Judy Blume Saved My Life
Her books gave me the courage to run away from my dysfunctional home and find a better life for myself.
Judy Blume, pictured at a book signing. Photo via Wikimedia Commons user Carl Lender
I was raised by a single mother. She wasn't single when I was born, but two years into her marriage with my father, she left the Church of Scientology in Southern California and moved back to her hometown in Washington state. It was there that I grew up, in Seattle suburbs; Kirkland, Bellevue, Renton, Redmond. I lived in so many apartment complexes and went to so many schools that I can barely remember any of them.
When I look at class photos the students look like strangers to me, the teachers indistinguishable. Instead of cohesive memories, I have short film reels: standing in an administrative office at an elementary school, the secretary asking me how many schools I'd been at so far that year, and the look on her face when I gave the answer.
We were also poor, which meant that my clothes and shoes were always falling apart. I begged my teachers to let me stay in the classroom during recess, terrified of being bullied. I was an only child and learned quickly that it was easier to be by myself than try to connect with other children.
By the time I was seven, my mother could no longer afford daycare. So after school I would come home by myself, usually finding a path through the Pacific Northwest woods. I don't remember all the apartment complexes we lived in, but I do remember one in particular. We lived there for two years, the longest I'd lived anywhere up to that point. The complex was painted light tan with dark brown trim. It had a swimming pool and a large swath of woods filled with pathways made by homeless people and high-school kids. I would walk through the woods to the Drug Emporium, stare at the aisles of cosmetics, lotions, and hair dyes and imagine myself as a movie star, older and sophisticated.
I was sure that because I'd been born in Hollywood I was destined to go back there someday, and someone would discover me walking down the street, or eating dinner at a restaurant. They'd grab my hand and tell me they needed me in their film, and that would be it. In Drug Emporium, I would pick up the bottles of nail polish and packages of eye shadow and sometimes put them in my pocket. My mom never asked where these things came from.
When my mom came home every night, exhausted from work and often in a bad mood, I tried to make myself invisible. The sound of her key in the lock around five in the evening caused me to jump up from the couch, turn off the television, and quickly and quietly run to my room, where I would softly close the door and pick up whichever book was near. I'd inherited from a cousin a wide array of stuffed animals, but those were more for decoration. My most important possessions were my books—the only things that could take me away from my real life for a moment.
Judy Blume was my favorite author. Back then, I couldn't explain it, but as an adult, it's obvious why her books resonated with me. In Tiger Eyes, the protagonist, begins the book with the thought: "It is the morning of the funeral and I am tearing my room apart, trying to find the right kind of shoes to wear." Teenaged Davey has just lost her father, who died a violent death at the small store he manages. Davey suffers from panic attacks, and her mother has trouble dealing with the death of her father. The narration is first person, which allows the young reader to witness first hand what it's like to lose a parent and creates empathy not only for Davey, but also for her mother, her brother, and her aunt, and uncle. Tiger Eyes deftly tackles the subjects of losing a parent, moving to a new place, not feeling understood by the adults around you, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
No matter how many times my father disappointed me, I would return to my bedroom and find Judy Blume waiting for me there.
Tiger Eyes was my favorite Judy Blume book. I read it over and over again—so many times that my mom bought me several copies. I hadn't lost my father to a violent death, but he was absent, and had been since my mother left him when I was two. When he entered my life it was always brief. He'd call and tell me he was going to take me shopping, or to the park, or the flea market, and I would wait for the weekend. I would imagine getting into his car (always a Cadillac) and him telling me how beautiful I was (instead, he always commented on my weight). On the day he'd promised to take me, I'd sit on the stairs outside our apartment and wait. And then wait some more, until the concrete steps felt too cold to sit anymore. Eventually my mom would come into my room, or outside, and curse him.
He only showed up a few times. He died last November, and I barely knew him.
No matter how many times my father disappointed me, I would return to my bedroom and find Judy Blume waiting for me there, promising to take me away from my real life and teach me how to cope. I remember reading Deenie, her book about a middle schooler who is forced to get a Milwaukee Brace because of her scoliosis. Deenie is also dealing with her curiosities about masturbations and sex and a mother who only values her physical appearance. My mother was obsessed with her looks, and was always commenting negatively about my face and body. I read Then Again, Maybe I Won't, about a middle schooler named Tony who has to move to a wealthier neighborhood and doesn't know what to do when he realizes his rich next door neighbor is stealing from local stores. Blume gives him a "nervous stomach," which functions as his conscience. Blubber illustrates the cruelty of bullying, allowing the protagonist, a first-person narrator, to go on a journey from bully to bullied. Of course, I was bullied in school all the time, so I understood—but the book helped me to see that even a bully is a real person.
When I read Blume's books, the characters weren't make believe. They were people I knew and loved. As a child and teenager who felt deeply ostracized and isolated, I felt that they were my friends. The strength of Blume's female protagonists gave me strength. After a torturous day at school, where I was made fun of for being overweight or not having the right clothes, I would come home to the refuge of one of Blume's books—books that parented me in ways my own parents were incapable of, books that taught me that I wasn't the only person in the world feeling alone, the only person who was different.
Maybe it's going a little too far to say that Blume's books saved my life. But I know they helped save my life. It was Judy Blume who gave me the courage to run away from home when I was 13, after my mother married an alcoholic. And it was Judy Blume who taught me to be brave when I hitchhiked to California at age 16, where I forged a new life briefly working on a farm.
By the time I was 21, I was fighting forest fires and working for the Forest Service on a hotshot crew in Oregon. I thought I'd finally gotten my life together. But I was addicted to heroin; throughout my 20s, I continued to struggle with substances, an eating disorder, and relationships. Still, I never stopped believing that things would somehow get better.
When I turned 28, I cut off communication with my mother and began therapy. I was starting to work through the many issues that stemmed from a childhood filled with abuse and neglect. But then my mother got sick, and the next year, she took her own life with a shotgun.
It's been five years since my mom's death. When she died, I could find very few books about the trauma of suicide. But I remembered Judy Blume. I bought a bunch of her young adult books that I'd read in my childhood, as well as Summer Sisters, a beautiful adult book she wrote that examines what friendship means between two women. Rereading the young adult books, I was struck by how they didn't seem dated, and how several of them still made me cry. They helped me deal with the trauma of my mother's death. At the end of several books there was a short section about why Blume decided to write the story, and often the reasons had to do with her own life, what she herself had experienced or what she saw her children experience. Those sections meant so much to me, as I am also a writer who puts a lot of my own experience into fiction.
Three years ago, I went back to school to get my bachelor's degree. I graduated a little over two weeks ago, with top honors, and started writing an autobiographical novel about a young woman who struggles with drug addiction and has a difficult relationship with her mother. Next fall, I am entering the MFA program at Syracuse University. There are so many people who played a part in where I am today and how far I've come—and Judy Blume is one of them, although she doesn't know it.
And I know I'm not the only person she's helped. Blume instilled in me the belief that literature can create a space for healing, not only of oneself, but of the world. We can learn how to treat each other and ourselves through literature, if we haven't been given those tools otherwise.
Next week, Judy Blume's newest book will come out—her most autobiographical yet. In the Unlikely Event is about confronting your past, coping with loss, and the beautiful ways in which our lives are shaped by unexpected events. As someone who's experienced how transformative a traumatic event can be, I am looking forward to the journeys of the characters and the narrative arc of the book, and I know that my copy will become worn with multiple readings, just like all my other Judy Blume books. I know that I will be surprised, as I always am, at her ability to connect with readers of all ages, and to confront traumatic events, big and small, with compassion and ease.
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