"I don’t think I’m in any position to tell someone what they should or shouldn’t do, what’s cool or what’s not. I don’t fucking know. I don’t even know for myself. I just do what I like to do unconditionally, and if somebody has a problem with that, then whatever." Lesley Arfin has done it all, wrote it down in her journal, and now she’s revisiting it and the people she wrote about in her full-length debut Dear Diary
. From her days as a young girl in Long Island, trying to navigate her way through social circles while discovering boys, punk rock, and drugs, to her increasing addiction that eventually leads her to rehab and then sobriety, Arfin remains honest in her appraisal of the past while making sure to interject just the right amount of humor to make the whole thing work.
There was a part of the book where you and a friend were getting someone to do coke, and you wrote, “It was starting to occur to me that I wasn’t this innocent victim of bullies … and was in fact a self-centered and evil bitch who would like to fuck with people and then immediately forget it.” How often did you come to those sorts of conclusions about yourself while writing this book? I think that I put it pretty harshly there for the comedic factor, but even before I started the book I had taken responsibility of my part in all of the times that I felt like a bitch in my life. And I had looked at them pretty closely, and before I did any kind of interview, if there was any lingering resentment toward someone I was about to interview, I would kind of think about it, I would look at the situation, and I would think, “Well, what’s the part that I played in this, so that I don’t go into it coming from a place of resentment? So I go in coming from a place of forgiveness of the person and forgiveness of myself.” With every interview, any time I felt like I had been dealt a raw hand, I would try to have those realizations. But not in such a harsh way. I wasn’t telling myself I was an evil bitch. I just wrote that because it sounded funny.
What do you think of yourself now? I’m pretty okay with myself. I think I’m great!
The interview that I found to be most surprising was with the guy who turned out to have later murdered his parents. That was crazy, right?
When you were going to do these interviews, were you thinking, “Maybe one of these people is going to be a murderer?” (Laughs) No. Well, I knew about that kid murdering his parents before the book. There weren’t that many shocking revelations in terms of where people were in their lives, because most of the gruesome stories, like, “This kid’s mom murdered his dad,” and, “This kid murdered his parents,” I already knew. I’m from Long Island. We love to gossip. That’s what we do. So I knew about all this gossip, and I thought, “Well, I don’t think a lot of people can say that they made out with a kid who killed his parents, so that’s gotta go in the book.”
Is that a bragging right for you? In terms of being a storyteller, sure.
There was another part of the book where you said, “When I realize I’m incapable of turning a man into the kind of dude I want, he eventually becomes the dude that I want.” What sort of dude do you want now, and how does that compare to the sort of dude that you wanted back then? I had a very romantic ideal when I was growing up. Not to say that I don’t today, but when I was younger it was pretty unrealistic, and I really thought I knew what I wanted, but I didn’t. I didn’t have any idea because I didn’t have any experience. I based what I thought I wanted from what I saw in the movies and what I read in books, just like everybody else. But I’m in a relationship now, and the person who I’m with is really nice and really patient, and open-minded, and funny, and I think that all those things have so much value to me. I don’t think when I was younger I considered all that to be very important, but as I’m sure probably you know, as you get older, you realize that maybe some of these little things, like being a nice person, actually really go a long way. I dated a bunch of assholes, and then I thought, “Well, I don’t really like going out with somebody who’s mean. It kind of hurts my feelings.” And so I stopped doing that. And I feel like I’ve matured in terms of what I looked for in another person. And who knows? Maybe there’s still more room for me to mature. I’m sure there is.
