The Patron Saint of Permission
Unpacking the Appeal of Glennon Doyle
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You would have to have been living under a rock for the last few years to not know about Glennon Doyle. Doyle’s third book, Untamed, has sold over 2 million copies since it went on-sale in the early days of the pandemic. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for 80 consecutive weeks. She has 1.8M followers on Instagram, another 280,000 on Twitter. She launched a podcast this past year called We Can Do Hard Things, in which she discusses the difficult parts of life that are rarely talked about, with her sister, Amanda, and her wife Abby Wambach, and it quickly shot to #1 on Apple Podcasts and was chosen as one of the top new podcasts of 2021. Celebrities such as Adele and Reese Witherspoon have lauded Untamed as a book that will change your life.
I have been following Glennon Doyle her entire career. When one of her blog posts first went viral a decade ago, I was a senior editor at a publishing house, in the days of early motherhood. The post, titled “Don’t Carpe Diem,” was one of the funniest, most relatable portraits of motherhood I had ever read. It put into stark relief the fact that sometimes early motherhood can feel like living in the ninth circle of hell.
Last week, a woman approached me in the Target line and said the following: “Sugar, I hope you are enjoying this. I loved every single second of parenting my two girls. Every single moment. These days go by so fast.”
At that particular moment, Amma had swiped a bra from the cart and arranged it over her sweater, while sucking a lollipop undoubtedly found on the ground. She also had three shop-lifted clip-on neon feathers stuck in her hair. She looked exactly like a contestant from Toddlers and Tiaras. A losing contestant. I couldn’t find Chase anywhere, and Tish was sucking the pen from the credit card machine WHILE the woman in front of me was trying to use it. And so I just looked at the woman, smiled and said, “Thank you. Yes. Me too. I am enjoying every single moment. Especially this one. Yes. Thank you.”
Besides the relatability of that encounter, the line that really got me, was this:
It’s helluva hard, isn’t it? You’re a good mom, I can tell. And I like your kids, especially that one peeing in the corner. She’s my favorite. Carry on, warrior. Six hours till bedtime.
The countdown to bedtime? Oh my God, I could relate. I didn’t have toddlers yet, I just had one baby, but I was already deeply familiar with how long the days could feel. I’d experienced it during my maternity leave. The countless hours until daddy gets home, the endlessness of tasks that start over as you soon as you finish, the drudgery of daily motherhood even though you know it is supposedly “the most important job in the world.”
I immediately tracked her down and sent her an email. So often to nab a new author, it was essential to be the very first person to reach out and express interest. And reader, she responded. (Though I cannot confirm this, I believe I was one of, if not the very first editor to send her a message about whether she was interested in publishing a book). We set up a phone call on a Friday, the day I worked from home tending to my infant daughter. Though I’m sure we talked about all the ins and outs of how to get a book deal, what I remember is us laughing about the hotness of Rob Bell (who at the time was an evangelical pastor). We promised to stay connected as she navigated this new world and pulled together a book proposal. I still have some of our emails from that time, as she asks for advice about finding an agent, and how to identify who is the right fit.
I felt certain she would choose us as her publisher given the relationship we had built if we could be competitive with the advance. But by the time her proposal was finished and she and her agent sent it to publishers, I had quit my job to transition to freelance editing. My daughter was nine months old. I’d been commuting three hours a day up to San Francisco from my home in Palo Alto. My mother and husband were working together to cover childcare while I was up in the city, and we were all stretched way too thin.
Before I left, I put Doyle and her agent in contact with another new mom editor and “Monkee” (what fans of her blog, Momastery, used to call themselves) at my employer. Our publishing house was one of the final two publishers in the bidding war for what would become Carry On, Warrior. Ultimately, Doyle went with Whitney Frick and Scribner.
I have long wondered if I had stayed in my position just a few months longer, whether I could have been the lucky editor to have launched her career.
But personal note about my part in her authorial origin story aside, it has been amazing to see her message morph, and her reach grow, to witness this woman step into her voice, self and power. What started as a relatable blog post has grown into a movement of women becoming unshackled from the people they were taught they needed to be. Glennon Doyle continues to speak to me all these years later. And I’m clearly not the only one.
