I am just so sad to learn that Heather Armstrong, who wrote in the blog persona of Dooce, is no longer with us, having apparently taken her own life. She was only 47, and had so much to give, and so much to say.
Dooce turned blogging about the pain of everyday life into an art form. Many of us in the social media cabal tuned in to her when she narrated her futile and sadly hilarious struggle with a high-end Maytag washing machine, an epic yawp that brought the Maytag company to its knees and the rest of us to attention. It was the opening story in my book with Ted Schadler, Empowered. Here’s what we wrote:
When Dooce rants, it’s sheer poetry. Breathtaking in honesty and scope, Dooce’s rants about motherhood have a quality that people appreciate, especially other mothers. You do not want to be the target of one of those rants.
Dooce is a 34-year old woman named Heather Armstrong. In August of 2009 she reached the end of her tether. Marlo, Heather’s second child, had arrived two months earlier, in June. Heather knew what new babies mean: lots and lots of laundry. Her old Kenmore washer was failing. So she bought the big, heavy-duty clothes washer from Maytag, the company that for decades has advertised its dependability, and on top of that, she bought the ten-year warranty.
Twelve weeks into the life of baby number two, the Maytag was not doing its dependability thing. Heather’s poetic rants appear on her blog, at dooce.com. Here’s an excerpt from her rant about the Maytag, titled “Containing a capital letter or two.”
So, yeah. The damn thing broke a week after it was delivered. Started giving us this error reading and wouldn’t fill up with water. . . .So we called, complained, and they sent out a repairman. He shows up three days later and is all, yeah, gonna have to order parts. That’s going to take another seven to ten days.
In the meantime, if we wanted to get a load of laundry done, we had to jury-rig the thing, reach our hand up and inside a certain compartment and jiggle a part. And then maybe it might work. Or not. We never knew. . . .WE HAD TO JURY-RIG A $1,300 BRAND NEW WASHING MACHINE. Please tell me you’re shaking your head. Right? RIGHT?
I’ve got a pile of milk-stained shirts sitting in a corner, SPOILING, because that’s what milk does, IT SPOILS, CAN YOU EVEN IMAGINE THE SMELL. And an Olympic Baby Pooper. Onesie after onesie after onesie stacking up in the washroom, six pairs of Jon’s pants stained, several pairs of my shorts, a rug, seven towels…. it goes on and on. And every time we start a load of laundry we’d gather around in prayer, going, please, oh please, don’t give us the error, please, just this time, please—ERROR, ERROR, ERROR.
Ten days later the repairman shows up to fix the machine because the part has been delivered, and oops! Guess he didn’t order all the parts he needed! Going to have to order more parts! Another seven to ten days!
It takes a poet to tell compelling stories that include baby poop. Google “Maytag washer poor service” if you want to see the post; it’s in the top four results.
As it turns out, Heather’s sort of popular. Her book about mothering and postpartum depression, It Sucked and Then I Cried: How I Had a Baby, a Breakdown, and a Much Needed Margarita, made the New York Times bestseller list in April of 2009. Her blog has a readership of about 350,000 unique visitors a month. Her readers are devoted; her posts tend to get a few hundred comments each. When it comes to moms, Heather has power.
Let’s skip to the end, here. Maytag’s third visit to repair the machine failed. Heather called customer service. Back to the poetic rant:
I call the service department, explain in great detail what has happened, and she says that Maytag has a policy that they will not replace a brand new machine unless it is documented that someone has tried to fix it at least three times. WHA?? WHA-HAAA? And I tell her that someone has been out to my house three times, and she says, yeah, but he’s only tried to fix it once. . . .
Oh my Lord God IN HEAVEN. SHUT UP. You’re kidding me, right? The three times he’s been out here do not count? No. And the fact that this machine has not worked for two months? THAT doesn’t count? No. And the fact that we bought the 10-yr-warranty? ALL OF THESE THINGS? DO YOU SEE THESE THINGS?
So I call Maytag. The Maytag. The Mothership. And the agent I get after working through a five-minute maze of PRESS THIS and SAY THIS and PLEASE HOLD is the snootiest customer service person I have ever talked to in my life. And I let her know the entire story, front to back, and that while I’m really upset and sleep deprived, I’m not mad at her because I know it’s not her fault. And she keeps saying, yeah, can’t really help you, you’re going to have to call and have the history faxed over, and then we’ll take a look, and even then we’ll schedule someone to come take a look, maybe in three to five days?
Okay then, I say, almost begging at this point, almost to the point of tears, is there anyone I can talk to who might see what I’ve been through and understand? And here’s where I say, do you know what Twitter is? Because I have over a million followers on Twitter. If I say something about my terrible experience on Twitter do you think someone will help me? And she says in the most condescending tone and hiss ever uttered, “Yes, I know what Twitter is. And no, that will not matter.”
