she was nine, and Lucy subsequently dropped out of high school, joined gangs, committed petty crimes, went to jail, and saw each one of her six sisters get pregnant as a teen, before she got pregnant herself. But Lucy would not allow herself to fall prey to low expectations for her future: she had an abortion, got her GED, went to college then law school, and then she was elected to the Nevada State Assembly in 2010, when she was just 31 years old.
As an assemblywoman, she fought for domestic-violence victims so they would have the right to break leases with their abusive partners and advocated for early-childhood education. She also established a PAC to help more Hispanic people run for political office. Her main concern as she heads into the next election is the rampant economic inequality that threatens to keep so many Americans, but immigrant families especially, from success. She was battling for an increased health-education bill on the Assembly floor when she revealed she had had an abortion at 16, and that she got pregnant because of the lack of sex education at her school. The death threats that inevitably followed did not deter her. On social-media channels, her supporters started calling her #FierceFlores.
When Lucy and I spoke over the phone one Friday morning, it felt like I was talking to a friend. She’s warm and funny, and her resolve is undeniable. We talked about her family, her goals, and why not giving up when the odds are stacked against you is about more than just your own success.
Laia Garcia: I want to know a little bit more about your relationship with your dad, since I know the two of you are very close, and I’ve heard you like to sing mariachi songs together.
Lucy Flores: Well, you know, we are a very nontraditional family. There’s a lot of brothers and sisters, and some are closer than others. We don’t necessarily have those Christmases, holidays, and birthdays when the entire family gets together. We’ve all experienced a lot of challenges, and because of that, we haven’t necessarily kept that strong family unit.
My dad and I, we’re very, very close, and he’s has always supported me one thousand percent in the things that I do, but at the same time, my dad struggled. He had to be almost detached in order to focus on making sure that we had all of the things that we needed. You know, the basic things: food, housing, clothes. He worked day and night, literally, almost his entire life.
He struggles to understand what I do, the sacrifices that I make in order to serve. Sometimes, he wonders why I’m not at home and can’t visit as often as he would like me to because I’m off campaigning or whatever it is that I’m doing.
It’s been interesting. He’s got a third-grade education. He’s really smart, and I try to explain exactly what I do and how government functions and the intricacies and the challenges of it all.
He's incredibly proud of me, but it’s just hard to relate.
LG: So many young women have to get their abortions in secret. Did your family know when you got one as a teen? Were they supportive?
LF: All of my family knew about it, and it wasn’t a celebration. At that point, I felt like I knew enough, and I’d seen enough on TV, where I felt like the process of being pregnant should be a really happy one. Hopefully something that’s planned, and you can have a great baby shower with all of your girlfriends, and have a house, and the ability to buy the things that you need. I remember when I told a few of my sisters, they were like, “Oh, OK!” And I just thought to myself, It’s just another occurrence! It’s kinda the status quo. And that just didn’t sit well with me.
I knew that if I decided to have a child at that age that I was very likely not going to have a lot of opportunity in my life, and I wanted to be a better role model to my nieces and for myself. I just wanted to do something better, and because I was only 16, I didn’t have a job, and if I did, I was probably working a job that was five dollars an hour. Frankly, I didn’t have any other options, so I felt like if I was going to give myself a fighting chance, I was gonna have to be courageous, and do what I had to do, and tell my dad.
I just remember going to him crying and telling him all of that, that I felt like I needed to give myself a shot at something better, and he was completely supportive; I don’t remember there being a whole lot of discussion. I told him that I needed to have the money in order to have the procedure done, and even though we didn’t have a lot of money, he found it some way. He gave me what I needed, and I made the appointment. I went with one of my best friends at the time.
LG: Back then, was there something specific that interested you, something that made you realize you didn’t want to follow the same path as your sisters? Did you have any idea of what you wanted to be when you grew up?
LF: I didn’t think that I could be anything. I didn’t have role models like that available to me, you know, even on TV. There was no young Latina woman out there that I saw on a daily basis, outside of an entertainer or an actress, who was something realistic for the everyday person. I never envisioned myself really being anything other than just trying to get a job and hopefully making enough money to make rent and just live. Just survive. That’s the kind of environment that I grew up in. No one in my family had gone to college, no one talked to me about college; so no, I didn’t have a whole lot of aspirational thoughts.
When I was getting in trouble and being arrested all the time, the thought would come into my mind that maybe one day I could be a lawyer, because I was always trying to defend myself. I knew a little bit about [whether] I was actually breaking the law, or whether or not I felt I was being harassed or targeted unnecessarily, for doing nothing, just for walking down the street. But being a lawyer wasn’t a serious thought. It wasn’t something that I thought I could actually do. It wasn’t until I was getting my GED and considering going to community college that I really set my sights on being a lawyer.
LG: After you embarked on this path, did you have any doubts? Were there any moments where you were tempted to not continue?
LF: Once I make a decision, I make a decision. I put my whole self into it. It wasn’t a decision I made lightly. I knew that I was gonna have to stay really focused. At the same time, when I was going to college and law school, [I was] experiencing the everyday difficulties of being really poor. Not only was I trying to take care of myself in L.A., I was also still sending home a couple hundred dollars here and there to my dad to make sure that he was OK. It was really hard.
And sure, there were lots of times where I considered dropping out of college. I told myself a bunch of times that it was just too hard and that it wasn’t something that was realistic for me and that I just needed to get a job and start taking care of me and my family again. Fortunately, there were lots of resources at USC, people who were supportive, people who I could talk to, people who could encourage me to continue going. Then, of course, there was my own desire to not give up, and my own desire to know that if I stayed the course and if I had faith, everything would work out. It really was those tough times when I would narrow my thought, like the only thing that I would focus on was getting through school, getting to law school, and knowing that once I accomplished those things, that life would be better for me.
