Burn it Down is a collection of essays by women exploring women’s anger. Editor Lilly Dancyger solicited essays from a broad spectrum of women and presents a variety of different types of anger, from the anger surrounding sexual assault to the anger derived from not being believed by their own doctor. The writers explore the triggers of their anger, the emotional response of the experience, and how anger impacts their lives. Lilly is a contributing editor and columnist at Catapult, runs the Memoir Monday newsletter and Brooklyn-based reading series, and is the author of a forthcoming memoir. We spoke by phone shortly after the release of the book.
Did you have any ideas of about specific kinds of anger you wanted the writers to address?
I definitely had a few topics I knew needed to be included, it wouldn’t make sense to have a book about women’s anger and not talk about sexual assault, or motherhood, or the racial stereotypes of anger. There were definitely certain topics I knew I wanted to cover but I left it open and approached different writers and let them direct what they wanted to talk about, making sure along the way that I was hitting those essential topics.
Did your concept of what this what was going to look like change at all during the course of the essays coming in and editing?
Yes, I wanted to let the project be shaped by what the writers were bringing in. My ideas of what the focus or unifying ideas of the pieces would be definitely developed over time. The idea of the anthology as a place where anger could just exist for its own sake and not have to have a larger purpose started to develop as the pieces came in and I saw how powerful it was just to have the space where we could talk openly about anger after a lifetime of being told not to do that.
Was it therapeutic for you to feel these emotions as they were coming through?
It was really fortifying. Over the last couple years, the cultural and political landscape—there was a lot to be angry about, even more so than usual. Having these pieces to return to over and over again throughout this period has been really great, seeing all this strength and fire and how these different writers have found to use their anger as something positive.
In the introduction, you talk about the “power of women’s anger can be harnessed as a political engine.” do you see that as what this collection essentially doing, harnessing that power?
I think before we even get to that point, we have to make space for the anger to exist, and to be expressed. There’s been a lot of discussion about political change, and I think that’s important and we are using our anger for that, but it’s also skipping a step. After generations of not being allowed to even express that anger, now we’re supposed to harness it and use it? Give us a second to catch up and have this collective exhale; to say ‘we’re angry and this is how we experience that,’ before we start trying to direct it.
Do you think this book is helping to create that space?
That’s my hope. I hope that women will read it and realize that it’s okay to be angry and that it’s okay to express that anger. I hope men will read it and get a little more of an idea of what it’s like to live in this world as a woman, and to make a little more space for the women in their lives to express anger without being vilified.
In her essay, Leslie Jamison says, “We are most comfortable with female anger when it promises to regulate itself, to refrain from recklessness, to stay civilized.” Did you, in editing the essays, worry at all about restricting that anger that your contributors had?
We did have a legal read to just make sure that nobody was saying anything that would get them sued. There weren’t any pieces that were like “we don’t know if you can say that,” but we double checked with writers, “you’re confident with standing firm with your account of what happened if someone wants to argue it.” We mostly didn’t ask for primary documents. A lot of outlets want a fact check on accounts of sexual assault, even when they were not reported to authorities, or the woman was never believed by the external authority, so there’s no way to fact check, and that becomes another way to dismiss women’s experience. I wanted to avoid that.
That brings me to the Anna Fitzpatrick essay. She writes: “women are so often disbelieved when stating the facts of their life.” She specifically discusses #MeToo and sexual assault, but it happens with other issues: when women talk to doctors and other instances in their lives when they are often not believed. Was that a concern in editing these pieces that women wouldn’t be believed even in their own stories?
I didn’t really look at it through that lens until the very last stages, when we had to make sure this was lawsuit proof. I didn’t look at the pieces through the lens of, “is she telling the truth?” I took the writers at their word—the whole point of the project really was to let them speak and tell their story. I thought it was important to trust and believe and follow their lead in that way.
Shaheen Pasha, writing about her daughter, says “she’s never been taught to stifle her anger” and she “never needed colors to express her rage because she was given a voice with which to shout it to the world.” Do you think having giving women the ability to voice their anger and release is reducing some of that pent up rage? And do see the collection, at least for these women, as an opportunity to voice themselves?
One thing that a lot of the essays explore is all the different, harmful ways that anger finds to come out if you don’t just release it as you’re feeling it. That’s something that kept coming up again and again. Pushing your anger down and trying to deny it doesn’t actually make it go away. It just makes it turn into something else, something like guilt or illness or depression. Creating space for ourselves and each other, and normalizing women being able to express anger when they’ve been wronged, or when their boundaries have been crossed, in the long run will just create a healthier relationship with anger over time.
Having read the collection straight through beginning to end, to me there did seem like there was a coherent plan on how they were ordered. But obviously they also stand alone. What were your thoughts on organization and ordering?
I waited until I had all the pieces and I knew for sure which ones were definitely going to make the final cut. And then I did try to organize them. I started with the Leslie Jamison piece because it felt like an overture. She introduced a lot of the big ideas that are of interest in the individual essays later on. And then I tried to introduce a few big and important issues of identity close to the beginning—a piece about anger as a black woman, a piece about anger as a trans woman—to have those front and center to dispel any worries like, ‘is this collection going to be super white, or super cis-normative?’ I wanted to have it flow from there. I had some pieces about teen girl anger early on flowing into motherhood, and then menopausal anger comes later. And I wanted the pieces to flow into each other naturally, to have them feel as if they were in conversation with each other. That was a fun challenge.
Meredith Talusan talks about how “as a woman…it’s better to frame my criticism of men in the form of a question rather than as a statement, or worse, as an assertion, so the man can correct himself without damage to his self-esteem.” So much of the anger in this book is really coddling men. If there was literally one thing men could do with their interactions with women, generally in their lives, that would be effective at reducing this anger they feel—what do you think would be the one piece of advice to give them?
I would suggest to them to believe women’s own accounts of their own experience at face value. Do not feel the need to interrogate it, or doubt it, or poke holes in it, or all of these tendencies that a lot of men have. Just trust women to describe their own experience accurately and to take what they are saying as legitimate, and real I think that would go a very long way.
You recently announced a memoir is forthcoming. How did editing the collection of essays by other women, and their stories, inform your own writing about your life and your own experiences?
I do think it helped give me a little more courage to put the scary stories out there and to be honest and to be vulnerable and to be real, and to be all those big scary things that writers need to be in order to connect with people. Feeling how strongly I reacted to a lot of these essays, feeling how empowering and inspired I felt by them—it just kind of reminded me all over again why I do this work, and the real value of sharing stories and connecting with people in common experience.