essays / memoir / nonfiction

Enough: Notes From a Woman Who Has Finally Found It by Shauna Ahern

enough.jpg

I have to admit that a good bit of the reason I wanted to read this book is that I had read fellow (now former for her) food blogger, Ahern’s earlier memoir/self-help book, Gluten-Free Girl: How I Found the Food That Loves Me Back…And How You Can Too ten years ago and in it, she hints about her childhood in-between rants about being fed gluten (before her celiac diagnosis as an adult) in a way that made me think it was less than rosy. I am a memoir lover (I’ve read over 35 this year alone) so I had hoped maybe in a later book she’d go into more detail. I got my wish when Enough: Notes From a Woman Who Has Finally Found It, another self-helpy-memoir hybrid by Ahern hit shelves last month.

She certainly does flesh out her childhood in this memoir but unfortunately, it is in a clunky way that raises more questions than answers. Some of her stories just don’t sound quite right. We are to believe that she had a gym teacher in the 1970s who insists that the sole activities the class can do for the entire year are jump rope for girls and baseball for boys? (this is solved by young Shauna marching into her principal’s office and reciting the Title IX ruling) Granted that was 40+ years ago but even then children learned more than one sport. She talks about one teacher leaving her in charge of storytime in the classroom so the teacher could have a coffee break. In what world is that pausable? No teacher (even in the apparent dark ages of 1970 or so) was leaving a room full of six-year-olds alone for a “coffee break”. In fifth grade, she claims she did the year’s reading curriculum (which consisted of a box of cards she had to read and summerize) by Halloween and then her teacher made her just redo them. None of that makes sense. Ahern’s mom was a teacher, surely she would have stepped in? Obviously, children’s memories can be faulty but these (and many other) stories of her elementary school life are so implausible as to be a bit ridiculous. Why include them? Any adult knows these stories don’t ring true at all. Why didn’t she ask her mother (who is still living, as is her father) about these times? Or think critically about them and realize that at age 6 it may have seemed like it she taught reading while the teacher took a break but that it was more likely that the children took turns reading while the teacher sat in the back of the room?

She tells stories about how unpopular, unsocialized and friendless she was but then reveals that she started a Beatles club (in the 1980s!) that had nearly 90 members and slumber parties and even formed a band with her brother and her friends. She is even friends with at least one of these women today. She talks about how her mother’s severe anxiety and agoraphobia meant she couldn’t visit people at their houses but it didn’t seem to affect her social life at all, she talks about a number of friends who were at her house nearly every day. slumber parties, day trips. I think she still suffers from what I think of as “missing out syndrome” where a child thinks everyone is having fun without them when really they are reading a book and going to bed at 8 pm as well.

She yearns for escape from her stifling childhood home and incompetent teachers (according to her, there were virtually zero qualified teachers at her school–yet she needed to spend every waking hour studying in order to get As) and sees college as a way out. She gets into a number of colleges but due to her mother’s anxiety and a host of other reasons she turned down Stanford (an event that she says made the local papers!!!) and accepted a place at a local school where she could live in the dorms but be close to home. Then that doesn’t work out (due again, she says to her mother’s anxiety) and instead, the whole family moves and she ends up attending college in the PNW and lives at home. I don’t even know what to make of that. She is very resentful about living at home and claims not to remember much about college despite relaying a number of stories in a later essay. She doesn’t win an award that would allow her to study abroad and she finds it devastating and is clearly still quite angry about that. She gets to attend grad school for free at the college her father teaches at and she does that begrudgingly at 24. She seems really stuck and resentful for these events that took place when she was a young adult, half her life ago. Her mom’s anxiety sounds rough and Ahern seems to have felt solely responsible for keeping her happy but where is her dad in all this? Why didn’t he help?

Her tall tales aren’t limited to childhood and adolescence either. She talks about being a high school teacher and having one very popular, academically talented homecoming queen come to her and express that she never felt like she had it “together” the way another girl in her class did. Shauna soothes her by assuring her that the girl in question probably felt the same way about her. The first girl leaves only to be replaced by a second girl–the girl the first girl was jealous of– who is lamenting her inability to have it all the way the first girl Ahern consoled did. Thus finally illuminating the point that we always think someone else has it better but we all have struggles. As a former teacher, I am positive this scenario never happened. It is too neat and too precious. I don’t know why Ahern felt the need to make up some story in her memoir to make a point when she could have just said something like “once I was a teacher, I finally realized that I shouldn’t have been jealous of all those popular kids in school, they all had troubles too”. and moved on. This “event” really pulls you out of the book and makes you wonder what else is she making up for the sake of making her point.

