Amber Tamblyn’s latest publication is a multipronged, multilayered Swiss Army knife of a book that unfolds like a beautiful flower spiked with poisonous stingers.
On the one hand, Era of Ignition: Coming of Age in a Time of Rage and Revolution (Crown Archetype) is a fervent call to arms to women and their curious if confused male allies, a heartfelt public exhortation and savvy instructional primer about how to navigate the emotional minefields and institutionalized barriers that prevent women from achieving genuine equality in the workplace and the arts. Yet the nonfiction tome is also a deeply personal memoir in which the writer-director-actor disarmingly reveals her own struggles as an artist, activist and mother in New York City and Hollywood via a series of humbling but inspiring revelations that are woven within a bigger story that boldly confronts systemic abuse and pervasive discrimination by men in power.
Tamblyn’s intimate snapshots of her life raising a young daughter in an increasingly conservative society and her battles to be taken seriously as a former child star in the film and television industries are buttressed by academic discussions that examine the multiplicity of genders and lifestyles through the prism of race, power and class. As such, Era of Ignition is strikingly different in both tone and style from the writer’s four previous books. Although there are occasional hints of the rarefied, artfully evocative imagery that highlighted Tamblyn’s early poetry collections Bang Ditto (2009) and Free Stallion (2011), Era of Ignition is more direct and conversational, punctuated with unexpectedly humorous anecdotes juxtaposed with unfiltered confessions about her own despair and the sexual abuse she’s survived.
Ignition’s considerations of gender discrimination and feminist activism echo the themes in Tamblyn's 2015 book of poetry, Dark Sparkler, which focused on women actors whose voices, aspirations and lives were tragically silenced at young ages. But Ignition is more firmly rooted in the here and now as Tamblyn recounts her bittersweet experiences as an idealistic volunteer working on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns, her involvement as a co-founder of the Time’s Up movement, and her ultimately triumphant efforts to make a film (Paint It Black) as an inexperienced first-time director who had to overcome the antipathy and resistance of the mostly male gatekeepers who control the film industry. At times, Ignition also recalls Tamblyn’s 2018 novel, Any Man, a morbidly engrossing and shockingly violent modern-day fable in which a female serial rapist reverses roles and preys on male victims — a pointedly disparate group of men who come to realize something that many women have long known, that they are not to blame for being randomly chosen as victims.
But freed from the stylistic limitations of poetry and fiction, Era of Ignition is a more stirring and directly compelling manifesto for thought and action. The book’s title alludes to both the personal and collective revolutions experienced today by a multitude of women as they awaken and find strength in unity in the wake of recent revelations about the abusive behavior of such powerful predators as Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby.
“Every day, women across the country consider the risk,” Tamblyn writes about women who ponder whether they should dare to report sexual assaults in this society, knowing that they will be dismissed, ignored or even punished further by male authority figures. “That is our day job and our night shift. We have a diploma in risk consideration. Consider that skirt. Consider that dark alley. Consider questioning your boss. … The emotional cost alone of bringing up such memories publicly or coming forward with such recollections is pure bankruptcy. It is spiritual foreclosure.”
Tamblyn sets up these larger issues of collective action and fighting oppression by focusing first on her own personal odyssey and search for identity. Despite a long and respected career as an actor, she finds herself spiritually and artistically adrift in a state of “personal doom” after atypically experiencing stage fright at an audition and subsequently being dropped by her longtime agent. Even though she’s married to a sympathetic partner, comedian David Cross, Tamblyn despairs that she’s not ready for motherhood and plunges further into depression when she undergoes an abortion.
One drunken night, she throws her most expensive pair of high heels into the East River near her home in Brooklyn in a form of symbolic suicide over her seemingly dead-end career as a former child actor. “I was once that young woman, answerless and adrift; a soul without a mission. Through my own radical evolution and a stoking of my life’s flames, I was able to climb out of the dark abyss I had been engulfed in for so long,” she writes. Inspired by such forces as Black Lives Matter and Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement, as well as the election of such uncompromising politicians as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Tamblyn finds her own “voice sparked by our nation’s existential engulfment.”
Her personal evolution is triggered further when she reads L.A. writer Janet Fitch’s novel Paint It Black. “Something about the book lingered with me in a way that novels hadn’t before,” Tamblyn recalls. “It was as if the book hadn’t finished and its story was still a page turning inside me.” She recognizes that the novel would make a great movie and ends up directing the film and co-writing (with Ed Dougherty) its screenplay. But first Tamblyn undergoes a long process of self-doubt, followed by rejections from every male studio head and producer she encounters. In the end, she is aided by a trio of women producers — Wren Arthur, Amy Hobby and Anne Hubbell — who take a chance on Tamblyn despite her inexperience as a director because they believe in and trust her vision.
