Jessica Simpson's Memoir Is a Candid Meditation on Casual Cruelty

Jessica Simpson's Memoir Is a Candid Meditation on Casual Cruelty
Screenshot:Getty/Dey Street Books

On the first page of Jessica Simpson’s 400-page memoir Open Book, she’s sitting in the passenger seat of a car, one “glittercup” (a bedazzled tumbler “filled with vodka and flavored Perrier”) in. It’s 2017, 7:30 in the morning, and she’s on her way to a Halloween assembly at her daughter Maxwell’s kindergarten. More than a compelling way to begin a memoir, the scene establishes its tone: Simpson is more transparent than she’s ever been, an actual open book when pop stars rarely are. In the past, her persona as the girl next door meant projecting that she was as embarrassing and mortal as the rest of us, but in Open Book, Simpson’s interior life is accessible and far more complex than her public performance as a relatable pop star. Take it with a grain of salt, but take it in.

As Simpson comes to terms with her alcoholism, she naturally revisits how she might have ended up there, recounting grade school bullying; a traumatic head injury during a car accident; and years-long sexual abuse by a family friend who was also abused in childhood, all images juxtaposed with her Baptist upbringing. Her unwavering faith exists throughout the text and is never interrogated except in one of the many damning sections about an emotionally manipulative John Mayer, who she says would treat every conversation like a battle of wits, to the point where she felt she could never be honest with him. Simpson spares no detail when describing her one-sided relationship with Mayer, and his repulsive treatment of her has been well-documented publicly, as in the famous 2010 Playboy story where he described her as “sexual napalm.” “Have you ever been with a girl who made you want to quit the rest of your life? Did you ever say, ‘I want to quit my life and just fuckin’ snort you?’” he told the publication. “‘If you charged me $10,000 to fuck you, I would start selling all my shit just to keep fucking you.’”

Few celebrity memoirs are so self-aware.

Contrary to how Open Book has been written about so far, she includes enough charming anecdotes that dissemble the image of a dumb-blonde-Southern-pop-princess and give light to some of the more arduous themes, suggesting Simpson is much more layered than the media made her out to be at the height of fame (a real shocker there). I laughed when reading about a conservative teen Simpson buying her “first boob touch” bra and instructing the woman at Victoria’s Secret that it was for that particular occasion. I wanted to text all of my friends after learning that she passed up the lead role in The Notebook because of a sex scene, as much as I wanted to discuss the dissolution of her prenup-free marriage to Nick Lachey and her emotional affair with Johnny Knoxville onset of The Dukes of Hazzard. Or that a single incident of wearing high-waisted jeans at a chili cook-off in 2009 sparked a life-long battle with body dysmorphia that at times grew so untenable, she’d shower with a white t-shirt on to hide her body from herself. (That image, in particular, challenges the “nothing but a t-shirt on” lyric in her 2003 single, “With You.” If conspiratorial suggestions are your thing, this book has tons of them.) Few celebrity memoirs are so self-aware.

The point of Open Book isn’t to garner sympathy—Simpson doesn’t explicitly claim to feel disenfranchised by a tabloid landscape obsessed with her appearance and performative “ditzy-ness,” except as far as it inspired a steady diet of stimulants and booze that nearly killed her. Unlike, say, Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana, which begs the viewer to empathize with suffering that results from the toxic desire to people-please, Open Book merely retells a life story with multiplex detail, by a celebrity many assumed would never be so brazen. This isn’t a former teen star laying herself bare for the sake of sensationalization—this is a woman revealing herself to be a person beyond the twenty-something who legitimately thought buffalo wings were made from buffalo—and has been forced to confront that impression for a decade. For that reason, this book has become more of an event than other celebrity books in recent memory—no one expected this level of lucidity from Simpson, and that’s our fault.

Though it is a memoir, there’s no redemption arc, save for her sobriety and discovery of self-acceptance—mostly because she maintains the endearing naiveté that drew so many to her instead of Britney or Christina in the first place. She never expresses anger, only forgiveness, and always opts to see the good in people around her, even when they’re in the wrong: Her relationship with Mayer is “complicated,” not toxic. Same goes for her dad and ex-manager Joe Simpson. Before Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo broke up with Simpson because he saw Mayer was contacting her and assumed the worst, she described his Texas mansion as a frat house possessing “garbage bags up on the windows instead of blinds” covered with $350,000 uncashed checks used as bookmarks. She shares the details without judgment or sentimentality, making them all the more impactful.

My main criticism of this book is that some sections drag on with unnecessary repetition—there is no point in repeating that her now-husband Eric Johnson went to Yale half-a-dozen times; meanwhile, I would have loved to read about her brief relationship with Billy Corgan, because that was a weird time—and that Simpson sometimes breaks the fourth wall to direct her attention to the reader, instructing them to use her text for healing. That’s unnecessary and reads insecure; there’s no need to force that hand, especially when the text itself is already so captivating. But maybe that insecurity is warranted, considering the casual cruelty of the media at the height of her career. In that context, Jessica Simpson presenting herself to the world as an autonomous person is, in fact, the most intriguing revelation in a book full of them.

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