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Join Dana Schwartz on a journey revisiting all of the awful choices she made in her early twenties through the internet’s favorite method of self-knowledge: the quiz. Part-memoir, part-VERY long personality test, Choose Your Own Disaster is a manifesto about the millennial experience and modern feminism and how the easy advice of “you can be anything you want!” is actually pretty fucking difficult when there are so many possible versions of yourself it seems like you could be.
Dana has no idea who she is, but at least she knows she’s a Carrie, a Ravenclaw, a Raphael, a Belle, a former emo kid, a Twitter addict, and a millennial just trying her best.
This long-form personality quiz manages to combine humor with unflinching honesty as one young woman tries to find herself amid the many, many choices that your twenties have to offer.
I had considered how the things that never happen, are often as much realities to us, in their effects, as those that are accomplished.
—Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
The unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together to make everything the way it is.
—Tom Stoppard, Arcadia
WHICH FAKE ROM-COM LADY CAREER SHOULD YOU PURSUE?
1. Are you a left-brain thinker or a right-brain thinker?
A. Left brain
B. Right brain
2. What was your favorite subject in school?
3. Would you rather be fulfilled or rich?
4. In sixth grade, you read The Call of the Wild and your English teacher has you create a project to represent the book. You would prefer to:
A. Draw a wolf with charcoal and place a poem you wrote and printed onto clear paper over the drawing for an effect that you truly think belongs in an art museum.
B. Build a small model sled out of wood.
5. On a winter day in the sixth grade, your same English teacher—a woman with a poodle poof of white hair, who wears floor-length skirts and a brooch at her neck like she’s onboard the Titanic—comes outside to shepherd you back in from recess when she slips on the ice. But not just “slip” the way most people use the word slip. She slips like a cartoon character, tiny-heeled boots flung straight out in front of her so she’s fully horizontal above the ground before she falls. “I’m okay!” she croaks from the pavement. Do you laugh? Please note here that she is actually completely uninjured. Promise.
A. Of course you laugh. You’re not proud of it, but what do you want me to say here?
B. No. I mean, yes, but you’re going to say no because even though it said she wasn’t hurt, this might turn out to be a trick question or something.
If you answered mostly As
Congratulations! Your rom-com lady career is vaguely arts related, probably at a television studio or women’s magazine. If the former, you’ll be wearing a headset microphone and carrying a clipboard, flitting around a control room in a pencil skirt and high heels. If the latter, you’ll be carrying a half dozen coffees that are spilling all over your cardigan, flitting around New York City in a pencil skirt and high heels. Being clumsy is your primary—and adorable—character trait. Your apartment is inexplicably massive and your wardrobe is all designer blazers and statement jackets in bright colors, and even though they should all be covered in coffee all the time, on account of all the coffee you spill, they always look perfect. You will never get persnickety emails from your bank account, heavy with electronic red exclamation points, about overdraft fees and you will never, ever be sitting barefoot on your couch and feel a slight tickle and look down to see a cockroach the size of a baseball, all legs and hair-thin quivering antennae, crawling across your foot and disappearing beneath the oven before you have a chance to kill it, so you just have to know, forever, that that giant cockroach is living somewhere in your house, waiting to emerge, and it’s already gotten a taste for crawling across human flesh. No. Your apartment is always spotless, and your hair is always professionally blown out.
If you answered mostly Bs
You should be the love interest in an action movie. Think Bond girl—you’re incredibly smart in the one specific area that just so happens to help the protagonist in this one very specific instant of the plot. “Give me that,” you’ll say, snatching the hieroglyph from the hero’s hand. “I have two PhDs in cryptozoological translation.” You’ll shove the hero aside from the beeping machine. “I’m NASA’s top-ranking expert in nuclear disarmament techniques.” Does it make sense? No, but who cares? You are very, very pretty. And smart, definitely smart because even though you look like a supermodel and wear very sexy clothing and a full face of makeup, you are also wearing glasses. Sure, twenty-four looks a little young to have three PhDs but they’re pretty sure making you smart in whatever will move the plot forward means this movie is feminist. You will either end up running away with the hero, or you will die. Apologies.
