From a review of “butch” fashion, to an outsider’s take of a star-studded evening at Nora Ephron’s house, to a devastating meditation on her dog’s death, Meghan Daum discusses many things in The Unspeakable and Other Subjects of Discussion. But there’s one topic she doesn’t traverse in her newest collection of 10 personal essays: “It’s not a salacious romp through the sex life of an aging person,” Daum jokes. Although personal essayists often get bulked in the confessional category, Daum is explicit in the book’s introduction that these essays are “events recounted in the service of ideas.”
Her new essays—never published anywhere else before—humorously and frankly contemplate intimate life themes like the death of her mother, her decision not to have children, and her own near-death experience. Yet Daum believes her personal experiences are not what’s at stake—it’s about connecting to others. “I’m going to invite you to think along with me—that’s what I do as an essayist,” says Daum. “I’m not making you agree with me and this is not a debate. I’m not making a declarative statement and proceeding to build my argument. I’m making a suggestion and inviting you to just think about it.”
Twice a month for over nine years, Daum has been inviting readers to think alongside her Los Angeles Times’ column. She lovingly describes the column as “her longest relationship,” explaining, “I’ve been doing my column longer than I’ve known my husband.” The space and time constraints of writing a 500-word bi-monthly column have ingrained in the author the discipline not to be overly precious about her work: “If I can do [the column] efficiently enough then I have the freedom to fuss and fret over other projects.”
This latest side project has been years in the making, and she’s taken a few book leaves from her column to stretch out and return to the longer essay form, which she became known for in her celebrated first collection, My Misspent Youth, a search for authenticity in a material world. The Unspeakable is a more mature grappling with authentic versus contrived experience.
“I’m hyper-attuned to false emotion for a variety of reasons,” says Daum. “The more past your 20’s and your early 30’s, where the default mode is irony and cynicism, I think people start becoming more vulnerable to sentimental ideas put forth in the culture, whether it’s about parenthood, or marriage, or finding your soul mate, or having a perfect house. Maybe a part of getting older is getting sucked into these models of ‘What is a good life?’ and ‘What is being a good person?’ and ‘What is a good relationship?’ and ‘What do these things mean?’ And they feel very limiting to me, so I wanted to talk in the book around the idea of sentimentality—what does it mean when you’re not feeling these things? And does it make you a bad person and do we have some obligation to just act as if? And what happens if we don’t act as if?”
The first essay in the book, “Matricide,” is a deeply emotional reflection of her lack of emotions over her mother’s death. Daum says this essay was the hardest piece she’s ever written. She gave up on it several times. “I wanted to get at the redemption narrative—the idea that in crisis or hardship you’re going to come out the other side being a better person, or that when someone is sick and dying you are going to take care of them and grow closer to them. So what happens when that doesn’t happen?”
“To try to articulate something that I think a lot of people feel, but they don’t know how to articulate or they are afraid to say out loud…it’s emblematic of what the book is about. It’s bookended by these life-and-death situations and the pressure to respond to them in a certain way.” The Unspeakable ends with a reflection on her own plunge into a medically induced coma, which she has no memory of. She requested her medical charts and relied on her husband to knit together the missing pieces from this horrifying experience.
Writing about this foggy time—and about many other past difficulties that surface in The Unspeakable—allowed Daum to process the incoherent in a refreshing way. “I don’t think of it as a catharsis as much as a conversion—you’re taking the experience and by putting it on the page and organizing it in a certain way, you’re converting it to something else—a set of ideas or a set of suggestions or a particular narrative that may or may not resemble the actual one, but it becomes this other entity.”