Book review: in Furiously Happy, blogger Jenny Lawson sees funny side of mental health struggle
Bestselling author opens up about her mental illness in her latest offering
On the front of Jenny Lawson's book is a stuffed raccoon looking like the most thrilled guest at a surprise birthday party. Arms outstretched, mouth fixed in an ecstatic grin, this is a raccoon determined that the evening will go with a swing.
He - Lawson tells us his name is Rory - is much more than a charming novelty or "wacky" talking point. Rory is Lawson's personal happiness coach, a reminder that, no matter how awful life seems, you always have the choice to be happy. Not mildly happy, or even mindfully happy, but furiously happy.
The "furious" bit is important to Lawson because it is a measure of the effort and determination that goes into trying to feel OK when you have a brain that is busy trying to kill you. Lawson came out several years ago as being "mentally ill" but what has given the Texan her particular appeal - her blog gets millions of hits a month - is that her illnesses are of a common or garden variety.
Lawson has been diagnosed as "a high-functioning depressive with anxiety disorder and mild-self harm issues". In other words, she is in an abusive relationship with her own head. Many of us can relate to that.
Lawson's first book, a memoir of growing up dirt poor in rural Texas, was a hugely popular hit in 2012 and sat at the top of The New York Times bestseller list for weeks. In it Lawson dealt obliquely with her mental illness, reframing it as the cultural by-product of her delightfully eccentric family. Her father is a taxidermist with an equal interest in living animals, and once sent her to school with a flock of turkeys that he insisted were "jumbo quail". Her mother, meanwhile, had a habit of dressing Lawson and her sister in Little House on the Prairie smocking and sunbonnets, with the result that they resembled "the lesbian love children of Laura Ingalls and Holly Hobbie". Let's Pretend This Never Happened was a bit like My Family and Other Animals, but ruder and with more stuffed bobcats.
The texture of Furiously Happy, is altogether more jagged. When Lawson announces at the beginning that this will be "a collection of bizarre essays and confused thoughts" she is spot-on. Let's Pretend was written, like so many first books, over a decade during which seams had been smoothed and corners nicely jointed, whereas Furiously Happy is a scrappy, blog-like affair. It reads like a series of bulletins about hanging on to your mental stability by your fingernails - if only you hadn't pulled them out long ago, thanks to a propensity for self-harm. "I am broken," Lawson admits, before turning it into a badge of honour and a battle cry - "I am broken. Come Join Me."
Especially good are Lawson's descriptions of what it feels like to be buried in depression, convinced that the world will never again come into focus. Language starts to disappear, too, so that words either won't come at all, or else slip past their intended meaning, leaving you gabbling at the postman in a way that does, actually, make you seem crazy.
Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson (Flatiron Books)