Option B and Sheryl Sandberg’s Impossible Position

Sheryl Sandberg. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

When Sheryl Sandberg’s husband Dave Goldberg died unexpectedly two years ago, something strange happened. Amid widespread sympathy, some of her detractors sank their teeth into the news with unnerving zest. Author Christine Carter told SFGate, “We don’t know how many nannies she has. We don’t know if she has a cook. We just know she did half and Dave did half. She’s going to have to revise that formula, and I’m just really hopeful that she’ll be more transparent by how she’s doing it.” Blogger Penelope Trunk was even less circumspect, speculating (without basis, before the autopsy results came back) that Goldberg might have killed himself. A year later, Trunk remained unrepentant about this comment, and called on Sandberg to admit that she “wasn’t really being a parent” when she wrote Lean In: “She says she’s leaning in and doesn’t tell us how many hours a week she sees her kids, or how much child care costs. She tells us she’s a single parent but she doesn’t tell us if she regrets missing time with her kids, or if she’s still working part-time or what?”

Such remarks reflected the difficult position Sandberg has found herself in since publishing Lean In, her 2013 best seller. The book drew criticism for its privileged perspective on navigating the corporate workplace as a woman; in certain feminist circles, the conventional wisdom on Sandberg has slowly shifted from “impressive but problematic figure” to “laughably blind, bubble-dwelling elite.” She was a natural overachiever with a penchant for mythologizing her own rise to power, who had a high-profile job at one of the most simultaneously beloved and loathed tech companies in the world, plus an unfathomably tall stack of cash — it was a recipe for one of the most divisive feminist figures in recent history. But the comments of people like Trunk seem to have informed the extremely self-conscious tone and content of Sandberg’s new book, Option B, and the result is something that reads like a dark warning about the balancing act that female public figures must pull off in order to thrive in a culture that treats them as scapegoats for its own failings.

As Shakespeare knew all too well, there’s nothing the rabble loves more than a tale of the high and mighty struck low by tragedy. For a publisher, Sandberg’s misfortunes offered her a chance to reappear, newly humbled, in order to apologize, explain everything, and offer up even more details about her life. But in addition to sharing private stories of her trauma and recovery, this book would need to acknowledge the blind spots of the previous one, the gulf between her life and the lives of most other women. There would have to be a moral to this story, but it should an inoffensive, one-size-fits-all moral — one that, like most morals in shiny hardcover nonfiction form, was extensively backed by social-science research and illustrated by a wide assortment of first-person narratives, and helped along by a co-author who could take the jagged edges of an incredibly private nightmare and smooth them into a hypoallergenic, ultrarelatable tale of redemption and hope.

Still, Option B pulls the reader in from the start. Sandberg was devastated by her husband’s death. The beginning chapters of the book include scenes vivid enough to make any reader cry big salty tears. When her children arrived at the cemetery for their father’s funeral, they fell to the ground upon exiting the car, unable to take another step. Sandberg got down on the ground with them and sobbed and then sang to them and … suffice it to say, that whole passage will gut you where you stand.

But once you’re gutted, it’s time to learn big lessons. Sandberg’s overarching emphasis on self-compassion and empathy — which includes an effort to face down her own past failures of empathy, as demonstrated in Lean In — feels admirable. But it also feels exhausting. Is an author obligated to address, in the pages of her second book, many or most of the criticisms lobbed at her first book? Is this a good use of page space in a book about mourning? Also: Does Bill O’Reilly do this? Such hints of vulnerability and humility reflect how a woman in the public eye must “humanize” herself at all costs — the unspoken assumption here being that women who are powerful and have money do not seem human at all to most of us. (See also: Hillary Clinton.)

And unfortunately, every time Sandberg pivots (gracefully, seamlessly!) from sad anecdotes or hard-won epiphanies to broad, inclusive, irritant-free teachable moments about the importance of social insurance policies and family-friendly business practices for all, we’re distanced from the book’s emotional center. It’s jarring and odd to move so swiftly from the murky interior of Sandberg’s darkest hours to clinical statements such as, “I will never experience or fully understand the challenges many single moms face.” Or try on this liability-lawyer bus-stop advertisement for size: “We can work to prevent violence and racism but many forms of adversity can’t be avoided. Loss. Accidental injury. Natural disasters.” Reading these passages can feel like watching Hamlet look up from a pool of blood and state in a dispassionate monotone, “Just as individuals can find post-traumatic growth and become stronger, so can communities.” An engrossing, deeply personal story is transformed into a self-conscious mix of political stump speech and marketing manifesto.

