I met Janet a few years back at a Marie Claire dinner in New York City when we were both contributing editors. Her reputation as an esteemed host, bestselling author, and advocate, preceded her. But what didn’t was her presence. That’s something you just can’t read in a photograph. But when you meet Janet in person, she draws you in with a magnetism that instantly commands your attention and respect—you’re suddenly floating in her orbit, rudderless, and grasping for a sense of your own gravity.
It’s rare that you meet someone who has explored so much of her existence that they are able to express themselves the way she does. She has earned her confidence the hard way, through a life of radical self-actualization, staggering self-awareness, disciplined self-education, and the self-reflection that comes with having lived so much life that she’s filled two memoirs by her early 30s.
Janet’s new book, Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me, is an homage to her 20s; the years she spent struggling to find our place in this crazy world and come out the other side and hopefully—clear that the only certainty is change. Janet came by our offices in Silver Lake for a coffee, a chat about our past, and a seat on our vintage sofa. Here’s what happened:
Sophia: What’s it like writing a second book?
Janet: It’s so crazy. With your first book, there’s this sense that you prepared your entire life for it. That you have so much material. I knew the kind of story I wanted to tell first and so I was able to do that, which was amazing. But then with the second book, I felt like there was also this sense of expectation. But also my life had shifted and changed ways that meant there’s so many more obligations, and it was hard to just sit and write that book.
Totally. Did you find that you had enough material from the time you wrote your first book to make it an easy process?
Yeah. I always knew that the second book was the one that I actually really wanted to write, just because I felt like the first book was like a transition memoir. Which was great. I think it did the work it needed to do at that time in our culture, but it felt like a book that it was really a lot of work. Not just to tell my personal story but to also give people language and all that stuff.
The second book—ages 19 to 26 were like really great ripe years of a journey, right? A lot of it’s really ordinary—college and going to grad school, moving away from home, having roommates, sharing space with people, partners, dating, all that stuff. There’s also a love story in there. It’s universal stuff. But being able to talk about my very unique experiences as a person of color, a black person, a woman and a trans person wasn’t open about being trans publicly—I felt that there was a twist that really excited me to tell that story. That sense of wanting people to see me, but also not wanting them to see me. That choreography was really exciting for me as a writer.
Tell me about the title, Surpassing Certainty. I know it comes from the Audre Lorde quote. Why Surpassing Certainty? What does that mean to you?
It really did come out of the quote and it sounded really pretty. It was a great alliteration, and I liked the idea of following up Redefining Realness with Surpassing Certainty. For so much of my life, I was trying to be so clear and exacting and certain about things. About my place in the world. Thinking that I was gonna get to some place where I’m going to be completely content, completely okay, knowing exactly where I was in the world.
And then realizing that is not the purpose. The purpose is to move past that and to get over that. We cannot be sure of anything but our own experiences. Even when we think that we’re in a state of contentment or we’re sharing ourselves with someone and feeling OK in that, you’re gonna adapt and shift and evolve. So what you thought was the truth—what you thought was these unequivocal certainties—are going to shift and change, because of the way in which you share yourself with people.
That quote, when I read it the first time, I thought “There are sacrifices that you’re going to make by speaking your truth and some people are not going to be okay with that. They’re not going to want to hear you and they’re not going to want to revisit spaces or moments that you shared with each other. So you’re going to lose those people and that’s a part of life. You’re going to shed people. But guess what? You’re going to move on. You’re going to paint your nails. You’re going to dress up. You’re going to party and dance, and you’re going to meet new people who love you and then you’ll know with surpassing certainty.” I just love how that quote feels like there’s so many layers in it.
It’s like a really great way to describe confidence. Confidence that’s been earned. I think to accept things, you have to philosophically reject them and understand everything about them before you choose them. Like “This is why I do this and it’s for me. It’s not because the world wants me to do it. It’s not because my mom taught me to do this. It’s not because my boyfriend expects it. It’s because I stopped doing it, and then toyed around with it one day and decided that this is what I enjoy.” And that’s the most radical way of knowing yourself, I guess. That’s kind of how I hear it.
