The Pepto-Bismol pink of the paperback covers deceived my parents. Had they known the content of the candy colored books while in line to check out at the local Barnes and Noble, I doubt my parents would have signed off on the books I read as a pre-pubescent tween.
But we all read them. It was a strange contest of sorts: who could read the most disturbing or intense book? Among my homogenous “alternative advanced group learning” middle school peers, stacks of canonical books like Romeo & Juliet, Canterbury Tales, and Tales of King Arthur’s Court, were topped by books by Laurie Halse Anderson and Sarah Dessen. These contemporary Young Adult novels passed through the hands of my classmates and during our lunch break or recess at the local park, the contest would commence.
“Well, in this one, the girl has an eating disorder”
“This one is about a girl who cuts herself”
“In this one the girl is so depressed she tries to kill herself.”
We were all disturbingly intrigued and moved by the plotlines about mentally unstable female protagonists.
We were also all well-off, healthy, privileged kids with loving families. The desire to read books like Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson came from a desire for knowledge, knowledge of a world none of us truly knew. None of us ever went hungry, but we wanted to know on some surface level what that might be like. But we didn’t read about underprivileged youth going hungry to attempt to experience that hunger. Instead we turned to books about other privileged white girls with eating disorders because to some extent, we felt we could relate to the protagonists. We thought we were mature, and thought reading these books were a mature way to experience the world without being reckless.
Were we making light of serious issues? Could we as what the literature community classifies as “young adults” really understand the gravity of topics like suicide and domestic abuse? Yes and no. We knew they were serious, but we were removed from them, thus, in a strangely Brechtian sense, we were able to be critical of them and chat about them casually while still maintaining what we thought to be respect and reverence. Whether or not it was politically correct, we were going to talk about these books and characters and no one was going to stop us. Why would they? We were a bunch of young, flat-chested, overly-pretentious girls gabbing about books–it was a middle school teacher’s dream!
At the same time my pre-adolescent friends and I read books about ballerinas with type I diabetes who had to stop dancing and girls with cancerous boyfriends, my 3-years-older than me brother, Josh was listening to Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. I tried to read these books to relate and talk to him. If we had a shared interest we could talk and bond. But I gave up: on the staple fantasy classics, and on talking to him. We lived in the same house but inhabited different worlds. I was in my own less dramatic YA novel.
Josh was, and still is, autistic. Social interaction is hard for him. It makes him anxious and uncomfortable. Ninety percent of the time he would prefer to be by himself reading a book than interacting with another human. That other 10 percent results in unsatisfactory social interactions where Josh tries to communicate, but his special quirks and anxiety hinder him from doing so effectively. I write this not to create sympathy for him or for me, but rather just to explain the situation. Josh is incredibly happy keeping to himself. Being alone does not scare him; in fact, he’s quite comfortable that way.
I didn’t understand that at age 12 though. I felt iced out and deprived of my sibling. I felt unloved and unwanted. It took so much out of me to interact with him because it was so frustrating. I tried and tried and thought I was failing. I harbored an immense anger toward him. He was not what an older brother should be. I saw older brothers–yes, they were mean and teased, but at least they engaged with their siblings. A lot of the time I felt Josh forgot I existed. He was too busy, off in the labyrinth of his strangely wired mind. While he is a much higher functioning person now, when he was 15 he was not and that also warranted a lot of attention from my parents. I knew he needed it, the attention. I only attempted to steal it from him on special occasions. But I attempted to garner that attention in other places, at school or dance class, restaurants…you name it, I was there and trying to have the spotlight. I was a terror and obviously people did not respond positively to my desires for attention.
But I needed my own outlet to deal with the issues I had with Josh. I wanted to know that other people out there were dealing with “real” issues. I knew I was privileged, I knew I had food, I knew I had parents who loved me, I knew I had medicine that would balance out the chemicals in my brain so I would always be so upset. I wanted to know something new. These young adult fiction books were my outlet. They helped me put my life into perspective when in fits and rages of tweenage angst, I found myself thinking I had the worst life in the entire galaxy.
I made friends with the girls in these books. I looked to them and asked them questions. Underneath their melodramatic surfaces were truly helpful answers. How did these girls deal with their issues? The swarthy, chubby, frizzy-haired 12-year-old me searched through the pages looking for ways I could apply the characters’ coping strategies to my own life. I remember finding solace in Laurie Halse Anderson’s book Speak. The protagonist Melinda finds herself alone with no one to talk to as she enters her freshman year of high school. It seems everyone has a vendetta against Melinda. The reason? Melinda called the cops during the biggest party of the summer and got the vast majority of the partygoers in trouble.
Though I had peers to read these books with, I don’t necessarily know if I considered them my friends. We did not interact outside of school. Because I was now going to private school rather than the local public school, I didn’t get to see the people I actually did consider my friends that often. I wanted to tell people that the reason I was so loud and upset was because of my brother. The reason I came on so strong was because I wanted to forge relationships with people who could take the place of my brother—be a surrogate sibling. I sympathized with Melinda. I wanted to talk to people but, like her, couldn’t find the words or ways to go about it. I couldn’t speak.
So I asked Melinda, “What are you doing to get through this?” and she showed me a beautiful array of paintings, drawings, and collages. The subject of which were trees, assignments for her art class. I always loved drawing and painting, so thanks to Melinda, I spent more time with it. I chose to spend my free periods and study halls in the art room the same way she did. It was liberating to have control over something and express myself through it: the way it looked and was formed.
Through a series of flashbacks to the party I found out what happened to Melinda. A classmate several years her senior forced himself on her at the party and in her panic she called the cops. She did not reveal to the cops that she had been sexually assaulted. I barely knew about sex—I knew the mechanics of it, but that was about it. I hadn’t even gotten my period and yet here I was reading about rape. It was precocious, and startling, and strange, but I knew it was awful and crippling. I don’t think I had ever cried while reading a book before, but strange folds on the pages from my tears still remain in my copy of the novel. It was the first time I had heard about sexual assault and rape, though certainly by no means the last.
Knowing about Melinda’s situation and knowing how much different forms of artistic expression helped her, as cliché as that seems, helped me a lot. I hadn’t gone through anything as severe so I rationalized that if the drawing was helping her, it sure as hell was going to help me. Of course that’s not how necessarily how therapeutic outlets work—the same things don’t help everyone and many people should go to professionals in order to cope with their trauma—but nonetheless, Melinda and Laurie Halse Anderson helped me.
I continued to play the contest of “Who’s got it worse?” with my peers. Looking back, the books were my connection to them and they helped me forge relationships with them in addition to helping me cope with my own personal drama. So we sat, eating leftover pasta salad and crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and dished about our new fictional friends and their troubles. And finally I became comfortable enough to speak to them and told them about my brother. It definitely helped them to understand me more and their reactions were far more supportive than I imagined they would be—same way Melinda’s friends ended up coming to protect and support her.
I know our situations were incredibly different, but knowing that I could always open up and find Melinda or some other strong female roughly my age was such a comfort. When I felt I could no longer handle the stresses of taking on the responsibilities of being a sibling to an autistic sibling, a blanket and a book were always there for me to escape to.