Trainwreck is one of those books that made me squirm as I recognized myself, and not on the side of the angels. I am not obsessed with celebrities and am happy to enjoy their work without knowing how they butter their bread. I am not into biographical criticism in books, plays, or music. For me, the text, like the cheese, stands alone. But, when I see a trainwreck, I stop and look. I did not know the details of Britney Spears trajectory to conservatorship. I was aware she was photographed without underwear and recall wondering what she was thinking when I should have been wondering what those photographers were thinking. What right did they have to prey on her like that?
My parents had a horror of what they called kicking people when they were down. Any temptation to slow down driving past a wreck was met with “No rubbernecking.” A comment about someone who was falling apart was shut down with “They’ve got enough trouble without you adding to it.” But yes, even though I was unfamiliar with her music, knew very little of her life or story, with the headlines and photos that I had seen, I would have called Spears a trainwreck.
Trainwrecks are women who dare to have a public voice while at the same time impinging on the anxieties of the time. So Charlotte Bronte was a trainwreck because her book reified the nameless, faceless servants who lived in their homes. Billie Holliday was a perfect trainwreck because black upward mobility was challenging white supremacy. Hillary Clinton is a trainwreck (for some people) because the idea of women in power shrinks some men’s unmentionables.
Doyle mines the train wrecks of history, showing that again and again, they suffered the same fatal flaws, daring to have a public voice while being human. How dare they? Of course, now many of the trainwrecks of today are simple, ordinary people who say something dumb on social media, are videoed doing something dumb, or even being victimized because of course, if there is a video of a woman or young girl being raped; she is the trainwreck, not the person behind the camera or the rapist(s), just as Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and others were the ones displaying their genitalia getting out of cars were at fault, not the photographers kneeling down to catch the shots.
I loved Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck even if it did make me cringe at having joined in judging Paris Hilton and other contemporary trainwrecks. She has tremendous empathy for the trainwrecks of history, but she also recognizes that their trainwreck status comes from their humanity, that Charlotte Bronte had an unrequited crush and wrote embarrassingly needy letters to him does not take away from her gift.
The whole point of trainwrecks is to discourage women from taking the risk of having a public voice. There is a long history of examples of what women who dare will face as punishment. Despite society’s efforts throughout the ages, women still speak up. Perhaps the reason for that is best explained in Doyle’s own words. “But it is, perhaps, less painful to be punished for what you do than to punish yourself by never doing anything at all.”