Tickets were sold out to The Verdi Club a day in advance, and the line to get into The Rumpus’ special Valentine’s Day coming out party for beloved advice columnist Sugar was nearly a block long thirty minutes before the show. With founder Stephen Elliott in Berlin for the opening night screening of his debut film, Cherry, Managing Editor Isaac Fitzgerald ran the show (“Isaac is The Rumpus,” Stephen says). Monthly porn raffle? Not last night. Everyone was there for Sugar, who surely by now you know is Cheryl Strayed, author of the forthcoming memoir, Wild.
The Rumpus Women assembled and read early Sugar columns, which were written by the first Sugar: Steve Almond. Steve set the tone for the evening with a beautiful introduction. “I’m not going to ask you to raise your hand if you’ve cried during a Sugar column because we all have,” he said. “The advice column is such a conventional form. Oddly impersonal because they have all the answers and you come and apply to them for the wisdom to figure it out, and they sort of dispense the necessary bromides and we pretend the issue is resolved in the little column. And what Sugar realized is, actually, I’m as fucked up as you are. And as confused and bereft and stuck and lost. And I’m going to confess that to you and, furthermore, try to compel you to realize that we don’t get through those parts of our lives, the unbearable parts, until we look at them honestly and move through them rather than dodge around them.”
The room was absolutely silent as Steve pointed out that “Sugar is an internet phenomenon. And the internet is a place we go – it’s a place I go – when I’m feeling needy and lonely and aggrieved. And it is for the most part – not entirely, but for the most part – filled with people who are snarky and resentful and getting off on schadenfreude… all the modern sports of distraction. And what they’re really doing is lying. They’re angry and troubled, and they can’t be honest about that; they can’t face themselves so they’re cruel to somebody else. And Sugar really intuited that what we need is just the opposite of that. We need a place, a kind of community or an oasis where radical empathy is enforced.”
1. Cheryl and husband Brian Lindstrom (aka Mr. Sugar) take questions. “Being married to Cheryl is like being married to a truth machine.” 2. Steve Almond: How can I deal with rejection?
That community recognized itself, and roared. It was a perfect Valentine’s Day celebration. “It’s a tough thing to be a mother to so many people,” Almond concluded. “And I think motherhood is the most under-appreciated job that anyone could have.”
1. We Are All Sugar tattoos were handed out at the door. 2. Cheryl/Sugar has made us all cry one time or another.
Things sweetened up as Sugar/Cheryl answered questions with the help of her husband Brian Lindstrom (aka Mr. Sugar). “What was the most surprising thing, by far, was how much you all gave that [radical sincerity] back to me. It still stuns me; it still doesn’t seem that that could exist.… It feels very much like it’s not me. That it’s us. And it feels funny to me to be standing on this stage above you guys. Because actually… I think of all the heart that you give me and I feel that same stretch… I feel that same reach.”
1. She’s made us smile, too. 2. Dan Weiss of The Yellow Dress is “sorry for everything.”
“I think in the column what you did is you brought your problems to me, and a lot of you felt those problems were – you felt secret and alone in them – and then I published them and the whole world opened up and said Me Too. And I said that too, I said It’s OK that you feel that way. And everyone seconded that emotion. They all said that too. And I think that’s radical. And I think it’s as important or more important than writing about socially significant things or political things.”
1. Cheryl/Sugar is mobbed after the show. 2. Poet/teacher Matthew Siegel and Sheida Neman waiting for Sugar.
Strayed then read an all-new column that you can watch – along with footage of the rest of the evening, which also included music by Pocket Full of Rye and The Yellow Dress and comedy by Janine Brito – here.
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–-Evan Karp is the creator of Litseen.com and Quiet Lightning, a monthly, submission-based reading series-turned nonprofit that publishes each month’s show as a book. He writes a literary culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle.