Are You There Judy? It’s Me, Steve.
I can still remember the fun in being a closeted gay junior high kid reading aloud the dirty parts of Judy Blume’s Forever with a bunch of unpopular, smart girls. We hid from our teachers and fellow students during recess, hiding behind bushes, giggling over the passages describing sex between Katherine and Michael, the explicit details of their bodies rubbing against one another, leading to more explicit sexual behavior. Sometimes we skipped over the scenes of actual fornication and moved onto one of our favorite parts: the scene in which Michael reveals his penis’ nickname, Ralph.
We never knew why he chose that name.
The girls asked me if my penis had a name. It was one of the few times when I was around them that I remembered I was a boy. When I read passages from Forever in front of an audience of girls, I became Katherine, that female narrator, and I was so happy to be someone else. She was full of so much strength, frustration, and fear that I identified with her more than any male protagonist. My queer identity disappeared, an identity that I didn’t have the courage to embrace whole-heartedly, and I could latch onto those heroines, merge my personality with theirs, pretend that their narratives were my own.
I never felt much attraction to the popular books that dealt with male rite-of-passages. They always seemed oddly dull. I tried to read Lord of The Flies. It was about a bunch of boys stranded on a deserted island who have to fight for their survival. Not only did they war with nature, but also among themselves. I felt a faint identification with Piggy: bumbling and a bit desperate, physically graceless, clinging to my coke-bottle thick glasses. I couldn’t believe he persevered for as long as he did after his glasses were smashed. If mine broke, I knew that that would be the end of me. I never did finish the book. It was too painful to read the rest after Piggy’s tragedy; I threw the book into the fireplace when no one was looking. I always suspected, probably unfairly, that Piggy was a closeted young homosexual: smart, cultured, unloved, cramming food in his mouth as a substitute for his failure to be touched, desired.
I, too, was well-read and gaining weight quick. So scared of my own queerness, I didn’t want to have any proof of what could happen to me, even if that proof was a fiction. I knew that I deserved to triumph, and Blume’s young female narrators revealed that potential.
One of the wonderful things about Blume’s books was reading the way her descriptions of sex oscillated between the emotional and the clinical. A lot of her scenes involved lengthy conversations about desire, both the male and female openly admitting their excitement and reservations about taking the next step. As a closeted gay kid, I fantasized about meeting someone as cool as Michael, as articulate and as resourceful as Katherine. In one chapter, after her grandmother sends her birth control information, Katherine makes an appointment at the Planned Parenthood Clinic. She receives a pelvic exam and a prescription for birth control pills. Blume presents the narrative in a matter-of-fact way, which makes the reader that much more comfortable if she chooses to emulate Katherine’s actions. There’s nothing odd or inherently dramatic in taking care of one’s body. As a closeted gay kid, I didn’t know what precautions I should take with mine. What health concerns were different for a gay man than a woman? No book answered that, at least none that I was aware of.
Of course, critics freaked out and criticized the book. Lou Willet Stanek in The Arizona English Bulletin referred to Forever as a “problem novel…that is as explicit as a sex manual.” But through seeing Katherine deal with her needs so deftly, even insisting that Michael use a condom during sex, I imagined that one day I could engage in healthy sex, maturely and with the necessary protections. People were out there offering the information, and all you had to do was ask.
For me, the scariest parts of Forever involve the character of Artie. Artie is the boyfriend of Erica, who is Katherine’s best friend. Blume constructs many extended scenes between Artie and Erica discussing sex, emphasizing Artie’s fear, a fear so significant that he does eventually confess his ultimate terror: his impotence may be connected to his suspicion of his own homosexuality. This was not the sort of gay character I wanted to represent me. If any of the girls on the playground began talking about Erica and Artie, I deflected the conversation back to the fun sex scenes, praising Katherine for wanting to play dirty word Scrabble. How I marveled that she possessed enough confidence to think of enough words for the duration of an entire match! I loved her; I wanted to be her.
