between authenticity and schmaltz

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At the microphone, a woman with cropped hair and suspenders put her hands to her chest. “My love for you, Cheryl,” she said, “is a secret message between my heart and yours.”

Cheryl put a hand to her own chest, her face lit, eyes crinkling.

This was the start of the question and answer session between us–mostly young women in late-fall trench coats and boots–and Cheryl Strayed of the Pacific Crest Trail, of drug addiction and recovery after her mother’s early death from cancer, of cutting wisdom and wit which had inspired an almost cult-like adoration for her among the lot of us in the D.C. synagogue.

The next woman approached the microphone with a similar outpouring of adoration. And–despite our moderator’s admonition that we should “just ask the question, please,”–the flow of vignettes did not stop. “I found you when I Googled ‘best book to read after a breakup,’” one woman said.

In the row ahead of me, I heard a whisper-exclamation: “That’s how I found her, too!”

Thanks to Oprah and Reese Witherspoon, she had achieved the kind of celebrity status that led most of us, having never met her before, to feel that we knew her well. And, of course, the most important reason: she wrote about herself (the human condition, really) so nakedly, so compellingly that anyone who’s read Wild or Tiny Beautiful Things has felt, for a couple hundred pages, that they were friends with a woman named Cheryl Strayed.

Some part of me sensed–resisted–the low hum of schmaltz. But then, even holding a lime-green copy of her book of quotations, I was teary, too, when she described the more than twenty years since the death of her mother.

“It’s terrible,” she said. “I’ve lived so long without my mother and yet I carry her with me every day. She is like an empty bowl I’ve had to repeatedly fill on my own.”

She described the deepest parts of her depression–the drug and sex addictions–and the years she spent miserable, lost. But her mother had loved her too well to let Cheryl ruin her life. And so she had gone on to many things: the Pacific Crest Trail, for one; graduate school; a family; and of course, the publication of Wild.

“Time doesn’t heal,” Lera Auerbach observes in Excess of Being, “it simply shifts the focus.”

A few minutes later, Strayed spoke of being a mother. “It’s a strange thing: for the first six months of my children’s lives, they were basically eating me,” she said, her hands waving up and down her body. The young mother she was giving advice to–”be gentle on yourself,”–laughed, obviously grateful.

Everything about her resisted inauthenticity, even when we closed in on her with our affection. Even when the internet popularized dozens of her sentences into memes, distilled her writing into inspirational quotes.

In a college workshop, my professor once critiqued a story’s ending by saying it was “too saccharine.” Too sugary, too sweet. Authenticity, he said, relies on a kind of trueness to the human condition that’s sometimes depressing, and sometimes optimistic, and often bittersweet.

Maybe this is why she has a honed edge. Apparently, she told us, many people were having her writing tattooed onto their bodies. “How many of you here have one of my quotes tattooed on?”

We were silent.

“Man, D.C. is fucking laced up.”

We laughed; it was true.

After the reading, hundreds of us were filing out, keeping ourselves to a neat line that wrapped around the back of the nave instead of cutting through the pews. Behind me, a woman said, “We’re all being so gracious because of Cheryl.”

A few seconds later, the woman and her friends were sidling between the pews. And that felt like something Cheryl might have condoned, too.

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