Her story about how she became inspired to write this book sounds off to me too–she has a “mini-stroke” and her doctor says she is in top shape in every way (then later in the book she says she lowered her blood pressure and cholesterol quite substantially after the TIA– so which is it?) and that she should really be looking into her life for ways she can improve. What’s keeping from her from sleeping soundly? Does she have stress she can alleviate? Then he says “where in your life are you not feeling good enough?” which in the setting–a doctor’s office after a TIA–clearly comes across as the doctor asking her how she can improve her physical health. Most people would probably answer “I could exercise more to reduce stress, increase my cardiac health and help my sleep” but Ahern sees it as a call to examine why she has never felt like “enough” in her personal life. It’s quite a leap and I wonder what her doctor thinks of all this.

Either she grossly misinterpreted her doctor’s question or she is fabricating a colorful backstory for this latest memoir. Once again, the story just feels false and she even contradicts the health issues later in the book. If she had normal blood pressure and cholesterol readings directly after the TIA, they’d be nearly dangerously low if she lowered as much as she claims she did in the months after the TIA in a later essay. Which is it? Was she in perfect health at the time or did she need to make changes in her life to ensure she didn’t have another TIA or an actual stroke? It’s fine if she needed to make changes but why not just admit it at the beginning instead of making the TIA the result of some sort of emotional turmoil? It seems so disingenuous.

The essay about her failed gluten-free business is really appalling. She freely admits to doing little research before starting a Kickstarter campaign that nets her $92,000 to start her flour company and that it is a last-ditch attempt to generate income for her underemployed family vs. a desire to actually start a successful business. This essay is full of complaints and paints her as a victim of circumstances beyond her control, which, she clearly isn’t. She claims that no one told her that you would have to spend money on thank you rewards (obviously not true because she set the awards up herself before the campaign went live). She talks about google being her best friend and how she spends her time looking up things like shipping, how to set up a business account, packaging of the flour all after she accepts the Kickstarter money. Some error apparently goes unnoticed for a long time (one can only assume because she has zero clue what she is doing) which results in her not collecting shipping money from the orders and she decides to shut down the business and that she isn’t made for running a business. That’s incredibly evident but a conclusion she could have reached by actually researching anything about the flour business before starting it and taking $92K of other people’s money. I feel really bad for her investors. Not only are they out the money, she clearly heavily resents the backers for wanting to collect the rewards she, herself, created and offered to them. I get the impression some people never got what was promised. It’s really gross. A point she makes that really rubbed me the wrong way is when she mentions that’s it is easy to start a business if you have a trust fund to use/fall back on but come on, she had $92K+ from complete strangers, was broke so didn’t invest any of her own money and took out zero business loans. That’s not a trust fund but upwards of 90k of no strings attached contributions and zero personal financial investment is a huge leg up when launching a business.

Her money woes are evident again in the essay about her brief stint working in a grocery store bakery. I’m glad she accepted that she needed to take a regular job to pay the bills and get insurance for her children but the whole essay smacks of poverty tourism. She ends it by saying she left the store for a better-paying gig (then another when that one ended) and that her husband only works a few days a week “for the community” vs needing the money. She also makes weird comments about people’s carts when she is bagging that has no real foundation in reality like a person buying only vegetables is trying to lose weight via juice fast, only 2-3 people are buying ingredients for recipes, people buying energy drinks and jo-jo potatoes only, etc. At least she has the epiphany that she can shop sales and plan meals to cut down her own grocery bills while there–something you’d think you’d realize before having two kids, no health insurance and less than $90 in the bank but better late than never.

She really makes her mother out to be a villain in this book– her severe anxiety lead to her wanting Ahern to check household locks at night, wanting frequently check-ins, keeping her away from dogs on walks, limiting her college choices but glosses over the fact that her father had an affair at what seemed to be the height of her mother’s anxiety issues and that he was constantly fighting with her mother and making light of her anxiety. At no point did her father stick up for Ahern or her brother when her mother was making these demands or having these issues. She gives her mother zero sympathies for having a panic disorder at a time when they were not as well-understood and treatment was limited. She only seems to see how it limited her own life. I’m sure it was difficult to live with that as a child but you’d think that by your mid-fifties and as a mother of two young children while apparently dealing with a “mini-stroke” and a chronic illness you could cut your own mother some slack for having a mental illness. Her father, who stuck with her mother this entire time and doesn’t seem to have done anything to help or protect his children from his wife’s issues is basically given a free pass. Her mother’s issues do sound severe and limiting for Ahern but Ahern did manage to have many friends, play sports, go to the library, try to become a child actor, take family trips and walks, graduate grad school, live in the UK for a year as a family, etc. Again, why didn’t her father step in at all? He coached her team while her mom headed up the PTA so he was around and active in her life. Ahern praises him for “standing his ground” when her mom’s panic disorder worsened when they move to England for a year and he refuses to let his wife go back home but then he doesn’t stop her from pulling the children from school and making them stay home and read. How this affected her high school performance is never addressed. Her father really failed his children over and over again yet Ahern places all of the blame for all of her problems over the decades on her mother alone.