Realizing that most men in the industry aren’t going to help her, she has an epiphany about her worth and self-determination: “I decided that if I was ever going to get my movie made, I was going to have to stop trying to get my foot in the door where men were making creative decisions and instead just build my own goddamn house.”
While Tamblyn’s experiences making Paint It Black offer a unique glimpse of what really goes on behind the curtain in Hollywood, it is only a small part of a much bigger story about the lack of economic opportunity most women face in Hollywood and the world at large. Refreshingly, despite her personal travails, Tamblyn also recognizes that she is luckier than many women of color and people of the LGBTQIA community. She freely admits to her own ignorance and personal blind spots as an otherwise well-meaning and self-described white feminist, and the author is not only willing to be schooled by more experienced allies but devotes much of the latter part of Era of Ignition to giving crucial space to such cultural observers as Airea D. Matthews.
The poet-teacher explains how many white feminists routinely discount the much different, and much more difficult, experiences of women of color, all in the guise of social unity. “Because of white women’s adjacency to power, much of the white feminist ethos, across generations, seems determined to establish their own power while protecting existing power structures,” Matthews explains. “Whether white women want to admit it or not, they benefit — directly and/or tangentially — from white supremacy, a system of exclusion.”
Similarly, Tamblyn engages in an enlightening exchange with nonbinary trans writer Meredith Talusan, who lucidly points out the various subtle ways cis women discriminate against trans people as some women unintentionally mimic the social structures of the male power class they’re opposing. It is to Tamblyn’s enormous credit that she moves past reflexive pride in the certitude of her own beliefs and good intentions to recognize that the push for equality isn’t always equally available for people who have historically been silenced by society at large.
“And if someone with the access, privilege and reach that I grew up with was feeling this way, I could only imagine what less well connected members of the even more greatly underrepresented communities in my industry were feeling,” Tamblyn writes. Later, she adds, “By lifting up the most marginalized voices of those who are often left behind — by examining the whole of our physical burden, not just the largest part of it — we will be able not only to break the cycle of abuse but to banish it forever.”
Although Tamblyn’s intent is to find the commonality among all women, as well as to revel in the collective power that’s been awakened as women finally share their long-hidden stories of abuse and mistreatment, there will likely be many women — politically conservative and otherwise — who will resist being lumped together into a seamless group. The writer also recognizes the social advantages and prejudices of the men in her life. It’s one thing to rail against the bullying and demonstrable sexism of overtly thuggish personalities such as Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein, as Tamblyn does quite incisively, but she also uncovers the problematic attitudes even in the men she loves, such as her husband and her father, men who have good intentions but haven’t always recognized or even considered the serious obstacles women still face.
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Tamblyn is at her most affecting when she makes the political personal. “I told myself I couldn’t bear the thought of bringing a girl into this new, terrifying world, that I loved her more than I could bear and wanted to protect her from all this,” she writes about getting pregnant again even as she worries about raising her daughter in a country ruled by Trump. Her fears dissipate once her doctor records the heartbeat of the baby growing inside Tamblyn: “Its tiny thump pounding along like a small train gearing up for life’s most treacherous trek. Her blood swirling around in a muffled slush, wholly new, preparing her body to enter into a world still broken.”
Even as Tamblyn risks her career in Hollywood by stepping up her participation in the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements, she reveals how her personal and political lives have become inextricably twined together, in a single, poignant sentence: “My 10-month-old daughter slept on her back with her arms spread wide, her fingers twitching, embracing the room’s darkness and the beginning flicker of an incoming dream, just as women everywhere were doing the same.”
Traces of Tamblyn’s poetic acuity also show up briefly when the writer considers her own ongoing evolution as an individual and artist. “I was the seasoned soap opera starlet, the incidental ingénue, the accidental adolescent actress turned adult apparition, haunting her own future by existing only in her past,” she writes. “I was the famous one, known for being unknown. I was an ideological in-between, a neither here nor there artist, taken seriously by few outside of the poetry community, and even fewer within it. I was the girl who was a blind spot in the mirrors of powerful men.”
Amber Tamblyn discusses Era of Ignition with writer-professor Roxane Gay at Barnes & Noble at the Grove, 189 The Grove Drive, Fairfax; Sat., March 16, 2 p.m.; purchase of the book required for admission. (323) 525-0270.