A Debut Novel Obsesses Over Tradwife Mommy Bloggers and Toxic Mothers

In Worry, Alexandra Tanner tells a disturbingly relatable tale of the destructive, wasteful ways we become addicted to content we don’t even like.

A Debut Novel Obsesses Over Tradwife Mommy Bloggers and Toxic Mothers

Chief among the perils and delights of the internet is the ability it has given us to peer into the lives of those others, whether we know them or not. Sometimes that means checking up on an old nemesis; other times it’s noting the sudden absence of a former partner; still others it’s fixating on a celebrity. For Alexandra Tanner, it took the form of obsessing over an Instagram ensemble of Mormon moms, evangelicals, fundamentalists, homesteaders, and anyone calling themselves something that begins with “trad”—women who believe fluoride in tap water will kill you, while camel milk and essential oils can stave off early death. She documented her fevered stalking in a 2020 essay in Jewish Currents titled, deliciously, “My Mommies and Me.” 

Now, in her debut novel Worry, Tanner has returned to this obsession in the form of her protagonist, Jules, who collects these women “like Beanie Babies,” absorbing their posts of “the sickest, most deranged content imaginable.” Jules justifies this compulsion in a pithy meta-gesture by Tanner: “I’m studying them… for this essay I’m writing… about America, and Jews, and assimilation, and militancy, and God, and conspiracism, and whatever.” (The essay never materializes.) She admits it activates something malevolent in her—“the part of my brain that loves hateful things is aglow”—and, in this way, Worry tells a disturbingly relatable tale of the destructive, wasteful ways we become addicted to content we don’t even like.

For most of the book, Jules and her younger sister, Poppy, hang out in their shared Brooklyn apartment, fawning over their dog or bickering. Worry is, in many ways, a character study of sisterhood—its endless cycle of fondness and frustration and guilt—and favors behavioral scrutiny over plot. The threads of obsession in the book intersect at regular intervals with Jules’ and Poppy’s job woes (at an astrology startup and an academic publisher, respectively), youthful immorality, and familial dysfunction. 

We spoke to Tanner while she was visiting her own family in Florida, discussing doom-scrolling, Girls, and Thanksgiving, as her dog occasionally chimed in from the next room. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

In 2020, you wrote an essay called “My Mommies and Me.” How was writing about these mommy bloggers in an essay form different than doing so in your novel?

I started following a bunch of mommy bloggers in late 2019, early 2020. I had started working on Worry already, and I knew that I wanted the internet to be a big part of it. As my obsession with the mommies deepened, I made the focus of Jules’ internet habits the mommy bloggers, rather than just random people on Instagram.

Both in the essay and in the novel, there’s a grappling with this idea of “what does it mean to spend time with these people?” At one point, Jules says, “Things aren’t so bad in my life, I think. At least, I’m not one of these people or one of their followers. Then I realize that I am, of course, one of their followers, a devoted one, even, in my own fucked up little way.” She’s following them critically, but they still take up all her time.

Well, that’s the thing, right? In real life, the habits you form throughout your days add up to who you are and what your life looks like. When I’m doom-scrolling on the internet, I don’t think of it as being a significant part of who I am. But over time—especially when you have one niche obsession, like the mommies—it really does become a huge part of your consciousness and your preoccupations and it changes who you are a little bit. I’m certainly not a responsible Internet user. Everyone else has rookie screentime numbers to me. But we have to do something about that at some point: looking at the sum of what spending your time in that way does to you, and accepting that you are one of these people’s followers. You are in some way feeding them, even if you tell yourself you’re better than them or you’re separate from them or it’s just a little guilty pleasure you have. 

There’s a lot of humor in this obsessiveness: The mommies are absurdist unto themselves, but also the way you frame it, and the way Jules is framing them, is funny. How do you keep this aspect light when what these women say actually makes you want to, like, weep?

Keeping it light is sort of a defense mechanism. Throughout the book, I kept finding that I would render something in a way that I thought was really dark, and then somehow it reads as funny. Or I would write something that I thought was hysterical, and then reading it back during edits, I’d be like, “Oh my god, this is really unwell.”

Jules justifies to her sister that she’s spending all this time on the mommies because “I’m gonna write an essay.”

[Laughs] “I’ll do something with it.” 

I relate to that rationalization: I have spent all this time on something that I’m not proud of. There’s this question of how you can take something you’re sheepish about and turn it into something “productive.” Would you say that the novel is a gesture to that?

Definitely the parts of it that are about wasting time on the internet, I felt like I had to translate it into something useful. A lot of my friends are culture writers and beauty writers and people who write about the internet. There is this sense that when you’re paying attention to something that intensely, at a certain point, it does have to be like, “How can I use this in my work in a way that’s going to render the hours logged here not wasted time?” I’m always telling myself, when I get too deep in on something with a niche fringe interest, especially on social media, that “it’s edifying me in some way.” I don’t know to what degree that’s true.

