For this year’s Women of the Year issue, we asked some inspiring figures—past honorees, athletes, and more—to reflect on their work. Next up is memoirist Cyrus Grace Dunham, who explores how we can name ourselves. Read on for Dunham in their own words, and head here to buy your tickets for our annual summit and awards ceremony in New York City on November 10 and 11.
Pretending to be a girl for much of my life made hiding the norm, not the exception. When people told me I had omitted information, obscured basic facts, left out details of my life, I would get this hot feeling all over me. I hadn’t been dishonest on purpose; I just didn’t know another way to be. My performance of “girlhood” left me dissociated from myself and the world around me. The polite, articulate young woman everyone else encountered felt almost like a hologram; I had the sense I was hiding something monstrous, though I had no idea how to articulate what that monstrousness was.
My dissociation grew more extreme when, at the end of my teens, my sister [Lena Dunham] got famous. I watched her become a symbol that existed outside the physical body of the person I knew and loved. And her fame affected how I understood myself too. My old name, Grace, appeared in the media in ways I didn’t consent to. This made me feel even more alienated from my name than when I saw it on IDs or in paperwork. I started to feel like my name was a separate entity, a distant abstraction. This experience helped me understand more deeply the ways I was already a symbol: a “woman” and a white person with a puritan-sounding first name, someone from a fairly prominent, class-privileged family, someone’s sister, someone’s daughter.
Maybe it seems contradictory, then, that I would choose to write a memoir and divulge so much about my life thus far. The hardest part, I found, was attempting to write about the loved ones who have shaped me. People become stories when we distill them into a few sentences, paragraphs, or pages, and I do have regrets about subjecting my lovers, friends, and family to this kind of simplification. I could write a whole book about every person I mention, and so many that I didn’t. Since I’ve been written about in ways I didn’t consent to, it was important to me that everyone in the book had a chance to read and respond to the ways I depicted them. Many of those conversations were extremely difficult. We remember certain events differently, and certain moments made us feel drastically different ways. But still, I’m glad the book holds evidence of these dialogues, which heavily informed the final draft.
I think, partially, I was comfortable turning myself into a character because I’ve always felt like one anyway. My own life has often felt like a video game or a movie to me, my consciousness projected into an awkward, gangly, white “female” avatar. One thing I know is that writing about myself as a character helped a more authentic me wrest away some of that person’s power. In doing so, I was able to shed certain symbols that no longer felt livable.
Cyrus Grace Dunham is the author of A Year Without a Name.
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