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Becoming Duchess Goldblatt

August 4, 2020

IMG_4118Reading the anonymously published memoir Becoming Duchess Goldblatt, a book recommended to me by former blogging friends who are now social media friends, made me cranky. If you have heard of this book, I highly recommend that you join me in considering a few of the issues it raises because then you might also get cranky about the author’s attitudes towards writing, communicating, and what it means to be a friend.

Recently I became aware that my writing skills weren’t up to communicating the degree of risk I was willing to assume in order to see my one of my oldest friends (I’ve known her since we were nineteen) in person. We emailed and we texted and eventually it became clear to us that we needed to talk on the phone if we wanted to understand tone of voice and attitude towards the words we were saying. We worked it out.

It’s not so easy to work it out with internet friends, people who fit into only the interstices of your day, who get just a few of your words tossed off before you head in another direction. Misunderstandings can grow, sometimes without one of you even being aware of it. Eventually more misunderstandings crop up and then it can get pretty easy to shrug off the persona that these internet friends have built up for you, deciding that they didn’t really know you at all.

Except sometimes they do know how careless you can be. In 2012, when I was in the process of shrugging off the persona an internet friend had built up for me, I wrote that “when you long to see certain words badly enough to ignore your misgivings, it’s likely that you will fail to read with your usual amount of care. If you get really sloppy, you may begin trying to write your own version, seeing things from a slightly different perspective and not even realizing it.” Since that time, I have worked to make myself care less about internet friends and more about the ones I spend time with in person.

So the message of Duchess Goldblatt—that building a pseudonymous Twitter persona is the way to make new friends after your old ones have given up—is one that I don’t buy. If you make an internet friend who is a good writer (as Duchess Goldblatt is and my former friend was) then that person can probably convince you that her friendless state is because her former friends were faithless when in fact she may have driven most of them off through the kind of carelessness that consists of an inability to imagine that anyone else thinks or feels differently.

The structure of Duchess Goldblatt’s memoir demonstrates her careless attitude towards friendship. First she describes how her husband divorced her, then she claims to be upset that none of her former friends and family members want to have anything to do with her, and eventually she decides to soothe herself by creating a fictional woman who is more generous and forgiving than she is. Finally the made-up woman, Duchess Goldblatt, attracts the attention of a few famous people–Lyle Lovett, Benjamin Dreyer, Elizabeth McCracken, and Laura Lippman–and this connection with famous people makes the way she lives her life feel better.

The woman behind Duchess Goldblatt not only creates a fictional persona, she creates an entire town called Crooked Path for her imaginary life, complete with a
“Home for Aged and Unpleasant Ex-Husbands, the Gertrude Stein Opera Is Opera Is Opera House; the Dorothy Parker Academy for Girls…and both the Crooked Path Cat Sanctuary and the (unrelated) Crooked Path Actuary Sanctuary, where actuaries live out their days in peace, prancing through fields and calculating risk. The town has a day spa specializing in the therapeutic laying on of obese dachshunds. Crooked Path also hosts an annual Vodka Festival, a Riesling Festival, and a very popular Living Jenga Pageant in which a few frail elders usually break a hip or two.”
You can see that the made-up town sounds like more fun than having to deal with anything in real life, like when your small-town newspaper has been bought out by one of those new partisan outlets masquerading as local news organizations and you have to find out who is on the local chamber of commerce so you can start the ball rolling to make at least a few people aware of the magnitude of the change.

It’s more fun to drift off into fiction, to write for people who “think she’s a real duchess” even though “they know she’s not real. Not real-real. They think she’s a fictional character who’s supposed to be a duchess. Or they think she’s a fictional character who thinks she’s a duchess.”

The Duchess sees the number of her followers on Twitter and the publication of her book as vindication. She must be funny because “people seemed to want to laugh along with me” even though “my husband had been telling me for fifteen years I wasn’t funny.” She must be popular because “Duchess likes to be at the center of things,” even though she wasn’t welcome when, after her divorce, she showed up at the funeral of a great-uncle by marriage.

The woman who writes as Duchess Goldblatt thinks she must be living up to her father’s ideals because she has realized “that a dig made at a famous person for ordinary human failings, no matter how far removed they are from the conversation, carries with it an implied criticism of the reader.” But even though she proclaims her intention of being kind to famous people, she follows that almost immediately with a dig at a place, claiming that “Gertrude Stein was talking about Oakland, California, when she said, ‘There’s no there there,’ but she could just as easily been talking about social media. I try to find the there that’s hidden there, or to plant some there there and watch it grow.” So, you know, she can insult an entire town full of ordinary people or virtually everyone who uses social media even though she is trying really hard not to individually insult anyone who is famous.

