Sick in Bed with Penelope Trunk


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.

And wonder:

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.

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About perilsofdivorcedpauline

I am a survivor of a world-class gnarly divorce. My dastardly ex-husband is suing me for full custody of my son, and more time with my daughter. He’s super-rich and I’m super-not. You get the picture.
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30 Responses to Sick in Bed with Penelope Trunk

  1. Wow. I’ve never heard of her. That post, the naked one, is nuts. And disturbing. I didn’t want to read anymore. I mean, yes, there’s a sparked curiosity but it’s more akin to peeking in a freak show tent or slowing down by a nasty accident with a covered body on the road. She creeps me out.

  2. (sp “dometic violence”) “She is also, frankly, a bit unhinged.” *laughs*

    I read your article and the links. The space-time continuum has gone through a worm hole and been irrevocably warped. Any “normal” person who is in a crazy situation with crazy people becomes crazy themselves. It may attributed to osmosis or something. Live in France and you eventually end up speaking French. Over the years I have had people tell me some pretty weird s**t and I’ve wondered where they got those ideas. So far none have them were wearing a tin foil hat but that wouldn’t surprise me. On a (hopefully) less extreme note, I know that some people find my ideas, ah, a tad skewed. Craziness is relative. I can only think of one comment about Ms. Trunk: “There but for the grace of God…”

  3. Rachel says:

    Y’know what, folks? This is just plain wrong. If some self-pitying martyr somehow convinces herself she deserves to be hit, then so be it. If many other people decide that this lunatic is someone to take life advice from, they’re just proving P.T. Barnum right. But the fact is, this woman has children in her home, right? It is WRONG – and actually selfish – to tolerate abuse and expose your children to it, because it puts them in an abusive situation. Who cares whether she’s fine with it? What about her son? What will her little boy grow up to think about how he should relate to women? How much is she ingraining this pattern of abuse in him right now? Someone should remove him from their home – there is certainly plenty of documentation to support that decision.

  4. justincascio says:

    I can’t watch that particular flavor of train wreck, and won’t, but as a sometimes-confessional blogger, myself, I’m keenly aware of the boundaries of my privacy. I’ve decided to live my life online as I would at in public life if meat-space were also transcribed and fully indexed: which is to say, more thoughtfully, taking full advantage of opportunities not to engage and to think before replying, but also, that if I’m going to meaningfully connect, I have to go into the public realm. That means letting people know who I am. I’m that kind of person, that kind of writer.

  5. I’ve never heard of her, but it’s a bit disturbing yet fascinating. Not sure I could follow her blog on a regular basis and like you, hoping she moves off the farm. I also wondered… Does she enjoy exposing all of this on some level?

  6. Wolf Pascoe says:

    I write about my son, and I never include anything I wouldn’t want him to read someday.

    Penelope is one of those open books you watch from a distance, compelled utterly. In her field, she has a mind like a laser. I remember one of those “change your life” bloggers interviewed herlast September, and she shredded him.

  7. Gabi Coatsworth says:

    And so who’s taking the photographs? Just asking. I’m afraid there’s some serious psychosis going on here, and I’m sorry, really, that she’s so successful by remaining psychotic. I won’t read her stuff again, I don’t think.

  8. I will stick to my modest page views and comments, thank you very much, and non-narcissistic confessional crap that I find demeaning. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the Internet is forever (or our version, at least), and we would be wise to consider what would be read by friends, relatives, potential clients or employers not to mention our own children.

    That doesn’t mean we can’t be authentic and honest, and I suppose if you want to exploit your own ridiculous behaviors then have at it. We each have to decide how much we say and in what context and for what purpose.

    But the sort of confessional stuff you mention here? And that we see everywhere and with increasing levels of exposure? I don’t want to read it. And I don’t support it.

    Empathy on the headache, by the way. These days, Excedrin is my friend…

  9. About what you said — “But the sort of confessional stuff you mention here? And that we see everywhere and with increasing levels of exposure?” – I’ve been reading the work of John Suler, who writes about the psychology of cyberspace and it’s pretty fascinating…how people become disinhibited when they blog. Wonder if we’ll see people reining themselves in as time goes by and they learn to modulate their communication. Although certain personality types, as you point out, are not into modulating…

  10. Missy says:

    Everyone’s commented on Trunk’s blog, but I wanted to comment on yours. I could totally relate to your first paragraph. I get that strange, unexplained illness from time to time too. I haven’t been through a terrible divorce, but I have other things in my life that are challenging. I think it is just a build up of stress that has to be released from the body somehow. I take those same days to just take some pain reliever, stay in and sleep A LOT. I always feel much better the next day.

    About the other blog – one word – SAD.

  11. I don’t know what to say in response to that blog — I’d never heard of her and I think I’m in the camp with those who won’t go back. To me, it’s sort of like porn — boring in its transparency. I do hope she leaves the Farmer, though.

  12. Sandra says:

    I was in relationship with someone with BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder). In my experience, I would think every thing was going along fine and then at the drop of a hat I found myself in the middle of an outpouring of rage and accusations. There was no common ground possible for communicating while it was going on. My partner was very smart, very creative, and manipulative–although I don’t know if was necessarily used as a power play, but I think rather as a tool to keep the story line going, to keep from unraveling further.
    The thing is, people with mental illness (and Penelope may very well be dual, triple, what ever diagnosis), don’t always present like the cat lady on The Simpsons. They may very well be high functioning in different areas of their life. So it’s possible she can be a great blogger, entrepreneur, etc. and just lose the plot when it comes to intimate relationships. IMHO, she should at least be in therapy.
    I think a lot of people default to judging this as a “normal” relationship, and make suggestions and offer help, with that kind of logic in mind–as if they’re talking to someone who doesn’t have deep behavioral issues going on.
    There’s two boys though and it can’t be easy for them. I do hope there’s positive progress made for everyone involved.

  13. Sandra says:

    Hi again,
    Sorry I wasn’t entirely clear. She has said herself that she has Aspergers, as does one of her sons. What I meant was, she might also have something else too (dual diagnosis). I didn’t mean to pathologize her though. Something in her post(s) struck a familiar chord in terms of lots drama and then back to a presentation of normalcy, but it never lasts. I really think this kind of thing just cycles.

  14. Larz0 says:

    P. Trunk is crazy and no one to be taking advice from

  15. Patty says:

    Ha ha…found you via a Dooce search. I’ve been reading PT for quite a while and you’ve described it perfectly. I’ve been disgusted with myself as I continue to read. But, I continue to read. She’s interesting to say the least!

  16. Xanthe Wyse says:

    Narcissist and Borderline Personality Disorder are two words I’ve seen frequently describing Ms Trunk.

    http://baileybear.hubpages.com/hub/Penelope-Trunk-Brazen-Careerist-or-Brazen-Narcissist

  17. Xanthe Wyse says:

    here’s another post I wrote last year http://www.aspergerschild.org/1/post/2011/08/penelope-trunk-aspie-or-attention-whore.html
    I actually think she’s Borderline Personality Disorder. Apparently narcissists don’t show vulnerability. What irks me is she claims her behaviour is Asperger’s Syndrome.

  18. Pennie Heath says:

    I am way late with this but I read her too. And I read your post today Xanthe as tweeted by WQB. I also think she is Borderline. It is like watching a train wreck. She definitely does not have any sort of Asperger’s I’ve seen.

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