A roundtable discussion about Judy Blume featuring Nell Beram, Nina Berry and Andrea Kleine.
EVEN BEFORE I OFFICIALLY hit adolescence I’d read and loved most of Judy Blume’s books. I pored over Are you There God? It’s Me Margaret several times in sixth grade. By eighth grade, I’d giggled over the sex scenes of Foreverwith my friends so many times the little paperback book fell open automatically to those passages. Judy Blume was interwoven with my tween years as much as slam books, homework, and awkward flirtation with boys. Blume’s clear, unselfconscious prose made it seem normal to think about sex, to ask questions about religion, to worry whether your boobs were big enough. Pre-teen life was complicated and weird, but by addressing it so straightforwardly, Blume made it feel a bit more manageable.
So it should resonate as a surprise that, when I got my back brace at age 14, I avoided reading Deenie, Judy Blume’s seminal book on the subject,. A few well-meaning people recommended it, but I argued that I didn’t need to read about the pain, humiliation and inconvenience of wearing a brace. I lived through it 23 hours a day for three years. I could’ve told Judy Blume a thing or two about what it’s like to go through the most awkward years of your life covered in hard plastic and metal from armpits to thigh.
In truth, I was afraid to read the book. I managed my feelings about the brace with the ultimate anti-Blume strategy: denial. I decided that my situation wasn’t complex, weird, or awkward. It was fine. I was fine. There was no problem. On my 14th birthday, as I was beginning to increase the hours I wore the brace each day, my friends and I went to the beach, then retired to my friend Diane’s house. The boy I liked was there, and I figured I’d better get out ahead of the situation so he’d know what was up. I came out wearing a baggy dress with no waist, and said, “You guys should know I have to start wearing this back brace. You can’t really see it under my clothes, but…” And I rapped my knuckles on the plastic over my stomach, the way you knock on a door. I figured that if I joked about my situation in what appeared to be an upfront, healthy fashion, my friends would leave me alone. It worked. Everyone laughed, and that was it. Later, when we played Truth or Dare, the boy I liked kissed my elbow on a dare. It made me very happy, yet very sad. Even then I knew I wouldn’t date as long as I wore the brace. A boy or two may very well have been willing, but I could not believe it. I became very good at turning men into friends instead of boyfriends. I emanated a “not available” air.
When I finally read Deenie, a year or so into my regimen, the book made me angry. The main character is a beautiful seventh grader whose mother is pushing her to become a model. When Deenie is diagnosed with scoliosis and gets a Milwaukee back brace, (a far more severe version than the one I wore, with an appliance that comes up under her chin), her mother’s plans for her are shattered. The process of getting fitted and accustomed to the brace is excruciating for Deenie, and reading about it was painful for me. I skipped entire paragraphs. This book was messing up my denial.
In addition, I resented the role the brace played in Deenie’s life. In Blume’s story, the brace sets Deenie free. It destroys her domineering mother’s stereotypes of her as “the beautiful one.” Because of the brace, Deenie figures out who she is outside of her parent’s crushing expectations. This, really, is the main theme of the book — how parents project their own needs on their children, and how destructive that can be. Certainly a universal and important topic to address, but for me this was heresy. The brace as liberator? Hell, no. The brace taught me I could endure anything with a smile and a fake confident attitude, and it probably prevented my scoliosis from worsening to the point where I needed surgery. Other than that it was a prison. My body was so deeply buried beneath the plastic that my own flesh and blood no longer seemed real. When my doctor told me I could swim in it I laughed in his face. Let’s see him walk out of the locker room wearing that skeletal robo-tech over his bathing suit. Let’s see how he liked the stares and the pity. When cute senior Ted Peters grabbed me around the waist, felt the hard plastic, and asked me, very nicely, what that was, I turned away, quit flirting with him, and kept my distance. So as much as I loved Judy Blume and her other books, I couldn’t love Deenie — it was both too close to my own experience, and too alien. Still, Blume’s story loomed large for me, and I avoided the topic in my own writing.