Duchess Goldblatt tries to demonstrate that she must be sadder than other people because the one person she asked “how often do you figure the average person thinks about committing suicide?” answered “never” and the Duchess, who is not at all average, can then reveal that she has been thinking about suicide “seven or eight times an hour.” Plus, she had a brother who “was gravely afflicted with debilitating mental illness and alcoholism” and she is the only woman ever who has felt that “everything was exhausting, everything too much effort. And there was no point.” She even weighs her trauma against those who might say “other people have it way worse” by saying that “everything hurt except being Duchess” so of course she has done a great, even a noble thing by inviting people to post pictures of their pies on Thanksgiving and inviting everyone on Twitter to “her imaginary table in the ether. It wasn’t a real party, but it was almost as good, wasn’t it? We were together, sort of—in our thoughts, which is all there ever is anyway—and we all belonged there.”

Not only her book but her online life itself is vindication. Evidently, the woman who writes Duchess didn’t think her everyday life was worth much before Elizabeth McCracken, a novelist, retweeted one of her tweets:
“I was alone in an elevator in a creepy, darkened parking garage in a dying part of town—the kind of place where the old me would have been clocking the location of the emergency bell, threading car keys through fingers in case I needed a weapon, eyes on my surroundings, afraid of a serial killer getting on the elevator and strangling me, but at that moment I remember thinking, Go ahead and kill me already, let’s get it over with, I wouldn’t half mind. But when I stepped off the elevator and clicked on my phone out of habit, I saw she’d noticed me.”
Out of habit, really? This is a person who’s spending more time in the virtual world than in the real world, because that’s where all her friends are.

The Duchess actually admits that her friends are fictional, saying “every day of my life I am real and you are fictional. You only exist for me inside my mind. Isn’t that fiction?” Or… is it solipsism?

Readers can be glad that her fictional persona has given the person who writes Duchess Goldblatt the courage to stand up for her work and go on with her life without buying her implicit argument that hers is a life well-lived.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2020 2:34 am

    Well, I think you can have real relationships through the medium of the internet, too. Everything is a medium, after all, including our bodies. But not if you maintain that other people only exist within your own mind! That’s solipsism, indeed.

    I had not heard of this person at all and it sounds like a very interesting but strange and sad phenomenon. Seems like she is revealing things that other people also think or feel, but more covertly.

    • August 7, 2020 10:29 am

      Certainly I think of internet relationships as real! It’s the anonymity that bothers me, and I think it’s what leads to solipsism.
      It is a strange and sad book. Good writing, though.

  2. August 4, 2020 7:56 am

    Ahahahaha, everything I read about this book makes me BAFFLED as to why it’s getting such a huge marketing push. I guess just because she has lots of famous writer followers?? I looked at the Twitter feed a while ago and felt like a meanie for saying so but NONE of what she was writing seemed interesting or funny. I dunno.

    That said, j’adore my internet friends! It has been a true good fortune to me to have internet pals in these quarantimes, since I can’t see people IRL. I’d obviously still rather be able to see folks in the physical world ALSO — I missed y’all so much this summer! — but the presence of internet pals has really saved me. I think as with anything, different balances of internet life and physical life work for different people.

    • August 7, 2020 10:27 am

      You know I agree–the story of how I invited myself to y’alls house and spent the night the first time I ever met any of you is my success story of great people I have met over the internet and will forever love in real life!
      Last night I was watching Watchmen (the tv series) and there was a line about how if you’re wearing a mask you’re up to no good. Not sure I want to put it in terms that black and white, but I do agree, to some extent. If you’re hiding something, people should probably ask themselves why.

      • August 7, 2020 1:45 pm

        Er…I think that mask line should be put on hold until the end of the pandemic. 😉

        • August 7, 2020 2:06 pm

          Yeah…but we use the word “masks” to signify large classes of very different things! I personally object to the Princess Bride meme where Westley’s line about everyone wearing masks in the future is used to apply to the masks most of us are now wearing over the nose and mouth, when Westley is talking about masks covering the eyes, a traditional method of “disguise.”

  3. edj3 permalink
    August 4, 2020 10:20 am

    Hard pass on this one–just ick.

    • August 7, 2020 10:24 am

      You and I both had our feelings trampled by the same imaginary person we thought was a friend so yes, I’d agree that you should pass on this one.