Still, there were times that I didn’t know how I was going to eat that day. It wasn’t just about, I can’t pay my credit card bill or I can’t pay my rent; it was literally survival. I was collecting plastic, because in California you actually get a reimbursement for plastic, so I was collecting that wherever I could. I was doing whatever it took to survive.
LG: “The personal is the political” is a phrase that’s often brought up to describe ways in which people can get involved and enact change. You’ve often mentioned your personal life in service of your political goals. How has that experience been?
LF: There’s definitely been criticisms. I’ve been called really mean names, you know, but people who call me a criminal and call me a baby killer and call me all these terrible things aren’t people who would support me anyway. So for me, it’s really easy to ignore those things because I know that it’s coming from a place of hate and distrust on their part. I focus more with the people who do identify with the various parts of my stories, or who identify with what I’m trying to do, or who identify with my goals as a public servant. People trust me. They know that when I say that I completely understand the day-to-day challenges that so many people in our country are facing, they believe me because I’ve lived it, too.
LG: You mentioned how hard it is for someone without a political or privileged background to run for office. I feel like that’s a barrier that many young people face, not only in the political sphere but in other fields, where so many entry-level jobs are unpaid internships. It’s so easy to give up and pursue something else. Do you have any advice for our readers facing those challenges?
LF: You do have to struggle harder. I always tell women in general, and especially young women, that it’s harder for us. Period. You have to go into that situation accepting the reality in which we live, but at the same time, you have to go into it knowing that if you work a little harder, if you persevere, if you stick with it, that once you get there, you can be a part of changing that for others, and that’s what I focus on. Yes, it’s significantly harder for me, it’s harder for me to raise money, it’s harder for me to convince people to support me, it’s harder for me to prove that I am qualified and capable even though I have a stellar record of accomplishments — legislative, professional, personal — you can’t look at my record and say that I'm not accomplished.
And yet I have to defend and prove that record every day. And it does get exhausting, but at the same time I know that I have to do those things, and I’m OK with it. Because you know that in that process, you’re going to be a part of changing things and making them better not just for yourself but also for others. That’s part of the reason why we can’t give up. You’re gonna have to work a little harder, but once you get there it’s gonna be completely worth it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Laia Garcia is the associate editor of Lenny.
Should I Let Her Go?
By Jessica Grose
In a romantic pickle? Get your questions answered by clinical psychologist Dr. Lian Bloch, in a feature we’re calling Love, Lenny.
Q: I’m a 24-year-old woman who is in a relationship with a 29-year-old woman. She is getting stressed out about the age difference because she feels that she has to start thinking about having children soon and doesn’t feel that I should have to worry about that yet. Also, my partner has only ever been in relationships with men and has never had to think about the alternatives to having kids, whereas I’ve had time to think about this. This is putting a strain on our relationship, as we are very much in love but have to think realistically as well. I feel like I should let her go so that in the long run her life will be easier, but I don’t want to do that because I love her so much. I don’t know what I should do. I would be so grateful for your help.
A. The good news is that you’re dealing with this major decision in a mature, caring way. “It sounds like you’re both concerned about stressing out the other with the impending decision about whether and how to have children. On the one hand, this signifies mutual respect and conscientiousness — awesome!” says Dr. Bloch. The bad news is there’s no easy fix here. “Having children is a huge life decision that puts almost all couples through the wringer.”
Many people find raising children to be deeply satisfying. But don’t forget that having kids can be a prolonged bummer — an 18-year bummer. “Research suggests that having children marks a precipitous decline in relationship satisfaction, which shows signs of rejuvenation once parents become empty nesters,” Dr. Bloch notes.
That said, the first thing to do is to assess the strength of your relationship independent of whether you want to have kids in the near term. If you decide that your relationship is solid enough to even entertain the convo, start by breaking down this huge decision into bite-sized chunks, so you don’t choke on its enormity. Here’s what the good doctor advises:
**You and your partner may want to start with a pro-con discussion and list-making pertaining to whether you want to have children together. Weigh the heavy hitters like career, finances, and childcare, but also seemingly mundane considerations like the impact on your social lives and free time — although for many people, this is an emotional and instinctive decision rather than a “logical one,” and that’s OK too!
**If you decide subsequently that you are interested in having children, then pursue resources to be informed about options. For example, if you would consider medically assisted reproduction, you may find it useful to read together The New Essential Guide to Lesbian Conception, Pregnancy, and Birth, by Stephanie Brill.
As to whether you should “let her go” so that her life will be “easier,” you can’t predict the future. Even if you’re in a heterosexual relationship, making a baby isn’t always just a matter of penis-in-vagina and then voilà! A healthy infant! Your current partner might need to use assisted reproductive technologies even if she were with a man, and families are made in all sorts of ways. It’s 2015, dammit. If your relationship is a great one, don’t cut it off because you’re afraid the physical act of having kids might not be simple.
If you want your questions answered by Dr. Bloch, email email@example.com and put “Relationships” in the subject line.
A Lenny Store Spotlight:
‘Lady’ Incense Holders
We knew we had to have Kaye Blegvad’s
ceramics in the Lenny Store as soon as we came across her website. The incense holders were funny and powerful, and we think that’s the same energy they’ll bring to your home. Get it in white or terracotta. Available now at the Lenny Store