Even in just in your own experience … you had this job at this place was a part of your identity and who you were and then you’re like, “I don’t want to do that anymore. I have this other thing that I want to do.” Even that sense of moving away and having the courage to just shift your path.
Yeah, it’s a lot of pressure to be in the public eye and have to represent things that other people impress upon you. Like, there’s this assumption that I’m like this beacon of feminism, which I haven’t even really talked feminism that much. I’m totally comfortable with it but I’ve talked a lot more about my personal life and confidence and career and other things. But people will always want to say, “you represent this.” How does it feel for you, to have that kind of responsibility? And how do you metabolize that into what you do, or not?
It’s one of the things I think I struggle with most. I was very clear about knowing it was going to happen to me, knowing how media worked, having studied and worked in media. I knew that when I stepped forward the first time, the first thing people would say is that, “You need to talk for all these people, because we have no one to talk to about these issues.” So just from having lived my own life with these identities, that I knew that I was going to become an instant advocate, and activist, just by simply telling my truth.
Just by being yourself. Like, who you are is political in nature.
Yes, which is great on a certain level, but at the same time it’s like, then I also had to do the work of learning about these really complicated issues. I knew my own personal experience, but I didn’t write about feminist issues. I didn’t study gender theory in college. I didn’t know about LGBTQIA history or what not. So I knew there was that responsibility, despite how reluctant I was to take it on. I was like, “I’m not a spokesperson for trans people.” I said that in the first article written about me in Marie Claire. I knew that I would have to do that anyway because there aren’t that many people doing that work in media.
For me it’s like, “Oh my gosh, people have impressed this thing upon me. I represent this thing but I’m totally not qualified…”
Yeah, having to give people advice because it’s not just about women’s empowerment or women entrepreneurs. There’s the next layer of being a young woman in that space, which, rarely anyone saw a young woman in that space. So that’s why there’s all these young women who are just like, “Oh my god, tell me how!”
It seems like every five minutes, there’s something that we all have to know and if we don’t know, it the world is outraged. Howdo you feel about where the world is right now in that regard? And for those people who may still be coming into their own levels of “wokeness,” for lack of a better word, what advice would you have?
I feel like one of the biggest things that ends up happening oftentimes is like people are—and I’m even trying not to use ableist language. I would say “paralyzed by,” but thinking about the ways in which language becomes something that, on one end, can make us feel at home and safe. Once you have a label or name for yourself, you then can tap into a community of people that you know who share experiences with you.
On the other layer, there’s this culture of new words, new language and so if you’re uninitiated trying to embark on this space, there’s also this sense of trepidation that comes. I think a lot of people don’t end up doing the work of connecting with people who are different than them, because they are scared of saying the wrong thing. Because they’re scared that their curiosities are going to get the best of them and have them trip up in some way that then leads to marginalized folk—who have to deal with this every single day, and be outraged and call someone out.
I always try to press people to take their education upon themselves, and realize that it is much more uncomfortable to experience racism, or transphobia, or sexism, or misogyny, or ableism, or all of the phobias…
Than it is to be the doofus who gets schooled.
Yeah. So you’re going to mess up. We’re all going to mess up. I mess up and I check and challenge myself every single day, as I meet more people and I share space with a lot of people. I think about the ways in which there’s so much that I learn from the world about ableism, because I’ve been able to walk around in spaces, come up stairs. Three years ago, I didn’t really think about some of my terminology. Now I’m a lot more clear about, “I shouldn’t say crazy. I say intense. I shouldn’t say paralyzed or blindsided because people are actually paralyzed and blind, right?” Or “fall on deaf ears,” Or “a blind spot.”
“Thinking about the ways in which I need to shift my consciousness and to raise my consciousness. I need to change my use of language, because me not being able to say ‘crazy’ is not something that I should be fighting to hold onto.”