Despite her widespread success, the media has never quite captured her appeal. Like so many women writers, they tend to categorize her in a way that isn’t reflective of who she is (listen to her discuss this issue with Brené Brown at the beginning of the December 2 episode of “We Can Do Hard Things”). At first, she was called a Christian mommy blogger. Then, with the publication of her second book, Love Warrior, as she divulged the underbelly of her marriage, she was categorized as a truth-teller. Even with the publication of Untamed, The New Yorker called her message an “honesty gospel” and the Times wondered whether she was “the most powerful self-help author in the world.”
But none of that is quite right, nor explains how Doyle has amassed such a large following. Yes, she is open and honest in a way most people are not - sharing her struggle to get sober, her issues with binge-eating and anxiety, her ex-husband’s infidelity, and her departure from that marriage on the heels of the release of Love Warrior (which recounted the story of how she’d forgiven him and saved her marriage), because she had fallen in love with superstar soccer player Abby Wambach.
But it is not voyeurism that draws women to Glennon Doyle. Women flock to the writing of Glennon Doyle because she grants them permission.
Permission to not be perfect.
Permission to not even be okay.
Permission to not love all aspects of motherhood (the very subject of that first viral post that launched her career).
Permission to admit that what the world tells you to want is not working for you.
Permission to figure out, sometimes for the very first time, what you actually want.
Perhaps her bravest act was to leave her marriage when she inadvertently fell in love with a woman. At the time, a good portion of her audience was still coming from the evangelical church. I remember when she posted the very first picture of the two of them on Instagram. I couldn’t believe it. It was completely unexpected. But deep down, I thought, good for her. (Actually, I wondered what was in the water. One of Glennon’s besties, Elizabeth Gilbert, had also recently announced that she was leaving her heterosexual marriage for a woman. Was this what it meant to be a spiritually aware woman these days? We left men in the dust?)
But falling in love with Abby was a moment of claiming freedom for Doyle. She writes in Untamed: “When I first saw Abby, I wanted her and it was the first time I wanted something beyond what I had been trained to want…she was the first original idea I had and the first decision I made as a free woman.”
What do I want? is not a question women have been taught to ask themselves. The world prescribes our wants: a good body, beauty, femininity, the perfect love story, a happy marriage, and ultimately, motherhood. We are supposed to chase these goals single-mindedly so that we can fulfill the world’s expectations of a woman. But at a certain point, for many women, the pursuit to check impossible-to-attain boxes begins to feel like an exercise in insanity.
I feel like Untamed is a 2.0 version of Sue Monk Kidd’s 1996 feminist classic The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, a book I read after reading Untamed in the midst of the darkness of 2020. Because at its heart, Untamed, like DDD, examines the ways women have been trapped following others’ scripts. Kidd explains that a woman seeking freedom must go through, “what Carolyn Heilbrun calls ‘the marvelous dismantling.’”
“What she is dismantling is the woman who was once asleep in her relationships, her religion, her career, and her inner life, the woman who never questioned any of it but blindly followed prevailing ideas and dictates. She is the woman dependent on the masculine, whose life is composed of adaptable femininity. She is the woman severed from her own true instinct and creativity. She is the woman in collusion with patriarchy.”
Each woman has a choice: we can deny our discontent, numb ourselves to our own unhappiness and stay caged, or we can dare to start doing things differently. Untamed examines what this daring dismantling looks like for one woman. As Doyle so refreshingly writes: “I began to live as a woman who never got the world’s memos.”
Untamed went on-sale on March 10, 2020. Doyle was likely crushed when her carefully calibrated national tour, fully-booked arenas filled with thousands of women, evaporated overnight. No one knew, at that time, what it looked like to promote books virtually.
Yet it turns out releasing Untamed during the pandemic was actually perfect timing.
