Where was this book when I was a teenager? Oh yeah. It wasn’t written yet and I was already more than obsessed with the works of Stephen King. If ever I needed a manifesto (and not in a creepy way: there’s no dog-eared Catcher in the Rye nestled in any of my coat pockets) it would be Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl. Shuffling and stubbing my toes into my 40s, I still need a guide to help me see who I am and who I’m becoming. It’s a process I still haven’t acquired a taste for, like lima beans or small talk. But Johanna Morrigan is my new hero.
It’s 1990 and 14-year-old Johanna Morrigan lives in a small town in England with her exasperating family. Her family is on government benefits because of her father’s ‘back pain.’ None of the children can tell anyone they’re on benefits because questions would be asked, such as “Didn’t I see your father bent over a car in the driveway the other day? I thought he was physically unfit to wield a wrench?” Johanna’s father thinks he’s going to make millions as a rock star (what do you call a musician without a girlfriend? Homeless) and her mother is in postpartum decline from giving birth to twins. Johanna slips up one day while talking to an elderly neighbor and mentions the benefits. She realizes she’s put her family in financial peril. She waits every day by the mailbox to intercept any official letters saying the family’s benefits have been cut off.
Johanna always had a knack for writing and decides to write a poem for a contest. She wins and along with a tidy sum of money, she gets to read her poem on live TV. She bombs so badly, humiliates herself so roundly, that she decides to become someone else. She creates an alter ego and gives herself the name Dolly Wilde. Wilde after Oscar Wilde, the decadent and naughty writer who once said: if you find yourself in the gutter, roll over and look at the stars. Johanna stumbles onto a job writing for a music magazine which involves going to clubs as well as interviewing up and coming and already established bands. For a kid who’s always immersed herself in words and music, this is a dream job. Her first essay is about a popular singer named John Kite and it reads like a mushy fangirl letter. The two have a connection that will span several years.
Two years pass and a now 16-year-old Johanna/Dolly Wilde is an old hand at interviewing bands. She dresses as a goth and often wears a top hat cocked at an angle. She’s aware that she is a chubby small-town girl, but it doesn’t stop her. She begins to smoke like a chimney, get drunk, and go on liberating sexual adventures where she convinces herself she uses her sexual partners just as much as they use her. There is no falling in love. Life is just one experience after another. She’s also financially supporting her family now and drops out of school to devote all her time to writing.
She indeed becomes someone else entirely. She uses her writing gift to eviscerate bands, making many enemies. A man in a band that got a less than favorable review from her dumps a drink on her head, saying he wanted to pour his urine over her head instead. Dolly laughs it off, telling herself that’s what happens when you’re a truthful writer. Things begin to change when one of her sexual escapades involves another writer at the magazine. She starts to think of him as her boyfriend, only to overhear him describe her as a ‘piece of strange’ meaning she’s from the wrong side of the tracks and he’s slumming it. It’s like a light bulb goes off in her head (or completely shatters, sending glass shards through her brain) and she realizes Dolly Wilde isn’t who she is. While Dolly served her purpose, she now knows that she is Johanna Morrigan:
But one day you’ll find a version of you that will get you kissed, or befriended, or inspired, and you will make your notes accordingly, staying up all night to hone and improvise upon a tiny snatch of melody that worked. Until-slowly, slowly-you make a viable version of you, one you can hum every day. You’ll find the tiny, right piece of grit you can pearl around, until nature kicks in, and your shell will just quietly fill with magic, even while you’re busy doing other things.
As Johanna makes these life changing realizations, she pulls another humiliating stunt by getting drunk with John Kite and professing her overwhelming love for him. She doesn’t remember much from that night except for spilling her guts to him and him going off to sleep in the bathtub:
Since I met you, I feel like I can see the operating system of the world-and its unrequited love. That is why everyone’s doing everything. Every book, opera house, moon shot, and manifesto is here because someone, somewhere, lit up silent when someone else came into the room, and then quietly burned when they didn’t notice them.
Now older, Johanna sees that her parents did their best with what they had. Her father with his outrageous schemes and blind faith in himself, her ghost of a mother just beginning to surface from her depression with the help of an antidepressant cocktail, Johanna sees them as two people doing their best:
They made you how they want you. They made you how they need you. They built you with all they know, and love-and so they can’t see what you’re not: all the gaps you feel leave you vulnerable. All the new possibilities only imagined by your generation, and nonexistent to theirs.
And finally, I wish I had heard (known) this going into my late teens:
And you will be quite on your own when you do all this. There is no academy where you can learn to be yourself; there is no line manager slowly urging you toward the correct answer. You are midwife to yourself, and will give birth to yourself, over and over, in dark rooms, alone.
Not just a coming of age tale, How to Build a Girl is an anthem sending a call to all humans to pick through the flotsam and jetsam of who they are, dig for the seeming detritus and know it for what it is: they key to becoming who you are and who you need to be.
Thanks for reading. I gotta go write a book. I’m going to title it How to Put Back Together a Middle-Aged Woman.