Then, several years ago, I read Deenie again. This time, I found myself able to appreciate Blume’s directness and insight. After Deenie spills milk on herself because she can’t move her head while in the brace, she leaves the dinner table in a hurry. “I went up the stairs as fast as I could, slammed my bedroom door and tried to flop down on my bed. But I couldn’t even flop anymore.” Exactly. No flopping, no dancing, no curling up in bed with the dog, no more handstands in the pool. Later, Blume details Deenie’s humiliating struggle just to get her sanitary pads in place. “Even a stupid ordinary thing like sitting the toilet wasn’t the same for me now. The brace made everything different.”
Reading these scenes a second time was no less painful than the first. Physical memory is powerful. I felt again how the plastic jabbed up under my left armpit if I sat down too suddenly. On hot days the sweat-soaked undershirt would stick to me and wrinkle uncomfortably under that heavy shell. The purple bruises at my waist took months to heal.
But even though I was able to appreciate the power of the brace scenes, I found another problem with the book: there was too much going on that had nothing to do with the brace. Deenie holds hands with a boy at a movie and later makes out with him at a dance. She finds relief from stress by touching her “special” place and asks her teacher about masturbation (this is why the book is often foolishly banned). Her parents struggle with financial problems because of the medical expenses associated with the brace, and although Deenie’s father is unfailingly stalwart and supportive, her self-absorbed mother never stops taking the brace as a personal affront and blames Deenie for having scoliosis. All of these episodes are depicted with unfailing realism, so what was my issue? Intellectually, I admired Blume for effortlessly covering so much emotional territory in one small story. But I wanted the brace to dominate Deenie’s story the same way my brace had taken over mine.
If you asked my friends about me during high school, the brace would not have been the first, second, or third thing they brought up. We were busy with homework, parties, stage crew, hanging out late at each other’s houses, having our hearts broken, and laughing until we cried. In fact, most of what happened to me in high school had nothing to do with the brace. Late in junior year, when I took it off for good, my mother and I threw it away with little ceremony. No trumpets blazed, no transformation took place. You would have thought it wasn’t important at all.
Maybe it wasn’t. About a week after I finished the book for the second time it hit me. Judy Blume was right. The brace may not have freed me the way it did Deenie, but it wasn’t my whole story. Not by a long shot. While wearing it, I’d acted in a play and slow danced with Roger at the sophomore luau. I played spin the bottle, went to the prom, sang in the choir, started my own club, got a job at Burger King, and bought my first record album with money I earned myself. But mostly I had amazing family and friends who often forgot that I wore a brace. They knew, as Judy Blume had, that it did not define me.
I TOOK TIGER EYES with me on a family beach trip when I was 12 years old. My friendly aunts plunked themselves down beside me in the sand and asked what I was reading. “It’s a book about a girl whose father is killed right in front of her and then afterwards she has to go live with relatives who are sort of mean.” My aunts looked horrified. “Wow,” they said. “That sounds really hard for the girl. That sounds serious.” “It is,” I said. Tiger Eyes was a serious book.
I was part of the second generation to bond with Judy Blume novels. They were the books that got you through the latter years of elementary school. They validated the futility you felt trying to get your parents to understand your fifth grade life, the often humiliating battle of making it through a school day, and the complicated transformations of puberty. But because they were mostly written the decade before, they felt slightly dated (none of us had ever heard of a “sanitary napkin belt,” the contraption that makes an important appearance in Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret). As I zoned in on junior high, I felt I was outgrowing Blume. Margaret was informative, but she had a rather silly group of friends. Sheila the Great was ridiculously afraid of thunderstorms. Sally J. Friedman was a little too cutesy. And why would Deenie ever want to be a model in the first place? There was, of course, Forever, which was known around my neighborhood as “the sex book.” My mother, in her Ms. Magazine feminist style, actually bought me Forever, along with some sort of pre-teen version of Our Bodies, Ourselves, but after reading it I was too embarrassed to display it in my bedroom bookcase. I think my friend Alicia eventually found it, borrowed it, and never gave it back.