What are these other interests? 

Right now, it’s TikTok for me—especially TikTok LIVE. That’s where I am now in my internet obsession. 

I think the mommies did a number on me. At the end of 2020, after I published that Jewish Currents essay, I stopped following all of them and tried to rinse them out of my brain. I haven’t had anything that’s quite that intense since. It was sort of like, This has been a Harvard University research project—we are now complete with our study.” I had to cut it off. But people are still sending me Ballerina Farm or that lady who makes her own Oreos from scratch. And I’ll delight in them. 

To pull a different thread: The dysfunctional dynamic between the two sisters and their mom was quite the triangulation. Could you talk about writing these scenarios? 

Family is the most rich subject to write about: There’s psychology and history and culture and the way you were raised and it all kind of converges. Sometimes your family is this oppressive force in your life, and your relationships with individual family members are points of real stress. And sometimes your family is your life raft and they’re the only people who understand you. 

In my own family dynamic, there’s this bedrock of unconditional love, so we can get away with saying or doing anything to each other and we’ll always come back to this place—eventually. But I was really interested in looking at a set of three characters who are completely entwined and who are, at the end of the day, really devoted to each other—but kind of against their own best interests. In every little conversation they have, I wanted everything to be as loaded with baggage as possible.

Sasha Fletcher

Jules and Poppy’s mom, Wendie, has a bit of a Lucille Bluth vibe. She does a lot of negging; she hangs up abruptly during phone calls, gives an “I love you” text a thumbs down, refuses to provide food that aligns with her daughter’s dietary needs, sneers at their fashion choices—“hag shoes” is a great burn. She’s unbridled in her criticism.

I have a lot of thoughts about the Bluth family! But it was really fun to write Wendie because it was just that thought experiment that I think is present in a lot of my favorite comedy—Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm—like, what would this person say if there were no repercussions for saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing? And sort of pushing people to the extremes… putting their intrusive thoughts on the page. She’ll say the most cutting thing in the world. It’s so funny, but also scary.

The protagonist, Jules, is irritable, but worries her anger is a cover for feeling empty. How did you explore how emptiness and having a mean streak work in tandem?

Jules is really empty and really rootless. It’s a function of having not really taken the time with herself to figure out who she is and what she wants. I think that creates a real defensiveness. She’s trying to create herself from the things that she hates, and from her negative reactions to the world around her. You can’t build a self in that way. It can’t be about what you don’t like. 

I think a lot about the character of Ray in Girls. That’s sort of who Jules is: She’s very contrarian and thinks she knows a lot and is stubborn. I think that’s the reason that she’s so judgmental of others because she’s defining herself against the things she doesn’t want to be and the things that repulse her, instead of doing the work of being in the world and being vulnerable and figuring out what it is that she loves.

That’s interesting to bring in Girls as a reference… Were there other pop culture touchstones that you were using as a bit of a moodboard?

I watch a lot of television. Shows like Girls, Seinfeld; A Serious Man—the movie by the Coen Brothers, that’s been my favorite movie for a really long time. What I like about it is the way it just renders the world so bizarre and as if it is really conspiring against you. I think that that’s my favorite things about those comedies—Arrested Development too: creating a sort of pressure cooker situation for the world, which is this really oppressive, unkind force, but also where the characters’ own actions are magnifying that. Sheila Heti and Ottessa Moshfegh, Sally Rooney—the way that they write that tension between disaffection and hatred, but also…a protagonist or narrator who has a real big heart and a real sense of emptiness.

Why did Worry feel like the right title for the book?

I was thinking about family, internet, mental illness, politics, everything that’s sort of swirling around. I love the way that the cover wound up; “WORRY” is sort of this big, heavy block on top of that girl’s head, because that was the overwhelming sense I had while I was writing the book—just this weight of anxiety and uncertainty, and how that pressurizes the narrative. I was working on the project under a different title for a long time, and then I saw an archaic definition of the word “worry,” which was the way a dog holds something in its mouth and shakes it back and forth to kill it. Then it took on this resonance of not just fear, but worrying something; destroying it through the process of trying to control it.

An explosive scene in the book happens at Thanksgiving; the niceties of gathering sour when people are saying nonsense. How did you construct that?

That part of the book gives me agita. It’s the most plotted part. It’s the moment where everything converges and spills over and everyone reaches their boiling point. There’s a thing that happens at family gatherings: You kind of zip it and let your uncle say the worst thing you’ve ever heard. That becomes so grating and so tiring and we do this every year and what’s the point if we’re not being real with our family? 

I wanted to see if I could pull off a moment of really brutal honesty, intruding on this otherwise very mannered scene… and there’s something about Thanksgiving to me that it feels fancier than other holidays, for some reason. I thought that would be a funny dinner to have interrupted by chaos.

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