A good psychoanalyst does two things: she listens, and she dissects.
In Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of her advice columns, Cheryl Strayed does both adeptly. The thing is, she’s never met the people she’s scrutinizing, and she’s far from a trained psychoanalyst. In fact, Strayed writes, “I’ve only seen a therapist a handful of times in my life.” It’s a shocking revelation.
The columns in the book were originally written for The Rumpus under the pen name Sugar, and Strayed’s identity was concealed until February. In the book, the pieces are presented in five groups, interspersed with short Q&As with Strayed.
Like every advice column, each piece here is in two parts: the letter someone sent in and the reply Sugar wrote back. Only here, the letters are long affairs — usually paragraphs, sometimes pages. If you want to read Sugar’s words, you must read her advisee’s story first.
But the real listening is in Sugar’s replies. Most people who write in use an alias — Stuck, Mourning and Raging, Wanting — which Strayed repeats throughout her letters, a reminder that she’s writing a column, yes, but she’s also writing it to you, letter-writer. It’s the affection of a mother, or a lover, saying your name over and over again. But it’s charged with an undercurrent: this isn’t, in fact, your name. It’s the question or lack that drives your existence.
“I could put most of the letters I receive into two piles: those from people who are afraid to do what they know in their hearts they need to do, and those from people who have genuinely lost their way,” Strayed writes in one letter. It’s the former that yield the most interesting and thoughtful responses. Strayed finds the worm buried at the bottom of a pile of dirt, pulls it out like a thread, and slices it open. The innards of the innards: that’s where she starts. As Sugar puts it, “This is where we must dig.”
Often, she quotes letters back at her advisees, showing them what they’ve already told her. One young woman, about to lose her job, asks Sugar whether she should take a prostitution gig in order to pay the bills. “You don’t need me to tell you whether you should accept this offer. You need me only to show you to yourself,” Strayed writes. “Every time I think about him touching me I want to cry, you say. Do you hear that?” Or, in another letter: “The sad but strong and true answer is the one you already told yourself.”
Sugar forces us to swallow sometimes painful realizations about what we want, who we are, and what we therefore must do — or, if not that, the choices we must make. She also lays bare the impossibility of controlling what isn’t ours to control. To a woman contemplating inviting her abusive father to her wedding in the hopes that he’ll be different, Sugar writes, “Oh, but baby girl, your father is not going to do anything you want him to do because you want him to do it. Not one damn motherloving thing! You simply didn’t get that kind of dad.” You simply didn’t get that kind of dad: this is a slap. Some things you don’t get to pick.
The honesty is far more comforting than shallow promises would be. Sugar can handle what’s real in us. Psychoanalysts are meant to act as containers for their patients’ emotions and subconscious thoughts, modifying frustrations so patients can handle them — the type of thing a detached or emotionally fragile mother can’t do. Sugar has this capacity, if (obviously) not the knowledge of her letter-writers that analysts have of their patients. If she can handle our treacherous secrets without disintegrating, maybe others will accept us in our entirety, too. Maybe we can even accept ourselves.
Strayed’s letters were written anonymously, but this doesn’t prevent her from divulging incredibly personal details. We learn that her father was a “destructive force,” that her mother died young, that her grandfather sexually abused her. Her past has included theft, heroin, an abortion, a divorce. We learn that she now is married with two children, that she’s content, that her husband cheated on her, but that they transcended that horror. And we know that, by now, she knows herself pretty damn well.
Sigmund Freud wrote: “The doctor should be opaque to his patients and, like a mirror, should show them nothing but what is shown to him.” Sugar? No. Aside from the anonymity, she’s anything but opaque.
Well, sort of. Sugar seems to have had more experiences than any human we’ve ever met, like some sort of omniscient goddess. This is its own form of opacity. But on a literal level, yes, she’s sharing heaps of personal information. How do we reconcile her analyst-like aura with her revelatory tendencies? More to the point, how does she come across as listening to readers with her entire being if her response often features herself?
These stories are not written for their own sake, but as a way to explain human complexity. The details of her past theft comes out as a means of empathizing with a writer ashamed of the same. Sugar describes her husband’s infidelity to help a fiancée with a stark, black-and-white view of marriage consider nuance. This is the type of meaning-making any personal essayist or memoirist should aim for, of course — and, notably, Strayed is both — but it’s all the more explicit and obvious in an advice column. Strayed’s story is, in its way, a mirror.
One of Strayed’s most vital messages — which her revelations of past lapses are meant to show — is that being a real, whole person means being imperfect. Sugar models this not only in her history, but in her letters, too. Once in a while, she doesn’t offer the empathy we so seek. She falters.
One woman writes in, distraught that her parents will no longer be helping with her student loans. She writes that she is angry, but that she feels selfish about it; more importantly, she writes, “My relationship with my parents has always been rocky to the point that I’ve come to realize I’ll never get any emotional support from them,” and “I wish my parents would see me for the vibrant woman I am.”
Strayed replies by describing the 16 jobs she’d had by the time she graduated from college. She writes, “You need to stop feeling sorry for yourself.” Her letter focuses on the woman’s responsibility for her own (financial) life.
This is valid. But perhaps Strayed’s own complexes about her financial history are clouding her judgment here, because her focus is misplaced. This letter isn’t, at root, about the money. It’s about emotional neglect — the woman has literally written that she wishes her parents could really understand her. The monetary support was just a feeble stand-in, and now it’s gone.
Sugar’s error here — her rare failure to unearth the nugget at the center — in fact helps us better understand her point. Sugar is good enough, but not perfect, as a person or an advisor. Which is exactly what she’s been trying to tell us all along.