In “Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things,” Jenny Lawson writes humorously about her struggles with mental illness, expressing thoughts some of her readers said they’d been afraid to utter aloud.
On her book tour this fall, even her most anxious and agoraphobic fans have turned out in droves, confessing their secrets, connecting with kindred spirits and letting loose. Wearing everything from hair curlers to pajamas, they bear gifts ranging from booze to taxidermy, and wait hours to get their books signed and share their struggles with Ms. Lawson.
A typical event feels like a raucous support-group meeting conducted by the funniest stand-up comedian in town.
“Furiously Happy,” which spent eight weeks on the New York Times
best-seller list and has sold 70,000 printed copies, according to Nielsen BookScan, is a mishmash of funny essays, conversations and what Ms. Lawson calls “confused thoughts.” The 41-year-old author offers a window into the mind of someone struggling with anxiety disorder, impulse-control disorder, avoidant-personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression, among other ailments. Her book doesn’t give advice and is intended to show the benefits of being “a bit touched,” while helping readers laugh at their neuroses.
Flatiron Books Senior Vice President and Publisher Amy Einhorn, Ms. Lawson’s editor, said there is a “long tradition of books dealing with depression and mental illness being incredibly popular,” going back to J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” Two books alongside Ms. Lawson’s on best-seller lists had similar themes: Patrick Kennedy’s “A Common Struggle” and the young-adult novel “Challenger Deep.”
Ms. Lawson also has a blog that gets millions of visitors each month, one of whom posted this week that his son had just been treated for “anxiety and depression…nothing stabby.” On Twitter
she has about 500,000 followers. Twitter is a godsend because “it can be two in the morning and I can say I’m panicking, and there will be at least 100 people who are awake,” she said, adding that many tweet their support. Last month Ms. Lawson inspired hundreds of people to start tweeting their most awkward moments, a discussion that went viral.
But it is her readings that separate her from other celebrity authors, attracting devotees who “need special care,” said Heather Duncan, the marketing director of Denver’s Tattered Cover Book Store. Though other writers can pull bigger crowds, Ms. Lawson’s fans bond more and linger longer as she stays until the wee hours signing each and every book, Ms. Duncan said.
Braving crowds can be a tall order for Ms. Lawson’s readers, but they are quick to come to each other’s emotional rescue. At one reading this fall some attendees fashioned a small fort out of their sweaters to give a panicky fan a place to calm down. At another reading in Denver, bookstore workers helped out by saving places in the book-signing line for people who needed to regroup in the bathroom. Recently, Ms. Lawson crouched beneath the signing table for a photograph with a fan who couldn’t handle the spotlight.
“Every time when I go out on stage I think I’m going to have a panic attack, but I see so many people with the same deer-in-the-headlights look and think, ‘Those are my people!’” said Ms. Lawson, who opened her jammed reading in Pasadena, Calif., last weekend by promising her pills would kick in soon.
Ms. Lawson grew up in Wall, Texas, and wrote for various websites and publications before starting her current blog in 2007. After publishing her first book, the 2012 memoir “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened,” Ms. Lawson said, her readings were thronged but fans weren’t comfortable sharing their own stories. When she started promoting “Furiously Happy” this fall, though, things were different. Many fans arrived with friends they said they had made at readings on her 2012 tour, and they felt more confident that no one would judge if they “started to freak out a little,” Ms. Lawson said.
Since September, she said, “I have not had a single reading where I didn’t have a person whisper to me…‘I’ve never known another person with trichotillomania’”—a disorder that involves the uncontrollable urge to pull out one’s hair. (Ms. Lawson recommends tricks like coconut oil, to make the tactile sensation of pulling less satisfying.)
The most meaningful insight, she said, came from a formerly suicidal fan at a reading who showed Ms. Lawson a picture of her children and thanked her that they still had a mom.
Among the memorable gifts the author has received: sunglasses decorated with pills, and a painting that a fan made by using lips as a paintbrush, kissing the paint and then the canvas. Knitted items are popular, since many of her fans need something to do with their hands, she said.
For her recent Sunday-afternoon reading at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, some fans arrived five hours early to secure good seats. One woman standing in the aisle confessed to a friend that she had been ambivalent about coming because “I’m a fan but not a huge fan so I worried about taking up the place of a fan.”
Cayla Noonan, a 15-year-old from Woodland Hills, Calif., came wielding a blow-dryer with curlers in her hair—a homage to how Ms. Lawson appears on her blog. Chaz Boston Baden, a 52-year-old computer programmer from Anaheim who said his wife struggles with depression, came wearing teddy-bear ears glued to a headband. Though Ms. Lawson writes a lot about her animals, both real and stuffed, Mr. Baden said he simply likes the ears, which he also wears at science-fiction conferences.
James Callaghan, a 36-year-old graphic designer from Altadena, Calif., said he hadn’t read “Furiously Happy.” But he attended the reading, bearing cookies and Cheez-It crackers for Ms. Lawson, to thank her for all the retweets he got after sharing his awkward moment last month: “That time I told my Art Dept co-worker to use Photoshop to ‘youthenize’ the old lady in a photo.”