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Actor and filmmaker Lena Dunham

Lena Dunham On Sex, Oversharing And Writing About Lost 'Girls'

Dunham says when she started writing HBO's Girls, she was drawn to characters with "a bit of a Zelda Fitzgerald lost, broken woman quality." Her new essay collection is called Not That Kind of Girl.



September 29, 2014

Guest: Lena Dunham

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Lena Dunham, the creator and star of the HBO series "Girls."


LENA DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) Hi, dad.

PETER SCOLARI: (As Tad Horvath) Hi. Hi, honey.

DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) What's going on?

SCOLARI: (As Tad Horvath) Oh, nothing, just taking the day off to soak up some rays. Well, also, I had a small procedure - nothing to worry about - are you...

DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) OK, I just met with the publisher, and they want to give me a real book deal. Not a stupid, pathetic e-book deal, a real book deal.

GROSS: That's Lena Dunham's character Hannah on the phone with her father. Hannah is a writer who got and lost two book deals. One of her ambitions is to, quote, "lock eyes with the New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani." Hannah would envy and resent Lena Dunham. Dunham not only has a new collection of personal essays called "Not That Kind Of Girl," she got a great review from Michiko Kakutani, who described the book as smart and funny and wrote that by simply telling her own story and all its specificity and sometimes embarrassing detail, Dunham has written a book that's as acute and heartfelt as it is funny. Lena Dunham's series "Girls," about a group of friends in their 20s trying to figure out what they want out of life and out of each other, begins its fourth season in January. Lena Dunham, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you back on our show.

DUNHAM: Thank you. I'm thrilled to be here.

GROSS: I want to start with a reading from your new book. So let's start with a reading from the very, very beginning.

DUNHAM: Great. This is a reading from the chapter entitled "Introduction." (Reading) I am 20 years old and I hate myself. My hair, my face, the curve of my stomach, the way my voice comes out wavering and my poems come out maudlin, the way my parents talk to me in a slightly higher register than they talk to my sister, as if I'm a government worker that snapped and if pushed hard enough, might blow up the hostages I've got tied up in my basement. I cover up this hatred with a kind of aggressive self-acceptance. I dye my hair a fluorescent shade of yellow, cutting it into a mullet more inspired by photos of 1980s teen mothers than by any current beauty trend. I dress in neon spandex that hugs in all the wrong places. My mother and I have a massive fight when I choose to wear a banana-printed belly shirt and pink leggings to the Vatican and religious tourists gawk and turn away. I'm living in a dormitory that was, not too long ago, an old-age home for low-income townspeople, and I don't like thinking about where they might be now. My roommate has moved to New York to explore farm-to-fork cooking and lesbianism. So I'm alone, in a ground-floor, one-bedroom, a fact I relish until one night a female rugby player rips my screen door off the hinges and barges into the dorm to attack her philandering girlfriend. I've bought a VHS player and a pair of knitting needles and spend most nights on the sofa making half a scarf for a boy I like who had a manic break and dropped out. I've made two short films, both of which my father deemed interesting but beside the point. And I'm so paralyzed as a writer that I started translating poems from languages I don't speak, some kind of surrealist exercise meant to inspire me, but also prevent me from thinking the perverse looping thoughts that come unbidden. I am hideous. I'm going to be living in a mental hospital by the time I'm 29. I will never amount to anything.

GROSS: Thank you for reading that. That's Lena Dunham reading the opening...

DUNHAM: Thank you.

GROSS: Reading the opening of her new book "Not That Kind Of Girl." One of the opening quotes from your book is from your father. And you say...

DUNHAM: It is.

GROSS: And you say this is your father admonishing you. And he says, how quickly you transform the energy life throws at you into the folded bows of art. Your father and your mother are artists.


GROSS: What exactly was he criticizing about you there?

DUNHAM: I believe that we had had an argument which I had very quickly recycled into something that I was using in the show, and I told him about it. And he kind of laughed - there's this very specific laugh that my father has when he recognizes his own behavior in my work. This sort of, oh, what now kind of laugh that was - that I had just summoned from him. And then he was sort of describing - half admiringly, half with horror, the way that he didn't feel like he could do anything without it being recycled into my work. And it kind of felt like even though he didn't mean it as a compliment, it kind of felt like the perfect encapsulation of my - of sort of how the day-to-day translates into what I do, at least at this point in my creative life.

GROSS: Do you think he was partly saying you'd deflect life and turn it into art? Like instead of experiencing it or instead of absorbing what I just told you, you just turn it into art?

DUNHAM: Completely. I think that my parents have always gotten frustrated - as have certain other people in my life - namely, you know, namely my current boyfriend because no other boyfriend paid enough attention to me to care, but I - they have this feeling as if I'm able to sort of feign a certain kind of self-awareness by putting it into my work, but that by putting it into my work, I avoid actually having the experience. So it's this kind of vicious cycle, but it's rough because it's the only way that I know how to process feelings and move on.