You were big into the Riot Grrrl scene, and that influenced your views for quite some time. What are your views on feminism now? I guess I still consider myself a feminist, I just don’t feel as angry about it as I used to. Kathleen Hanna had this way of sort of incorporating pop songs into her lyrics, and all of her music was kind of full of irony in a way that made you question a female’s role in society, and mainstream culture and society itself. That I still question, and that I still appreciate her lyrics for. I guess I felt pretty comfortable when I was younger in terms of feminism and seeing myself, again, as a person who’s a victim, and that’s a role that I try to stay away from in all areas of my life today. And so while I do think I’m a feminist, I don’t feel that I’m in any way shape or form a victim as a woman. At all. I certainly believe that, as a feminist, I can do whatever I want, regardless of how that seems to other feminists. One day I would love to be barefoot and pregnant and have lots of kids and maybe not work for a while, which I realize isn’t standard feminist practice. But to me, owning that is.
How do you feel in terms of what young girls today have to deal with in terms of the media’s perception of women as well as the sort of expectations American culture has of young girls? I guess it’s sad. It sucks. I can’t say that it’s so shocking. When I was younger, I think the equivalent was probably 90210, and everything was, “Get good grades, and be pretty, and be rich,” and that was kind of like the 90210 attitude, and that was what was popular at the time. The good news is that there’s always going to be people who reject that. There’s always going to be kids who question it. And I think it’s really important to have that sort of backlash, and to have that subculture going on. So if you want to buy into not eating and being really skinny and acting like Lindsay Lohan, if you want to buy that, then buy it. That’s your responsibility. But if you as a teenager want to rebel against that, and think about it and question it, that’s awesome. It’s always going to exist. There’s always going to be people who buy it. There’s always going to be people who go against the grain. I guess it’s the way of the world. I would encourage kids to make their own decisions about it rather than me tell them one-way or another what’s good or what’s bad.
If somebody’s trying to be cool, then try to be cool. I tried to be cool, and I found out through my own series of mistakes that my own idea of cool didn’t really work, until it did. It’s your own adventure, it’s your own experience, and it’s your own trial and error. I don’t think I’m in any position to tell someone what they should or shouldn’t do, what’s cool or what’s not. I don’t fucking know. I don’t even know for myself. I just do what I like to do unconditionally, and if somebody has a problem with that, then whatever. But it took me a long time to get to that point, and it should take anyone who’s maybe fifteen years old a long time to get to that point. It’s their life.
What would you say to someone that’s interested in trying drugs? I guess, just be careful. I’m not anti-anything, and I would never want to be the type of person who could tell somebody not to do anything. It’s not my business if someone wants to experiment with whatever. I would just say to be smart about it. Be careful. But go for it, I guess. But what do I know?
What do you think it is that led you to try drugs? From the book it seemed like it was a combination of boredom and curiosity. Yeah, I would say that that would be the two components that made me try drugs.
Do you think a hereditary predisposition contributed to your addiction? I’m not sure about that. I think there was probably a little bit of both. There is a hereditary disposition. My grandfather was an alcoholic. Maybe it had something to do with my life experiences growing up, socially. But I really don’t know. It’s a question that I’ve often thought about, but the answer isn’t really relevant.
So, when it comes to the whole nature versus nurture argument, where do you find yourself falling? I really think I fall straight down the line. I think it’s different for everybody. Some people are brought up in horrible situations in their life, and they’re led to one thing or another. I think one part of what makes alcoholism hereditary is that when you have a parent that is an alcoholic or a drug addict and they act fucking crazy, you in turn are brought up in a crazy environment and then go and do drugs and drink. That’s what makes it hereditary: not so much your genealogy, but how your parents bring you up. But I really don’t know. I’d say for me it was probably more nature, but I go back and forth all the time.
What does it make you think when you see a person with a bloody nose on the cover of a book? I guess what I love so much about the photo is that it’s this really cute girl with a bloody nose, and you’d think at first, “Oh, that’s gross, she’s got a bloody nose,” but she really is a beautiful girl in a non-conventional way, and she looks kind of like a scrapper. She looks like a tough little kid. So I think it’s a really striking image. I don’t feel sad looking at it. It doesn’t seem to me like she’s the kind of girl who got abused, it seems to me that she’s the kind of girl who would fight back. And so I think it’s kind of a fun cover, and I think it’s pretty great.
