How vulnerability became hip*

Sheila Heti.

Sheila Heti.

In the foyer of a hotel in Istanbul where Ernest Hemingway once stayed, I found out that my grandfather had died. Sitting at the communal computer that slowly crunched into gear (and wrestling with a keyboard of Turkish letters), I spotted the first Facebook update. There were more. RIP Pop they said, or Having a beer for Pop today, or thinking of you and your family.

Without a phone that worked or access to my emails and not knowing what to do, I went on the river cruise that I had booked. I ate an ice-cream and took the same photos of Istanbul's landmarks as everybody else on my boat. But not before tweeting this: ''The exceptional sadness of finding out that your grandad has died via Facebook when you are phone-less and email-less on the other side of the world.''

Reading it later– so unprocessed and weirdly show-offy — inevitably made me wince. If vulnerability equals strength — as Dr Brene Brown claimed in her now viral TED talk — it certainly didn't feel like it. But vulnerability - especially vulnerability online where bullying can be a blood sport and the first person confessional reigns — has become something of this year's hot topic. I know that I am not alone in wondering the etiquette of vulnerability — how much risk is too much, what of your self are you giving away, does anybody want to hear it.

2012 has seen an emergence of vulnerability in popular culture (though of course writers such as Sylvia Plath and Mary McCarthy led the way). Earlier this year Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be: A novel From Life neatly drove reviewers and readers wild with her partly fictionalised, meta-literature meditations on female friendship and desire.  Using real email transcripts and conversations from her life, the characters are almost unbearably vulnerable. However, Heti sees vulnerability as having the courage to explore uncharted territories. It is a knowing risk.


"I think if we don't know what we're like, we can be really vulnerable and open to all sorts of criticisms," she said in an interview earlier this year.

When Dr Brene Brown talked about ''the Vulnerability Hangover'' (wonderfully written about by Clem Bastow here) she also spoke of the power that vulnerability has.

''If we're going to find our way back to each other, vulnerability is going to be that path. And I know it's seductive to stand outside the arena, because I think I did it my whole life, and think to myself, I'm going to go in there and kick some ass when I'm bulletproof and when I'm perfect. And that is seductive. But the truth is that never happens.''

Vulnerability is often associated with weakness, but having the courage to explore and claim our imperfections is surely an affront to patriarchal views on the vulnerable self. That is the power inherent in vulnerability, at least according to writer and feminist Sady Doyle.

In a piece for In These Times last month Doyle wrote that the current (and also ancient) trend for first personal confessional writing was making the personal political. It's not just on the internet either. From Lena Dunham having dreadful sex with a boy in a drain pipe in her first feature Tiny Furniture and her perpetual half-nakedness in Girls to How Should a Person Be, vulnerability, says Doyle, has become the new ''Grrl power''.

'' ...  these writers head for the meaty, scary terrain of ''girl stuff.'' Straight women are writing in detail about fights with partners or bitterness toward their exes, without bothering to acknowledge the icy contempt this inspires in most straight men. Women are describing psychic pain — and psychiatric diagnoses — without bothering to wonder whether they sound weak or hysterical. Women are describing sex, and not just physical positions: They are charting every emotional and social contortion required of them as women. This is daring and necessary because (like consciousness-raising or Riot Grrrl before it) it shamelessly reclaims ''acting like a girl.''

But how can you tell when vulnerability veers into dangerous, or worse, boringly narcissistic, territory? What's more, if we edit our own dysfunction too neatly and only show our ‘best worst selves', is that as inauthentic as narcissism?

In a piece for The New York Times, Sarah Hepola dissected the rise of falling woman, writer and drug addict Cat Marnell, and the difficulty of editing first person, confessional writing on the internet for a job.

''This feels a little unprocessed,'' I told writers who shared their tales of date rape and eating disorders, but it was hard to deny that the internal chaos, that fog of confusion, could make for compelling reading, like dispatches from inside a siege. Yet ''unprocessed'' was exactly what Marnell's pieces were, and damned if I couldn't stop devouring them,'' she writes.

Hepola, who has written about her own alcoholism, and admits to feeling jealous of Marnell, worries.

''I worry about anyone who is lighting themselves on fire for our enjoyment. I worry about the bloggers and viral stars who have burned up so much of themselves for the prize of a few thousand followers. Our attention span is so short these days. One minute you're a meteorite lighting up Google Trends, the next minute you fall back to earth, another piece of ugly, busted-up coal.''

Perhaps vulnerability is only worthwhile when it is strength in disguise, and truth without adornment. Powerful vulnerability comes back to being honest with yourself, and knowing the reasons why you are revealing your weaknesses.

As Heti told an interviewer in response to their question of how important vulnerability was,

''Well, that seems pretty important. What are you doing if you're lying to yourself, if you're putting on a show for yourself? What's going to be the end result of that? I don't think people should perform for themselves. I understand the impulse to perform for others, but what do you gain from pretending to yourself that something is so when it's not?''

On that sad day in Istanbul, putting too much of myself out there on internet was enough until I finally spoke to my family. Talking about things that make us feel weak and sad can make us strong. What's more, in my vulnerability I found a community, and people who understood my sadness at that moment. And if anything  if vulnerability is power - there is certainly strength in that.