I feel like this is going to be a tough one for me to review, because my relationship with the content that Hannah Gadsby creates is so personal to me and has been frankly crucial to how I am coming to understand myself that it’s a bit difficult to try to take that out of the equation and look at Ten Steps to Nanette on its own. I’ve likely watched Nanette half a dozen times in the past couple of years (and once again in preparing this review) and I have easily watched Douglas, the next special, several dozen times. Partly because its very, very good but also because of how she discusses Autism and neuro-divergency more broadly, both of which are crucial to the story Gadsby writes in Ten Steps to Nanette, and crucial to the knowing of me.
I have been rabid for this book since I discovered it existed. Or would exist. I haunted NetGalley looking for it, put in my request as soon as it was listed, and waited impatiently for the denial I was sure was coming as I heard nothing for nearly three months. And then I got the email, and I did a weird happy dance at work, startling my coworkers. Because my brain works differently.
Which is a very long walk to telling you that there are portions of this book that made me cry, not because of what Gadsby has gone through and survived, but because of the eloquent way she has in describing what can sometimes feel so isolating, and the language she puts to not trusting a diagnosis that feels right because it doesn’t look or feel like you were told it would. Of not feeling at home in your own skin when out in the world, but when you are in your own quiet home feeling deeply yourself. Of all the times that the world insists on being more than you can process in any given moment, how if you have just the right sorts of presentations or coping mechanisms you will have to fight to be taken seriously that you are not – in fact – doing all that well. That you will have to fight to believe yourself, to not let anyone diminish your own lived experience.
As much as Ten Steps to Nanette is set up in a typical memoir format, it also works differently. Some of it is a bit cheeky, starting with an epilogue and ending with a prologue, but they are also used exactly as they are titled. It isn’t a play on words, Gadsby is intentionally taking the pieces and putting them in the order that best serves her needs. Some chapters (or steps) are very short while others are much longer. Some bounce back and forth from the personal to the national, some are more biographical, others still are written in a more active voice much more like her stage work. But because Gadsby is very good at what she does the tone of this book stays the same: these are the facts, and this is how I felt, but the how of the tone is what changes because each step (and the wilderness years she generally leaves unexplored, this is not tragedy porn) need to be handled in their own way. By allowing her story the space it needs to be told in the manner it needs to be told in she is doing an incredibly important bit of writing as people all over who fall into many of her intersectionalities are struggling to remain safe and seen. She takes her rare bit of luck and her privileges and shines the light where it needs to be shined, without making herself or anyone else the victim of the story. Bad things happen, people are victimized, but that is not where the story ends or lingers.
I tried to take my time, craft an in-depth review as I needed to sit with it a bit longer, give it a good think. Something I think Gadsby would entirely understand as I waited for the words to form, and then come out of my head and into the world. There is so much here, so much truth, so much reflection, so much care spent weaving in actual history with personal history, all leading to something that aims to deliver great meaning (and succeeds). And with legitimately funny footnotes tucked in, a personal favorite (not to diminish the intentionally not funny ones). I’m still not sure I’ve been able to.
I have, for instance, not delved into the structure of Nanette and how it became the thing that Gadsby needed to do, how the renouncement of self-deprecation, the rejection of misogyny, and the moral significance of truth-telling became a thing she could no longer not prioritize for her own well-being. Of how the world in 2017 caught up to her in some ways and the international resurgence of #metoo provided a springboard for Gadsby’s work into a larger sphere. Of how deciding she must be done has meant that she is now continuing in a different but healthier way. Of how so much of this work is about reassessment and reexamination – about queer identity, past trauma, and Autism and of giving the time needed to move away from the mental landscape of “there is something wrong with me and I should feel ashamed” towards “this is how I am made, and that’s enough to be worthy of all the good.”
CW: Assault, molestation, rape, injury, isolation, suicidal ideation, body image or other mental health difficulties (It should be noted that Gadsby put these in the book’s early sections where they belong – and stopped several times in the narrative to level set and remind the reader what they were going to encounter if they kept going. It is the kind of empathy and critical thought which I love and wish more authors did, even while I am putting this near the tail end of my own review.)
5 unabashed neurodivergent stars.
I received an ARC of Ten Steps to Nanette from Ballantine Books via NetGalley. It has not affected the contents of this review, only its timing. The book publishes March 29, 2022.