If you hadn’t been offered the opportunity to do the Dear Diary book, do you think at one point you would have just written a memoir on your own? Maybe. Definitely not now. I still think that it’s funny that I’m not even thirty, and I wrote about my life. Maybe I would have when I was a lot older.
Do you think this book came out too early in your life? No. The format is very much geared toward young adults. It’s called Dear Diary, and the typeface is red, and it’s appropriate for what it is. But that’s because it’s Dear Diary. If it was in any other format, it would have been premature.
Have you been contacted by fifteen year olds telling you that this book very much affected them? Yes. I get a lot of response on Myspace and emails and stuff from kids who tell me that they love Dear Diary, and that means a lot to me.
There’s a part in the book where you suddenly announce your intention to be a writer, but you don’t explore why. What was the impetus for this aspiration? I think it had been because at that point, I was writing all the time in my diary, and it was the only thing that felt right and true to me. And it was where I felt most comfortable expressing myself. I always had an interest in painting and drawing and singing and dancing, basically the arts, but in writing I had really found my niche.
Did you try writing outside of your diary at that point? Yeah, I think I probably tried writing poetry. I think I wrote a bunch of poems. And I don’t remember how old I was when I wrote that. I took some poetry workshops for kids my age, and I took some fiction workshops, and I always wrote poetry and fiction, even in college. It was what I studied in college.
In terms of writing another book, do you think you would go the fiction route, the nonfiction route, or are you not sure? I’m working on another book. It’s nonfiction, but I can’t say anything else about it.
What was your strangest “only in New York” moment? Oh my God. This is one of my favorite stories. I was on the F train, and this homeless guy was asking for money so he can renew his prescription. He said he’s addicted to opiates, and he had irritable bowel syndrome, and if he didn’t take his opiates- meaning heroin or whatever- that he had irritable bowel syndrome. He then proceeded to pull down his pants to show the entire subway car that he was wearing a diaper, and I’m pretty sure that he started to go to the bathroom in the diaper on the train. The women next to me were crossing themselves and saying Hail Marys. You could hear a pin drop on the subway train. I’ve never experienced that. I was alone. It was a great moment.
What would you say your strangest moment was as a stylist? I’d say a good moment was that I styled Justin Timberlake, and he was so nice, really easy to work with, really friendly, and at the time my sister was a huge Justin Timberlake fan. She still is. And I asked him if he would call her, and I gave him my phone, and he called her, and he left a message, and it was really nice. And she still has the message.
Which New Yorker would you say you most admire? I think the New Yorker I most admire is Tina Fey. She’s a really hard worker, and she’s consistently funny, consistently doing great work. She’s got a baby and a husband, and it seems to me to be the kind of life that I would like to have one day.
Given the opportunity, how would you change New York? I would make everybody’s rent lower, including my own. That’s something that offers a great deal of stress in my life, that my rent is so high. And I would stop people from building new condos. I think for ten/fifteen years, let’s put a hiatus on contractors who are building condos, and refurbish old apartments. Unless it’s crumbling, literally about to fall to pieces on the ground, people can fix it, but other than that, no more new condos. Also, let’s fix the potholes in the street. What is the deal? They don’t fix them and that angers me. So rent, pot holes, and no new buildings. That’s how I would change New York right now.
Under what circumstances would you change New York? I think I would leave New York if I got a better paying job someplace else, or if I were to have more than one child. I love New York, but it wouldn’t take that much for me to leave, to be honest. I’m not a die hard, never-going-to-leave-New-York New Yorker. I fantasize often about living upstate or in L.A. or something like that, so I don’t think it would take that much, to be honest.
What do you consider a perfect day of recreation in the city? I’ll just describe to you what my favorite day this summer was. It was pouring rain outside, I was home alone, and I read Harry Potter from cover to cover and chain-smoked and drank tea. And that was my most favorite recreational day.
