How to Grow Up: A Memoir by Michelle Tea
Penguin, 2015; 287 pp
Reviewed by AprilJo Murphy


“At the end of it all, we’re all just kids playing dress-up in our lives, some a little more convincingly than others” (x).

I’m going to start this review off with a confession: one of the reasons I wanted to read this memoir so badly is that I was looking to settle an argument. I’d been speaking with another writer about a year ago over wine and one his face flushed and his lips tinged with purple, he said rather pointedly to me that he didn’t understand why young people feel the need to write memoirs. What wisdom could someone who had only just figured out their lives have? Isn’t the whole genre better left to those who have really lived?

Michelle Tea’s How to Grow Up is the perfect response to that drunken jerk. Tea is in the second half of her thirties (which I still consider young) and her memoir, largely about what she has learned in transitioning from her manic, alcoholic, junkie twenties to her current sober, sane, and stable thirties.

Wine Guy may believe that memoir belongs to those who have been alive the longest, but Tea is a prime example that age isn’t the only indicator of wisdom. Michelle Tea, my friends, has lived. Refreshingly, this memoir isn’t a gritty addiction narrative – we don’t spend a lot of time on the page discussing the incredible low points of Tea’s awash decade – instead Tea simply tells you that it happened. Instead, this memoir focuses on what it’s like to adjust to life after the struggle is over.

Tea writes about the lingering guilt she has about moving out of a house filled with maggots and insane roommates and into an apartment by herself, describes the panic she feels because before she couldn’t count on her life and finances remaining stable so that she can pay the higher rent. How to Grow Up’s true heart is not about the quirky anecdotes that pepper Tea’s different chapters, but moments like these where we see Tea start to wrestle with what do you do when you’re not surviving – but living? It’s delightful to watch her work this out on the page, because she has captured the process of figuring it out, even if she doesn’t have answers yet. To me, that’s more engaging and valuable than someone lecturing me from a vantage point of experience.

Still, Michelle Tea’s memoir isn’t exactly a memoir. Some of her chapters read like essays, and the book as a whole jumps around in chronology fairly frequently. Her language, like her life, is a bit rough but its edge provides some of the charm.

Previously, Tea had written a more traditional memoir Chelsea Whistle. This book covered the struggle of overcoming a difficult relationship with her family, trying to articulate how being the odd bird out in a working class town was both stunting and catalyst for personal growth – the story cutting off just as Michelle goes out into the world. How to Grow Up may skip a large part of the journey, but it shows us some of the lessons picked up along the way.