All the Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen To Be Famous Strangers is a collection of essays written by Alana Massey. An alternate title I would give this book: Deconstructing the Male Gaze by Analyzing Female Icons in America.
All 15 essays in the collection focus exclusively on women, ranging from those that are fictional characters to women writers to celebrities. A total of 25 female icons are featured. Each essay examines the intersection of the personal with pop culture as told through the life of the female icon being discussed, and often looks at how said icon is interpreted at large within the American society, while also dealing with very personal themes by touching upon Massey’s own experiences and how those experiences have been influenced by these female icons.
Overall, every essay is feminist in nature, dealing most overtly with the theme of gender. Each essay provides much insight into the social and cultural forces that have shaped the lives of American women over these past few decades, and each consists of intelligent critiques about a celebrity culture most only see the surface of.
I enjoyed reading all of the essays, but my two favorite essays are All the Lives I Want: Recovering Sylvia and Long-Game Bitches: On Princess Di, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and the Fine Art of Crazy Exing.
- All the Lives I Want: Recovering Sylvia
- Massey begins this essay with a dissection of the advice “Just don’t end up doing a Sylvia Plath thing”, an advice universally understood to be a suggestion for female writers to avoid writing about the self. This essay in its entirety is a discussion of how society condemns women discussing their feelings and their identity as women, especially in literature, through the lens of writer Sylvia Plath.
- Massey does an incredible job of making insightful connections that make the content relatable and easier to understand: “Sylvia was an early literary manifestation of a young woman who takes endless selfies and posts them with vicious captions calling herself fat and ugly. She is at once her own documentarian and the reflexive voice that says she is unworthy of documentation. She sends her image into the world to be seen, discussed, and devoured, proclaiming that the ordinariness or ugliness of her existence does not remove her right to have it.”
- Long-Game Bitches: On Princess Di, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and the Fine Art of Crazy Exing
- The three women in the title seem to be an unlikely trio, but they have this in common: they were all a style or sex icon that married early and died early, and earned the legacy as a “crazy ex-girlfriend”. Massey analyzes the phrases “Bitches be crazy” and “crazy ex-girlfriend” in this essay, and in doing so reveals the hypocrisy of the societal condemnation of women as “crazy” when women justifiably lash out in violence post abusive relationships.
- Massey discusses the legacy of Lorena Bobbitt, a woman who is often reduced to a national punch line for having infamously cut off the penis of her then abusive husband. “Recognizing Lorena as more than a joke would also require that we acknowledge the reality that rational women can and will do violence to men. We punish such women not because they have crossed the mental border from sanity into madness but because they have crossed a gender barrier from being the object of violence to being the perpetrator of it. When men harm women’s bodies, we consider it an upsetting but inevitable result of the natural order. … But when a woman is raped repeatedly by a man, cutting off his penis is not so much an act of revenge as an act of self-defense. She eliminated the weapon to eliminate its potential to inflict more wounds.” This excerpt highlights Massey’s ability to point out what women think but cannot put words to. Her writing is intelligent and rooted in logic, but expressed with such deep empathy, speaking on matters that both delight and infuriate in equal measure.
Massey’s work, a nonfiction collection, deserves 9/10 stars and is definitely worth reading. In fact, everyone should read it.
Using the words of the book’s reviews, I would like to conclude that this is a collection of essays on matters that “women think but do not say”: it is cathartic and empowering for women, and eye-opening and necessary for everyone else. Massey’s sharp and poignant writing give the readers a “chance to reconsider how we’ve absorbed the public lives of women so that we may ask new questions about how we live our own”. It was incredible to see how the images of female icons are created and put up for public consumption, and to realize that how these women are perceived in society is so telling of the overarching societal construction of gender roles.