Every six months or so I have a breakdown or realization or epiphany or whatever you wanna call it and it sounds something like “I just want to have a regular job with a regular salary and be a normal person.” There are just so many jobs to chose from! This month, I’m thinking I want to be a nurse. Why not? Being a long-time lover of the TV show Scrubs, I think this would be a great job, one that I would excel at. Here are the pros:
1. Nurses make money: I don’t know exactly how much, but this is what people keep telling me. I think they can make even like hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. They get good benefits and I’m sure their health insurance is top notch!
2. Friendships: I bet there’s a lot of comradery in the nursing field. I bet nurses become BFF with doctors and other types of hospital staff, and they have lots of private jokes together and crushes form and people hang up pictures of their babies and everyone says “awwww” cuz your baby is so cute. I am really into the idea of the nurse scene. I bet there’s mad gossip and a big fat black lady who loves Jesus and has a lot of sass who has your back.
3. Outfits: I don’t really care for those “wild” scrubs that nurses wear to jazz it up. My scrubs will be very simple and classic, no teddy bear patterns or any of that baby shit. Why do nurses do that? Dressing like a toddler isn’t good unless you’re dressing like a toddler going to a dance recital. Other than that, it’s gross. Being a nurse is an adult job. Wearing scrubs with a teddy bear pattern makes the nursing field seem like it’s not that important. I guess if you’re nursing in pediatrics it might be okay though, the kids probably feel good when they see a teddy bear pattern.
4. Knowing how to take care of someone: I’d like to know exactly what people need to feel better. It seems like a power move. Blood pressure and painkillers and needles; I’d like to know what to do with all the nursing accouterments and what not. I’d like to know exactly what to prescribe when someone says their skin hurts, or their eye is bleeding, or their feet won’t walk. It might seem obscure to others, but to nurses it’s all very common and we know just the remedy! Doctors do as well, but doctors see our bodies as machines that need to be fixed. They’re like auto-mechanics that make a lot more money. Nurses have a gentle touch. We care about you.
5. There are many different nurse specialties: I can be a holistic nurse, a gyno nurse, a pediatric nurse, a private nurse for rich people, a midwife nurse, a plastic surgeon’s nurse, an ER nurse, an anesthesiology nurse, an abortion nurse…the list goes on. I don’t have to choose now if I don’t wanna.
6. You don’t have to have serious schooling: I can just apply to the Beth Israel nursing school and get my associates degree. All you need is a high school diploma or a GED. After I excel in that program, I can apply to a graduate school to get a fancier degree if I want to be a special kind of nurse. Then I can have all of the things I just mentioned in list form AND write a book about my life as a nurse. DOUBLE TRIPLE FUCKING SCORE!
Some cons include: Seeing and dealing and touching really gross shit all time, both literally and figuratively. Changing diapers, bed pans, soothing burn victims, seeing people die, seeing babies die, working really hard all day, working the night shift, putting needles in people, dealing with a lot of blood everyday, ummm…having to give people stitches. So yeah. Stuff like that might really suck.
Interview with Lesley Arfin, author of the memoir “Dear Diary”
by Leah on May 18, 2010
From time to time, we will post short interviews with interesting people about their thoughts and feelings on women and drinking. There is such a wide array of perspectives about this topic, and we are excited to gain insight into as many as possible and to share them with you.
Lesley Arfin is the author of Dear Diary, based on a column she wrote for Vice magazine, where she interned after graduating from Hampshire College. MTV currently owns the rights to the book and is working on developing it into a scripted series. Lesley was Editor-In-Chief of Misbehave magazine. She has freelanced for a number of publications, including Jezebel.com, Jane, Nylon, iD, America, Purple, Paper, Jalouse, and she is currently the New York contributor to the Australian fashion magazine, Russh. She writes an advice column for streetcarnage.com titled “Ask Barf.”
Drinking Diaries: How old were you when you had your first drink and what was it?
Lesley Arfin:My first drink without my parents watching was a bottle of whiskey that I chugged in the woods with a bunch of boys in the dead of winter. I was 12 and a half.
