Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Review: Tiny Beautiful things by Cheryl Strayed

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Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear SugarTiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm not sure how to review this book because it feels more like debriefing after experiencing something awesome than reviewing a book. A client of mine recommended Tiny Beautiful Things to me a while ago. I believe it was a gentleman recovering from a breakup. He mentioned that it was a collection of advice from Dear Sugar. He followed that up with, "You know? That woman who wrote Wild?" I said, "Oh, you mean Cheryl Strayed."


I didn't put it all together that Cheryl Strayed was Sugar until then. The two entities were both known to me and totally separate. As a writer, the Write Like a Motherf$cker mug was familiar to me, as were Sugar's advice column and therumpus.net. I'd heard of the movie of Wild and knew of the book, but didn't attempt reading it until several years later. When I tried to read Wild, I got a few pages in and began weeping so hard I couldn't read the words through my tears. I haven't had the courage to pick it up again since, but after reading Sugar's words here, I may have to try.

Cheryl Strayed has held a few positions (including her unpaid role as Sugar) that involved acting as an amateur psychotherapist to people even though she doesn't have formal training as one. I have formal training as one and work as one in my "normal" life, but I don't have an advice column. People frequently ask me for advice, but I have to defer to their expertise on their own life as the one who has inhabited their mind and body all this time, and the one who needs to live with the consequences of their decisions. Unlike Cheryl Strayed, I don't have the luxury of sharing too much of what I have done because I can risk disclosing "too much" about myself and shatter the client's view of the god-like being I am who is winning at adulting without breaking a sweat and has infinite patience. I know this gets frustrating on both sides of the office at times. However, I appreciate that sessions and the therapeutic relationship need a form in order for healing to take place and as the clinician who sits in the room with people, knows them by name and face, and helps process their joy and pain, I need to follow certain rules and a certain format.

As Sugar, Cheryl Strayed addresses (typically) anonymous emails to her alter ego about intimate questions about sex, love, parenting, grief, money, ambivalence, and just about everything else. She shares the letter, follows with her short answer, and often elaborates with a story from her own life illustrating how she has wrestled with the core question.

That format might not be for you. Some readers have expressed some frustration with Cheryl Strayed talking about herself when she "should" be addressing her readers' questions. While I understand the concern here, I think it harkens back to the distinction between psychotherapy and an advice column like Dear Sugar. Sugar isn't an authority figure; she is acting as the friend and confidante that person seems to need most in that moment. Will reading a book like this heal your wounded psyche? No. It's not meant to do that, and, as Sugar would point out, we need to carry the water on our own. Healing can be supported, but it's an inside job and it's journey that we all need to make on our own two feet. Sugar is there when the crisis hotlines are maxed out or closed, when your other friends are too involved in their own maelstrom to be there, or when you're just too ashamed to admit that you're a "savage on the inside." She's there as a fellow human being sharing this imperfect existence with the rest of us. Sometimes we need God. Sometimes we need a shrink, and sometimes, we need Sugar.

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