Here is how you cut off a mouse’s tail:
Step 1: Get an internship at the laboratory in the biology building at the center of campus. The animal labs are all several floors down, below the concrete and perfectly manicured grass squares. Your first time walking through the industrial hallways, you’ll pass doors guarding pigs and mice (you’ve heard that there are also primates somewhere in the underground labyrinth of hallways, but their location—and existence—was classified after a legion of animal rights activists in the 1970s engineered a plot to set them free).
Step 2: Get dressed. You’ll never quite be sure whether the protective gear you have to wear when you enter the room with the cages is for your protection or that of the mice, with their delicate, scientifically coordinated immune systems. It will take you five full minutes to pull on the covers for your shoes, the gloves, the hair net, and the thin plastic apron while your new supervisor watches, teaching you how to make sure the elastic is all the way around your shoes and making you promise you will never touch a doorknob with a gloved hand. (Is it to keep whatever bacteria you’re playing with off the doorknob or to make sure you don’t contaminate your experiment?)
“Today, we’re going to be snipping their tails for PCR samples,” your supervisor says, swiping her access card to get you into the mouse room. She’s about forty-five years old, with shoulder-length hair like Kathy Bates in Misery. She’s just a technician, not the scientist in charge of the lab. Among the many things she’s told you that you don’t quite understand, you don’t entirely know what PCR stands for. “Eventually you’ll be doing this on your own, but it takes some getting used to,” she continues.
The mouse room is about the size of a prison cell, lined on all sides with stacked plastic cages, each filled with its own generation of mice, their unique genetic and pharmaceutical history carefully marked on an identifying card. The smell is exactly how you’d imagine it, and just a little worse.
The lab tech grabs one of the plastic cages and brings it over to a laboratory hood—stainless steel and connected through the ceiling to a chimney on the roof, like a hood that you would find above the stove in a sinister, science-fiction-villain kitchen—with a thin moat of mesh wiring bordering the table. The moat, it turns out, is the most humane mouse trap you’ve ever seen: The lab tech expertly extracts a chosen mouse from its plastic habitat and places it on the mesh, where its tiny mouse claws are so occupied with gripping tight to the wiring that it somehow finds itself incapable of moving.
“We’re not cutting off the whole tail, obviously, just enough to get a genetic sample,” she says out the side of her mouth. Somehow, even with the stench of the mouse shit and the few feet of space between the two of you, you can smell her warm peanut butter breath.
Step 3: Pick the mouse up from its mesh-wire paralysis using your left hand, so it is belly-up in your palm. Using your thumb and index finger, restrain its top two legs. Using your ring finger, hold down its lower torso. You will use your pinkie to hold the tail stable while you take the small silver scissors and snip off less than a centimeter of flesh from the end of the tail.
It somehow seems so much more awful that you have to use a pair of scissors. As if you’re a sadistic future sociopath at home with the family pet. The mouse does not squeak, and you are told that it doesn’t hurt. There is rarely more than a drop of blood, and you dab it away easily with a delicate tissue Kimwipe. The tail sample goes into a small bullet-shaped plastic tube and the mouse goes back into the box after one final step.
Step 4: This is the most important step. Don’t disappoint the advisor who got you this job, the man who wrote the email and gave you glowing praise that you didn’t deserve, about how brilliant and hardworking you are. You always looked forward to your freshman advisor meetings with him: ten minutes that turned into fifteen that turned into twenty in his office, which was bedecked with Star Trek memorabilia and close-up black-and-white photos of the parasitic worm he discovered that made him renowned in the biology community. When you told him you were planning on becoming a doctor, he was thrilled. “You’re one of the good ones,” he said conspiratorially, indicating that he had just ushered one of the bad ones out of a previous meeting. The bad ones were the stereotypical premeds—hyper-competitive, type A, their lives planned out down to their residency hospitals and what color scrubs they’ll wear when they get there. “You should be a doctor,” your advisor tells you, offering you a bowl of Hershey’s Kisses. “We need more doctors like you.” You decline; he pops two in his mouth. You aren’t sure how you were able to trick him so completely.
And now you’re here, your first day, in one of the best labs on campus.
Try to do a good job.
“Oh, and when you’re piercing the ear, you have to fold the ear in half, like this. If you pierce it through without folding it, the mice can just rip the tag right out. So here, look.” The lab tech demonstrates for you, folding one mouse’s velvety ear within the metal fingers of the handheld gun and then depressing the trigger.