  4. August 4, 2020 1:53 pm

    That part about being so lost to the real world that she’d almost welcome death is so sad. Sounds like a trauma response. I’m a very introverted person, but the months of forced isolation, and connection via computer alone, were very hard for me. Maybe writing this book is a first step toward healing? As in, admitting she has a problem?

    • August 7, 2020 10:22 am

      Yes. I even say that at the end of this review, that I’m glad the persona was a way out for her. The end is good. I’m just thinking about the extent to which I think it can ever justify the means–which doesn’t actually mean that I want to focus on this anonymous author with laser-like intensity, but that I’m thinking about anonymity in general. Probably should have said that, but sometimes blog writing is first draft writing.

  5. August 4, 2020 7:01 pm

    Interesting. And of course, you can be cranky (and I know you aren’t looking for permission to be cranky.) I loved it. I love Duchess. I loved this book. I loved it so much, I got the audiobook and listened to it. Yes, she absolutely is totally out of touch with herself and why she can’t make friends. She must be a horrid friend! I think her being Duchess is fascinating, a way for her to explore different facets of her own personality she either didn’t realize she had or had buried in the complications of an unexplored difficult childhood and family. But anyway, I have been a fan of her on Twitter for some time and she makes Twitter fun when most of Twitter is a gaping heart hole of ache. And as for internet friends; some of my ‘imaginary’ friends are by far the most real friends I have in my life. I cherish many of these friendships. To each their own. xoxox

    • August 7, 2020 10:20 am

      I’m glad to hear she makes Twitter fun for you! And of course I agree that some (in fact, most) of my imaginary friends are the most real friends in my life, especially right now. You, for one, dear Care.

  6. August 6, 2020 10:10 am

    I quite enjoyed the book also, but I can see how if the plot struck a nerve it might color your perception of the entire work. I myself couldn’t identify with the dilemma that started her dissembling, as 1. I have no friends either online OR in real life, and 2. I am not on any social media platform (unless you count this here blog thingy). But despite not being able to empathize with the character’s motives, I found the concept original enough and the writing adept enough that I enjoyed it nonetheless. Sorry your experience was different!

    • August 7, 2020 10:18 am

      It wasn’t different, really; I do think she’s a good writer. To poke at the other end of the quotation from Charlotte’s Web, though, I’m not so sure she can be a good friend.

  7. August 7, 2020 9:57 am

    Sometimes tweets from the Duchess make it onto my Twitter feed and although some of them have made me smile, none of them have captured my interest enough to follow her myself (or even look up her feed to see if I want to follow). But I am really interested in the phenomenon of virtual friendships. I have some close friends who I keep in contact with almost entirely virtually (email and now texting) and have done so for years, But we had built our friendship in person first. And I have made genuine friendships that started online, although I generally feel closer to online friends after I meet them in person. But that doesn’t keep the friendships that exist only online from feeling authentic.

    I feel, though, like creating a false persona just isn’t going to lead to genuine friendship. Everyone puts on a persona to some extent I suppose, but it’s not a way I’d want to live, even if I got a boost from it for a while.

    • August 7, 2020 10:17 am

      Last night I was watching Watchmen (the tv series) and there was a line about how if you’re wearing a mask you’re up to no good. Not sure I want to put it in terms that black and white, but I do agree, to some extent. I’ve always used my real name on the internet.
      I agree with you that I’ve made genuine friendships that started online. I don’t know what I’d do without book bloggers. It improves my life every day that I can talk to like-minded people about what we’re reading.

  8. August 13, 2020 4:19 am

    I have a number of friends who don’t use their real name on the internet because they have been the victims of trolls. I use mine – all of it – because it is too exhausting to not be me; it is exhausting enough being me!

    On my own blog, I moderate first comments, and that has been enough so far. Once or twice I have not let that first one through out of a sense of something not right.

    On a writer’s site I frequent, I have reported anyone who seems to be trolling for female ‘friends’ since I incautiously corresponded a couple of times with one, and it got immediately icky. I now know that someone who doesn’t engage in real conversation about writing is not someone I can deal with.

    And on FB, the great hole, I block as necessary, and always check new people with the friends they supposedly share with me. So far so good.

    But the idea of deliberately reading about a fake is anathema. Life is too short. I barely have enough time (while writing fiction) for the people I love, and the people I have these lovely conversations with. New ‘friends’ would have to fill a hole; when I sense that happening, I initiate myself. The internet is also the only form of support group I have left since the real life one could not be continued; I need a place where I don’t have to explain. “Where everybody knows your name.” (Cheers)

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