Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Well, I Finally Read it (Originally Posted 14 December 2006)

My brother took this above photo sometime around Christmas of 1977. For the last 20-odd years it’s been in a scrapbook in the closet, but for a long time before that it sat propped on my desk. This is what I wrote about the photo soon after it was taken:
“…like a prop from some Movie-of-the-Week or Hallmark Afterschool Special, the kind where all the main characters die or some to other bad ends. I can see the camera zoom in on each of our faces to tell the viewer whose story will come after the next commercial break. Then, when the tale ends in suicide or some other tragedy, the face is replaced by a big, black, ‘X’…”
There are seven in the photo, but five of us were especially close. Close or closer than sisters, thrown together by the Hell that was and maybe is Grosse Pointe, Michigan. We called ourselves the Funny Farm—“Farm” for short—because that’s what the kids who followed us down the halls of our exclusive prep school called us and taking the name in pride was the only power we had. The first taunts came because we didn’t dress right, because we didn’t have the right interests or participate in the right activities: because we were bad at sports and uninterested in them or because we memorized poetry at will and liked our teachers. But, thrown together by chance, we discovered we had quite a lot in common—inexhaustible creativity and extremely high I.Q.’s to name two. And both were anathema in a suburb where everything seemed made out of hard plastic, where the best response children gave to something unusual was bullying and jeers and the best response from adults a face and mind politely turned from things that might upset the status quo. Negating difference. Negating us.
The Farm started out as a good thing: a refuge, a community, a closer-than-sisterhood. But as time went on, it became not so good for adolescents whose jobs were to individuate. It was an entity of its own, a beast with five backs. We lost track of where one of us ended and the others began. When we had troubles—and we all had troubles: family troubles, social troubles, all kinds of troubles—we didn’t know who to put first. Individuality was both longed-for and demonized. So eventually the Farm broke down. I haven’t had any contact with most of the others in that photo for more than twenty years.
But that’s not the point of this blog entry.
Shortly after that photo was taken, we all spontaneously started keeping journals. Not the usual sort of diaries one would expect from teenage girls. No admissions of secret crushes or agonizing over keeping up with fashion, although there was a little of that; I admit it now. But mostly, these journals were travel guides on our inward journeys: records of thoughts and feelings that we dared not tell anyone else. And by sharing the journals, as we did far too often to be considered healthy, we learned something else we had in common: we were all in extremely poor mental and emotional health. The experience of being negated by a society we had to cope with every day of our lives had made the lot of us suicidal.
At some point in the spring of 1978, one of the journals disappeared. It was the one belonging to the recognised artist among us, a journal she wrote as much in pictures as in words. Later, it was returned. And someone had written a letter to her in one of her margins, telling her—telling all of us—all the reasons that suicide was not the answer. We never found out who had done this; in fact, we agonized over it for weeks, wondering if whoever-it-was would tell, if some axe would fall on our heads for daring to think the unthinkable. It never did. Whoever-it-was remained silent.
Several of us thought we recognised the handwriting and eventually we came to believe the marginalia had been written by one of two boys in the senior class, boys with whom I was familiar through theatre and another of us knew from the literary magazine. It didn’t matter which; they were close friends and if one had read the journal you could be sure the other had.
Several years ago, one of these two fellows—I can’t call them boys now—published a very well-received, if somewhat wordy, novel about five sisters, all of whom commit suicide. I first learned about it when I saw the trailer for the movie Sophia Coppola made of the book. “That’s interesting,” I thought. “That looks like us.” Not too much later I found out who had written the book. “You Bastard!” I thought then. “It IS us!!”
Of course it was just a feeling, but it was a very strong feeling. I couldn’t get over the idea that those five sisters were meant to be the Farm. Well, this last week I finally got up the nerve to read the book. I didn’t for a long time because the thought of it made me too angry. The author was always a complete jerk to me. How DARE he be writing about girls committing suicide like he knew anything about it? Also, I didn’t want the book to be any good. He was so mean that I felt that if he could actually write I wouldn’t be able to stand it.