I think for a lot of people they don’t really know where to go to learn that stuff or they’re just not plugged in.
I also think that you have to really want to learn, though. You know what I mean? Some people say “I’m trying to do well,” but it’s not that hard to find. You can literally type in, “How to be an ally 101,” or something, and there’s going to be like 100 articles that come up. I remember one time I was called out on Twitter for two things that were super ableist I did, which was saying the word “crazy.” I believe it was at a speech that I was giving. I was called out, so I was like, “Wait, I need to learn more about why can’t I use this word.” Then once I learned about that, I was like, “Oh, I can see why now, because I now have context.” Someone had already done the work of writing the articles and trying to give me the language.
Do you write when you’re not writing a book? How do you organize your experiences and was there anything you learned about yourself writing this book that you were surprised by?
Oh god. It was so funny. One of the themes of the book that came out, I didn’t even see until I read a draft of it. I put it away or I gave it to my editor and I was like, “I’m not going to look at this for six weeks,” and then I was able when I reread it. And I was like, “There’s this hunger theme.” I talk a lot about food. I think that’s why I moved to a city like New York. Because it’s for the young and ambitious and seeking and looking to craft their identity and find their place in the world. I chose that city for a reason. That was something I learned about myself— this “hunger” and thing inside of myself that I was trying to fill or satiate, which I didn’t know.
You moved to New York after your divorce, which is another thing we have in common.
We both have first husbands.
I know. Do you believe in the starter marriage?
I think so.
I do, too. What’s it like being married a second time? Obviously great. I saw your wedding photos.Didn’t we get married around the same time? I was in June of 2015.
I got married in November 2015. But it’s strange to be young and be divorced. It was something that I hid for a long time, largely out of shame.
I was terrified. It was just like … you’re damaged goods.
But current husband, Aaron, said one of the sweetest things, which he tends to do … he was just like, “I always wanted a woman that had already been married before, so that she knew what that was.” That it’s not just the pretty wedding and the da-da-da, but it’s work. And sometimes it doesn’t work out and you recognize that some things just don’t work.
What do you think about the quote “You can’t be what you can’t see?” What role do you think seeing role models like yourself and other women has in inspiring?
There is a truth to that, but there also is an untruth to that, in the sense of I never saw someone like me out in the world. So it created this drive in me to want to become that. Being like, “I’m deserving of all the things my peers are deserving of. Just because I’m trans, just because I’m a person of color, doesn’t mean that I don’t deserve those things, too.” I think a big part of my work and what drives me today is that sense of wanting to create the mirrors that I didn’t have growing up.
So another thing we have in common, that actually no one knows in my case, is that we were both strippers.
Oh my God, amazing! I’m like, “Oh my God, great! There’s someone else!”
I had to use a fake I.D. because I was 19 or something.
I did the same thing!
I was in Portland, which is like the healthiest place to do that. And I was the girl who wouldn’t turn on the lights when I was making out with somebody. Then I was like, “Well, I don’t want to work for seven dollars an hour, so I’ll try this.” I got to dance around to music that I liked. For me, it gave me a lot of confidence. But people still have a lot of judgment about it.
How has it been sharing that side of your life?
For me, so much of my work is about tackling stigma through just speaking the truth about my own experience. Of having been a stripper, having had a first husband, all these things. I did feel that “damaged goods” stuff, where I wasn’t a good enough girl, or respectable enough, to be able to go on and do all of the things that I wanted to do. So I don’t want any person, any woman who’s currently engaged in that space that I was in—whether sex work, whether working through a bad relationship, whether having been assaulted in some way—to think that because of her experiences, because of her path, because of the things that she’s engaged in and done, that she can’t go out and move on from those experiences.
“That’s what stigma does. It makes us internalize shame. It makes us silence ourselves. It makes us choose silence over actually just speaking the truth. Because when we speak the truth about it, it’s not that horrible.”
