This is a story about Samantha Irby—blogger, author, former Evanstonian, newly minted TV executive producer. But it is also a story about poop. Lots and lots of poop. Has to be. “Because,” she tells me over a plate of peanut-sesame noodles at LuLu’s, her favorite Evanston joint, “the costar of the Sam story is my butthole.”
That particular dynamic—the one between Irby and her butt—began in 2005, when she felt an intense, urgent pain in her abdomen. Her stomach was hot to the touch and puffy; out of nowhere, she started vomiting uncontrollably. She went to the hospital and learned her intestines had begun to swell and contort, twisting like a soft pretzel. A few months later, she was delivered a diagnosis: Crohn’s disease, and an aggressive type of it.
Four years and endless colonoscopies, CT scans, brief remissions, and bouts of diarrhea later, Irby wrote about the disease for the first time on her nascent blog, Bitches Gotta Eat. Her post read: “welcome to my universe, lovers. where i do not get to be lovely and delicate and demure because sooner rather than later i am going to have to talk to you about shit. … imagine the worst diarrhea you’ve ever had, and imagine having that nonsense every day. you could light a match on my poor rectum some days, i swear.”
She almost didn’t write about it. “Man, if I do this, I’m really sealing my fate as an unlovable diarrhea person, right? Because if anyone Googles me, this is gonna come up,” she recalls thinking. But once she did put it down, “no one could make me feel like shit,” she says. “And also people would know that you can’t have the cheap toilet paper when I’m over. You gotta get the Cottonelle. Because I cannot set fire to my anus with cheap-ass toilet paper.”
It is precisely Irby’s ability to turn the murkiest, grossest parts of her life into unflinchingly fearless and unhinged comedic prose that has earned her a growing following, including famous fans like writer Roxane Gay and comedian Janeane Garofalo. Irby excels at mining her own personal swamps for stories. And there are a lot of stories to tell.
Her new book, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life (May 30, Vintage), is a hodgepodge of three years’ worth of essays, from a mock application to appear on The Bachelorette (“Age: 35ish, but I could pass for forty-seven to fifty-two, easily; sixty-something if I stay up all night. Gender: passably female”) to a truly epic tale that involves having explosive diarrhea, bare-assed, out of the side of a car in the middle of winter. The book is dedicated to the anxiety drug Klonopin. Her earlier book of personal essays, Meaty, which was published by Chicago’s Curbside Splendor in 2013, is now in development for an FX series starring a fictionalized version of Irby, with Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson and Inside Amy Schumer lead writer Jessi Klein signed on as executive producers.
And yet Irby finds herself in a strange transitional space: She recently relocated to Kalamazoo, Michigan, to be with her wife, Kirsten Jennings (Mavis in all of Irby’s essays), after spending her entire life either in Evanston or Evanston-adjacent. She’s 37, with a career that is ramping up, but she’s convinced that her life is already halfway over. And if you think that’s dark, that’s on you. Sam Irby isn’t here for your shit, she’s here for her own.
Irby’s shit started early—she was raised in it. She was born in Evanston to a 37-year-old mother who had multiple sclerosis and a 45-year-old father who was an alcoholic. “We were crazy poor—Section 8, food stamps, Social Security, disability. But I still got to go to Evanston High School,” she says, and that has forever endeared the town to her. “A chunky, kind of outcast black girl could be there and be really into Dave Matthews, but also into Cypress Hill. I had a lot of black friends, but also a lot of white, lacrosse-playing friends.”
When Irby was young, her father drifted in and out of her life, coming back after he’d sober up, only to quickly deteriorate. In the essay “Happy Birthday” in her new book, Irby writes that her father briefly ran a boarding house, mostly filled with fellow alcoholics, out of their basement: “Some dude died down there! It never struck me as strange because that is how my life had always been: school bus pulling up to take me to day care at the YWCA while some junkie was passed out asleep on our front lawn.”
Her father could be violent. Irby writes about accompanying him the time he threw a wrench through the windshield of the car of his “mortal enemy.” He was, she recalls, “the kind of alcoholic who, when desperate for a fix and home alone with his preadolescent daughter and an empty liquor cabinet, would soak a loaf of bread with shoe polish and drink whatever he could filter through the loaf into a glass.” He did a lot of cocaine, she says. Sometimes he’d beat her mom. It got so bad that Irby tried to commit suicide when she was 13.
Eventually, her mother’s MS worsened to the point that she needed full-time care. Her father reappeared when, the way Irby tells it, he realized that if he presented himself as a live-in caregiver, the state might subsidize his living costs. Instead of putting in a wheelchair ramp, he spent the $900 he was given on lottery tickets. His daughter was left to spoon-feed pills in applesauce every day to a mother who could no longer swallow them otherwise. Revisiting this period of her life, Irby writes, makes her heart “die a little.” She was in college (a short stint at Northern Illinois in 1998—she never graduated) when she learned her father had died of hypothermia after multiple heart attacks and strokes. Her mother died six months later.
It took Irby 11 years to pick up her father’s ashes from a North Side funeral home. After she finally retrieved them, she kept them in a Gap bag in her closet for another seven years before deciding she’d spread them in a river in Nashville while on a trip there with Jennings last year. (Her father was raised in Memphis, but Irby thought Nashville was close enough.) The old ashes had clumped together, and just as Irby was shaking them out, a sharp wind blew a fistful into her mouth. She describes the incident this way in her book: “What a fucking asshole, undoubtedly mocking me from the other side of the rainbow bridge.”