What do I think now that I’ve read it? I think it was based on us. I think that the author was indeed one of the people who got hold of Libby's journal and that he’s spent a long, long time trying to figure out what he found there and came up with an answer that made sense to him. In the book, the boys get hold of the youngest sister’s “highly illustrated” diary—in addition to being the artist, Libby was the youngest of us. They find the diary “…an unusual document of adolescence in that it rarely depicts the emergence of an unformed ego…Instead Celia writes of herself and her sisters as a single entity. It’s often difficult to identify which sister she’s talking about and many strange sentences conjure in the reader’s mind an image of a mythical creature with five backs and ten legs…”
That screamed “FARM!” to me. As did some of the other details. The middle sister—I was the middle in age in the farm—was the tallest, like me and played the flute, like me. One of the sisters had a mustache, as did one of us—a thing that garnered her more jeering than the rest of us combined, it seemed some days. One of the parents was a teacher, as was one of ours. The girls are interested in spiritualism, the zodiac; they burn incense and write strange poetry; we did all that. As the book progresses, the sisters keep more and more to themselves, withdrawing from those who might have reached out to them. We did that, too.
The book unsettled me in other ways. Though the rave reviews on the back speak of the author “creating a new mythology,” it read like anything but myth to one who had been there. Our private school is described in detail, down to the girls’ lockers in the science wing, where most of us had ours and the cubbies at the top of the ramp leading down to the cafeteria, where students threw their books as the pelted down to lunch. The teachers are badly disguised. The chemistry teacher, “Mr. Tonover,” lets his students make peanut brittle over a Bunsen burner in the aftermath of the first sister’s death. Our chemistry teacher, Mr. Overton, let us do the same thing on special occasions. “Miss Shuttleworth” is obviously our Miss Ferguson, calling her students “infants” and insisting they stand when she comes into the room. The author—okay, let's use one of his techniques and call him “Mr. Goodblood”—doesn’t even bother to change the names of the school sports team or yearbook. It’s all quite eerie, and does not, in my opinion, show the work of a truly creative mind, rather, one obsessed with a puzzle it cannot quite put together.
Of course, that’s kind of the point of the book: not the girls and their suicides, but the neighbour boys’ obsession with them. I truly can’t imagine any adolescent boy being that obsessed by anything but his own penis, and the way these boys deny that’s what their doing by collecting their little mementoes really irritated me. From my side of the living room, they have no interest in the girls as people at all, no interest in their motivations and no interest in helping them out of their situation. They WANT to be voyeurs and so they keep the girls prisoner as much as their own circumstance. Otherwise, wouldn’t they have reached out in a clearer and more effective way than playing songs through the telephone? Gone to Social Services? Talked to a teacher? A parent?
In Grosse Pointe, of course, the answer is a definite no. Grosse Pointe, for all its superficial cloak of Country Club health and values is as savage a jungle as any in the undeveloped world. Being different marks you as prey there. So if you’re different, you’d better just snap out of it or you’ll be eaten. And don’t expect anyone to help you because helping you would mark them as different, too.
But the thing that irritated me most about this book was the ending. I was hoping all along that the narrator would develop, if not some understanding, at least some compassion. Well, he doesn’t. The last paragraph starts, “…The essence of the suicides consisted not of sadness or of mystery, but of simple selfishness.” I read that and nearly threw the book across the room. I wish I had, because then I wouldn’t have had the last sentence inflicted on me, with its, “…we had loved them and they hadn’t heard us calling…”
Give me a break, Mr. Goodblood! You loved them and did nothing? What does that say about you and your ilk? Only that you’re still just as much of a jerk as you were in High School, when you used to taunt me for thinking I was somebody of value, thinking I could ever fit in with your crowd even though we shared activities and interests. You still have failed to learn the most basic thing about a suicidal nature: that suicide is not a choice. It’s something you do because you have seen your choices narrowing and there is only thing left. You have waited and waited for someone to throw you a rope, not just stand there and watch you disintegrate. And no one has. You, like your Dr. Hornicker, cannot even imagine the daily sadness and hopelessness that a suicidal person suffers. And until you get over your own agenda, you never will.
My Therapist says this book makes her sick at her stomach and the idea that someone made money off his observations of someone else's sufferings is the same to her as the idea of paying a serial killer. In the end, though, this book neither irritated nor delighted me as much as I had feared. It was just a book, one of hundreds I read each year. Some I keep. This one I will not. It’s not worth a second read, since I already know more than the author about its subject matter.

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