She has some real issues with women, feminity and gender roles. Most of her thinking seems stuck in a past that even she didn’t live in. The popular girls are always blonde, girls are catty, girls wear dresses instead of practical overalls, women are supposed to be demure, women don’t cuss. The list goes on and on. Ahern is aggressively “not like other girls” in a way that is odd for a 50+-year-old woman. There is no nuance in her world. She thinks being “nice” is fake and refuses to fake it anymore but her examples of being nice–holding doors open, apologizing when you hit someone with a shopping cart–just seem to be just common courtesy.  Do you need to apologize for sitting in an open seat or being first in line? No? But if you bang into me at the grocery store, an acknowledgment and a brief “sorry” is just a part of living in a society. She doesn’t seem to be able to recognize the difference between basic manners and women undermining themselves. She then takes it to a bizarre extreme and says being “nice” is also ignoring the extermination of Jews during the Holocaust. I don’t even know where to begin with that. Then she makes a strange pivot to drag queens and being fierce that is garbled, a bit offensive and tone-deaf. It’s a puzzling leap. She flat out says most people are pretending to be happy and satisfied. I think she is neither but surely many are? She comes across as a less articulate Holden Caulfield at middle age.

She seems completely unable to realize what is universal (puberty is rough on everyone) and what isn’t (everyone is faking their lives according to Ahern which simply isn’t true) and this colors the bulk of the book. Most of her stories are very, very particular to her but then she makes these attempts to connect it to the rest of the world so we can find our “enough” but it never quite works. The whole book vacillates between trying to be on the self-help spectrum and being a regular memoir in essay form but does neither terribly well.

Her daughter’s health issues and her husband’s admission that he drinks basically 24 hrs a day every day and has for decades a few days before she gives birth seem like they would have been more of a source of stress than her childhood but she links even her husband’s issues back to her parents–they didn’t drink so she didn’t know what was normal. It’s bizarre. She doesn’t delve into how she didn’t notice what was going on with her husband–it is only after his surprise confession that she sees that he is drunk every night when she picks him up from work. She also never gets too much into his apparently spotty employment history or why neither of them knew their insurance had lapsed until she had the TIA. Lots of blame on her mother, little introspection or insight into her adult, married life which also seems to be in complete disarray.

It’s sad she never overcame the issues of her childhood and I hope she takes the time to reflect and maybe get some help. She has two young children at home that would surely benefit. She talks about therapy during her time in NYC but it seems like it was more talk therapy (she doesn’t even see her therapist’s face during sessions) than therapy with more interactions and a plan of action.

The best advice in the whole book comes from her brother on page 111 where he gives her suggestions on how to talk to people–“Just practice talking to people a few more minutes than you think you can…” and that it gets easier over time.

I don’t think this book really holds up to the title at all. Ahern does come across as a deeply unhappy woman. I do not believe she found “enough”. I don’t think she ever dealt with what seems to have been a bit limited and not very joyful childhood but not one that (unless she left out huge details–which I can’t imagine she did–this woman tells us that she used to sneak into friend’s bathrooms to shave her facial hair with their razors and overly descriptive details about her sex life) really rose to the level of abuse. Not to say it wasn’t difficult but after reading her intense blame on her upbringing for all of her problems she really made it seem like more was going on than a mother with a panic disorder, not getting to go to her first-choice college or not being allowed to go to friend’s houses to play.

I hope her parents and brother don’t read it. She is so rough on her mother and I can’t imagine they really want to know all the details of her protracted virginity. The book is in essay form which is fine–I feel like essays are probably easier to write for most people and can work well in a memoir–but they skip around in both time and topic a lot so you end up piecing together threads to get a fuller story. Since she dwells so much on her suburban childhood and it’s about her evolution as a person, it’s an odd choice not to present them chronologically. I’m not sure where her editor was in this book, she contradicts herself a lot throughout and several of the stories seem to be made up of whole cloth or at the very least, greatly exaggerated. Memoirs are, of course, tricky to edit as they are based on a person’s personal experiences but there were so many puzzling points in the book that could have been clarified or eliminated.

I do not recommend this ultimately very frustrating book to anyone looking for inspiration or hope. However, it is a very short book. The print is large and some “essays” are just lists of her thoughts about various body parts. If you were a huge fan of her blog or her current Instagram account and you want to know more about her, it may be worth checking out. It is not a funny or joyful book. There is no call to action to find “enough” in your own life.  It’s lacking any real introspection or perspective. There are much better memoirs and self-help books that cover similar topics in a much more cohesive, honest and coherent way out there.

commissions may be earned through affiliate links

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s