by Cheryl Strayed, 2012
I don’t know where to begin with this book. I suppose I should say that this book is a collection of advice columns that Cheryl Strayed wrote under the pseudonym “Sugar” for the website The Rumpus. I should also say that I did not follow that column while it was in its heyday, but I found about about it through Captain Awkward, whose advice site is compassionate and erudite and thoughtful and logical and every other fantastic thing you could expect from a writer, plus a community of commenters that add so much to every conversation. (You want to read the comments here.) I found out about Dear Sugar, and the book, through some of those comments. I should also say that reading this book while still dealing with hurt feelings from a breakup was hard and raw and necessary. And I will say that “hard” and “raw” and “necessary” are words that describe this book perfectly.
What sets Strayed apart from other advice columnists is that she rarely gives direct advice. She recognizes that few situations are black and white, that it is possible for two people to be both right and wrong, that sometimes what we want is incompatible with what we need. The human heart and mind are not always logical things, and while I’m a believer that a huge serving of logic can soothe most problems, I love that Strayed does not simply tell her letter writers what they should do.
The letters here run the gamut of human trial and suffering. While we have the expected plea for help from the woman whose husband has been unfaithful and the writer who doesn’t know what/how to write and the request for advice to Strayed’s younger self, we also have letters from those whose lives have been torn apart by tragedy, by indecision, by lack of identify. And the beauty is that Strayed treats all of these letters with import and care. We all believe our suffering is of the highest magnitude when we are going through it, and while it is imperative to recognize how fortunate we may indeed have it, that does not make this untrue. Strayed knows this.
What I love most about this is the diversity of letter writers included. Granted it’s difficult to know someone’s race or ethnicity from a letter, but that isn’t what I mean here. We have a letter from a man who’s been hurt by hearing his longtime male friends discuss his relationship disparagingly behind his back. We have a letter from a woman struggling to overcome a miscarriage and a letter from a father who lost his son at 22. We have adult children grappling with their parents’ actions and high school students learning that you can’t control what others do. We have those coming to terms with the consequences of their mistakes and those who have suffered as a consequence of a mistake made by someone else. There is no one single type that has written in here.
I will allow that, occasionally, Strayed’s penchant for telling meandering stories draws the focus away from the letter writer and onto herself and her own trauma, and I would understand anyone who finds this grating. But, I also think that it is difficult to hear others’ woes and not filter them through the lens of our own experience. What Strayed does is not simply turn the focus back to her, but use the knowledge of her life to present options to these letter writers. I imagine they aren’t exactly what the letter writers are hoping to hear, but what we want and what we need are so often at odds with each other. I think that Strayed does a more than decent job of putting the spotlight on that.
Oh, and check out Captain Awkward when you have a moment. I promise you won’t regret it.