But Artie creeped me out. I wanted him to disappear from the book, and sure enough, he does. After Erica breaks up with him, we find out that Artie tries to hang himself: “On Thursday morning, Michael’s birthday, Artie hung himself from the shower curtain rod in his bathroom. Luckily, the rod broke and he fell into the tub, winding up with a concussion and an assortment of cuts and bruises.” It’s never said why Artie tried to kill himself, but we can infer based on his earlier pronouncement. Michael admits to not having listened to him (was he afraid that he might be implicated if his friend came out? was he scared of his own urges?); Erica confesses her own heartlessness in breaking up with him so abruptly. In a novel obsessed with allowing the characters to talk at such seemingly unedited length, it comes off as a surprise that we never are given a scene that allows Artie to explicitly name the reasons behind his suicide attempt. In fact, he never enters the novel again, and I remember being happy that Blume kept him at a distance. His unabashed homosexual panic didn’t lead anywhere constructive, and I needed possibility, not another representation of a suicidal closeted gay teen who seemed to be a failure on every level, even his inability to orchestrate a successful suicide.
If someone was going to be a victim, I wanted them to be at least a full-bodied, three-dimensional character. That was what I got from the next book of hers I read: Blubber. But having re-read Blubber recently, essentially the story of the trials and the tribulations of a fat girl, I was surprised by how much the book avoids the pitfalls of a traditional victim narrative. The story focuses on the relationship between three girls: Linda, the geeky, fat girl; Wendy, a pretty, obnoxious teen, who wants to humiliate Linda; Jill, a friend of Wendy’s, who slowly comes to empathize with Linda, and eventually tries to rescue her.
I remember reading the first scene of the book in which the fat girl Linda Fischer gives a report on whales. Linda’s obliviousness of course allows Wendy, her main nemesis, a perfect opportunity to humiliate her in front of an entire class. What is remarkable about this set-up is that Linda in a way is complicit in her own humiliation. Her debasement becomes predicated on her inability to foresee the dangers in giving a speech about an animal (the whale) she resembles. You can’t help but read the scene and feel frustration toward Linda for not avoiding the inevitable through self-awareness.
Scenes like this affected me in a profound way. As a visibly gay kid growing up, I wondered how much of my pain was self-inflicted, how much was beyond my control? By identifying with this narrator, there were no easy answers, no matter how much I wanted them out of sheer convenience, the understandable desire for scapegoating. Gym class was always the predictable place for emotional torture. I remember having to do laps around the gymnasium. A group of kids would always follow me and punch me in the arm, try to trip me. Sometimes I would deliberately fall to the ground, make a spectacle of my plunge, just so they would receive their entertainment and then go away, harm someone else.
My best friend Alicia was as large as Linda, but no one teased her. She would turn out to be my closest queer alliance, and bodyguard. If anyone would give me a hard time, she would frighten then off, stare them down, raise her fists. Not only was she tough, she was smart. No way would she ever be seen as doing something as idiotic as giving a speech about the humpback whale to a bunch of bored teens.
When Blubber was released, I remember reading reviews in the school library. I recently managed to find one of them in a critical study of Judy Blume; of Blubber, the critic Richard Jackson said, “I think Judy is saying something quite nervy in this book: that is, there are some people who, because of the way they behave, inspire cruelty. I think one of Judy’s points is you can cast yourself into a loser role. And that’s your choice.”
When I first had read this interpretation as a pre-teen, I felt exhilarated and frightened. Was my ridicule a result of my inability to disguise my queerness in a more successful manner? In gym class, I did run away from the soccer ball whenever it darted in my direction. It was my choice to always tag-along with the girls during recess, avoiding my male classmates who like to climb the jungle gym, play Smear the Queer on the blacktop. I could change. All I had to do was put my mind to it.
Unable to claim ignorance, I knew why people singled me out for ridicule; my self-insight should be able to help me alter my social situation.