And then you realize you have all these other people who are like, “You know what, I actually had a similar experience to you.” That stuff happens all the time. It’s like you never know when there’s going to something that links you to people.
It’s so brave because, I wrote about doing a bunch of stupid, shitty stuff. But not that…
It’s also like, you have to do that. You have to editorialize your life and you can’t give everyone everything at one time, because at the point in which you were telling your story, it wasn’t right the time yet to tell that story.
Do you feel your experiences gave you confidence?
It did. It’s interesting to say that as a feminist, but then I’m also like, “You know what, yeah.” I got so much, at least, affirmation from showing my body and showing my skin and then feeling as if I was being affirmed in my womanhood. I was being affirmed in my sensuality, but I wouldn’t say that it was only based on that. But it was a big part of it, because I spent so much time engaged in that space. And what was so great for me was that it was a space created and owned by a woman.
The next layer to all of that, too, is that in our culture there’s this expectation that women’s sexuality should be something that’s free and available. And so when a woman dares to put a price on that, she’s judged in a way that’s even harsher than just being called a slut. There’s a whole new layer of it, because how dare you put a price on … what we want to be for free and available to take from you if we want. And then women engage in that same stuff, too.
A lot of feminists who are not sex positive or who don’t support sex work, they do that same work of policing women’s bodies and shaming them for doing what they want with their bodies. When we’re supposedly talking about choice, about bodily autonomy and all that stuff.
If you could go back to your early to mid 20’s and give yourself one piece of self-love advice, what would that be?
I think I would say that you can have all the things that you want. And be patient with yourself. You don’t have to have everything now. I thought that getting into grad school would be the thing, and then moving to your next city would be the thing, and then working at People Magazine and being hired there as an editor would be the thing. So I was waiting for that next thing that was supposedly was going to get me to a point in which I was super happy and content. And not seeking and wanting. And that’s never going to end.
So enjoying and taking my time and being patient with myself … Let me just enjoy the amazing things that I did accomplish when I accomplished them at that certain age. When I became part of the things that I never thought I would see in the world, and then become.
What advice do you have for women, especially trans women and women of color, when it comes to pursuing their career dreams and living authentically? I love that your book was dedicated to “The girl struggling, striving, and slaying in the shadows.” What would you say to those girls?
I think it would be the same thing. You can have all those things that you want. That even though you may not see it out in the world or you may think that it’s a not possibility, it is, because you can become the first. I think also … we need to do a better job, community-wise as women, as trans people, or whatnot, of ensuring that we’re supporting voices that are emerging and that we’re deepening that bench. Because a lot of the ways in which I was able to break into my career was through women of color. Young women who were willing to lift me up as I was entering this space. Who used the privilege and the access that they had to ensure that I could be seen and heard. That stuff needs to happen more.
Then we have—you’re in this space a lot more than I am in terms of women’s business and career—but I just want to be better at mentoring … and speaking people’s names who are emerging and coming up and doing this work similarly. So that it’s not just about me being in this space and me being a first and a pioneer. I think the legacy work is when you really think about how you then bring in a bunch of people up so that when you’re not here anymore, you know that you’ve left a different kind of impact in people’s lives.
This is legacy.
Yeah. Hopefully. Oh my God, I cannot wait until you write about your stripper years.
Oh my God. Stripper years, divorce, bankruptcy, lawsuits. What is one of your favorite quotes? What’s a quote that you love that keeps you going?
“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I’d be crunched into other people’s fantasies of me and eaten alive.” That’s Audre Lorde again. I just end up going to her. She’s like my holy text. Just all of her work. And because she was existing at a time when no one thought that she should exist. She was in feminist spaces as a black woman, also as a lesbian, and as a poet. She’s just beautiful with language because she’s a poet. They look at words completely differently than someone that writes prose. But then she also slays prose in an amazing way and she also goes into spaces and talks to people, and brings them in, but then also challenges them and checks them in ways that I try to strive to be when I enter spaces.