Last week, Heather Armstrong, born Heather Hamilton and known to most by the internet handle “Dooce,” committed suicide. Her fame had dimmed somewhat in recent years, but she was once an internet sensation that The New York Times dubbed “Queen of the Mommy Bloggers,” and, upon her death, they have proclaimed her “the original influencer.”
I don’t even begin to presume to have useful insights on the actual circumstances of her death, though she had been very public — she was basically a professional over-sharer — about her struggles with mental health. I have dealt with these issues up close in my own family and I know enough not to presume anything specific about what made her end her life. She meant a lot to a lot of people, and she’s earned their grief.
But as a public figure and writer, Armstrong was resolutely snarky and unflinching even when her targets didn’t deserve what she had done to them, so forgive me if I offer my own critical assessment of her legacy. In fact, her Times obituary notes that she first got internet famous when she was fired from her tech job in L.A. after she was discovered pseudonymously blogging cruel observations about her co-workers. Armstrong was naturally quite public about all of this.
“I cried in my exit interview,” she told an interviewer. “My boss, who served as the subject of some of my more vicious posts, sat across the table from me unable to look me in the face, she was so hurt. I had never felt like such a horrible human being, even though in my mind I thought that I was just being creative and funny.”
I don’t doubt she felt bad about being famous for trashing her co-workers, but I’m not sure the lessons learned incentivized personal growth, either. The episode was publicized enough that it led to her becoming a professional blogger, back when such a career was novel, and suddenly she was being rewarded handsomely — reportedly she made as much as $40,000 a month off of blog advertising at its peak — for her blunt and confessional writing. Much of her writing as a “mommy blogger” was just observational and if you like “topics such as breast milk pumps, golf cart rides with Norah Jones, and the one guy I dated who talked like Elmo during sex,” her blog was the sort of thing you will like. But she also had personal obsessions that defined her.
I first became aware of her because Armstrong was raised in a Mormon family in Utah and attended Brigham Young University before leaving the church. Her outspokenness here caught my attention because I’m also an ex-Mormon. Which is not to say that I related much to what she had to say about leaving the church, it’s just more that I’m acutely sensitive to the performative bitterness that so many other ex-Mormons indulge in.
In my case, I was the fifth generation of my family born into the Mormon church, and if you ask, why yes, I do have strong theological, cultural, and political opinions about the Mormon church, starting the church’s relatively recent decree that they don’t want to be called “Mormon,” which I find a little ridiculous. I like to think I am also mature enough to weigh those criticisms against the fact that the church offered me productive guidance as a young man, as well as my respect and love for parents who took me to the church because they believed it was best for me. Then there’s a broader cultural and familial heritage connected to the church that offers many things to be proud of that doesn’t take much effort to separate from my complaints.
What I refuse to do is make what I’ve rejected become as much a part of my identity as what I am. And so many ex-Mormons, Dooce being rather prototypical here, won’t stop talking about Not Being Mormon — it’s like being a vegan or a crossfitter in reverse, where you won’t shut up about the community you don’t belong to. The Times’ lengthy profile of her from 2011 notes that she first upset her family when her brother went on to her nascent blog on Sept. 13, 2001 and found what she describes as “‘a martini-fueled diatribe against the Mormon Church’ that she wrote in anger about the attacks on the World Trade Center, committed in the name of religion.” I have a hard time fathoming the narcissism involved in turning on the news, watching men frantically digging thousands of charred corpses out of the rubble of lower Manhattan, and thinking you have special insight into this atrocious Wahabi fanaticism because you narrowly survived the supposed hellscape of an 80s Utah Mormon childhood.
In most respects, her approach didn’t ever really mature. Take this post on her blog from 2017, on the occasion of her speaking at the “8th annual mass resignation from the LDS church,” because when leaving a church, you can’t just walk away — nothing says you’re rejecting organized religion quite like making a communal public rite out the whole ordeal. And so what followed was a litany of predictable profanities from Dooce, e.g. “The god I would believe in wouldn’t think less of me, no. She/They wouldn’t require a membership to anything in the first place.”
But despite these silly pronouncements, what separated Dooce from so many similar people in her position, be they confessional bloggers or angry former church members, were the undercurrents of genuine self-awareness that slipped out. In fact, the actual crux of her post above is that she knows she lost something by leaving her church: “The whole notion about the community of church—the power of a congregation to provide for each other in so many physical and emotional ways—is what I miss most about being an active member.”
Openly mourning this loss of community is heartbreaking and telling. Obviously, I’m not one to criticize the desire to leave the Mormon church. But when you abandon one community, the question quickly becomes: What are you replacing it with? Personally, I joined the Lutheran church. Armstrong tempered her strident tendencies by throwing herself into being a wife and mother. I’m convinced she was sincere about her dedication to these vocations, and “mommy blogger” wasn’t just a professional pose.