Like so many personal writing projects, Bitches Gotta Eat began as an attempt to impress a dude. “He was dating a poet at the time, and all I had was fiction I’d written, and you can’t hand someone 500 out-of-context pages and be like, ‘Fall in love with me!’ ” says Irby. So she started a Myspace page, writing during downtime at her job as a receptionist at an animal hospital in Evanston. The ploy worked, but even after the relationship soured, Irby decided to keep writing. In 2009, she turned her personal page into a blog. “It was just this thing that I could point people to if in real life I couldn’t prove to them that I was worth their attention,” she says. “That’s, like, the saddest shit ever, but it’s real. A lot of good things have come out of my work, but I am not noble.”
These days, Irby hasn’t lost her self-effacing levity, but there are more moments of stillness between punch lines. She has written about her dad before—Meaty included a piece about how he slapped her for improperly washing a cast-iron skillet—but her new book goes deeper. In it, Irby is unsparing in her condemnation of her father, but she also sketches a fully fleshed-out portrait of a man who struggled with addiction. “The memories change,” says Irby. “They go from sweet to bittersweet to hostile to letting you see your parents for who they really were. I can see their flaws, and they’re both dead, so I don’t have to lie to myself anymore about who they were.”
Writing is a form of catharsis for her, but Irby rarely rereads her pieces after she finishes them. Opening old wounds is not a way of stewing, but rather a way to release herself from the pain. “People are always like, ‘Oh, that’s so brave,’ ” she says. “But I’m like, ‘It’s not brave at all—it’s freeing.’ ”
Things are moving quickly now for Irby. The day we meet, she’s sleep-deprived from staying up until 3 a.m. working on scenes for the Meaty pilot. She is listed as an executive producer, and if the show gets picked up for a full season, she intends to remain actively involved. She’ll temporarily relocate to L.A., but in an ideal world they’d shoot the show in Evanston and include a scene where Irby’s character eats peanut-sesame noodles at LuLu’s.
For Irby, the show is an opportunity to portray more people like her on TV: a woman of color with a chronic illness who’s just trying to get by on at least 18 prescription meds. “I really want to speak for a very specific type of black person, living a normal, childless life, listening to rock music, and not on crack. We need complex, messy people of color on TV.”
And if the show doesn’t get picked up? She’ll keep writing and settle into married life. She’ll help Jennings care for her two kids. Irby’s health is relatively good these days; she’s been going to the gym and has only had one significant Crohn’s flare-up since moving to Michigan. It’s a surprisingly domestic routine for someone who has nonchalantly compared lesbian sex to eating an open-faced roast beef sandwich and was once greeted by a man pooping in the alley behind her Rogers Park apartment. But she’s happy. “Kirsten embodies all of the things that I resent and will never be but I like to see her be them: excited and open and happy,” says Irby. Jennings is a social worker, and in her free time she tends to her garden while Irby sits inside watching recorded episodes of Real Housewives. “I’ve never had a safety net before, and for so long I did all this work to create my own.”
But when I ask her how she feels about her body now, in particular her weight (she’s struggled with it much of her life and writes about it often, half joking that she didn’t eat a fresh vegetable for the first time until she was a teenager), her immediate response is “terrible.” Her mortality remains front of mind, just as it always has. She put it this way in her 2015 blog post “Do Black Girls Even Get to Be Depressed?”: “i am just an old garbage bag full of blood patiently waiting for death to rescue me, but sometimes when i tell people that their immediate response is HOW CAN YOU BE SAD YOU’RE HILARIOUS!!!!! and then for five seconds i’m like ‘this asshole who has never met me before is correct i’m so funny i should stop thinking life is a trash can.’ until five seconds after that some human roadkill yells at the grocery store bagger or pulls his scrotum out on the train and i get the insatiable urge to peel my skin off like the layers of an onion and jam my thumbs into my eye sockets while hoping that i’ll just disappear down the garbage disposal of human existence straight into hell.”
Marriage has not abated those feelings. “When I say it, I don’t even feel sad about it,” Irby says. “I want to be 55 years old and go to sleep and never wake up, except on the couch so no one has to maneuver me downstairs. And then Kirsten can have act 3 of her life. It’s kind of a beautiful story.”
A few days after our interview, I’m still thinking about the conversation. How do I add to the literature on a woman who narrates her own life in grotesque, unsparing detail?
So I check Irby’s blog, and sure enough, she’s written a post about our encounter. She describes the interview as “dope, despite the fact that i described my personal style as ‘fat ninja’ and ordered 1/3 of the food i would actually eat in case it’s one of those interviews where the writer goes super in-depth into the mannerisms of the subject. … it’s just that i am an excruciatingly self-conscious person who will die upon reading ‘irby lumbered slowly into the restaurant, eyes darting nervously behind oversized black sunglasses as she surveyed the space for enemies, then squashed her bulk into a booth to order the first sixteen things on the appetizer menu.’ LOL FUCK THAT. i can promise you as long as i live that my secret fat shame will stay right where it belongs: hovered over the trash can searching for a food item thrown away in haste that i couldn’t stop thinking about for several hours.”
She then plunges deeper: “i hate talking to people in person. first of all: WHAT THE FUCK DO I KNOW. not much! i’m not actually 100% sure about anything!”
While she joked with me about keeping a finely honed list of enemies and pooping her pants, really she was anxious throughout the interview. She was answering my questions, but she was also working—processing every moment, filtering it through her inner monologue until it was blog-perfect. Personal pain as public art. That’s Irby’s shit.