How did/does your family treat drinking?
Jews aren’t real big drinkers. They drink wine at dinner I guess but it’s not a big deal and no one is ever drunk. I doubt there’s ever beer or hard alcohol at my mom’s house.
How do you approach alcohol in your everyday life?
I have been sober for almost 8 years now so it’s not a part of my life really.
What’s your drink of choice? Why?
When I drank, I really loved whiskey. I loved whiskey and Coke; put whiskey in coffee, whatever. Beer made me tired and full, vodka tasted like rubbing alcohol, and wine made me talk to walls. Now my drink of choice–if I’m really going for a mocktail–is ginger ale with a splash of bitters and lemon. Usually I’m lazy about it and just get ice water or a Diet Coke. I’ll drink an O’Doul’s, too.
Can you tell us about the best time you ever had drinking?
I remember this one day in college, towards the end of the year. It was really nice out, and we were just sitting around being bored. It was maybe 2 pm and we thought, “Let’s get a keg!” This was something we never did because I was an art student, and “kegs” were only for parties and considered a bit pedestrian, maybe. We drank cheap whiskey and PBR and everything, but kegs of beer were not the norm. So anyway, we got this keg in the afternoon and we funneled and I’m sure someone did a keg stand or something, all of these college-like things that we had always been too arty or cool for or whatever. As we kept drinking, more and more people showed up and joined the fun. I just remember laughing so hard that day, so many people were doing funny things, it was one of those days that a million private jokes happen like, in a row, and everyone is just being awesome. No drama, no hysterics, no throwing bikes into windows. Just a real good drunk day.
What about the worst time?
I was in the Bahamas, my senior year of high school. We all went there for like a “senior trip.” I really liked this guy and we had hooked up one night, just kissed. I was really happy about it. I didn’t have sex with him because I think I was just kind of afraid, but the next night I was like, “tonight I am definitely gonna do it.” I guess he wasn’t really paying attention to me and it made me feel bad, so I kept drinking and drinking and I was only 18 and didn’t know about mixing different kinds of booze, like “beer before liquor, never get sicker,” or maybe like “don’t fucking drink red wine and then tequila and then smoke pot,” or maybe even “don’t ever drink Jaegermeister, ever.” Needless to say, I did not have sex with Jason Miller that night, or any night, ever again, for the rest of my life. I prefer blacking out to puking. However, that night, I managed to do both.
Do you have a favorite book, song, or movie about drinking?
There’s a song by The Magnetic Fields called “Love Is Like A Bottle Of Gin” and the lyrics are perfect. I also love the book by Augusten Burroughs, Dry. A lot of people have written books about drinking but his is my favorite. I love that book so much. My favorite movie about drinking is probably “When A Man Loves A Woman.” I just realized that everything I’ve listed here are all kind of bummers about drinking. Like they’re all about alcoholism. Sorry? I mean, I like “The Hangover,” too. “Superbad” is all about drinking, too! Yeah, “Superbad” is my favorite movie ever!
Why do, or don’t you, choose to drink?
To be honest if I had the choice, I would still drink. The problem with me is that booze turns me into such a freak show, it actually costs me my ability to choose. Well, I guess I do have a choice technically but it’s not “drink or don’t drink” it’s like “live or die.” When I drink, a switch goes off in my brain that is like “keep going at all costs and don’t stop,” and really that train leads to drugs rather than just more drinks, because I prefer drugs to drinking. I’ve tried to control it so many times and I just can’t. It’s hard to explain unless you have it yourself. Trying to control it turned out to be a much bigger pain in the ass and way more taxing on my psyche than anything else, so I just dropped it all together. Not drinking has been working out pretty well for me. It’s better, actually. If it wasn’t better I wouldn’t do it.
If you could be any drink, what would it be? Why?
Sloe Gin Fizz because it sounds cool, or Long Island Iced Tea because that just makes sense.