However, she was also filling that community void with progressive politics and a hunger for public affirmation. Speaking as someone who is more familiar with life as a public figure than I would like to be, without healthy countervailing forces in your private life, things can get overwhelming. And it seemed to me that the author of a book titled Things I Learned About My Dad (in Therapy) maybe didn’t always have a handle on balancing public and private.
In 2013, the “queen of the mommy bloggers” finalized her divorce, and though she was generally very positive toward her husband publicly while they were married, afterward she would say he was “controlling and punishing,” and was too dismissive of the regular online abuse she received as a result of making a living blogging about her private life. (For his part, I would venture it was not easy being married to a woman who openly wrote about regular struggles with depression.)
The thing is that I don’t think Armstrong wanted to end up divorced, and I have a feeling that if one could ask her if she would have traded the trappings of her public fame for a stable and happy family life, I think I know what the answer would be. Still, whether she wanted to get caught up in various cultural debates about the role of women in society, it’s hard not to place Armstrong on some kind of feminist continuum that celebrates the personal validation of women at the expense of their role in their families and communities.
In fact, the celebration of that rejection is kind of the point. On the far end of that continuum we see moral monsters such as Elizabeth Gilbert and Glennon Doyle who are both famous for writing celebrated, bestselling memoirs — Eat, Pray, Love and Untamed, respectively — that tell the story of them leaving their husbands and/or families to find their “authentic selves” or some such nonsense. In the case of Gilbert, it was the story of her dumping her husband, traveling around the world and having a series of shallow affairs with other men, and passing this off as a spiritual experience. Doyle’s book is about her leaving her husband, whom she had children with, to have a romantic relationship with soccer star Abby Wambach.
I hope it goes without saying that the idea of men receiving similar accolades for abandoning their families in search of personal fulfillment is laughable. I’m reminded of a joke from Jeffrey Frank’s satirical novel, The Columnist, where a philandering male politician writes a memoir entitled, Their Bodies, Myself. I don’t think that would have been a bestseller.
In any event, feminists have this in-joke: “Lord, grant me the confidence of a mediocre white male.” Well, speaking as a mediocre white male, believe me when I tell you I wish I had the cojones required to write a book about blowing up my family to pursue a new sexual relationship, package the story as a spiritual awakening empowering to women everywhere, and do it convincingly enough to become a pop culture phenomenon the way that Gilbert and Doyle did.
Anyway, whatever my problems with Armstrong, I don’t think “the original influencer” ever wanted to be influencing a culture where you are allowed to celebrate the indefensible, provided you can tell a compelling narrative about it. Mainly, I found reading Armstrong frustrating because there were so many moments where it seemed she openly grasped the problems of having to live life with no filter, where the only justification is the one you create for yourself.
Because the most important thing a religious community, your family — or ideally both — can do for you is provide forgiveness, which no matter what our self-obsessed culture tells you, is not something you can provide for yourself. “It is not uncommon nowadays to hear someone say ‘I’m learning to forgive myself’ (usually under the guidance of a therapist), as if such learning were hard and valuable work equivalent, say, to learning the subjunctives of a foreign language,” observes the psychiatrist and critic Theodore Dalrymple. “According to more traditional ways of thinking, learning to forgive oneself is learning how to act without scruple, how to forge ahead without regard to other people.”
I think Dooce struck a chord because, while people walk away from their communities for perfectly valid reasons all the time, the general trend of modernity is toward atomization without any sort of deliberate intention. So many people are trying to forge paths for themselves in life without any moral support welded to objective standards enforced by a healthy community, and for those that found themselves adrift, there was real catharsis in reading the daily struggles of this dilemma from someone as fierce and imaginative as Heather Armstrong. Even as much as I disagreed with Armstrong, I was always rooting for her to find her way back to something resembling a traditional and meaningful community, where she could be at peace with herself, where the flaws and struggles she so openly copped to wouldn’t just be accepted, they could be forgiven as necessary.
Perhaps reading some of my more pointed criticisms seems like I did not respect Armstrong much, but I wouldn’t have said so much about her if I didn’t marvel at her ability to make people, myself included, care about her. She did this through tough self-appraisal, at least as much as she cast harsh judgment on others. In addition to having the same religious background, we were very close to the same age and, ideological debates aside, we shared a lot of Gen X attitudes. And as much as I disagreed with her politics and various cultural takes, one of the wonderful things about the pre-social media blogosphere was that it allowed for real exchanges of ideas. Knee-jerk reactions were tempered by context and complexity that is sadly absent from so much of today’s debates. The result was that as much as I disagreed with Armstrong, I felt that I knew her to a degree that produced real affection for her as a person, and her conviction and spirit.
So yes, I’m sad that she’s gone, and even sadder about the manner in which she left us. Her depression issues were so severe that she at one point voluntarily submitted herself to dangerous experimental treatments that repeatedly induced “brain death” in a desperate attempt to escape the anguish. To the extent the pain was beyond her control, the faith I eventually found that she so publicly struggled with tells me “if He causes grief, then He will have compassion according to His abundant loving kindness.”
We’ll miss you, Dooce.