Book review and synopsis for Untamed by Glennon Doyle, An inspirational memoir about living a truer and "wilder" life.
Untamed is about memorist Glennon Doyle's journey to freeing herself and allowing herself to be a truer form her herself. It starts with her being "caged" in by the world's demanding telling people (but especially women) how to be and act and goes on in a series of short essays to explain her journey to becoming "free."
In the Prologue, Doyle describes taking her daughter, Tabitha, to a cheetah run. The zookeeper insists that the cheetah has a good life at the zoo, but Doyle sees it and feels sad for the cheetah. Doyle imagines that, if asked, the cheetah would say that it knows it should be grateful for the life it leads, but something is missing and that it longs to be wild.
In Part I: Caged, Doyle discusses the messages girls are given about how to act, about learning about Eve's original sin, and about being told to do what's "right" or what she "should" do instead of what they want to do. Doyle also recalls telling her therapist that she has fallen in love with a woman, only to be given the advice that she should try giving her husband blow jobs if she's reluctant to have the intimacy of sex with him.
In Part II: Keys, Doyle discusses letting go of the ideas that she has clung to in the past in order to allow herself to evolve and continue evolving. It's not about clinging to a new set ideas, but rather accepting that life will involve a continual birth and rebirth of ideas. Doyle describes meeting Abby and knowing instantly that it was right. She also discusses needing to imagine a new life when letting go of the one you thought it was supposed to be.
In Part III: Free, Doyle describes the difficult process of deciding whether to leave her husband. She talks about letting go of the idea that she needed to be a martyr for her children, by realizing it's an unfair burden to place on them and that it was teaching them the wrong thing. Womanhood had to be more than just selflessness and letting go of your own desires. She talks about wanting to raise her children to be brave and to know themselves. She also had tell her mother that she wasn't welcome until she was ready to accept her and Abby together.
Doyle also talks how her bulimia and alcoholism were both products of her need to try to control her unhappy feelings. The then tried to be a perfect woman and it still left her unhappy and anxious. She then tried to take on an identity of being "broken and beautiful," but that implies that she's broken and there's a perfect version of herself she "should" be. Now, she's determined to accept herself as she is. She discusses her anxiety and depression and how she's dealt with it.
In terms of parenting, Doyle discusses raising her daughters to be feminists, but also realizing that she should be raising her son in the same way. Boys need to be taught that they have the freedom to be sensitive and to be taught that they should serve their family. Doyle also encourages parents to talk to their children, even when it's difficult. Doyle encourages teaching kids to use their "imagination" to help them empathize with others. She also believes that kids are overparented and underprotected. This generation tries to prevent kids from feeling any discomfort, when they should be allowing them to learn how to deal with stuff.
Doyle also discusses her activism and social issues, including the separation of families at the border and racism. She says that activism downstream is not enough, but people also have to fight "upstream" to address the policies and people that cause these downstream issues, or risk being complicit. She discusses her own activism and the process of learning and unlearning what she thinks she knows. Doyle encourages people to use their imagination to understand the bravery of parents who are willing to anything to make a better life for their children. In regards to race, Doyle acknowledges that she has more to figure out but wants to keep doing the work to keep fighting.
A number of chapters are also dedicated to the conflict between religion and her sexuality. Doyle welcomes questions because unasked questions become prejudices. Ultimately, Doyle says that people need to trust themselves and what they know is right, as opposed to what they are taught to believe.
I’ve been listening to Untamed by Glennon Doyle on audiobook on and off for the past week or so. It’s not typically something that would interest me, but it’s been so popular that I wanted to check it out anyway. I ended up liking it quite a bit more than I’d thought I would. Untamed was also the Reese’s Book Club pick for April 2020.
I went into this book with the mentality that I’m probably not the right reader for this book, but I’d try to enjoy what I can and ignore the rest. I ended up really liking a lot of it. Of course, Glennon Doyle is a memoirist, and this is essentially a life-advice-type memoir. If the idea of that sounds terrible to you, you can probably just stop here. If you don’t like the idea of reading something like that, I’m not prepared to say anything to change your mind.
On a high level, Untamed is about figuring out how not to care so much about what others think and what the world tells you to be. To that end, I liked many parts of it. Even though it’s something I feel like I more or less figured out a while ago, it’s nice to have that reassurance. It’s also interesting to see it written out and thought through coherently, and there’s a wide range of other related topics that are covered as well.
Doyle discusses her process of deconstructing the ideas that the world places on you and accepting the pain and loss of discarding those ideas to become a “wilder” and freer version of herself. Doyle goes from striving to be a perfect person, to owning an identity of herself as “broken and beautiful”, to finally coming to a self-acceptance of herself.