GROSS: Some people think that you over share (laughter). And I'm wondering because you do share so much, like, in your memoir and there's so much personal stuff in "Girls," whether it really happened to you or not, whether it's autobiographical or not, a lot of people just assume that it is. So have you ever made anything public that was very personal through your work or through your interviews that you later regretted saying?

DUNHAM: You know, I've thought about this a lot because it's a - it's a challenging thing when you're a person who has a desire, or let's say a compulsion, to share facts about your personal life. If that's the way you process the world is to make creative content based on your personal life, then you have to be really careful about making yourself feel too exposed. But for me the biggest concern is my family and the people that I love. And I feel very, very conscious of making sure that my parents, my boyfriend, my friends don't feel in any way demeaned, exposed or abused by the work that I make. Especially now, there's no writing about someone anonymously. People will pick it apart, they will figure out who that person is. There's sort of no sort of protective measures you can put in place at this point in history to take care of the people you love, so you have to be careful. And so there've been a couple times where I've said things about my parents or about my boyfriend that I felt have been taken out of context or misunderstood that have opened them up to criticism, and that is the stuff that pains me.

GROSS: So...

DUNHAM: And I also think...

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.

DUNHAM: You know, I think the term over sharing is so complicated because I do think it's really gendered. I think that when men sort of share their experiences, it's bravery and women share their experiences, it's some sort of, you know, it's like - people are like TMI, too much information has always been my least favorite phrase because what exactly constitutes too much information? It seems like it has a lot to do with who is giving you the information. And I feel as though there's some sense that society trivializes female experiences. And so when you share them, they aren't given - considered as vital as their male counterparts. And that's something that I've always roundly rejected.

GROSS: You know, it's interesting, I think writing about yourself and kind of shaping your personal narrative gives you a certain power over your life because you're controlling the story. But nowadays you do that - you control your story, you put it out and the stories not finished yet because everybody's going to tweet about it. They're going to give it their interpretation. So that sense of, like, controlling your own narrative, in a way it doesn't exist anymore.

DUNHAM: That is so accurate. And there are a few things in this book that I was terrified to put into the world because I thought of the headline and sort of people hearing third-hand what existed in the essay. And it was just - it was a really scary thing and I really had to examine with a few of these essays is this something that I can bear to see sort of put through that game of telephone?

GROSS: Can you give us an example of one of the things you were concerned about?

DUNHAM: Yeah, I think the chapter about date rape in the book was a really, really terrifying thing for me to put into the world because as important as the topic is - and we are also having this massive moment of cultural awareness about campus assault, which is a very gratifying thing to see and I hope it leads to incredible change - but just sort of honestly, the idea of seeing sort of, you know, the fourth-hand UK Daily Mail headline - Lena Dunham Tells All About Rape - was - it was a nightmare to me. But at the same time, I think I knew that sharing that experience was - I not only felt it was important because of what I was seeing other young women go through, I felt it was important because of what it was going to give me spiritually to not be hiding that anymore.

GROSS: I thought that was a really interesting chapter. And your confusion about, is this rape or not? Like, am I complicit in this or not, like, what has happened here? And you were - you were hurt. I mean, I don't mean emotionally hurt, though you were that too, you were physically hurt for a while.

DUNHAM: It was a painful experience physically and emotionally. And one I spent a long time trying to reconcile. And I actually - I've been thinking about it a lot this week because I sent an email to somebody who I had known at that time, who knew the guy who had - whatever we're going to say - perpetrated the act, who knew him. And I wanted to make it clear to this old friend what I felt had happened before he, you know, potentially, you know, bought the book at Hudson News and read about it. I just - I hated the idea of somebody finding out that information because at the time that it happened, it wasn't something that I was able to be honest about. I was able to share pieces, but I sort of used the lens of humor, which has always been my default mode, to try to talk around it. And I said to this old friend in email, I said I spent so much time scared. I spent so much time ashamed, I don't feel that way anymore. And it's not because of my job, it's not because of my boyfriend, it's not because of feminism - though all those things helped - it's because I told the story. And I still feel like myself and I feel less alone.

GROSS: You know, the way you describe it in your book, this experience happened to you, you were telling one of your girlfriends about it and your girlfriend said you were raped. And it hadn't even occurred to you to think of it that way before that.

DUNHAM: Before that I think I had just felt that something was very wrong. I had felt that something had happened and I remember thinking can I ever be the same? But I was not comfortable giving myself the clarity of that because the fact is is I know that - I knew that I was sort of at this party, where the - I was at a party, drunk, waiting for attention. And somehow that felt like such a shameful starting off point that I didn't know how to reconcile what had come after. But I knew that it wasn't right and I knew in some way that this experience had been forced on me. And when I shared it with my best friend and she used the term you were raped at the time, I sort of laughed at her and thought like, you know, what an ambulance chasing drama queen. And later felt this incredible gratitude for her for giving me that, giving me that gift of that kind of certainty that she had. I think that a lot of times when I felt at my lowest about it, those words in some way actually lifted me up because I felt that somebody was justifying the pain of my experience.

GROSS: Did you change anything about your behavior at parties and the kind of person you would be with or, you know - I'm not saying this in a blame the victim kind of way...

DUNHAM: Of course.

GROSS: ...But I'm just curious, like, what your takeaway was from that experience?

DUNHAM: I didn't really go to anymore parties. I just stopped going. I stopped putting myself into - I don't think I - I basically didn't have a drink for the rest of college.

GROSS: Seriously?

DUNHAM: As far as I can tell. I mean, I really removed myself from that world. And I don't know if I would've told you at the time - oh, I'm doing this to keep myself safe - but obviously in hindsight, I started, you know, I started dating someone who was pretty hermetic and very sweet. And I basically removed myself from the social world as I'd known it. And then I spent a lot of time, which I talk about in the book, trying to figure out sort of what my - for lack of a better word - sexual preferences were and whether they were - they did in any way align with this experience I had had, whether there was any part of me that had, in quotes, "wanted that." And I think it took me a long time of self-examination and getting - I think being in a writer's room, hearing about other people's sort of sexual evolutions and realizing, oh, that's not something that happens to everyone. And when it does happen, they're allowed to mourn it and feel pain about it - hearing that helped me.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lena Dunham. And she is the creator and star the HBO series "Girls" and now the author of a new memoir called "Not That Kind Of Girl." Lena, let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more.

DUNHAM: Great.



GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Lena Dunham, the creator and star of the HBO series "Girls." She has a new collection of personal essays called "Not That Kind Of Girl." I want parents of young children to know that this next part of our interview is about sexuality and we're having an adult conversation. You write a lot about sex in your memoir and in "Girls." A lot of the storylines, you know, revolve around sexuality. So it's interesting to read in your book that it really took you a while to actually enjoy sex.

DUNHAM: Yeah. That was - it was interesting. I think I spent so much time being interested in the intellectual content of sex that I forgot to worry about whether it felt good or not.

GROSS: When you say the intellectual content you mean...

DUNHAM: I think I was so interested...

GROSS: ...The sexual politics of it? Or...

DUNHAM: I mean, I wish it had been as evolved a sexual politics. It was more just that I was so fascinated by the fact that sex allowed me to be in a position where I saw people behaving in these ways that they never would, sort of, you know, standing out on the quad or sitting in a diner. I couldn't believe, you know, I've always been the nosiest is person in the world. I mean, my mom always tells the story of like, you know, from the backseat of the car she and my dad - when I was like three - would be talking about someone from work. And I'd scream what color's her hair? How old is she? Does she have a husband? Like I just, I needed to know everything about everyone. And so somehow, when sex began I went oh my god. I can't believe that you get to be in a room with somebody behaving this way (laughter).

GROSS: So it sounds like it was the writer in you that was having sex?

DUNHAM: One hundred percent. And I remember thinking - I remember thinking, almost feeling - and I talk about this in the book - like I was, you know, a private detective standing in the doorway watching two people have sex. And I described that experience later to my friend Jemima. And I was like, you know that feeling when you're having sex but you're kind of outside your own body and you're not really in it and you're watching from the door? And she was like no.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DUNHAM: That's the reason I've never needed to make a sex tape is just because I'm making one in my own mind all the time.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's hysterical. So is that one of the reasons why sex is so central to your work because you've always been, like, the observer of it?

DUNHAM: I think so. I mean, I think probably if I was - had been at all points more physically engaged, I might not remember enough to write all of these chapters. But I think - and it's interesting, you know, the thing that's always hard for me to act on "Girls," it's very easy for me to do the sort of humiliating sex scenes, but where I'm actually supposed to be enjoying sex and engaged, I find almost impossible to bear performing that because it feels so private.

GROSS: Right. So is this a disappointment to you at first? Were you expecting much more than what the experience initially was?

DUNHAM: Yes, which I think I later realized a lot of women, a lot of young people, felt that way, like, a real is this it? Quality to sex because I think we'd been taught by movies by, you know, romance novels we'd stolen from our babysitters, whatever - and our grandmas - whatever, we'd been taught that it was going to be some kind of totally, you know, you were going to be transported to, you know, the Hawaii of the mind when you had sex. And ultimately, that is not what happened. And so I think - and I think also realizing how much sort of self-consciousness and self-hatred made their way into the act of sex, especially, you know, sex in college dorm rooms, that was - that was an unfortunate reality to face. And - but I also found something so poetic about the way that people were revealed to each other and partially revealed to each other through this act. And so, you know, on "Girls," I always tell people that I hope that the sex scenes - I mean, they're not just in there for, like, the audience to have a titillating break to see, you know, the side of somebody's breast, they're in there because I think it's sometimes when we get the most information about our characters. And so they're always pushing the plot forward, if not in a concrete way, in sort of a more spiritual way.

