As I sit down to write this essay, Sugar’s coming out party is still a few hours away but by the time you read this, everyone will know that Sugar is Cheryl Strayed. To be honest, although I’ve known Sugar’s identity for a while, I’m not sure exactly how I feel about her coming out. I’m nervous. I’m afraid it won’t be the same. I reassure myself that truth is good, freeing. Maybe it’ll be even better this way.
But I don’t quite believe me.
I get to talk to Sugar before the party. She’s made time to answer my questions between her lunch date and her date with hundreds of the Sugar faithful. I’ve met Cheryl before, but this feels different. I’m meeting Cheryl as Sugar. Riding from Dublin to San Francisco on BART, I read through my questions. I’ve pared the list down to eight. I won’t have much time; she has to get ready for the party. I think about her picking an outfit, brushing her hair, putting on lipstick, but the truth is I can’t imagine how you get ready to do what she’s about to do.
I don’t remember the first Sugar column I ever read, but it might have been “Icky Thoughts Turn Me On.” There are a lot of reasons that letter and Sugar’s response to it affected me, but one of them was very simple and had nothing to do with the sexual specifics of the letter. It had to do with my kids and me and what kind of mom I want to be. I read that column and I thought this: I need to teach my boys that “normal” is a very sad and unremarkable aspiration.
I became one of the faithful that day, religiously visiting the church of Sugar at The Rumpus every Thursday afternoon.
Waiting to be let into the guesthouse where Cheryl is staying, I stare at my reflection in the window and think nervous, stupid thoughts. I doubt the wisdom of my outfit, lament my wild hair, wish I’d brought Cheryl flowers for her big day. Then she opens the door and her smile reaches out to hug me just before she does, and all the stupid thoughts fall out of my head like magic.
As I’m working on this piece, I hear Meryl Streep on Fresh Air talking about her role as Margaret Thatcher. Streep says that Thatcher took voice lessons to modulate her speech because she wasn’t being taken seriously in Parliament. Terry Gross asks what Thatcher learned from those lessons and Streep says, “I think voice lessons really just bring out a voice that you already possess.”
I scramble for paper, a stubby pencil. I write the quote down because I think that’s what Sugar does every Thursday. She calls us sweet pea, strips away the bullshit, and gives us access to the voices we already possess.
I ask Cheryl if she’s imagined how it will feel for her in the moment of reveal, and she tells me she thought about jumping out of a cake, but decided in the end there was enough to worry about without adding acrobatics to the mix. We talk about how things will be different without the veil of anonymity. I wonder if she’ll feel hesitant sometimes, protective of Mr. Sugar and the baby sugars. She says she wrote the column all along knowing she would one day tell us who she was. She already protects what she needs to protect.
I ask her if she’s ever surprised herself with a Sugar response, and she says it happens all the time. She writes through her answers, she tells me, finds her way as she goes. She never knows how it’ll look in the end. I ask her if she ever feels stumped and she tells me she does. She gives me some examples of letters she doesn’t know how to respond to and I’m surprised by how mundane they are, how ordinary and human and ultimately unanswerable. We are complicated beings.
Usually, I read Sugar on my own but sometimes I read her aloud to my husband. I did that with “A Bit of Sully in Your Sweet.” It’s a letter from a 29-year-old woman who feels let down when she learns her sister’s perfect marriage was not as perfect as she thought. Sugar responds, “In allowing you a more intimate view of her much-touted but flawed marriage, your sister was attempting to show you what a real perfect couple looks like: happy, humane, and occasionally all fucked up.”
I had to stop reading when I got to that sentence because I’d started to cry. We’d been through a lot, my husband and I, and somehow, miraculously, we’d found our way back to happy and humane. I looked at him, and he smiled, and then he turned the laptop around and read the ending to me.
At the party, Steve Almond (the first Sugar!) introduces the current Sugar. Before he says her name, he talks about how the Internet is full of snark and sarcasm and meanness, and how singular is the space that Sugar has created, a space of “radical empathy” and heart. By the time he says her name, the sold-out crowd is alive with love. Cheryl takes the stage and we leap to our feet, cheering. She looks happy and embarrassed and grateful and gorgeous.
She talks about love and radical sincerity. She says that what she’s given is nothing compared to what she’s gotten back from all of us. She says it’s hard to believe that Sugarland exists, that the miracle of it is impossible to explain to anyone who isn’t part of it. She tells us about a game her mother played with her as a child, a game she plays with her own children. She puts her hands close together and asks the baby sugars if she loves them that much. They say no. She makes her hands wider and asks again, and they say no. “That’s how the game works,” she tells us, “until I’m standing with arms as wide as they can be, and it’s still not wide enough for all the love I have for them.”
And it’s then, seeing her, radiant and revealed, arms open wide as she tells us that’s how it feels to be Sugar, that I think to myself, “Truth is good, freeing. Maybe it’ll be even better this way.”
And this time, I believe me.
Judy Clement Wall’s short stories and essays have been published in The Rumpus, Lifebyme, Smith Magazine and Beyond The Margins. You can find out more about her and her work at Zebrasounds.net.