Untamed begins with a family trip to the zoo where they meet Tabitha, a cheetah pacing in her cage. The zookeepers are showing how they tamed her alongside her “best friend,” a golden retriever. Everything the golden retriever does, Tabitha does. A little girl asks what probably every zoo patron was wondering: Does Tabitha miss the wild? The zookeeper smiles and tries to convince the crowd that Tabitha is happy. She doesn’t know any different. Tabitha does not want to roam the wild Serengeti. Tabitha does not need to run as fast as her body can take her, (which is up to speeds of 80 miles per hour). Tabitha is just fine in this cage.
Yet even as the zookeeper parrots this story, Glennon’s child notices Tabitha sitting regally, staring out beyond her bars. Could she be wondering about what else is out there?
She is not fooled. She knows she is not a tame cat. She is a goddamn cheetah.
Untamed is a book about Glennon Doyle remembering her wild. It is the story of how she becomes conscious of her own taming. And in sharing her story, she invites women to discover their own.
Would Untamed have had the same impact if it hadn’t come out when we too, were all trapped in cages like Tabitha, during the early days of shelter-in-place?
Forced into roles we didn’t want. Expected to pick up the slack left by closing schools. Maybe, when the world came to a standstill, we finally had the time to gaze out beyond the bars of our current existence and wonder if there could be something more.
Untamed spoke presciently to the discontent we felt as women in 2020. When you add the pandemic to an already brewing stew of resentment and rage that began to simmer after the 2016 election, through the women’s march, #MeToo, Brett Cavanaugh’s confirmation, RBG’s death, and a stacked court that seems hell bent on erasing our reproductive rights, of course women are going to feel primed for a rebellion.
What new wave of revolution might happen as more and more women become Untamed? What will the world look like once all these cheetahs are unleashed?
To be clear, being a cheetah does not mean that you must be fierce and scary and wild. Here is Doyle, from her podcast called Sister Act, on what she truly means by the word untamed:
I think that sometimes the word untamed or the word wild is misunderstood. What I mean by wild is not this idea of ferocity and loudness, and boldness. What I mean by wild is each person returning to their truest essence, their truest self. To the person they were born to be before that world conditioned them to be something else.
But an army of women being their own damn selves is nothing short of revolutionary.
I have written about my own untaming provoked by the pandemic, how I realized that I had sacrificed myself on the altar of motherhood unnecessarily. I’m currently doing the hard work of carving out a different life, one with more space for myself and my career, no matter that it disrupts the patterns that we have established in our family (i.e. that I am the default parent, always available to my children). I am still striving to do that, trying to feel more comfortable with other people’s discomfort so that I can prioritize my own wants and needs. Doyle’s book was an integral part of my awakening and gave me permission to listen to and honor my own discontent. This conversation with her daughter is my favorite passage in the entire book:
TISH: Chase wants me to join the same club he joined in middle school. I don’t want to.
ME: So don’t.
TISH: But I don’t want to disappoint him.
ME: Listen, every time you’re given a choice between disappointing someone else and disappointing yourself, your duty is to disappoint that someone else. Your job, throughout your entire life, is to disappoint as many people as it takes to avoid disappointing yourself.
I had always been tuned in to the world’s memos, or maybe, more precisely, it was Christianity’s memos, which taught that self-abandonment, selflessness, denying my own wants and needs was the holy thing to do. I was not taught to check in with myself, to turn inward to see what I wanted, or even how I felt. It meant that, even as an adult, I was completely disassociated with my own feelings. Untamed provided a blueprint for how to look within. How to feel it all. How to let everything that is not working for me burn.
Toward the end of Untamed, Doyle writes: “What the world needs right now in order to evolve is to watch one woman at a time live her truest, most beautiful life without asking for permission or offering explanation.”
This isn’t self-help. It is self-acceptance.
There is no fixing required.
Obviously I highly recommend reading Untamed if you haven’t read it yet. She also recently came out with a journal called Get Untamed. In addition, here are some of my favorite episodes of her podcast, We Can Do Hard Things:
In addition, a side note that very rarely gets mentioned is that Doyle is the founder of Together Rising, an organization that has raised over $35M since its founding. NBD.