GROSS: The message you get about Hannah in those scenes is almost one of compliance, like, oh sure. You want me to do that? I'll do that.

DUNHAM: Well, I think a big - I mean, a phenomenon that Hannah experienced - and Hannah experienced it because I experienced it - was the sense that if you were a girl who didn't have an ideal body, what you had to offer was your willingness to please, your openness to adventure and you're, just, you know, your desire to do it all. And I think there's a very funny joke, I don't know if you know the comedian Monique...

GROSS: Yeah.

DUNHAM: ...But she has an amazing joke in this amazing DVD "Queens Of Comedy," where she talks about having sex as a fat girl. And she kind of goes, she says, you want to put it in my ear? Put it in my ear, whatever you want. I'll do it. I'm a fat girl, just do it - I'm down for anything. I'm not like those skinny girls. I can't say no. And I remember thinking Monique had distilled something so perfect with you want to put it in me, my ear? Just put it in my ear, about the attitude that girls - you don't have to obviously be chubby to feel this, you just have to feel an essential sense that you yourself are not enough.

GROSS: Does it kind of make you sad when you see very young girls having sex because, you know, that they might be facing kind of disappointment or emotional hurt?

DUNHAM: I think about girls having sex in high school and obviously, there's, you know, there are young couples who are in love, but I just know that, like, I was so emotionally - even if you're physically ready to have sex in high school - I was so emotionally not there. I mean, I was - I would've been playing with Barbies if I thought it was socially acceptable. So I do feel sort of twinge when I think about girls feeling, you know, a pressure to engage that way as young people because I think that it's so often our bodies appear ready for things that our hearts and minds are not ready for. And I do also think that, you know, the experience of having sex in college is this sort of - it's this sort of sad, sad hunt for validation. And obviously that is, again, not everyone's experience. There are girls who know what they need physically and emotionally and are getting it, and I applaud them. But that wasn't me and that wasn't very many of my friends.

GROSS: Lena Dunham will be back in the second half of the show. She's the creator and star of the HBO series "Girls," and the author of the new collection of personal essays "Not That Kind Of Girl." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Lena Dunham, the creator and star of the HBO series "Girls." Her character, Hannah, wants to publish a book. Dunham beat her to it. Dunham's new collection of personal essays is called "Not That Kind Of Girl." Note to parents of young children - this part of the interview is about sexuality.

I'm wondering how you think movies and the accessibility of Internet pornography has affected sexual relations now? And one of the things I've noticed in movies for years, and because so often now the act begins with the two people, like, walking into the home and, like, they cannot wait. They are in such a hurry that, like, they're tearing off each other's clothes.

DUNHAM: It's so true.

GROSS: And the guy lifts up the woman and, like, slams her onto the counter and, like, they're going at it. And it's...

DUNHAM: And then they're having intercourse way before it would ever make sense in anybody's actual foreplay pattern to be having sex.

GROSS: Well, like, foreplay has become almost, like, nonexistent in a lot of movies. And, you know, it's just kind of the opposite of how it used to be when there was still a lot of, you know, censorship in movies, when there were things, like, you couldn't show. But I'm wondering if that, like, tearing off the clothes kind of thing has - do you think that's kind of entered into the real world because people think that's what you're supposed to do?

DUNHAM: I do think that, you know, we - that kids have been mis-educated about what sex is by films. I think that films have whitewashed sex in many ways and sort of tried to hide what is messy and what is challenging about it. And I feel like there's, you know, a couple brands - like I'm so angry, I hate you so much, we need to have sex right now, which isn't particularly healthy. Or I'm so in love with you that the minute that we get in, you know, I'm going to shed my negligee and we're going to be doing it. I think that most depictions of sex are destructive.

And I also think, you know - I am by no means sort of anti-pornography, and I know that there are certain feminists who have a very strong feeling against it. And I know it's a complicated, complicated issue, but I do think that the proliferation of Internet porn is insane because people are - that's how many boys are learning about sex. The fact is in pornography - I don't care how much they're screaming - those women are not having orgasms, at least not all of the time. And so that is female pleasure that has been designed for men to pleasure themselves to. And so it should not be a guidebook for anybody's sexual relations. I remember experiencing, you know, in college just the sense that somebody was doing something that they had seen someone else far more experienced and far less sensitive do. And so, you know, as much - I don't want to walk around sort of uniformly slamming pornography because I think it's a much more complicated issue, but I do think that we are in an age where young kids are getting a totally unrealistic sexual education way before it's needed.

GROSS: Interesting for you to say that. So this is way too personal. This is, like, really getting to over-sharing territory, but I'll ask and you can decide how much of this to over share.


GROSS: Like, the character of Hannah and also her boyfriend in it talk a lot during sex and tell each other things to do. I'll skip this. This is really, like, way too personal. Moving on.

