Back in my early twenties, during a brief and soul-deadening stint of auditioning for television commercials, soap operas, and the occasional feature film, each morning I climbed wearily out of bed and tried to gear myself up for the day. This was my routine: I sweated through two back-to-back aerobics classes (this was the ’80s) and then came home and weighed myself to be sure I hadn’t gained a pound overnight. Then I did my hair using hot rollers and hairspray; I spent a half hour applying makeup; and, finally, I assembled an outfit appropriate for whatever role I was up for, which might call for anything from a power suit to a bathing suit. I knew I’d be facing people whose job it was to judge me from the shadows. I stated my name into the camera as cheerfully as I could manage. Even my name was a mask, one I’d been advised by my agent to invent, since Shapiro was too ethnic. I did whatever I was asked: a few lines of Mamet, Wasserstein, or Dr Pepper.
Of course, they rarely got in touch. I’d hear from my agent that they were going in a different direction. Someone taller. Or they wanted a redhead. Or whatever. All I ever heard, thrumming beneath the ostensible reasons, was that I wasn’t good enough, or talented enough—not even to smile fetchingly and hold up a can of soda. Look,they just didn’t find you appealing, my agent once told me. I lived in a debilitating state of chronic insecurity, which I dealt with by exercising more, starving myself further, and making myself blonder. I was operating under the dangerous delusion that if only I could burnish myself into some sort of perfection, I’d be chosen. Truth be told, I was a lousy actress. I was self-conscious, tongue-tied, prone to blushing and stammering in front of the camera. It would have been merciful for someone to take me by the hand and tell it to me straight, put me out of my misery. I was careening down the wrong path, trying with all my might to squeeze myself into somebody else’s life.
But the cliché was true: One of my all-time favorite book titles is Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, by Peter Cameron, and when I made the improbable leap from wannabe starlet to novelist, the rejection and criticism indeed turned out to be useful. Around the workshop table in the graduate writing program at Sarah Lawrence, students often broke down in tears when their work was criticized. But I expected it. I welcomed it. As an actress, I’d been rejected for who I was—my “appeal,” or lack thereof. As a writer, it was my work that was found wanting. I could live with that. When I sent my stories to literary magazines and received form rejection letters in reply, I didn’t take it personally. I took it as a sign that I needed to hone my craft.
Which was fortunate, because I didn’t begin my writing career anointed by the literary world as a star in the making. I collected a file cabinet full of rejections and published three novels that didn’t get much attention before writing a memoir that caught fire—and suddenly everybody seemed to be writing not just about my book, but about me. That book, Slow Motion, was a coming-of-age story about my Orthodox Jewish upbringing and ensuing rebellion, which involved a long relationship with an older, powerful, married man, one that ended only when I was shocked to my senses by a car accident that killed my father.
It may sound quaint now, but in those days you’d actually have to go to a newsstand to pick up a magazine or newspaper. I was living in New York City, and I would haunt the newsstand on the corner of 82nd Street and Broadway, because that vendor got his shipment first. There were lovely surprises, like opening up the new Vogue to see a glowing review of my book written by a heroine of mine. But the negative attention was swift and vicious. The word bimbo was used as a caption beneath my photo in the New York Observer. A male writer I admired wrote a highly personal character assassination of me in New York magazine—I’d quote it for you, but I didn’t keep a copy (and I can’t find it online, I swear). I cried for three days in my apartment. Once again I felt I was being judged not for what I wrote, but for who I was. My life, reviewed.
Of course, you might say I asked for it. To be a writer—to do anything that involves putting oneself out there—is to invite criticism. And if you write about personal stuff, well, what do you expect? I’ve now spent nearly two decades writing about my family, my history, my fears, my anxieties, my spiritual crises, my sorrows, and my joys. I’ve tried to carve out of my own experience books that will resonate with others.
In part because of this, and in part thanks to the clamor of voices on social media and the Internet, people feel entitled to say whatever they want. And why shouldn’t they? Opinions of others—even opinions of opinions—are instantly available. We have thoughts to share about everything from Renée Zellweger’s new face to Malia Obama’s T-shirt. We tend not to stop and ask ourselves if we’re being kind—especially when celebrities are involved, but even when our targets are civilians. Those days of walking to the newsstand to read one’s reviews are long gone, and now—for a solitary writer sitting at her desk, stuck in her work, procrastinating, nursing simmering insecurities—all it takes is one impulsive click and she can become instantly privy to a soaring chorus of contrapuntal voices. You’re awesome! No, you suck! You’re brilliant! You’re the scum of the earth! And if she gives the voices too much credence, she won’t be able to write another word.
So I’m going to conduct an experiment, perhaps a dangerous one, right in the middle of this essay. I mean, what the hell. I’m talking about criticism, right? So I have an excuse: My editor made me do it. I go straight to Salon.com, where I recently published what turned out to be a somewhat inflammatory essay on the meaning of memoir. At the time I didn’t check out the responses—Salon is known for its vicious, voluble comments section. Self-serving, patronizing, sarcastic, agonizingly long…One way to plug a silly little self-indulgent book no one is reading…At least I now know I never have to read any Dani Shapiro.
