Glennon Doyle’s “Untamed” opens with a story about a cheetah. While Doyle is at the zoo with her wife and kids, the family watches a “Cheetah Run” in which a cheetah chases a stuffed pink bunny attached to the back of a Jeep. After the run, Doyle’s young daughter notices the cheetah stalking the perimeter of her cage and says, “Mommy. She turned wild again.”
It’s a metaphor for the ways women are tamed from birth by patriarchy. In “Untamed,” Doyle writes about the ways in which she was caged by internalized misogyny, religious doctrine and homophobia, an eating disorder that started in her early adolescence, alcoholism and what became a performative marriage. She also shares stories of many people who have written to her with their own struggles against being caged. “All of the things that make a woman human are a good girl’s dirty secret,” Doyle writes.
However, many stories end too neatly, with heavy-handed messages of inner power and freedom. Freedom is an important concept in this memoir, but the language of freedom and liberation has larger connotations outside of white women’s experience of patriarchy.
Agency is essential in “Untamed” — the ability to trust oneself is, according to Doyle, the key to so-called freedom. But there are things individuals can do and things they can’t, often based on outside constraints. Doyle swings between recognizing this and insisting that women have everything they need inside them. Often overusing the words “power,” “freedom,” “Knowing” and “Self,” “Untamed” reads like a self-help book for wealthy white women. When it treads lightly into the complex territories of race, privilege, misogyny and capitalism, it boomerangs back to the tired language of every affirmation book ever written: “I am fireproof,” “Life is brutiful,” “To be brave is to forsake all others to be true to yourself.”
“Being human is not hard because you’re doing it wrong, it’s hard because you’re doing it right,” Doyle writes. This contradicts an attempt at complexity with the binary language of “right” and “wrong.” The book sags with one-liners and clichés like this. After a while, the platitudes and pseudo-empowering statements begin to blend together and sound the same.
Where the book manages to be unique and interesting is in the tension between Doyle’s Christian identity and her marriage to a woman.
Doyle made a name for herself with “Love Warrior,” which — as she writes in “Untamed” — was a misguided story of marital redemption. It came from trying to fulfill outward expectations: that a Christian wife could forgive her husband for infidelity and work to create a healing family; it was misguided not because this can’t be done, but because in Doyle’s case, it actively covered up her desire to be with a woman, U.S. soccer icon Abby Wambach.
Doyle recounts in “Untamed” falling for Wambach in a fairy-tale meet-cute that’s pretty endearing, and this reviewer will never scoff at a love story between two women, no matter how cheesy. But the “Love Warrior” story that Doyle shed for this slightly queerer love story falls into the same trappings of the first: everything tied in a neat little bow, even the hard bits.
Where “Untamed” gets even more interesting is in its position in the broader discussion about what it means to be queer, and how queerness as an ethos manifests or doesn’t.
While Doyle is now in a lesbian relationship, the book’s narratives of marriage and parenting are very traditional. This isn’t right or wrong, but it doesn’t disrupt cis-hetero patriarchal dynamics either. Marriage equality has long been criticized by queer activists as too mainstream of a fight; it ignores other ways of making family, erases conversation about gender outside the binary and falls into step with an institution many folks argue is rooted entirely in power dynamics based on gender and sexuality.
“Untamed” does not bring a queer ethos to its storytelling, but rather happens to have a lesbian relationship in a narrative that has “Lean In” vibes — that is, general, oversimplified advice about finding and cultivating inner power that only works for a certain subset of the population.
“Untamed” by Glennon Doyle, The Dial Press, 352 pp., $28