Thirty minutes into a conversation with Cheryl Strayed and she’s suddenly talking like Popeye.
“I yam what I yam!” she mutters, mimicking the sailor’s signature side grin. The impression springs from our discussion of a Tweet in which she poked fun at the people outraged when she cusses: “Who’d they think I was, the Easter Bunny?”
The award-winning author and I are meeting to discuss Brave Enough, a pocket-sized book of her quotes released this month. “The closer I get to showing the world who I am, the better off I am—and the better off we all are,” she says. “Some people are going to love you for that and some won't but at least you haven’t fooled them.”
Sipping a coffee with the sleeve cast aside, Strayed is perched in front of a glass window so big Manhattan is visible for miles. Waves of long blonde hair rest on her purple sweater, which matches an oversized ring on her middle finger. A Fitbit on one wrist and bangle on the other, she’s equal parts warmth and ferocity—the kind of person who’s been through hell and is gentler because of it.
In Wild, her best-selling memoir about hiking 1,100 miles across the Pacific Crest Trail, she writes openly about an abortion she underwent after getting pregnant out of wedlock while battling depression. In her beloved advice columns as Dear Sugar, she exposes a dangerous dance with heroin and encourages readers to write like a “motherfucker.”
On paper as in person, she's unapologetically herself. “Yeah, I’m not the Easter Bunny,” she says smiling. “Surprise, surprise.”
Born Cheryl Nyland in September 1968, Strayed’s early years in Pennslyvania were rough. The middle of three kids, she and her siblings had to watch as her violent father regularly “beat the hell out of” their mom. But if her first years were stained with violence, her next chapter would be filled with joy.
“I had an abusive father; I also had a mother who left him,” she says. “I had a mother who was incredibly loving and light and full of optimism. Who said, ‘life isn’t bad. This bad thing happened to us but life isn’t all bad.’” Relocating her three kids to Minnesota, Strayed’s mom, Bobbi, started over with a life for her three kids—one she “infused” with “lightness and beauty.”
Her mom’s unbending spirit had a profound effect on Strayed, whose desire to find her best self came from her mom’s desire to do the same. “It’s not about pushing away the darkness,“ she says. “It’s about being able to hold both. To see that they belong together."
While understanding and imitating her mom’s optimism took years (and 1,100 miles), empathizing with her struggle—and that of others—seems to have been there all along. When her older sister would fall down and cry, Strayed says, she’d start sobbing too. “It was utterly unbearable for me to see my sister in pain.”
The pain she’d experience as an adult, like watching her mother die of cancer at the age of 45, was unbearable, too—but different. “It’s strange, I never thought of it until this moment that you asked, but none of it was mine,” she says. Her sister’s pain, her mom’s—both stung like her own. “I felt sorrow and fear for the people I loved and the way that they were hurt,” she says of her childhood. “It hurt me more that they were hurt than it did I was,” she says.
Eventually, Strayed learned to channel her sadness. She found beauty in a childhood punctured with pain, and began writing about it—in hopes of helping others do the same.
“Who was the first person to quote you?” I ask her.
Laughing from an earlier comment she's suddenly serious, looking at the ceiling as if it's written on the wall. "Good question," she says moments later, before letting out a smile. Her elementary-school principal, it was him. The scene was Minnesota in the 1970s where Strayed, then a third grader, had to write a poem about her past. She chose Pennsylvania, the neighborhood her family had fled to escape her abusive father.
Strayed doesn’t remember the whole poem, just that the principal loved it so much he called a meeting. “Your poem was really something,” he said before quoting it: “The streets of Pittsburgh are filthy and beautiful.” Stunned by a 10-year-old’s ability to capture a paradox, he asked her to explain.
“I meant beautiful, filthy Pittsburgh,” she says as if he’s still in the room. “I meant that something could be beautiful and filthy at once.”
His confidence in her words was invaluable; four decades later, it still makes her glow with pride. “I said something that struck him as original,” she says. “I just remember that feeling.” Strayed had been in love with language since the day she learned to read, struck by the power it had to impact how she felt. The principal’s comments affirmed what she’d been hoping all along: her words had power, too.
Today, the power of her words is palpable—and far-reaching. So much that she’s flooded with dozens of emails a day. People stop her in stores, asking if she is the Cheryl Strayed; if she's the real Dear Sugar, if she's really survived hiking in bare feet. Once, while in a bookstore with her son, she was asked so many times that he turned a corner and playfully probed his own mom: “Are you Cheryl Strayed?”
The most common question she gets, more than once a day, is an angst-ridden one: “Will anyone ever love me?” It’s not the subject so much that troubles her as the senders. “Every single fucking last one of them is a woman,” she says, shaking her head. “Why?”
Strayed, who became a feminist at the age of six, has been asking questions like this forever. “I always looked around the world like ‘Why are we not seeing women in these positions of power? Why are we hearing just men’s stories?’” she says. “’Why, in my high school English class, do I get to read just one woman and then 10 guys?’”
Her early fascination with equality between the sexes motivated her to subscribe to Ms. Magazine; after which she spent hours curled up reading Gloria Steinem’s manifestos. In college she decided to pursue women’s studies, a course load she describes as mind-blowing. “Everything I sort of innately felt, there it was,” she says.
Upon graduation she took a job for a feminist organization called WAMM (Women Against Military Madness) in Minneapolis. As a political organizer, she helped lead protests—some of which turned ugly, like when a man spit on her for holding a sign that read: “This is what a feminist looks like.”
She’d grown up on the Steinem and Angela Davis sort of feminism, which revolved largely around awareness raising. “I will tell you, it was NOT popular to be a feminist when I was 19,” says Strayed. She spent countless hours explaining feminism and defending it—“Feminism 101” she calls it, an education made of simple phrases like “no, feminists don’t hate men.”
Today she’s got company. Feminist writers from every walk of life are shedding light on important issues—and Strayed is reading all of them. Maria Popova, Rebecca Solnit, and Ariel Levy—writers whose work she calls “gloriously important” and “illuminating.” Roxane Gay, Rachel Cusk, and Alison Bechdel, women who are “smart,” “bold” and “brilliant.”
Strayed says it’s just the beginning of her list of favorites—of whom there are “too many to name.” It’s a predicament she’s thankful to be stuck in. “How lucky we are to live in a world that there are so many brilliant feminist writers that I can't name in one space all of those I admire?”
So while the size and scope of feminism has unquestionably grown, Strayed worries we haven’t come far enough. In some ways, she says, we’re standing still—in others, moving backwards. “It’s so much harder for women of your generation when it comes to looks and beauty and body,” she says. “I mean, it was hell back in the day, but at least we didn’t have to wax our vaginas!”
If there’s one area that she feels her generation of feminists failed to adequately address, it’s the body issue, which now desperately needs addressing. In short: there’s work to be done, lots of it—which means getting the “non-feminists” on board too.
“I always wanted to say to them: do you enjoy wearing pants? Do you enjoy the right to vote? Because if you do, you’re a feminist,” she says. “The Easter Bunny didn’t hop out of the hat and make that happen. People who have names did that and they called themselves feminists.”