Whoa. The level of invective makes the bimbo reference seem like a sweet missive from another era. These people aren’t just nursing a mild dislike of me. They hate me. I am reviled. Now I’m in full-on masochistic mode—this self-punitive stuff tends to create a pile-on effect—so I click on the Amazon reviews for my last couple of books. There are plenty of five-star comments, but my eyes glide right over them and hone in on only the poisonous ones. Absolutely ridiculous…Reeking of insincerity…Whiny, spoiled, pretentious crybaby.
I feel nauseated—momentarily. But I notice something surprising in my reaction: This toxic binge-surfing feels a little like eating too much junk food. There’s a weird, sort of icky rush, and then…then it’s gone. These are people who don’t know me, don’t like me. Nor are they criticizing me in incisive ways I might learn from. This realization is followed by a minor epiphany: And I don’t have to make them like me. I’m no longer that starving girl in a swimsuit, hopelessly pirouetting. I’m just a writer sitting alone in a room, struggling to make words line up on the page in a way that may communicate something true.
A friend recently posted this on Instagram: I’d rather be someone’s shot of whiskey than everyone’s cup of tea. I spent a whole lot of energy trying to be everybody’s cup of tea and a) it wasn’t fun, and b) it didn’t work. I’d wager that we all do this at some point—contort ourselves into people-pleasing pretzels—and I’d also wager that the roots of this often can be found somewhere in our early lives. Who was it that first made us believe something was wrong with us, that something needed fixing? I have a now-teenaged son, and I remember one early morning dropping him off at kindergarten. In the parking lot, he saw a boy he was close friends with, and he ran over to him to say hello. The boy turned his back on my son—physically dismissed him with the kind of innocent cruelty children can display—and my heart broke a little. Those injuries, small or large, are what form our early sense of ourselves. And a sense of our own value is the only way we can parse criticism and rejection—take what’s useful and shrug off the rest.
For me, that injury can be best summed up by a picture I keep buried deep in a family photo album—quite possibly the only existing image of my older half sister, Susie, and me. I look to be around 11, so Susie must be 26. My hair is cut into a dorky shag, I have a mouthful of braces, and I’m wearing a white Danskin top, through which my tiny breasts are visible. Susie is in some sort of batik thing, her long wavy hair reaches her waist, and she’s wearing granny glasses. I remember the moment: I’m over the moon to be with my big sister. She’s the coolest person I know—she lives in the city! She’s a psychoanalyst! I want to grow up to be just like her: She plays the piano, so I play the piano. She reads Freud, so I read Freud. In the photograph, I’m smiling a huge, painfully goofy smile at whoever is snapping the picture. And Susie is staring at me. Her lips are tight, her eyes narrowed, her forehead creased. If a thought bubble appeared over her head, it would read something like: Silly, stupid girl.
I spent years trying to change Susie’s mind about me. It was hopeless, though I had no way of knowing this. She wished my mother had never married our father, hence that I had never been born. Psychoanalyze that. Growing up with a sister who was profoundly critical of me created a pattern that quite possibly led me all the way to those dim television studios where I strained to be accepted: For much of my adult life, I looked for versions of Susie everywhere. At parties, on dates, in classrooms where I taught, in auditoriums where I delivered speeches, I sought out the Susie-face. I looked for the person—woman or man—who just wasn’t into me. On some level, I believed they had X-ray vision; that they saw deeper into me than others, to my true essence. And so I engaged in an endless and exhausting effort to win them over.
I can pin down the precise moment when I realized this had changed. As is true of many seemingly seismic psychic shifts, it had been happening slowly all along, but I became aware of it one recent evening in Connecticut at a crowded holiday party. The host introduced me to another guest and then left us alone to chat. As we exchanged the perfunctory pleasantries—How do you know Lisa? Do you live nearby?—I saw her scanning me. Her forehead creased. Her lips tightened. It was Susie-face. I was about to start the tap dance when just as abruptly, I stopped.
“I’m going to get a drink,” I said. I wheeled around and headed to the bar. I wasn’t worried about being rude. I was done. I felt it right there—the freedom of not caring whether this person who didn’t know me had disdain for me. I felt Susie-face’s eyes on my back as I walked away. It was all I could do not to fist-bump the people around me. I’d won a hard-fought battle with my 11-year-old self who longed for her big sister’s approval and felt deformed and weakened when it was withheld.
There is a beautiful Hindu prayer in which people ask to be led from the unreal to the real. It seems to me that when we inhabit ourselves— when we say, This is who I am in all my flawed humanity—we are taking a step toward being most real. And when we buy into the opinions of perfect strangers whose feelings about us may be based on random data ranging from something they read to what we’re wearing and even to their own projections, we are being assaulted and governed by the unreal. As I’ve written this essay, I haven’t once thought about how it will be received in the world. If I had, I wouldn’t have been able to write it—I’m revealing quite a lot about myself, some of it is quite painful and unflattering. But as I come to the end, now I can imagine some possible reactions: Humblebrag…Who the hell does she think she is?…How dare she dismiss all those online reviews just because she doesn’t like them? The ugly comments from the past may even be flung back at me. You are a spoiled, pretentious crybaby. But that’s okay. I’m no longer dancing for the shadows. I’m just a shot of whiskey—not for everybody.
And so I close the door. I write these words. I don’t click over to Google to see what people think. In the silence—in the absence of all those voices—here is where I discover who I am.