DUNHAM: Oh, I was not embarrassed. I was, like, I'm ready for where you're going, Terry. I'm ready to take that journey with you.

GROSS: All right. OK. So let me ask it. Are you into, like, being really talkative? (Laughter).

DUNHAM: Well, you know...

GROSS: And descriptive. You know, almost like narrating.

DUNHAM: Not really. I kind of just, like - I mean, no. I think there were times in my life where anything anyone suggested to me I was open to. And that's not a secret because that's what sort of the show is about, is about a young woman who thinks that she will make herself more appealing to the people around her by being completely flexible. Everything from, oh, yeah I'll go to that party that's in deepest Bushwick, to, oh, yeah I'll pretend I'm an 11-year-old prostitute. But then it builds all this rage in her, and so - which she expresses at the wrong times and in the wrong ways - and so I think that quality of sort of extreme adaptability.

And if you notice in all their dirty talk - Adam is talking and Hannah's kind of going, OK, all right, whatever you say. She doesn't know how to do it, but she knows how to agree. And I think that that was - that's sort of a cornerstone of this character. What it's creating in her is this deep, deep resentment about not being heard and not being seen. And so I think the answer is no, in my own sex life. I find that whole idea of sort of, you know, someone, like, creating an entire narrative where you're, like, you know, a teenage slave totally unappealing and kind of distressing. But I've definitely encountered as a younger woman people who want to engage that way and didn't feel like I was in a position to go, actually, like, I'd rather just, you know, talk about books, then do it, then talk about books some more.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lena Dunham, and she's the creator of the HBO series "Girls" and its star. She's also now the author of the new memoir "Not That Kind Of Girl." Lena, let's take a break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Lena Dunham, the creator and star of the HBO series "Girls" and now the author of the new memoir called "Not That Kind Of Girl."

GROSS: You write in your book about how you have a lot of phobias, including germophobia and an obsession with death. Which are the phobias that really plague you the most?

DUNHAM: My germophobia has passed. It's expired.

GROSS: How did that happen?

DUNHAM: I feel really...

GROSS: How'd that go away?

DUNHAM: You know, I don't - I think a lot of people with OCD find that because, obviously, the things they're anxious about aren't truly the things that they're anxious about, it's a traveling anxiety that finds its comfortable place to rest. And then it's like a virus - it's a like a virus that's, you know, or - that's moving from person-to-person and living out its life in different forms. Like, that's sort of what...

GROSS: Or like a cold that travels from your nose to your chest to your throat.

DUNHAM: Exactly. Exactly. Whatever sickness metaphor we want to use. It basically - it moves around, and my - I mean, my anxiety has always floated. I always have - it always has a focus, and then it always goes on its way. And there's a moment of relief after I've resolved one area of anxiety, and then it hops to another, you know, lily pad and sits there for a while. And so as a kid, germophobia was a really, really easy place to go, and then it kind of - you know, it departed and went to other things.

And obsession with death is the really hard one because no one can talk you out of that. Everybody can say to you, you know, you're not going to get cancer, or, you're not going to get Ebola. But nobody - you don't have cancer. You're not going to get Ebola. But nobody can say to you, you're not going to die. So that's an easy for it to go back to again and again and again.

At this point, I would say, my anxiety often tends to rest on something that's happening career-wise - you know, a phone call I have to make, an e-mail I haven't gotten back, you know, a person I'm worried I've offended - but probably feeling a level of distress about those prospects that is outsized.

GROSS: I think it was in season three that your character on "Girls," Hannah, has a kind of comeback of OCD.


GROSS: And season two, season three?

DUNHAM: End of season two.

GROSS: End of season two. OK. Yeah.

DUNHAM: End of season two, but then it kind of pokes around in season three. So it's sort of - its arc exists through both those seasons.

GROSS: And how come you didn't address that at the beginning, but waited till, like, season two to get to the OCD 'cause I was surprised that, like, suddenly she's OCD? (Laughter).

DUNHAM: I know. Some people had that reaction. Some people were like, what? You're shoehorning a mental illness onto this character who's already weird enough? But the fact was that I had had an obsessive-compulsive sort of - I mean, let's use the term meltdown - right before season one came out and right are we were beginning to shoot season two. I had a moment where those things came back in a way that was really harsh and uncomfortable and a reminder of how bad it could get.

And that was something that, you know, because at that point, I had a whole writing staff who I worked with and a close relationship with Jenny and Judd, who produce the show with me. That was something that they had lived through with me, and we thought, this is exciting and important to talk about.

So it was sort of based on the fact that, I mean, in the show, Hannah has to write her book, and she has writers block, a deadline coming up, a certain kind of attention she hasn't had before. And OCD, which can very often be instigated by stress, comes barreling back. And so that really just paralleled to my experience with making the show and finding myself under a new kind of pressure and resorting to these old habits.

GROSS: Was it helpful to write about it like that?

