This exuberant collection of essays is an unfiltered look at a young woman’s experience finding her way — which is not necessarily to be confused with “finding herself.” In casual parlance, you could apply that phrase to this book, but Chloe Caldwell herself challenges that particular sense of self-awareness. She’s comfortable accepting the fact that her life is very much in progress.
Early on in “I’ll Tell You in Person,” she writes, “You hold on really tight until you’re forced to learn to let go of the ideas you had about yourself. You learn you are a mercurial human being and never and always and declarations change.” This unabashed take on selfhood may sound familiar. Contemporary culture is rife with young women, eager to show their scars. That isn’t new. “Was it anger or was it my karma? Was it my hormones or was it my genes? Should I cut out meat or should I cut out dairy? Was I allergic to gluten? Was it my ex or was it my stress level? No one knew. And yet everyone had an opinion.” When Caldwell talks about acne, she’s also talking about the state of being a woman today.
The same public that Lena Dunham shocked with her TV show “Girls” has completely forgotten the Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990s and the Consciousness Raising sessions of the 1970s before that. Unfortunately, when women write or speak about themselves with brutal honesty, everyone has an opinion. Conflating confession with universality, this literature is often dismissed for lacking inclusivity. It’s as if society can only handle one woman — as long as she speaks on behalf of all women. Instead, we need more voices instead of asking women to speak for all women at all times.
In this slim collection — published by Coffee House Press in collaboration with the feminist publishing project Emily Books — Caldwell speaks squarely on her own behalf with great clarity and humor. She regales the reader with her experiences as a child of divorce, as a Manhattan shop girl, a heroin addict, a failed singer, a babysitter, a yogi. Caldwell isn’t trying to shock the reader. Rather, these stories are a means of locating herself in an ever-shifting world. She successfully maneuvers the tough practice of empathy.
Linking one persona to another, she shuffles without apology, but also without browbeating. “I want to kick my feet and move my arms around instead of drown.” This is not ranting in order to be heard. Caldwell opens herself up to anything and anyone in order to get to the heart of what it means to be a person of substance.
Lauren LeBlanc is a freelance book editor and writer, as well as a nonfiction editor at Guernica magazine. A native New Orleanian, she lives in Brooklyn.
I'll Tell You in Person
By: Chloe Caldwell.
Publisher: Coffee House Press/Emily Books, 164 pages, $16.95.