"Did you watch Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock Holmes?"
Alana Massey and I are staring up at a long row of bright pink gift bags, perched on a shelf in a closet-sized NYLON office into which I've ushered her so we can talk about her soon-to-be-released book of essays, All the Lives I Want, and Massey is wondering what could possibly be in all those bags. She's mistakenly complimented me on my self-control for not yet peering in them, but I quickly explain that I have no control (self-, or otherwise), but have just never been in this strange little room before. We both glance around at its seemingly haphazard collection of items—those gift bags, a bottle of Listerine, a framed inspirational quote, little else—and Massey asks me if I've watched Sherlock Holmes.
"No. Should I?"
"Not necessarily," she says. "It was good during that, like, three-month period where I had a crush on Benedict Cumberbatch and then realized, Oh, he actually is a komodo dragon. Why do I think he's hot?"
"He's weirdly reptilian."
"Yeah, I was lizard-hypnotized. But, like, he would look in a room, and he would focus on the Listerine and then be like, 'The killer is Margaret Thatcher.' You know? This room reminds me of that kind of situation, where there's a bunch of very bizarre things to stare at."
While Massey might not seem to have much in common with a fictional detective—although, didn't Sherlock Holmes have an affinity for cocaine? And doesn't the titular typography on All the Lives I Want look like nothing more than glittery rails that one might just want to bend over and snort right up?—she too has a seemingly uncanny ability to perceive things in a way that goes far beyond what's visible on the surface, and then, through her writing, transform the way others see them as well, revealing truths and offering insights not only into the lives of others but also, of course, about our own.
The first essay of Massey's that I read was "Being Winona In a World Made for Gwyneths," in which Massey expertly examined the familiar binary which pits the type of women who are the stars of their own life stories against those who are destined for supporting roles. And while the Winona and Gwyneth archetypes had been written about and deconstructed before, it was often with a level of authorly detachment; a remove which made these women feel bloodless, and what they represented feel inconsequential. All too often, this is what happens when celebrated women are written about; they are discussed as mere tropes, their humanity is dismissed and denied.
But Massey made it personal. Massey related the commonly acknowledged stories of Winona and Gwyneth to her own struggles in a relationship, and made clear that the ways in which we are often told—and often do—view public women are reductive and serve not only to flatten our perceptions of these women but also to delegitimize the possibility all women are more than one-dimensional. To be sure, Massey's original Winona-Gwyneth essay was also, at points, a touch reductive in its portrayal of Paltrow, specifically (although this was addressed in the expanded version of the essay which starts off her book, and in a follow-up essay published on Medium), but the overall effect remains one of a reclamation of a type of a woman too often relegated to the sidelines of her own life, something Massey—and countless women who read and loved the essay—related to very strongly.
"I'm angry about Winona Ryder because I was the classically 'dumped girl,'" Massey explains. "And the manifestation of this anger... you know, it sort of sounds like a cliche, but it's like, we contain multitudes and what they point to—what the anger points to—is that there's just so many wrong ways of being a woman."
This anger is a driving force behind the essays in All the Lives I Want, but Massey wasn't entirely sure that this was the book she was meant to write. Though she'd had a literary agent and was trying to conceptualize what she wanted her first book to be, it wasn't until the Winona-Gwyneth essay was published that Massey realized what she should be focusing on. She explains:
This wasn't the book I was always "supposed" to write, 'cause I never had a dream book I wanted to write. But I was talking to my agent about what my book should be about, and she was drawing out from me, "What do you care about? What interests you?" And I was like, "Everything. Religion. Pop culture. Outer space. Going to Mars. Going to the bottom of the ocean. The concept of Hell. The concept of zero. The concept of infinity. Plant-based diets. Revenge-based lifestyles." And when that essay about Winona Ryder came out, she was like, "You know, this is something you're very agile with; writing about yourself and writing about a celebrity." And I was at Buzzfeed at the time and was already writing posts about famous people and I was always talking about famous people, and then once I started realizing I've always wanted Fiona Apple to do okay, and I've always kind of felt bad for Anna Nicole Smith, then I realized, "Oh my god, they're all here."
From Fiona Apple and Anna Nicole Smith to Lil Kim and the Olsen twins, Massey takes some of our culture's most recognizable women and explores the ways in which they are represented—and misrepresented—in such a way that their mythology takes precedence over their humanity. By refusing to buy into the accepted narrative of famous women—i.e. that Courtney Love is a murderous bitch, Amber Rose is little more than a stripper and a side piece, Scarlett Johansson's character in Lost in Translation would actually fall in love with and be hopelessly attracted to Bill Murray's, Sylvia Plath is nothing but the patron saint of Goodreads quotes—Massey rehabilitates the accepted images of these women, but not because these women need saving, rather because they deserve understanding—all women do.
There's no doubt that Massey could have brilliantly examined the women in this book from a purely academic standpoint; there was not necessarily a need to insert personal details from her life into their narratives. And yet it is precisely by doing so that helps Massey transcend the typical celebrated women analysis. Rather than treat these women as if they are static objects, onto which we can project all of our own hopes and desires, Massey turns these pop culture icons into flesh and blood by aligning her own struggles and stories with theirs. Massey writes about her experiences with traditionally sensitive topics—mental illness, eating disorders, breakups—and weaves them in with those of the famous figures in her books so that the deconstruction of the barriers, which so often separate women from one another, is seamless, and all the more beautiful for it. In a few hundred pages, Massey manages to dismantle the patriarchal constructs designed to keep women apart from one another, using the power of her words to renegotiate our gender's internal alienation, bringing us closer together, at least in the way we understand how external forces work to bring us down.
And yet nowhere in the book does Massey assert any claim to having things "figured out." Rather, one of the most powerful things about the book is Massey's insistence on leaving things open for interpretation; while she is certainly successful in destroying the male gaze-centered depiction of the women in the book, she doesn't pretend that any life is an open book. Instead, in Massey's capable hands, it becomes clear that all of these very public women, and indeed Massey herself, are still shrouded in some sort of mystery. And it is that element of the unknown which ultimately gives us our humanity. Our lives are still ours to be written; we are more than the compartments into which people would like to see us deposited. It's the journey of figuring out who we are—and who we are not—that's important.
Before leaving the strange small room in which we've spent the better part of an hour, Massey refutes the idea that there is any point in trying to figure anyone out, even their own selves, saying:
It's not just that I am this particular set of things. It's not like there's a unit of measure, that this person comes with 20 percent writer, 20 percent blonde, 20 percent female, and this and that; because you come into someone's life as 100 percent writer for some people and 50 percent ex-sex worker to other people, being cognizant of them can make you a better person who can better adjust [others'] reactions, [so there is that way of knowing who a person is]. But also when people say, "I am just being myself," my first reaction to that is like, "Yeah, but who the fuck am I?"
It's a good question: Who the fuck are any of us? And it's one that can feel like it has a thousand answers—or none at all. Or perhaps the answer lies in the glittery cover of Massey's book. The title references Plath's oft-quoted—and correctly called "poisonous" by Massey—sentiment to "bridge the gap between adolescent glitter and mature glow." What Massey's book offers is a possibility for women to see their lives as being always glittery, to imagine that the answer to "Who the fuck am I" could be reflected in what Massey describes as the "unpredictable trajectory" of glitter; perhaps we are all just "unbridled multitudes of sparkling objects that have no... particular use but their own splendor." Or perhaps not. No matter, though: What Massey makes clear is the possibility for us all to figure that out on our own, and be accepting of all the different paths we take as we sparkle and shine our way through life.
All the Lives I Want will be available for purchase on February 7.