But at the same there was only so much I could change about myself. If Linda lost weight, other people’s respect for her would increase. Specific markings of my queer identity –my whinny voice, effeminate nature- could only be changed so much. I was who I was. Walking bowlegged and talking in a deep voice could only conceal my essential nature for so long, and how convincing would such changes be?
Growing up, I often spent a lot of time with my uncle. Even though no one would openly say it, everyone knew he was gay, and no one cared. He was a sweet guy, and when he came over, he told me stories about a man named Oscar Wilde. He never once said that Wilde was gay, but explained that a lot of “people in power were jealous that he had really intense relationships with young people.”
“Why did people care?” I asked him.
“People don’t like people who have a lot of friends,” he said, “They get jealous.”
He then told me that the “people in power” tried to hurt Wilde, because they were so intimated of his social skills. They put him on trial and tried to condemn him. I loved the idea of a trial, and the fact that someone, according to my uncle, could be sentence to death for simply being friendly fascinated me.
I liked myself for being such a social outcast, someone no one paid attention to. No one wanted to be my friend, especially young people. I was safe from the cruel world.
One time I told him about Blubber and read aloud to him the climatic scene which involves a trial. I thought for sure he’d appreciate it, and his approval of me mattered. In the scene, Linda is put on trial by her classmates, led by Wendy. Only one student attempts to protect Linda, a girl named Jill, who has always been disturbed by Linda’s victimization. Jill demands that Linda receives a lawyer, someone to defend her. Infuriated, Wendy turns on Jill, mocking her. By defending Linda, Jill suffers from serious social fall-out, being the last one chosen for a sports team and ends up having no partner for a school trip.
As I was reading the scene about Jill, my uncle stopped me mid-sentence and exclaimed, “That’s why no one defended Oscar Wilde.”
I didn’t understand the connection.
“Everyone was afraid that they would be identified with him.”
I was still confused, so I let him try again to make necessary correlations.
“Victimization is contagious. Or so people think. If you hang around a victim, you’ll become one yourself.”
“Jill doesn’t end up a victim,” I said, “If you let me finish, you would have found out that she fights back against Wendy.”
“Good for her,” my uncle said, “You should follow her example.”
He paused and then said, “There have been so many times in my life I wanted to be like Jill. But I’ve always kept my mouth shut.”
“Everyone likes you,” I said.
“They like what I allow them to know about me,” he said.
I got nervous, so I said, “Let me finish the scene.”
My family members became skittish about my obsession with Judy Blume. When my mother discovered that I was reading Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, she forbid me to read it, grabbing the book from my hands and then hiding the book in her bedroom.
“That book divulges women’s secrets,” she said.
“The fact that a woman gets a period is a national secret?” I said.
“Don’t be a smart mouth,” she said, “It’s just something you shouldn’t read. It’s a book for women by a woman. Men have no right in reading in it. Even sweet little boys like you.”
“But I’m curious.”
“Be curious about your own sexuality. Leave ours alone.”
What I failed to tell my mother was that I couldn’t be curious about my own sexuality; I feared that if I found out something in a book, I would turn out to be one of them—a doomed, suicidal, teen homosexual who would be used by abusive, older men. I was convinced I was the only boy in the world grappling with his sexuality.
My favorite scenes in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret revolved around Margaret and her new friends’ secret club. I remember fantasizing about the fun they must have had in agreeing upon a name for their organization: the PTS club, or Pre-Teen Sensations. I loved the rules they had: they could not wear socks with their loafers; they each kept a Boy Book with a current list of the cutest boys. Another rule was they all had to wear bras no matter how flat-chested they were. And most importantly: “The first one to get her period had to tell the others about it. Especially how it feels.”
At one PTS meeting, the girls compare their breasts to the ones of models in a Playboy magazine that Margaret steals from her father’s dresser drawer. They end the meeting with the ritual of repeating the mantra “We Must Increase Our Busts” fifty times and other assorted exercises to accelerate their womanhood.