Sandberg herself is a recognizable and not unlikable figure: An incredibly ambitious perfectionist by nature, she’s a tireless Tracy Flick for the digital age, one who applies her attention to detail to every dimension of her life. Her attempts to tackle the mourning process as if it can be scientifically fine-tuned to maximize her and her children’s emotional wellness and long-term effectiveness in life comes across as understandable and faintly lovable and also, yes, a little bit unhinged. This woman was never going to shuffle around the house in soft pants for months on end, sniffling and drinking whiskey out of her World’s Best Mom coffee mug. Nope. Right in character, Sandberg goes back to work, begins taking copious notes on loss and recovery, and discovers that — big surprise — with careful management of her emotional journey, she might just “bounce forward.” This enormous loss will only make her better, stronger, and more resilient than ever!

It’s not that such strenuous optimism doesn’t feel inspiring and useful in some ways. It’s reassuring to think that you can confront unthinkable loss, bleed, sob, feel all of your feelings, and still emerge with your love of work and ambition intact. But there’s something a little too clean about the turn Sandberg makes from despair to efficient, productive forward motion. Even though losing her husband nearly crushed her and she worried that her children would never recover, this forever-A-student transformed her tragedy into yet another puzzle to solve — and it’s exactly the sort of puzzle that only a one-percenter would ever have the time and luxury to solve. It’s also the kind of puzzle that ambitious Americans — who have been marinating for years in the self-made, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps myths of pioneers and robber barons and industrialists and Silicon Valley conquistadors and Oprah alike — might find well-nigh irresistible.

Even in advocating honesty and messiness, Sandberg does so in such polished, flawless, hyperdiplomatic prose that the subtext here — “I want this book about death to be so clean and irreproachable that it shines like the top of the Chrysler building!” — is in direct conflict with the message of self-acceptance and self-compassion therein. And no matter how many carefully worded paeans to the hardships of poor black and Latino and gay single mothers are injected into these pages, they’re undermined by Sandberg’s compulsion to locate the exact words of wisdom that might speed a privileged overachiever right past pain and loss and into the bright and shining future.

Forget for a second that this isn’t really how mourning works, that mourning will take the time it takes and there’s not much you can do to speed it up. Forget, also, that trying to address grief in the diligent, problem-solving tone that is Sandberg’s stock-in-trade sometimes feels so off the mark that it’s hard not to wonder if Sandberg might wake up a decade from now feeling like she never mourned her husband’s death as thoroughly and patiently as she should have. This is who Sandberg is, so this is how Sandberg is going to mourn; if it works for her, then more power to her.

The problem with Option B, as with Lean In, is that Sandberg has been asked to take the peculiarities of her own experience and pretend that they might apply to everyone, everywhere. This formula is inherently flawed, but it’s not remotely specific to Sandberg herself. Our culture is obsessed with making women translate everything they do from the personal to the prescriptive and back again. And just as the expected speed from disaster to recovery has increased exponentially in our culture, so has the speed with which traumatic events are translated into intimate Facebook posts and then quickly morphed into multitiered marketing campaigns. The whole exercise ends up feeling crass, contrived, and unnervingly unreal.

We’re poised at an odd and singular moment of hyper-self-consciousness, wherein the slightest whiff of privilege or self-indulgence or carelessness can turn you into the world’s scapegoat. But what’s truly bizarre is that, even as we scrutinize every detail about any given woman in the public eye, our remedy for taking issue with this or that detail is to demand more details: We don’t know how many nannies she has! We don’t know if she has a cook! How many hours a week does she see her kids? How much does her child care cost? What does she regret?

Choosing to occupy the juncture between the personal and the prescriptive probably sets you up for such scrutiny. But what kind of a human being can tolerate living there permanently? To do so, you must either offer up every corner of your private life without hesitation, or else dodge tough questions and encase your story in a lot of inclusive and triumphant-sounding language that undercuts the darkness at its core. The former is arguably unhealthy for you; the latter is arguably unhealthy for everyone else.

It isn’t hard to see how Sandberg landed in the allergen-free, noncomedogenic territory of Option B, only to discover that the soul of her story had been surgically removed along the way. Unlike the arrogant, messy men who blunder effortlessly into positions of power, women in the public eye must be likable and inclusive and diplomatic and careful. They must tell you everything, all the time, but do so in the harmless language of press releases. And so this ends up feeling like the real moral to Sandberg’s story: Leaning in means baring all, but with ample airbrushing. Even so, it’s pretty tough to encourage other women to speak up for themselves when you’re murmuring in the dulcet, radio-friendly whispers of the status quo.

Sheryl Sandberg’s Impossible Position