DUNHAM: It was, and what was hard was to perform it. Because, you know, you spend so much of your life as a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder - a person with any sort of, you know, mental illness - trying to camouflage your habits, trying to appear normal.

And so to say to myself, I'm going to, you know, go in front of this crew of 60 Italian men and - 60 old-school Italian men - some younger guys, too - and perform these super personal tics and quirks. Like, that was - that was really scary. That was scarier to me that any sex scene.

And also the feeling, like, once I turn this on - once I open the floodgates of letting myself, like, you know, check over my shoulders eight times and blink my eyes, am I going to be able to stop? And it's also so - so letting myself sort of enter into that pattern of physical behavior in front of my crew - that was really, really kind of intense. But...

GROSS: So you gave Hannah some of your own compulsions?

DUNHAM: Yeah, all of them 'cause I didn't know how to do any others because OCD's so personal. Like, it's funny whenever I've met another person with, you know, - and my biggest pet peeve is when people are, like, I'm so OCD, I have to organize all my socks in my door. Like, they all have to be just in little pairs. Or people will be like, I'm so OCD, I have to go to the gym every day. That's like saying, I was so - I'm so bipolar, I was mad at my mom yesterday. Like, this - that's not what obsessive-compulsive disorder is.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder doesn't follow any, like, rules of logic. I wish my OCD had been helpful enough to force me to organize my socks. And so - but when you talk to somebody who has OCD, their habits are super specific - super specific. And so I wouldn't really know how to perform anybody else's version of it. And so I kind of just had to do my own and hope it translated.

GROSS: So was it helpful for you to actually perform it and, therefore, kind of put it under a microscope and take it outside of yourself and put it on to somebody else - your character Hannah?

DUNHAM: Yes, and there was also something so cathartic about doing it and then calling cut and the crew laughing. Like, I had just done, like, a funny Carol Burnett physical comedy thing. Like, there was something so comforting about that 'cause I spent so much time thinking that - you know, alone in my bedroom, thinking I looked like a hideous, mentally disturbed freak, that to then have all my, like, bros at work think that it was funny - it felt really good.

GROSS: "Girls" is soon coming back for its fourth season. It strikes me...

DUNHAM: Yeah, we'll be back in January.

GROSS: Yeah, so that's actually pretty soon. It strikes me that you've probably had to learn a lot more about plotting then you had maybe ever expected to do because, you know, once you're into, like, a fourth season, like, the plots have gotten so - you know, there's so much more character that's been developed. It's different than doing a story or even a short movie where you go from here to there. And, you know, it's, like, a finite amount of story that you have to tell. And this is just, like, ongoing. So I'm just wondering what it's like for you to get more and more into plot as a character.

DUNHAM: That's a great question. You know, the first season came out...

GROSS: I mean, as a writer. I said, as a character. I meant as a writer.

DUNHAM: Same difference. But (laughter) the first season kind of came out as this kind of fever dream. You know, there were so many stories I'd been storing up in the time that I had been thinking. Sort of - in the time since I'd graduated from college and was sort of living this reality, there were so many stories I had been kind of hoarding. And that, combined with the influence of Jenny and Judd and the other people I was working with on the show, just - the first season kind of just, you know, spat itself out.

And then after that, you know - and I think there was a part of me that always thought, OK, they're going to let me make a pilot, but not anything else. OK, they're going to let me make this first season, but not every - anything else. So let's just, you know, burn it down and do as much we can because there's a good chance that I'll be working at the children's clothing store again within six months.

And I - once it sort of became apparent that we were going to get a little time to do this thing, that's when I really had start thinking about what it meant to - what it meant to sort of sustain a story over a long period of time and to develop these characters in a way that was sort of naturalistic, but also had some of the sort of tropes and energy that makes television such a pleasure to watch. And so I've definitely been on a crash course.

And actually, the fourth season - shooting it, there was a kind of ease and joy to it - knock on wood, which I obsessively do. That was surprising, and I actually think, in hindsight, it was because we - the plotting was coming a little more naturally. And we were able to just enjoy writing these characters again, whereas in seasons two and three, there were things that we knew we wanted to cover, but, you know, I was definitely getting adjusted to figuring out how to dispense information, you know.

You know, so much of it is about deciding when you're going to reveal what, and who's going to reveal it to whom. And it involves, you know, like, really, like, working on the whole thing like a puzzle in a way that I had never learned to do because my writing is so stream of consciousness and so confessional.

GROSS: Have you, Lena Dunham, and your character of Hannah gotten further apart as the show has gotten deeper into the story 'cause your life has really changed in a way that Hannah's hasn't? Hannah's kind of, like, emotionally stuck in a lot of ways. But your life sounds like you've really, you know, been transformed in a lot of ways by the experience of doing "Girls."