Piercing a mouse’s folded ear, you discover, is infinitely more unpleasant than using scissors to snip its tail. The ear is so velvety soft, it seems, and delicate, and you can feel the crunch of the cartilage in your hand as you push the thick needle and plastic marker through. There is no blood and no cries of pain, but you feel as though this is the part that hurts the mouse the most.
“So you’ll just finish up with the rest of this group,” the lab tech says, and she heads back toward the main laboratory, leaving you alone in a glorified closet, surrounded by rodents and their smell, working under fluorescent lights that still manage to leave the room too dark. “Oh, and remind me to grab you the independent study application when we’re back upstairs. The doctor likes to plan ahead about what her interns will be writing their senior theses on.”
You have no idea what you’ll be writing your senior thesis on. You aren’t sure what this lab is actually studying. Liver cancer or something. You managed to trick them in your interview too. They saw the recommendation from your advisor and your good grades and figured any bio major at Brown is as good as the next. You wish you could wear a shirt that says “I missed the day where they explained everything.” Which lecture was it exactly, what class, what moment, what point studying for what test did you stop understanding and begin pretending you did? You’re planning on just pretending you understand all the way through your medical school applications. Once you’re at med school, it’s day one for everyone. Just study the textbook and become a doctor.
Follow the steps.
You try to grab your first mouse, and it wriggles away from your grip. The mouse burrows itself into the wood shavings. And so you try to grab another mouse, one that looks almost sedate, sitting on a pile of wood shavings like a proud, fat king. But the moment you get the mouse king in your left hand, it begins violently shaking like a teenager at a metal concert, fighting desperately to escape your grasp, little pink feet crawling on the air, head shaking back and forth—you can’t tell me what to do, Mom!
You’re forced to drop the mouse back onto the metal grating twice so you can readjust your hand position before you manage to get that scissor snip of the tail tip. Once that bit of its DNA is gone, the mouse loses most of its will to fight. It allows you to fold and pierce its ear with only your own squeamishness to overcome.
You never thought you were a squeamish person before. You fantasize about plucking ingrown hairs and, unlike your younger sister who shrieked and cried, even well into teenager years, when faced with the prospect of getting a shot, you never minded needles or blood.
But using scissors to snip a piece of living flesh is harder than you imagined, and it doesn’t get easier, not after the first mouse, or the third or the tenth. Using the thick metal gun, closer to a hole punch than anything else, to brutalize through two layers of ear will still make you cringe years later.
The first mouse is done. You are now alone but for a hundred mice in a dark basement room. And you have a dozen mice to cut and pierce before you can leave. Trying to become a doctor is lonelier than you expected.
From kindergarten on, when the inevitable question of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” came, you always had an answer that matched the inflated sense of self-worth of a white girl in an upper-middle-class family in an upper-middle-class suburb, who has been told over and over again that she can achieve anything she puts her mind to. When someone asks this question, they’re not just asking about jobs—children don’t really understand the fundamentals of jobs: the daily rigor, the monotony, the paperwork, the busywork, the struggling, the interviewing, the promotions, and so on—they’re asking them about their future. “Who do you want to be, child?” they ask. The child’s answer is inevitably one of the primary-colored figures they’ve seen waving from the pages of picture books or from Sesame Street: Susan is a dancer—see Susan in her tutu onstage at the big city ballet show? Tamako is a doctor—Tamako will be in a white coat with a stethoscope around her neck. Do you want to be a dancer or a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher or a businessperson or a firefighter or a policeperson?
There are an infinite number of careers you can have, and when we say infinite we mean about eight. Your job will not just be your job—it will be the very thing you are. It will be how you are introduced when you’re standing alongside your improbably international and diverse friends in the coloring book. The job itself will be your costume.