A lot of this book is about different ways to assess and identify what it is you want and finding the trust in yourself to pursue it. She also talks about this mindset and how it applies to her ideas of parenting. Doyle also touches upon a number of social topics, such as the child-separation policy or racism. She talks too about her depression and anxiety and how to be less controlling.
Untamed is actually Doyle’s third book. Her first book was about giving up her addictions to food and booze for marriage and kids. Her second was about learning about her husband Craig’s infidelity and figuring out how to reconstruct her marriage. In this book, we learn that Doyle has since ended that marriage and is now re-married to a woman, Abby.
Doyle backtracks somewhat some of the stuff she says in her previous books, which may bother her fans. After writing a book about how her marriage and family saved her, Doyle learns about her husband’s infidelity. She acknowledges that her second book (about reconstructing that marriage) may have been some attempt to fashion her life into a narrative that gave it all meaning.
If you wanted to pick apart this book, too, you probably could. There’s one part where she links one of her epiphanies to Buddhist philosophy and it totally mis-characterizes Buddha’s message*. Later on, Doyle tells a story about the Mona Lisa which is extremely questionable in terms of its historical accuracy (saying that Da Vinci asked the model to smile wider, but the model refused). She neglects to acknowledge the questionable provenance of that story.
My point is not that you should therefore disregard Doyle. Instead, I would just advise readers to take what you can from the book, but not to treat it as gospel. I think the message that Doyle wants to impart is a good one, and I think her journey to figuring out how to live her life and what type of person to be is one that most people, and especially women, wrestle with. But I had to accept that Doyle is simply a writer who is going to force facts to fit into her narrative, even if it’s not entirely accurate.
I struggle with self-help books because they are just so earnest and so self-serious. There’s one part where Doyle takes her daughter to the mall to get her ears pierced and the technician asks Doyle if she’s the child’s mother. Doyle responds “I am trying to be” and I can just imagine the technician (who is probably a teenager doing a minimum wage job) rolling their eyes so hard at that response.
At the same time, I liked the message of that story, which was essentially about telling her kids that what’s right for one (in this case, getting her ears pierced) is not necessarily right for the other. And being brave for one person may mean being bold, but for another may be something quieter like standing up to peer pressure and not getting a piercing.
The book is full of these simple and not particularly earth-shattering messages, but bit by bit you might find that there’s something you needed a reminder of, or something that’s phrased in a way that you hadn’t thought about like that before or maybe something that you just happen to need to hear at this moment. For me, the part where she talks about how some mistake being controlling as being loving was something I’d never heard before, and it made me re-examine some of the relationships in my life.
(*In case you are curious, Doyle is saying that feeling both the good and the bad is part of life, it’s okay not to feel happy all the time. She tries to link that to Buddhist philosophy because they also believe that suffering is part of life. Except Buddhists believe that suffering is a part of life because of our selfish desires, and that letting go of your selfishness is the key to ridding yourself of suffering. It’s a pretty different mentality and sort of the opposite of the point Doyle is making.)
Untamed Audiobook Review
Doyle narrates the audiobook herself, and I think she did a good job with it. It runs a brisk 8 and a half hours via audiobook. Check out an audio clip here.
Read it or Skip it?
If you wanted to pick this book apart and to dissect whatever contradictions in her philosophies, you could do so easily. As I mentioned before, I don’t think anyone needs to take anything here as gospel. Instead, take the parts that inspire or comfort you and don’t worry about the rest. I don’t think Doyle is trying to say that she has all the answers. Rather, here are some things she has figured out in her life, and perhaps if you read this then some of it will help you figure out yours as well.
If you don’t like self-help books, I don’t think this one is going to change your mind. Self-help books are generally deadly earnest and writer tends to come off as a bit self-obsessed. But that’s just the nature of the genre.
Still, I think there’s some valuable observations in here. If you are someone who is searching for answers on how to live your life, there is plenty here that’s worth considering. Or if you just think this sounds like something you’d be interested in, I bet you’ll end up getting something out of it.
Ultimately, it’s not a difficult read. Take it with a grain of salt and try to go into it with an open mind.
Recommended Published March 10, 2020
Page Count 352 pages
Goodreads4.03 (out of 5)
From the Publisher
Soulful and uproarious, forceful and tender, Untamed is both an intimate memoir and a galvanizing wake-up call. It is the story of how one woman learned that a responsible mother is not one who slowly dies for her children, but one who shows them how to fully live. It is the story of navigating divorce, forming a new blended family, and discovering that the brokenness or wholeness of a family depends not on its structure but on each member’s ability to bring her full self to the table. And it is the story of how each of us can begin to trust ourselves enough to set boundaries, make peace with our bodies, honor our anger and heartbreak, and unleash our truest, wildest instincts so that we become women who can finally look at ourselves and say: There She Is.