Reading a memoir is like hearing one side of an argument—the author always gets the last word. Although I’ll sometimes read in the news that an errant third cousin or grandmother has sued a memoir writer for defamation, readers are rarely given the gift of two separate books about the same relationship. In the hilariously heartbreaking memoir My Boyfriend Wrote a Book About Me: And Other Stories I Shouldn’t Share With Acquaintances, Coworkers, Taxi Drivers, Assistants, Job Interviewers, Bikini Waxers, and Ex/Current/Future Boyfriends but Have, Hilary Winston writes a literary rebuttal to her ex-boyfriend Chad Kultgen’s vicious novel, The Average American Male.
Winston, a sitcom writer who has worked for Community and My Name is Earl, dated Kultgen, who she calls “Kyle” in her book, for five years. After a slightly rocky breakup, Kultgen published his first novel, The Average American Male, in 2007. Winston insists that the protagonist’s girlfriend Casey is not only based on her, but that the book contains nearly word-for-word conversations that she and Kultgen had throughout their relationship. Of course, none of this would be so bad if Kultgen’s novel didn’t constantly refer to Casey as “the fat-assed girlfriend.” It’s every ex-girlfriend’s worst nightmare.
In 2011, Winston gets her revenge. She writes her own book-length response, treating her ex’s novel like the true story she knows it to be. I’ve read confessional memoirs, coming-of-age memoirs, and reflective memoirs, but I’ve never read a revenge memoir before. When the author first discovers “Kyle’s” novel on a display table at Barnes & Noble, Winston isn’t just angry, she’s understandably baffled. “We were more than this paperback in three different colors stacked high on a sale table,” she writes. “More than fodder for the mid-afternoon looky-loos. I was destroyed. This was it. And he didn’t even have the nerve to do it in non-fiction.”
In her book, Winston describes her ex’s “fine blonde hair that struggled to cover his forehead” in exactly the same way that Kultgen’s hair appears in his author photo in The Average American Male. But although Kultgen’s book is labeled as fiction, Winston tells her readers that almost all of it is true. “Where is the fiction?” she writes. “I frantically flip through the pages, words, people, places memories, flashing through my head. Remember the guy proposing to his girlfriend in a suit of armor? In there! And the main character is in a long-term relationship with his fat-assed girlfriend. Remember my fat ass?!” Winston is determined to settle the score, and she doesn’t mind embarrassing herself in the process.
The Average American Male really is as offensive and outrageous as Winston insists. The book is so overrun with bad language, there aren’t a lot of passages I feel comfortable quoting, but most of them involve how fat and annoying Casey is, and how spending time with her is absolute torture. The main character fantasizes about having sex with almost every other woman he sees, and after he and Casey break up, the protagonist begins dating (in his opinion) far more sexy and attractive women than she ever was. “Casey has a fat ass,” is the very first thing he writes about her. “She’s a pretty cute brunette with a completely normal upper body, just with a big fat ass attached.” Although fans of the book compare Kultgen’s brash writing style to Chuck Palahniuk, The Average American Male reads differently after hearing “Casey’s” side of the story. “Kyle started writing the book the week after we broke up,” Winston writes. After I learned that there is perhaps a real and caring woman behind Casey, Kulten’s book begins to feel like the story of a hurt boy who slings insults at his ex-girlfriend to make himself feel better. Like most works of fiction, there is a disclaimer on the copyright page of The Average American Male assuring readers that all names, characters and places are a work of fiction. But whether the book is ninety-nine percent truth or one hundred percent fiction, Winston was outraged enough to set the record straight.
In her memoir, Winston retaliates by including a list of all the things that are wrong with “Kyle.” Number six on the list: “Doesn’t like to travel to places other than the Olive Garden (Exception being ComiCon, which I went to… TWICE!)” Number ten: “Ironic Jesus T-shirts make up half his wardrobe, and the other half are ill-fitting, crotch-hugging shorts.” But the final item in the list, number thirteen, says it all: “He left me.” Unlike Kultgen’s average American male, Winston isn’t afraid to admit that even though she’s angry and humiliated, she still has deep feelings for the man she once loved. And in a slightly more mature, self-reflective manner, she writes a second list on the next page: “What is Wrong With Me” (fifteen on the list is: “Am the type of person who makes a list of things that are wrong with someone”).
About half of My Boyfriend Wrote a Book About Me details “Kyle” and Winston’s relationship and consequent breakup, while the rest features stories about her other romantic struggles. Her relationship anecdotes are the type that your drunken best friend might relay to you at a bar, and then retract the next morning. From losing her virginity in high school to a slew of random blind dates in her early thirties, Winston has had terrible luck with boyfriends. Except “Kyle”—her one true love. “He was the first guy to love me back; I’d finally earned the right to listen to love songs. Love is a many splendored thing. Love is exciting and new. All you need is love,” she writes.
At first, Winston blames her lack of luck in relationships on her cat, Emmett, who makes her entire apartment smell like cat pee. Emmett has feline diabetes, and although the author must give him daily insulin shots, he never seems to stabilize. But as she continues her search for love, the author realizes that she’s been so affected by “Kyle’s” book, she’s been unable to open herself up to the idea of another serious relationship—she’s too afraid of being humiliated again. As Emmett gets sicker and sicker, Winston discovers that her cat has been the only man that’s been with her through thick and thin. But when Emmett is diagnosed with a pituitary gland tumor, Winston has no choice but to put him to sleep. On her last day with Emmett, the author invites “Kyle” to her house. “We had not really cried together since the day we moved out of our apartment,” she writes. “Kyle stopped loving me but he didn’t stop loving Emmett. To break the tension Kyle points out my visualization board and makes fun of it, it helps remind me that even though Kyle loves animals, we are not meant for each other.”
My Boyfriend Wrote a Book About Me may look tame on the outside, but it really packs a punch. Despite the fact that the cover features a photo of Winston drinking soda out of a straw while wearing flannel cupcake pajamas, her story manages to be moving, painful, and extremely funny—a rare combination. Although many of the author’s stories should be filed under “way, way too much information,” I’m willing to guess that honesty has recently become very important to Winston, and her readers will thank her for it.
For a memoir fueled by spite, My Boyfriend Wrote a Book About Me is unbelievably sincere. Winston ends up taking the high road, turning the boy with the stringy hair and the girl with the (allegedly) fat butt into vulnerable, human characters. By being honest about herself and her relationship with “Kyle,” Winston can have her cupcake and eat it, too. Her memoir is an accurate, sensitive account of two people who truly loved one another, not the glib story of two people who hated each other all along. And although Kultgen’s novel is still a devastating blow, Winston maintains that honesty is the best policy. “I tell [Kyle] that I haven’t been in love since we broke up,” she writes. “I tell him I don’t know if I can. My spirit is no fool; it’s learned its lesson. I’m embarrassed by what I’m hearing come out of my mouth. But it is the truth.”
Lindsay Champion's writing has been featured in Time Out New York, The New York Press, McSweeney's, Fray Quarterly (available now at Barnes & Noble), Common Ties, SMITH Magazine, and in It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure, published by Harper Perennial. Lindsay is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and has written hundreds of articles for numerous Internet publications, including Travels.com, Livestrong.com and Trails.com. She received her BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied writing. After living in New York City for six years, Lindsay has relocated to Los Angeles for some reason. She lives in Studio City, California, with an albino goldfish named Betty White. New York Words is Lindsay’s web site. Contact Lindsay.