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Crying in the Bathroom by Erika L. Sánchez book review

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Erika L. Sánchez’s new book, “Crying in the bathroom,” has arrived right on time. The memoir-in-essays probes the National Book Award finalist’s experiences with mental health, first-generation trauma, womanhood and, notably, motherhood. “Choosing how and when to have a family is critical to our liberation as women,” she writes in the essay “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Mom.” “After having experienced the physical discomfort of pregnancy, I’m even more convinced that to force a woman to endure this against her will should be a crime.” It’s as if she anticipated that the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade, and she set out to provide women with the literature they needed to both comfort and inspire us as we navigate this new reality.

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Sánchez is a raw, unapologetic and acerbic writer, who leans into difficult topics. In one essay, she talks about how having an abortion gave her the opportunity to create a great life for herself now — which includes having a daughter. As she explains it, she needed to build a life for herself before thinking about having children, and deferring her career and happiness was not a sacrifice she was willing to make. Having that choice wasn’t about quality of life; it saved her life. “I will never pretend that my abortion was easy,” she writes. “It was, without a doubt, the worst experience of my life. However, if I could go back in time and do it all over again, I would. I believe the procedure saved me.”

Not all of the essays deal with the choices surrounding motherhood, though. In “Do You Think I’m Pretty? Circle Yes or No,” the author delves into the social construct of beauty and who gets to define it. Sánchez has a complex relationship with her appearance, something she repeats consistently throughout the book, mostly with self-deprecating comments about her large mouth and nose. (“Once I asked my older brother to hand me a spoon,” she recalls, “and, with a straight face, he gave me a ladle.”)

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She questions the Eurocentric standards of beauty glamorized and perpetuated in the media. It’s a stark contrast to beauty standards in her own Mexican culture. As a result, her adolescent life, growing up in Chicago, is fraught. “I was confused,” she writes. “TV said that I was chubby, while thinness was a cause for concern among my people. What was the ideal weight, then? I had no clue.” She experiments briefly with bulimia but it doesn’t stick because she thinks it’s a waste of food.

Trying to keep up with beauty standards is exhausting and sometimes funny. Of Tori Spelling’s “hot girl” character onBeverly Hills, 90210,” Sánchez writes, “she looked like a sad horse in desperate need of a torta.” As funny as the essay is, Sánchez also manages to capture the frustration of being a young girl growing into womanhood while trying to understand her body and fending off the predatory advances of men. During one of her teenage phases, she finally deems herself as beautiful, but the unwanted attention from men forces her to reconsider pretty whether she even wants to be. As an adult, Sánchez seems to have a clearer understanding of her own beauty and how to handle it. She writes, “beauty in itself is not the problem. The problem is who we let decide what is beautiful.”

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Sánchez’s mental health is central to her stories. She’s open about her struggles with depression. The title essay, “Crying in the Bathroom,” explores the author’s difficult relationship with office work, which stifles her creative side. When she turns 30, Sanchez takes a well-paying job in marketing. It’s something her family always wanted for her, to escape working in factories as they did. But the job doesn’t allow her the “life of art and freedom” she wants for herself, and the micromanaged environment takes a terrible toll on her emotionally. “I secretly took my husband’s anti-anxiety drugs just to get through the day,” she writes. Instead of feeling relief when she finally quits, Sánchez feels shame. As the daughter of immigrants who have endured uncomfortable situations to earn a good life for their family, Sánchez believes quitting a high-paying job, even though she was suffering, makes her weak by comparison.

There is a discernible arc to the structure of the book. The author introduces herself at one of her lowest and most confusing points — broke and sleeping on an air mattress in a roach-infested apartment she shares with a friend — and takes us on a ride that ends with her happy and high. She’s grown into a woman who can afford a large home with her husband and their three children. Sánchez’s writing evokes vivid images. It’s also humorous, contemplative and so conversational that it feels like she’s telling the story of her life over a cup of coffee with a blunt on the side. Sánchez refers to herself as loud and crass, and her writing proves it. All of which is to say, this insightful memoir might not resonate with the easily offended. But those looking for an unfiltered, feel-good story will find it here.

Keishel Williams is a Trinidadian American book reviewer, arts and culture writer, and editor.

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