The Harm in Asking: My Clumsy Encounters with the Human Race
US: Mar 2014
Comedy writer Sara Barron starts off her second book of humorous essays, The Harm in Asking: My Clumsy Encounters with the Human Race as a child, wishing she had an ailment like her younger brother’s asthma so that she could get the same amount of attention he got. “I resented the skill with which Sam usurped attention. I tried and failed to compete,“ she writes. Like most of us, Barron wants to be noticed, respected, and has fantasies of success that often go unfulfilled.
A lot of people wouldn’t so readily admit to wanting attention, but baring her soul is Barron’s style. She’s honest—really honest. While reading this book, I couldn’t help thinking of the 2009 film The Invention of Lying, starring Ricky Gervais. In the movie, nobody can tell a lie; people are so honest, they are constantly humiliating each other and themselves. Barron’s frankness is impressive, particularly as a woman, delving into subjects most women would rather not discuss like flatulence, bald spots, and fretting about the length of their vaginas.
As the book title suggests, Barron also discloses the hilarious details of her fraught relationships with family members, friends, strangers, roommates, and boyfriends. he Harm in Asking made me laugh so hard, my ribs and sides ached. Yet despite Barron’s hilarity, there’s loneliness rooted in her prose.
Barron divulges that as a preteen, she would lock herself into the bathroom and have long conversations with the “orphaned teen models“ she invented. As a teenager, she went to France on a foreign exchange trip. Before leaving, Baron dreams that Lucille, the French girl whom she will live with, will become her new best friend. She imagines they will spend their days “lounging in nearby meadows, weaving floral accessories.” Instead, she spends her days translating death metal lyrics from English into French for Lucille, and crying in her room by herself. Years later, when she gets her own apartment in New York, she realizes how lonesome she is and invents an imaginary dog to keep her company.
In her youth, Barron thought she might be a lesbian, or more precisely, that she wanted to be a lesbian. Her interest in women began at age eight when her parents brought her and her brother to a holiday party thrown by a couple named Alison and Emily. After Alison fixes young Sara’s bad hair day with a straightening iron in the “rose- scented“ bathroom of the couple’s beautiful penthouse, Baron feasts on holiday sweets. She writes, “The party was an altogether transformative experience“. The epiphany lead her to believe that “lesbians were but magical confections that brought joy to all the land.”
As a teenager, she founda herself sexually attracted to Tilda Swinton and K.D. Lang, and eventually set out to date girls, despite still thinking she was secretly straight. After she met a coworker named Janet while bussing tables in New York, the two spent time making out in dive bars and eventually having sex. The experience made Barron realize she isn’t a lesbian after all, and she laments the fact. “Good-bye, gay,“ she writes. “You were fun, and you were wild, but you were sadly not for me.”
Being gay is something Barron admits she thought might have given her an edge she felt she lacked. She writes: “I wanted a veneer of coolness, a lick of the mysterious about me.“ She realizes the most mysterious thing about her was that she sometimes peed into cups because she was too lazy to walk to the bathroom. This is when she becomes determined to find the thing that will give her an enigmatic quality people will be drawn to.
Barron decides becoming an alcoholic might give her some edge. After arriving at NYU, she hears of an upcoming sorority party that she believes could be her time to shine as a hard drinker. She dreams of being hoisted around on the shoulders of beefcake fraternity brothers that admire her talent for effortlessly putting away copious amounts of alcohol. Her fantasy turns into ugly reality, however, after she falls down a flight of stairs onto a “teeny tiny“ sorority girl and farts on her. (By the way, if you don’t like toilet humor, you might want to skip chapter six, devoted to the sounds and smells of Barron’s “riotous ass“.)
When alcoholism doesn’t work out for her, Barron attempts to become an expert pothead. However, her unwillingness to buy marijuana “puts a cap on the seriousness of the relationship that develops between a pothead and her pot.” Later on, she tries ecstasy with a boyfriend but it only serves to make her anxious. Having failed at drugs and alcohol, she thinks a tattoo might give her some grit. Regrettably, the iguana-donning tattoo artist and his prostitute client scare her away and she finally agrees “to stick with the rebellion of no tattoo instead.”
Living on and off in hipster-filled Brooklyn, Barron is constantly faced with the issue of being “cool”. This leads her to lament her unfashionable taste in music. She learns names of bands like Fleet Foxes, Blonde Redhead, and the National to mask her true love of Meredith Brooks, Paula Cole and Lisa Loeb. In the end, by openly discussing how “uncool“ she is, Barron reveals just how cool she really is – someone who isn’t afraid to show her true self.
If Sex in the City had been based on reality, it would have been more like the middle of Barron’s book. There would have been less Manola Blahniks and hot boy toys and more weird boyfriends and life with wacky roommates in cramped, barely affordable apartments. After leaving NYU, Barron’s parents cut her off and she must find a roommate and place to live.
This is when she begins her domestic adventure, which includes living in the closet of her friend Wayne’s East Village apartment while being forced to hear him have loud sex with his malicious boyfriend every night; renting a room in Park Slope from an old woman named Jan who uses her diabetes to guilt Barron into washing her back; and sharing an apartment in Astoria with an alcoholic named Roy whose girlfriend, Gina, likes to talk excessively about the moisture level of her vagina.
As for her own romantic relationships, Barron isn’t so lucky. She meets and dates several men including a Burning Man enthusiast who likes watching himself have sex in the mirror, a guy who lives in the basement of his parents’ house and falls asleep during sex, and an incredibly handsome waiter who turns out to be a prostitute and wants Barron to become his pimp. In the end, Barron admits she lacks “any vague interest of putting someone else’s interests before [her] own”. She admits she likes to “wallow“ and have pity parties, but overall the book showcases a resilient and tenacious personality.
If you like funny, brutally honest, self-deprecating writers who write about life’s everyday degradations (Barron has been compared to David Sedaris), then you may want to pick up a copy of The Harm in Asking. While Barron is often overly judgmental of herself and others, her insights are capable of producing embarrassing guffaws, and her candor and bravery are heartening.