“This Will Only Hurt a Little” by Busy Phillips

I stayed up reading “This Will Only Hurt a Little” well past my bedtime, and then sneaked the last 15% of the book while my students were working on their history project in groups, racing through paragraphs that sucked me out of my classroom and into a more glamorous and adult world.

I started following Busy Phillips shortly after she started doing her Instagram stories. She is truly charming; as a viewer, I felt invited into her world. She shares the kind of details that make someone feel like they really know her (her penchant for margaritas and cinnamon gummy bears, her way of starting every story with “Guys!”, what she looks like when she’s working out or crying, her various rash/ache/bump questions — the kind we all get and then ask our friends “Has this ever happened to you? What IS it?”). She brings the same warm, best-friends-on-the-phone-watching-the-same-movie-from-our-own-apartments tone to her memoir.

The book tells the general story of her life — from toddling around the block alone for the first time to her current career stage (about to be a talk-show host, mostly retired from acting in movies/TV). It contains its fair share of celebrity gossip (who is an asshole, who drinks too much, etc), but Busy is also concerned with figuring out who exactly she is. She begins the book with an anecdote about an ex-boyfriend who told her she was “too much”. It’s a comment a lot of women get when they refuse (consciously or not) to cut themselves down to fit into the roles that are comfortable for the men in their life. So there is that theme through out. Busy wrestles with what it means to have healthy relationships with men, what it means to be a good mother, what it means to be a woman in an image-obsessed industry (and world, really).

The whole book sounds like Busy (at least, as far as I can tell from her Instagram stories). It’s casual, chatty, and anecdotal. And by anecdotal — I mean, she is more concerned with the events of a story than she is with setting, with connecting to larger meaning or context. Which is not to say that the book is not reflective; she has chosen a mostly coherent set of stories that trace the general trajectory of her life. I think what I mean is — at the end of the book, I was left wanting to know, “So what?”

And I’m trying to figure out why — because I read it in less than 24 hours and enjoyed the whole thing. The first section of the book covers her childhood and start of her time in LA, when she took her “Twelve thousand dollar pottery class” at LMU. To me, this was the most compelling section of the book. It’s difficult material; a 17 year-old boy raped Busy when she was 14. A boyfriend’s mother tells her she is going to hell for getting an abortion. She fights with her sister. Her world turns on the romantic affections of boys and partying with her friends. It’s a familiar story (and I don’t mean that dismissively); parts of it mirror my own high school experiences.

When her career “launches” with Freaks and Geeks and Dawson’s Creek, the narrative (for me) began to fall apart. While engagingly written, it began to feel like a recitation of famous names in different locations.

But maybe this is the point of celebrity memoirs? To give us plebeians a glimpse into the lives of the famous and (often) rich. But I think I want more from the memoirs I read: I want well-described settings that become characters in their own right; I want contextualization (in society or history or even within the narrative) that tells me this means something — about family, friendship, ambition, love, anxiety, motherhood, money, success, faith — whatever it is. My students are about to write their own memoir pieces; one of them asked me what the point was. I gave a little speech about the power of shaping our own narratives, but then I told them what I personally read for: “I want my understanding of what it means to be human to be expanded by your story. What will I learn about being human by knowing about your relationship to your grandfather? By reading how you overcame difficulty? Your perspective is unique and necessary.” Phillips is smart enough to deliver a story that expands our understanding of what it means to be human, but that is not in this book.                

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