DUNHAM: Well, it's amazing you say that 'cause I think so many people ask the question, is it hard for you to write about Hannah because now you work in Hollywood and go to fancy parties, and your life doesn't resemble hers? And I think to myself, no. That's not hard because firstly, I don't go to that many fancy parties. But secondly, we all understand what it's like to feel, you know - we all can transfer the awkwardness we feel at any social event to any other social event. And you're a writer, so you use your imagination, and you create circumstances that don't necessarily exist.

But it is hard sometimes to continue to write a character who has been -who has such a - such short of limited and limiting responses to the world around her. And I really have to remember where she's coming from and have sympathy for her and recognize that. Well, just in the kind of scope a television - I mean, I don't know.

Our - one of our writers, Max Brockman, is the keeper of the timetable of the show. He could tell you exactly how many weeks, months, years have passed since - in the world of the show, from the first episode to the forty-second episode. I can - I do not have that - I do not have that brain. But I will say that the scope of - the span of time that we've covered the show is much shorter than the span of time in which I've been doing the show. So she's grown less, both chronic logically and emotionally, than I have since we started. She's only had one birthday since we began.

GROSS: Oh, wow. OK. (Laughter). If you're just joining us, my guest is Lena Dunham, and she's the star and the creator of the HBO series "Girls." She has a new book, a memoir that's called "Not That Kind Of Girl." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Lena Dunham, the creator and star of the HBO series "Girls" and now the author of the memoir "Not That Kind Of Girl."

I want to play a scene from season three of "Girls," which was shown earlier this year, and Hannah had a deal with a publishing company called Mill Street to write an e-book memoir. And she was working with an editor there who is played by John Cameron Mitchell, who really loved, like, transgressive writing. And...

DUNHAM: Yeah. He wanted her to be like a real, empowered - like the new Tama Janowitz, just, like, out on the streets doing drugs, living life and she was like - she's kind of a nerd, like, yeah.

GROSS: So, anyways. That editor died, and in this scene she's at - Hannah's at his funeral. And Hannah and a lot of other people assumed that this editor was gay, but she's just met the editor's wife - the editor's now widow.


GROSS: And so here's Hannah trying to talk with the editor's wife, now widow, who's played by Jennifer Westfeldt.

DUNHAM: Who's the best, yeah.

GROSS: (Laughter) and so this is, like, maybe the second time that they've spoken.


DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) Hi again.

JENNIFER WESTFELDT: (As Annalise Pressler-Goings) Oh, hi, Hannah?

DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) Right.

WESTFELDT: (As Annalise Pressler-Goings) Not Paige. Hannah.

DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) I know, I know, I'm sorry.

WESTFELDT: (As Annalise Pressler-Goings) No, don't be.

DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) I was surprised that David has such a beautiful, just stunningly...

WESTFELDT: (As Annalise Pressler-Goings) You thought he was gay.

DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) No.

WESTFELDT: (As Annalise Pressler-Goings) Yes, you did.

DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) No, I didn't.

WESTFELDT: (As Annalise Pressler-Goings) Yes, you did. It's OK.

DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) I didn't think he was...

WESTFELDT: (As Annalise Pressler-Goings) It's all right.

DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) I didn't.

WESTFELDT: (As Annalise Pressler-Goings) It's OK.

DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) I thought he was straight. I thought he was straight. I thought he wanted to sleep with me.

WESTFELDT: (As Annalise Pressler-Goings) Really?

DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) I didn't think - I wouldn't have slept with him, but I...

WESTFELDT: (As Annalise Pressler-Goings) People think it. A lot of people think he was gay.

DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) Well, he acted gay, so...

WESTFELDT: (As Annalise Pressler-Goings) And, you know, he was sometimes.

DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) OK. I loved working with your husband. David was wonderful.

WESTFELDT: (As Annalise Pressler-Goings) Oh, I bet. I mean, I know. I'm working on a book with David, too. I was...

DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) I really hope you finish the book, and I really, really hope I get to read it someday.

WESTFELDT: (As Annalise Pressler-Goings) Thank you. Yeah. I don't know. I mean, now that Mills Street has dropped all of David's projects, I just - I'd have to find a new publisher, so, you know, we'll see.

DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) Did you say Mill Street's dropped all of David's projects?

WESTFELDT: (As Annalise Pressler-Goings) Yeah. [Bleep] There's David's mom. She's so devastated. Have you seen Pepper? Did you meet her?

DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) No, I didn't, no.

WESTFELDT: (As Annalise Pressler-Goings) She's devastated.

DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) You we're just saying that Mill Street's dropped all of David's projects?

WESTFELDT: (As Annalise Pressler-Goings) Right. That's right, for now. Yeah.

DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) So my book is dead? Do you happen to know another publisher that I could maybe slip the manuscript to if I do decide that I really want to try to keep it alive or - OK.

WESTFELDT: (As Annalise Pressler-Goings) If I do give you another name, will you get the [bleep] out of here?

DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) Yes.

WESTFELDT: (As Annalise Pressler-Goings) Great. Great. I'll be back.

DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) Awesome. I loved your husband.

GROSS: Just a reminder, that's a scene at a funeral. (Laughter).

DUNHAM: She's such a jerk.

GROSS: Your character of Hannah just everything she said is so completely inappropriate.

DUNHAM: She's such a jerk. I think she put some kind of premium on, like, honesty. Like the idea that she's going to be the person who really cuts through it and is really real about what's actually going on. But she forgets that, like, certain social constructs are in place for a reason. Like, that's the reason that you don't ask people for professional contacts at funerals.

GROSS: So you just called her such a jerk.


GROSS: How do you feel about writing and playing a character who you just described as such a jerk?

DUNHAM: It's so fun. I honestly - it's really, really fun. I mean, it's such a pleasure to play somebody who sort of lacks the filter that we all walk through the world with, and of course, like, of course I wouldn't recommend her as, like, you know, a model of behavior to any young people in the world today. But I love the opportunity to just, like, say the word - I mean it's funny Tourette's and OCD are very closely linked together. A lot of people who have one have the other. And I remember, you know, I don't have Tourette's syndrome but I definitely have the part of myself that was always afraid. One of my fears as a kid was that I was going to walk down the street and, like, just, you know, scream out a curse word or, you know, yell a homophobic slur or just do something that was totally, you know, not. My personal - I was going to say the worst thing that I didn't want to say, but it was just going to come out of me. And it's almost like that Tourettesy (ph), horrific part of me gets to be expressed in Hannah who's just firing off, and she just can't stop, I mean, she just can't stop.

GROSS: Now Hannah's friends are pretty self-absorbed, too. And one of the characters, Jessa, who's played by Jemima Kirke is so destructive. She self-destructive, but she also, like, does damaging things to everybody she knows. She seems to have, like, no empathy or sympathy and she's hurtful. Like, I wouldn't want her to get near me. I would never let her in my house.

DUNHAM: Yeah. She's not a nice girl.

GROSS: I'd be afraid that she'd, like, steal something or, you know, like, you know, read something that, you know, was very personal that I had stashed in a drawer.

DUNHAM: She would definitely read something personal.

GROSS: And I wonder like why would anybody even be friends with her? So tell me why that character exists and why Hannah or any of the other girls in the series is friends with her?

DUNHAM: Well, I think Jessa is a character who has a real glamour to her, a real free-spirited glamour. I mean, you would be amazed by how many girls treated me like I want to be Jessa. I want to be a Jessa.

GROSS: You know, that really shocks me.

DUNHAM: Because she has this sense of like - she just kind of like blew in on a cloud from Morocco, and she's doing her thing. And I think what we really wanted to reveal was the pathology behind sort of the concept of the free spirit. Sort of this, like, ionic ideal of a free-spirited woman is ultimately hiding a very wounded, dissociated person. And so I don't think Jessa's evil. I don't think she's a sociopath. I don't think she, you know - I think she wants to do good, but more powerful than her desire to do good is her desire to test the boundaries and, like, sort of her sort of unfillable hole of pain. And I think that the girls like having her in their life because they find her glamorous. And they like what it feels like and looks like to take her to a party or post her on their Instagram. And I think they think she's real in some way and that she tells them what's really going on. And also there's that sort of that inertia that comes with being friends with someone in your early 20s, early to mid sometimes to late 20s, where it's very hard to remove someone destructive from your life, just out of sheer force of habit. And fear of change.

GROSS: Was there someone like that in your life?

DUNHAM: There's been a few people like that in my life. And, you know, I really have tried - I don't think I used to know the difference between someone being eccentric and someone being, you know, a destructive nightmare. I think I thought that the two went hand-in-hand. And now my life is full of people who are special and unusual and strange but don't scare me or hurt me or put me in dangerous situations. But I don't think I used to be able to make that distinction. So I had a few friends who have sort of been Jessa's and, you know, Jemima has some of that glamour but she's deeply kind and responsible and she's a mother of two. But there were some people who I was really transfixed by, sort of followed around for a period of time, who ultimately didn't have my best interests at heart or their best interests or anyone's.

GROSS: That's interesting. Thanks for telling us about that.

DUNHAM: Thank you. I liked the concept. I think at a point I really liked the concept of that kind of lost girl, that girl who was sort of moving through the world. Like, you know, she had a little bit of a Zelda Fitzgerald-lost-broken-woman-romance quality that is not as charming to me as it used to be.

GROSS: Right. Lena Dunham, it's really just been so great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

DUNHAM: It so nice to talk to you. I always love being here. And it's always very surreal to hear you say the words FRESH AIR. Thank you so much.

GROSS: Lena Dunham's new collection of personal essays is called "Not That Kind Of Girl." Her HBO series "Girls" returns in January. We have a Lena Dunham extra for you - a short section of the interview that we didn't have time for in the broadcast - in which Lena Dunham talks about her definition of feminism. You can hear that on SoundCloud at

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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