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Lena Dunham: Girl on Top

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This morning, Dunham had a pre-interview with a producer for Craig Ferguson's show, which she'll tape tomorrow. It didn't go well. "I was such a fail," Dunham says. "I had nothing interesting to say." The producer was horrified when Dunham explained why she doesn't drive: "I'm afraid of Rebecca Gayhearting a child."

"The producer was like, 'Do not say that!'" Dunham recalls. "And I had this part of me that was so tired that I was like, 'I'm a punk! I'm gonna say it!' Which is crazy and a very bad idea. So I'm just gonna say it to you." She doesn't want to hurt Gayheart's feelings, she explains – "It's just a useful reference." The producer then tried to draw out anecdotes about Dunham's recently adopted dog, Lamby, and she drew a blank: "He walks. He barks. I just couldn't think of anything."

As we drive west on Sunset through Beverly Hills, the streets turning lovelier and more tree-lined by the block, Dunham somehow manages to extract most of my résumé. Learning that I covered the long-ago criminal trial of Sean Combs and his then-protégé Shyne, she ponders Shyne's jailhouse conversion to Judaism. "I know this is not something that I'm supposed to say," she says, "given the criticisms I've received, but when, like, black people convert to Judaism, it slays me. 'Cause why would you ever choose to be Jewish? I would not be Jewish if I had not been born Jewish. I can't get away from it now!"

Dunham does have enough tribal solidarity to feel total contempt for Mel Gibson, who was a conspicuous presence at Jodie Foster's Golden Globes table. "A weird anti-Semitic, anti-gay lunatic being her best friend?" she says. "It would be really funny if last night he was like, 'You're gay? Oh, my God, I had no idea.'"

She's thinking out loud now. "At these awards shows, I used to always be looking for examples of perfectly well-adjusted people," she says. "Now I'm like, 'Half these people are lunatics!' And I might be a lunatic. But I just want to see that lunacy expressed in a way that feels genuine and interesting."

Inside the mixing stage, huge, sometimes-unflattering HD images of Hannah project on a screen on the far wall, while Dunham sits in back, quietly in charge. She's the youngest person in the room. The biggest discussions revolve around representing the sound of an iPhone smashing on a floor, finding the precise dramatic moment to begin a Fiona Apple song, and reproducing the experience of tinnitus. When the time comes to pick a new music cue, Dunham seizes the first option presented by her music supervisor, an upbeat tune by breaking singer-songwriter Jake Bugg. "I liked the first one," she says, firmly, as they keep trying other songs.

As the episodes play, Dunham is tapping steadily on her own iPhone with manicured fingers (it's a purple-y polish called Love and Acceptance) – she's trying to send an individualized response today to every congratulatory text and e-mail she's received for the Globes wins. There are 138 texts in all, she says – and a middle-aged sound engineer sitting to her right shakes his head. "I don't think I've gotten 138 texts, total, in my entire life," he says. Dunham laughs, and goes back to texting.

Soon enough, the mix is finished, and Dunham has some advice for the crew. "Everyone needs to go home," she says, putting down her phone, "and fuck their wives." Her own plans for the evening involve sitting alone in her hotel room, revising two episodes of Girls, and maybe working on an overdue essay on the 50th anniversary of The Bell Jar for a British newspaper.

 

Dunham's parents first took her to a therapist when she was seven years old, and she's pretty much been seeing one ever since. At that point, she was terrified of going to sleep, which she associated with the void of death. "The whole house was taken hostage by my nightmare sleep rituals," Dunham recalls. "I remember one night my dad was so mad, he just had to take a walk around the block, and I was like, 'Daddy's never coming back!' and my mom was like, 'No, Daddy's annoyed because you're being a shitty asshole.'"

Her parents (both successful artists – her mother, Laurie Simmons, is a photographer best known for evocative pictures of dolls and dollhouses; her father, Carroll Dunham, is an oft-phallic pop-art painter) had to tell her three fun things they were going to do the next day. Her mother would have to kiss her eyes; her dad would have to adjust the door precisely. They'd have to promise her that they'd come get her at 3 a.m. and move her to their bed. "Then I'd get up to pee, like, three times," she says, "and they'd have to do it again each time I got back into bed. Then they'd come get me at 3 a.m., and I'd sleep at the foot of my parents' bed like a dog. So it was, like, get this kid into therapy."

Dunham was soon diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which revved up around the age of nine. She went through a hypochondriacal phase: "AIDS, jaundice, you name it, I had it." Then she started counting. "I was obsessed with the number eight," she says. "I'd count eight times…. . . . I'd look on both sides of me eight times, I'd make sure nobody was following me down the street, I touched different parts of my bed before I went to sleep, I'd imagine a murder, and I'd imagine that same murder eight times."

Dunham developed an intense dread of sex as soon as she learned what it was. From the evidence presented on Girls, it's unclear whether she's ever fully gotten over it. "I'd come up with a theory that I thought made a tremendous amount of sense," she says, "which was that you'd lay next to someone you loved, you wished for a baby, and then the sperm and the egg met through the pores of your skin. My friend Amanda was like, 'No, a man puts his penis in your vagina,' and I was like, 'This is the worst thing I've ever heard; this is the worst thing that's ever happened to me.' I told my little sister when she was five, so I wouldn't have to be alone with it. And now she's a lesbian. So there, we've nailed it! That and the fact that I used to make her make out with me through my grandmother's dialysis mask. No, that's not why someone's gay, but it's a funny theory."

Her parents were not entirely surprised by any of this. "Lena was kind of a weirdo," says Simmons. "But I was used to weirdos. I was one, and all the artists I know were probably weirdos when they were kids too. The funny thing is when two artists expect to have a superconventional child."

Simmons had grown up in suburban Long Island, where her own parents found her baffling. "That's a really awful feeling for a kid to think, that everything they dream up, their parents find peculiar," Simmons says. "So I just decided nothing was going to shake me up."

In the throes of her number-eight obsession, Dunham put that ethos to the test. "I remember saying to my mom when I was little, 'I just had to imagine having sex with you eight times,'" she says, "and she really took it in stride! She was like, 'Well, it's your imagination; it didn't really happen.'"

Dunham didn't have sex until college, though she did kiss a grand total of four guys in high school – two of them during a very eventful "humanitarian" trip to Cuba. "Cuban guys were really aggressive," she says. "One put his tongue in my ear and it was exciting and traumatizing, and then as I was leaving, I was like, 'What if he was the love of my life and I left him in Cuba?' and my friends were like, 'He didn't speak English, he was maybe a street person…. . . . '"

By high school, Dunham had gotten control of her OCD symptoms, but she was "drugged like a big horse" on massive doses of antidepressants. "I was so exhausted all the time, night sweats," she recalls. "I was pretty fat in high school if I look at it, because it just slows down your metabolism. My mom would always be like, 'I think you're having a lot of side effects,' and I'd be like, 'You're such a bitch; you just want me to be skinny!' and my mom was like, 'No, you're just sleeping all the time and sweaty.'" (There were some food issues, too – until recently, Dunham would ask for hotels to remove the mini-bar so she wouldn't eat everything in it.)

She weaned of meds toward the end of college, and has been frantically productive ever since. As of last March, though, she started taking a small dose of the anti-depressant Lexapro, just enough to dampen her anxiety. She keeps Klonopin in her bag, but she's afraid of it. "Don't ever Google a drug," she says, "because it's all psychos being like, 'This blinded me, it killed my husband.' I once flushed all my Klonopin down the toilet, because I was so scared by what I read. But if I feel I'm in the Tower of Terror, a little piece will just let me breathe."

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