And so, from an early age you knew: You didn’t just want a job; you wanted an identity. “First female president” was the answer you stuck to from second grade. You believed it with such earnest naivety that you looked upon Hillary Clinton as a competitive colleague. “Talk show host” was another popular contender: Your mother watched Oprah every day when you came home from school, and so you watched Oprah every day when you came home from school. You pictured yourself holding court every weekday with celebrity guests and politicians, involved and respected, in a job that seemed to mainly consist of talking, using luxury products, and being cheered for. You entertained dozens of fantasies of careers upon which you might embark, from evolutionary biologist like Jane Goodall to celebrity chef, and although they seemed unrelated, they were tied together by an obvious unifying factor: You wanted to be respected, and you wanted to be known. The nightmare for you was never death; the nightmare was being forced to live your entire life anonymous to the people who mattered. You wanted to be a part of the action, and a part of the action in a way that people respected your opinion.
Maybe that’s why, as you grew older and you realized becoming president requires a lot of money and handshaking and paperwork and that to be a celebrity chef one needs to be good at cooking, you gravitated toward science.
Science is wonderful if you enjoy feeling smart. “Monosaccharides,” you can say, nodding your head thoughtfully. “Cis isomer. Ardipithecus ramidus. Gel electrophoresis. Saltatory conduction.” And suddenly the world will be filled with people entranced by your genius, totally aware of how smart you are and how much they should respect your opinion, even on things you received B minuses on in tests. And imagine how much greater that feeling will be once you have Dr. in front of your name. “What does your daughter do?” people will ask your mother in the grocery store. “Oh,” your mom will say, trying to conceal a smile, “she’s a doctor.”
“I always knew she was smart,” the stranger will reply, validating your years of schooling and thousands of dollars of debt from miles away.
It’s easy. Well, not always easy in practice (you still have nightmares about diagrams in organic chemistry, sloppy lines facing the wrong way, cramped notes taken in a foreign language of which you haven’t yet grasped the grammar), but at least the path forward is clear. That’s the terrifying thing about adulthood, right? Leaving the tributary river of childhood in which progress is so clearly prescribed along a narrow to-do list—high school, college, internships, good grades—and then spilling out into a massive ocean. But being a doctor has steps: You get internships in laboratories; you volunteer with patients; you take organic chemistry and study for the MCAT and apply for medical school. And then it’s three years of school and then an internship and then a residency and by then you’ll be a bona fide adult, most likely with an apartment where you live with a cat and a significant other and you will have a job. You will be a doctor and you will be respected.
As soon as you settle on the plan in your mind, you feel as though you might as well be comatose for the next ten years. You wish you could skip ahead. In knowing exactly what you’re going to do, you might as well have already done it. Is there any way to get the acclaim and recognition of being an internationally famous and wealthy doctor who is universally renowned as an expert in her field without having to work really hard and figure out if you’re actually good enough? Isn’t there just a way to skip all of the school and the studying and the proving yourself and the anonymity and coast to mind-boggling success based on potential alone? It’s as if the System somehow seems entirely indifferent to the fact that your parents called you gifted as a child.
So for now you’re alone, in a room in the cold fluorescent hallways of a biology lab three floors beneath a neo-brutalist concrete building, and you have three more plastic crates, each filled with a litter of mice, to go through, snipping tails and mutilating ears. It will be a few hours before you see another human again. You know, somehow, that the research you’re obliquely facilitating is going to help people someday, or at least will disprove someone’s idea of something that might have helped people someday. But right now, in this basement room in the cold fluorescent hallways of a biology lab, it doesn’t feel like you’re doing anything useful.
One day, when you have time and the light is just right and you’ve already eaten breakfast and done yoga (you’re the type of person who does yoga now), you’ll spend a full day reading every single scientific paper that’s been produced about lab mice and cancer until you’re an expert in the field. It doesn’t matter that every paper you’ve attempted to read thus far has become gibberish by the first sentence—in this morning/yoga fantasy, you understand every word even better than the author. You actually get to mail snooty letters to the editor about minor mistakes. That’s how well you understand it.
Someday you’ll have a lab of your own filled with exotic specimens flown in from other labs all over the country and you’ll know what to do with them. You’ll have your own undergraduate student alone in a room on her first day, snipping off mouse tails and trying her best not to get scratched. You just have to stick to the path.
As you finish disfiguring a particularly fidgety mouse and recognize that you still have half a dozen left to go, a particularly insidious thought floats into your head: You don’t have to come back to the lab tomorrow. That tiny realization blooms in your brain like a rosebud submerged in water. There’s no reason you have to work in this lab now, as a sophomore, not really. You can send an email to the head of the laboratory saying you were wrong, you’re sorry but you’re too busy with schoolwork and you just don’t think it’s a good fit. You are staring down a long year of hours spent using pipettes and PCR machines and making careful notes and keeping track of how many mouse babies are born and how many are male and how many are female and how many were eaten by the mother because, yes, you learn, that does happen.