Bad move, Maytag. Because now Heather starts tweeting. Her million-plus devoted followers on Twitter see this:
So that you may not have to suffer like we have: DO NOT EVER BUY A MAYTAG. I repeat: OUR MAYTAG EXPERIENCE HAS BEEN A NIGHTMARE.
Have a mentioned what a nightmare our experience was with Maytag? No? A TOTAL NIGHTMARE.
That brand new washing machine from MAYTAG? That someone has been out to fix three times? STILL BROKEN. DO NOT BUY MAYTAG.
Oh, also. I have a newborn. So we do, what three loads of laundry a day? Except, our brand new washing machine IS BROKEN. DO NOT BUY MAYTAG.
Now Whirlpool (Maytag’s parent company) will tell you this story has a happy ending. Whirlpool monitors social media; they see the tweets. Unable to contact her by phone, they tweet back from their (admittedly seldom used) @WhirlpoolCorp account. Heather sends her phone number, and Whirlpool calls her the next morning. A more competent repair person comes and fixes the machine. And after two months of a Maytag that couldn’t be depended on, and three weeks of abuse from service people, Heather’s laundry emergency abates.
But the damage has been done. A million people have seen the tweets; how many have written off Maytag forever? Heather will not retract her rant; it’s true, after all, and as she told us, “No one should have to go through this.”
Heather — Dooce — turned this experience and so many others into a career as a “mommy blogger.” But that description by no means does justice to what this woman did. Her struggles with life, with the Mormon church, with husbands, with washing machines, with motherhood and, eventually, with alcohol were perhaps the struggles of everywoman and everyman everywhere, but she transformed those struggles with emotion and wit into words — so many words — that generated a passionate global following. All of us have pain. Not very many of us can turn pain into art.
We imagine that those who transform pain into art have used art as a way to cope with the pain. But it’s often not true. The art reaches out to all of us and helps us and we feel sympathy and empathy and awe and enlightenment, but as it turns out, creating art and attracting a passionate following doesn’t make the pain go away.
From a recent Dooce post, April 6.
. . . for the sake of letting you know how serious I am about the details of this post I’ll admit it has happened nine times in the last six weeks—and it starts as a gulping sob as it makes its way through my chest, as it scrapes several ribs and scars my sternum, jostling loose all the painful memories I have hidden in the tissue surrounding those bones. That sob very quickly explodes into something I have never heard, something I am too embarrassed to let anyone witness. The only thing I can say to help you visualize what it sounds like or feels like for me to confront those memories is to imagine yourself as a ten-year-old standing in the middle of a circle made up of every member of your family and all of your friends. They have gathered to take turns reading off every mistake and bad choice you will make over the next thirty years of your life.
I am forty-five years old, but I have the coping skills of a wounded ten-year-old girl.
When I saw myself 36 weeks pregnant with Marlo a flood of memories and emotions I have associated with those memories rushed straight at the frontal lobe of my brain. If I had spent the last twenty-two years of my life using that part of my brain to develop and practice healthy coping skills, I would have more than likely reacted with a wistful chuckle. How could I ever forget the room of people assembled for that birth and their collective gasp when Marlo came into this world toting a giant dimple in their left cheek as if it were luggage they’d packed for the trip.
Instead, I have spent the last twenty-two years of my life feeding that part of my brain a steady diet of alcohol.
She goes on to talk about her incredible skill at hiding vast quantities of alcohol and musing about authors who have committed suicide. And then about the beginning of her sobriety and, in heartbreaking fashion, asks for our help:
Please be here. Please be with me. I need you, too. I need you to help me build something for women like you and me. That whimper in the husk of what I thought was success is my voice and yours. All these years I was wrong about what that success was supposed to mean.
I had no idea it all happened so that I would end up here in this specific post with you, writing these words and admitting it all to you. Forgive me if I sound like an egomaniacal douche, but you and I are going to change the world.
Her very last post talks about six months of sobriety, but every day as an alcoholic is another struggle.
It breaks my heart that an artist who was changing the world couldn’t cope with the pain from which her art sprang forth. As Laura Gassner Otting has made so clear in Wonderhell, success and happiness do not often go together.
We can no longer help Dooce. But we can help each other. If you know someone who is struggling, don’t be fooled by smiles and a constant stream of art. Art may be a coping mechanism, but it’s not sufficient. Love and listening are needed, too.
Thank you for what you gave us, Dooce. And I’m so sorry it was all too much for you. The rest of us will just have to try to do better for the other people you were trying to inspire.