“Judging by some of the reactions I’ve gotten to stories I’ve written for my characters on TV, a woman not wanting to marry or not wanting to have children is cause for a good old-fashioned witch hunt.”
In the fall of 2013, Shonda Rhimes was, by all accounts, extremely successful. She had two popular TV shows on the air, a third that had just been retired after six seasons, and a new program was in development. She also had three children, including a three month old baby. Over preparations for Thanksgiving dinner, Rhimes was telling her older sister, Delorse, about all the invitations she was receiving to parties and awards shows as a result of this success, none of which she had any intention of accepting, when her big sister said six words that stopped her dead in her tracks. “You never say yes to anything.” It would take several weeks for those six words to percolate, but by Christmas they would be waking her up in the middle of the night. By her birthday in January 2014, she was making a public declaration to her closest friends and family that she was going to spend a year saying “yes to anything and everything that scares me.”
In the opening pages, where she comes to the realization that she is miserable, Rhimes is extremely hard on herself about how unhappy she was despite all her success. She seems to believe she has no right to be unhappy, because she wasn’t shot in the face like Malala, or kidnapped like the Chibok school girls. Perhaps this is an effort to inoculate herself against inevitable criticisms about her privilege. Something that is never mentioned even as a possibility, despite literally losing her memory of stressful social situations, is social anxiety. There is nothing like depression or anxiety to make you feel unhappy in spite of all the good things in your life. Obviously I’m not trying to diagnose Rhimes with anything here; I simply wish we could have more compassion for the fact that sadness and anxiety aren’t necessarily about external causes.
Rhimes definitely acknowledges her privilege, and take the reader behind the curtain. She literally dedicates and entire chapter to the subject of her nanny, Jenny McCarthy (and the Mommy Wars more broadly). Although Rhimes is factually a single mother, she openly acknowledges that practically speaking, she is not. She has a nanny, and several sisters and other family members who live nearby. She also slays fearlessly on the subject of women’s appearances, after learning that the hair she so admired on Whitney Houston when she was a teen—and spent hours trying to replicate—was actually a wig. “Remember that the only reason I look like this when you see me is because THREE people worked a minimum of TWO AND A HALF HOURS (plus shopping, fitting, tailoring the clothes) on me. I did not wake up like this,” she remonstrates. But during in Year of Yes, Rhimes also struggles with the question of whether to say Yes to being fat and accepting herself, or Yes to trying to lose weight.
Mixed in with all of this are reflections on Rhimes’ writing process and popular television shows. The character of Cristina Yang from Grey’s Anatomy serves as a particular touchstone. It was through Cristina that Rhimes said the hard things before she decided to say Yes to difficult conversations. Surgery is to Cristina what writing is to Rhimes, and both women defy society’s expectations about what a woman should want from life. Overall, however, this is not a book for those who are hoping for a look behind-the-scenes of Scandal or How to Get Away with Murder.
The topic of a Year of Yes was interesting to me because I have a soft spot for books about year-long experiments. But I was also intrigued because I felt the topic of such a book could just as easily be a Year of No. Just as many people need to learn to say No to inappropriate requests as need to say Yes to scary opportunities. I was worried that this book might be reductive on that score, but Rhimes addresses it ably in her chapter entitled “Yes to No, Yes to Difficult Conversations.” This chapter really crystallizes the fact that Year of Yes isn’t about Yes, so much as it is about not saying either Yes or No simply because you are afraid. Don’t say No to an awesome career opportunity because you’re afraid of public speaking. But equally, don’t say Yes to a friend’s request to borrow a large amount of money just because you’re afraid of what will happen if you say No. Rhimes has quite a roundabout way of saying things—she spends eleven pages at the beginning of the book explaining her tendency to embellish, and her forgetfulness—but the idea of not deciding based on fear is really the truth at the heart of the book.
More Year of _______________