I spent New Year’s Day in bed with a violent headache and a full-body malaise of unknown origin since I’d had just one glass of wine the night before. I was convinced I had acquired meningitis, or a brain tumor, but my compulsive temperature-readings never got higher than 98.7.
Ever since last year’s custody battle came to a bitter end, I’ve suffered these occasional mysterious afflictions, afflictions that my husband says typically befall only Tennessee Williams’ heroines. I think of them as residual stress flare-ups that can best be remedied by a day of Advil, ginger ale, and blog-surfing on my iPad.
Anyway, one of the blogs I subscribe to, but rarely have time to read, is Penelope Trunk’s blog about “advice at the intersection of work and life.” For those of you who don’t know her, Penelope Trunk is a savvy start-up founder and has been touted as being “the world’s most influential guidance counselor.” Her career advice is syndicated in 200 newspapers and her own blog receives 400,000 hits a month.
She is also, frankly, a bit unhinged. Her blogs document her struggles with Aspergers, displays of impulsive, bizarre behavior, growing up in an abusive household, and domestic violence at the hands of her second husband, The Farmer.
The e-mail update I received from Penelope Trunk on January 1st contained a link to her post Zero Tolerance for Domestic Violence Is Wrong. In this post, Trunk responds to apoplectic commenters who understandably went bezerk in response to her photo, taken while lying on the floor of a hotel bathroom, naked from the waist down, bruised at the hip, and her accompanying post explaining why she won’t leave her husband who hits her.
When I read Trunk’s rationale of why she chooses to stay in a violent marriage — being comfortable with abuse, feeling 50% responsible for getting hit, not wanting her kids to think quitting is a good solution — I felt sick and queasy, and since I was already feeling sick and queasy, I tapped my way onto another blog site.
And then I tapped back.
I spent hours reading Penelope Trunk’s blog posts. I read post after post after post. About her stint in a psychiatric hospital. Being raised in a violent household. The camping trip where her dad molested her. The multiple times The Farmer dumped her, including on her birthday, which she ended up celebrating alone with her sons from her first marriage.
Reading these posts was like picking a scab. I continued to feel queasy, and also naughty. I vowed to stop, yet I couldn’t. I couldn’t take my eyes off the rawness. Her writing and her thought process — she also advises women to get botox and go to business school to snag rich husbands — were infuriating, yet brilliant. Her blogs made me think.
What kind of businesswoman, who makes her living not only convincing people to invest in her ideas, but also doling out advice, is brazen enough to yank down her panties and expose her chaotic personal life?
This kind of lurid confessionalism flies in the face of conventional how-to business writing, the simplistic, almost evangelical just-think-positive-and-y0u’ll-be-a-big-success messages espoused by gurus like Anthony Robbins.
Having once been married into a wildly successful-in-business family of some reknown, I can tell you that conventional business icons expend torrents of energy 24-7 crafting an image of Perfection. Any chinks in the family armor — chinks such as mental illness, law-breaking, job failures, problem relatives, marital failures — are concealed, patched up, or blamed on others.
Being divorced, or needing to take psychotropic medication, or struggling with addiction, does not mean you can’t be a success. I am much more comfortable with uber-successes such as Ted Turner or Catherine Zeta-Jones, who “out” their human frailties than I am with those who would have us believe they live a Ralph Lauren ad.
Still, I wonder about the effect of Trunk’s admissions, which teeter on the lurid edge of confessionalism. Is she offering geuninely viable perspectives or are we watching a nervous breakdown unfold? Will the next post be written from a psychiatric hospital or a DV shelter?
And if she continues blogging about the very darkest parts of her life, so the images of her screaming at her husband from atop his tractor or hiding behind a door when he lunges for her, are inextricably bound with her business persona, will she lose all credibility as a career and life counselor?
If the near 500 comments on her last blog post are a reliable indication, not anytime soon.