You are staring down your entire future, but you don’t have to be.
Do you continue to work in the mouse lab?
A. Yes. Even though today it’s just cutting tails and tagging ears, in a few years your life will be just like Grey’s Anatomy—you’ll wear scrubs that inexplicably still make your butt look cute and you’ll hook up with the other cute-butted doctors in the break room in between lifesaving procedures that end with families in tears hugging you for your incredible work. (You haven’t actually seen Grey’s Anatomy.) You’ll win awards and walk in clacking heels down hospital hallways and get called brilliant. All you need to do is follow the right steps.
B. No. There’s a reason you don’t really know what you’re doing, because this isn’t what you’re supposed to be doing. You’re far too creative and funny to be wasting your life in the back room of a basement laboratory. You’ve never been that meticulous or organized either, and when you’re a doctor, that will probably lead to accidentally killing a bunch of people. You’re smart; you can find something else to succeed at that doesn’t take about fifteen years and $150,000.
You are becoming a doctor. Good! That feels right. You are so proud every time you go to the grocery store with your mother on weekends back in the suburb you grew up in. “What are you up to?” the mother of a high school classmate asks, her purse jangling against her grocery cart filled with SmartPop!
You give a practiced shrug of modesty. “Well, I’m a senior at Brown now and applying for med school.”
Your mom interrupts here. “She’s already been offered a spot at [Harvard/Yale/Penn/UChicago],” she says, beaming.
Remember all of those doubts you had? How you felt as though you were always on your back foot, and any internship or lab position or good grade you received was granted only by luck and trickery? Well, you must have been wrong, because now you’re going to be a doctor. If you ever doubted you were smart enough, well doubt no more. All you need to do is follow along the instructions on this path as they’re given and you will be a Success.
And eventually, you are. You like what you do—you’re helping people every day, and you’re on your feet, running through the squeaking white linoleum hallways of hospital buildings and you get to tell people what to do and make small incisions in flesh and sew up bodies like they’re the halter tops you made out of bandanas when you were in seventh grade. You’re good at your job, and people thank you for it. You are Dr. Schwartz and people respect your opinion and entrust their vulnerable, mortal flesh into your care.
— JO PIAZZA, bestselling author of The Knockoff and Fitness JunkieA hilarious and heartbreaking journey of how hard it is to figure out how to be the woman we all think we should be. Schwartz's book is a witty and incisive guide for women navigating a world that is violently shifting beneath our feet on a daily basis.
— ERIN CHACK, author of This Is Really HappeningCHOOSE YOUR OWN DISASTER had me so hooked that more than once I looked up from reading it and realized I had no idea how many subway stops had gone by. Dana's disasters will entertain you, but it's her endearingly honest and unflinching perspective that will keep you turning the page.
— HANNAH ORENSTEIN, author of Playing with Matches"Reading CHOOSE YOUR OWN DISASTER feels like a hilarious night out with your best friend. Your early twenties are messy, dark, and exhilarating-Dana Schwartz captures all of that with unflinching honesty and a spot-on sense of humor.
- "Equal parts amusing and cringe-worthy, these stories will have millennial readers relating and older ones nodding, 'Yes. I've made similar mistakes."—Library Journal
- "This long-form personality quiz manages to combine humor with unflinching honesty as one young woman tries to find herself amid the many, many choices that your twenties have to offer."—Bustle
- "The snappy direct address gives the feel of a playful internet bit, is sure to please Schwartz's loyal fans."—Booklist
- "What do millennials love more than a quiz? NOTHING (except for killing off the diamond and napkin industries). That's part of what makes Dana Schwartz's unflinching, hilarious, and feminist memoir, Choose Your Own Disaster, such a fun ride."—PopSugar
- "Choose Your Own Disaster is a salted caramel of a memoir. Her travails as an early 20-something aspiring writer/rom-com character are the perfect mixture of salty and sweet."—The Washington Post
- On Sale
- Jun 19, 2018
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Grand Central Publishing