Blume describes the scenes in such an effective way. You can feel the joy, tension, and competitiveness in these girls’ solidarity. Blume’s talent as a writer partly came from her creating for us the opportunity to gaze voyeuristically at our own secrets. Through her empathy for her protagonists, she allows us to identify with them so that our secrets conflated with theirs, and we could exhibit them, boldly, proudly, and happily.
Of course, my secrets didn’t reveal themselves until college, but reading about the PTS club helped mitigate my frustration for a number of years. Eventually, I thought, I’ll find a club of like-minded people, and we’ll form our own group and silly rules.
I can still remember the first coming-out group I joined at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign. Everyone was uptight, nervous, constantly looking over their shoulder to make sure that no one was spying on them. You could also feel everyone in the room hoping they didn’t appear as gay and as insecure as the person who just spoke. I remember spacing out as someone told his uneventful coming out story. I felt jealousy towards Margaret and her friends teasing one another, glad to be in each other’s company.
Issues of truth and secrecy take center stage in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. One of the most tense scenes in the book occurs when Margaret finds out her friend Nancy has lied about her period: “I didn’t know what to say to say. I mean, what can you say when you just found out your friend’s a liar!” I imagined the day my friends would find out I was gay. Would they be similarly un-empathetic in their reaction? How could I lessen the intensity of their reactions? Each day that I waited to disclose my sexuality, the more justification they had for a more volatile response. They would call me worse things than a liar.
When Blume started to write books for adults, people like my mother, I felt betrayed. Blume was supposed to be on our side. She had no right to show any empathy for anyone else other than kids. No author other than Blume managed to represent our hidden desires, to make a spectacle of our secret interiority. So when I snuck a peak at the back cover of my mother’s copy of Wifey, I was enraged as I read one of the blurbs that exclaimed: “You will enjoy this book…HIDE IT WHERE THE CHILDREN WON’T SEE IT!”
How could Blume? How could she switch sides? There’s no way she could keep our secrets in tact. When you write about two opposing factions, you always take sides; it’s inevitable. Blume was no longer an ally. At the same time I was curious about my mother’s secrets, which I assumed were contained in the narrative of Wifey. I scanned the book for any clues.
The book revolved around the escapades of a bored housewife named Sandy Pressman. Her husband Norman is well-meaning, but a bit of a dolt. Sandy tried to find self-satisfaction in a series of escapades. I can still remember the scene in which Sandy confessed her boredom to a friend named Lisbeth. Lisbeth gives her some advice: she tells Sandy that she and her husband sleep with other people on Thursday nights. The only stipulation is that they’re both required to tell the other every single detail about the encounter.
As Lisbeth declares, “Everything must be out in the open…that’s the only rule…no secrets…this class I took last semester in Contemporary Relationships was fabulous…how showed us how secrets cause strains. This opennness has caused such a boon in our marriage.”
Coincidentally, when I was secretly reading these sections, my parents’ marriage was falling apart. My father was rarely coming home, sometimes disappearing for a few days at a time without even a phone call alerting us as to his whereabouts. My mother walked around depressed, going to bed around 6 p.m., forgetting to make me dinner.
One day I decided to confront her: “You and dad are so unhappy.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
“Maybe you should follow Lisbeth’s advice.”
“Who is Lisbeth?”
“Don’t play dumb,” I said.
“I have no idea who Lisbeth is.”
“Lisbeth from the porn you read! Lisbeth and her husband who sleep with everyone in their town so they don’t have to touch each other!”
“You’re going into my room and reading my books?”
“At least I’m learning something from them,” I said, “You’re so stupid you’re going to make dad leave us. Let him sleep with someone else other than you.”
My mother slapped me across the face. “He is doing that,” she said, “He knows I know. That’s why he can’t face me. Or you.”
I walked away and decided I’d stick to my own books, maybe even read something as tame as Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Adult books seemed to get me in trouble.