Then, in 1981, Tiger Eyes arrived. Tiger Eyes isn’t about anything potentially embarrassing such as masturbation, erections, or being the first or last girl in your class to get your period. Tiger Eyes is beyond all that. Its protagonist, Davey, is 15. She already has her period, she probably masturbates (in fact, before publication Blume removed a masturbation scene at the suggestion of her editor), and she’s had “some” experience with boys. In contrast to the way these details might be handled in Blume’s previous books, in Tiger Eyes they aren’t considered a big deal or weird or gross, they’re just a part of life. As is death.
Davey’s father is murdered. Her mother falls apart. Her younger brother is just a little kid. Davey is the parent in this book. A single parent. She’s the one who has to keep it together as her life becomes unmoored. In the opening pages, Davey is getting ready for her father’s funeral, and by the end of the scene she thinks, “I have never felt so alone in my life.”
A few weeks later, Davey starts high school and begins passing out in the hallway from panic attacks, prompting her mother to come up with the idea that the family should go to New Mexico to visit their relatives. “A change of scene” everyone repeats, a cliché employed to put a positive spin on the trip and avoid any mention of death. So, under the auspices of Davey’s health, the three of them board a plane from Atlantic City to Santa Fe.
In Atlantic City, Davey’s physical world had been small: an apartment over a 7-11, a strip of beach with the ocean rearing at the border. Although her parents allowed her a decent amount of freedom and independence, the boundaries of her environment were clearly defined. Los Alamos, New Mexico, situated in the vast West, is Atlantic City’s geographic opposite: an oasis surrounded by desert and canyons, a horizon that goes on forever. This is presented to Davey as safety, a risk-free pioneer adventure. “This is the only safe place,” her aunt says. Her uncle packs a rifle whenever he has to go to the city. When he returns, he hoses down the car. He also presents Davey with a membership ID for a bomb shelter. A get-into-jail free card.
The temporary vacation turns permanent when the family learns their Atlantic City store has been trashed by vandals. Davey’s mom descends into depression, retreating to her room zonked out on migraine medicine. Her aunt and uncle decide it’s best for them all to stay in Los Alamos. When her aunt takes Davey to register for the local high school and whips out her school records from New Jersey, it feels to Davey like she’d planned this all along.
Davey is stuck. Not only does she have no father, she now has no mother, no friends, and no home. Her adaptable little brother just wants to move on. He runs away from her when she tries to talk about Dad. Her mother stares at her through a druggy fog. Davey is entrusted with the legacy of the family and its tragedy. And she is the only one capable of voicing it.
Though she doesn’t know it yet, Davey can handle it. Davey is a rare character comfortable in her own skin. She is serious and ungirly. She has a boy’s name and a boyfriend back home. She enjoys letting a female friend give her a manicure and then nonchalantly scrapes the nail polish off the next day. Davey gets average grades. She doesn’t really have a favorite subject. She doesn’t really care about fitting in with a group. She likes to sing and she likes to be alone. Davey doesn’t dream about teenage social climbing or romance. Her dreams are sexual. They’re about freedom and escape; living and figuring out who she is. Davey may be a teenager, but she is a dreamer of adult dreams.
While hiking alone in a canyon, against her aunt and uncle’s “safety first” mantra, Davey meets Wolf. Slightly older than Davey, Wolf doesn’t say much, but he seems to understand her — his father is slowly dying from cancer. Still, Wolf and Davey never really talk much. They share a few words and a couple of looks. A quiet car ride home. A hug. That’s it.
And here is where Blume is at her finest. Heralded as the writer who writes about, “real life,” Blume writes best about real internal life. About the thought process of buying your dead dad a Christmas present, or feeling close to him in the lonely expanse of a canyon he never visited. Of realizing that you could outlive your parents and eventually let them go. Davey wrestles with contradictions of what it means to live. Her aunt and uncle don’t take chances. They live in a protected bubble community and work at a nuclear weapons research facility. They deny Davey a driver’s license. They fear the possibility of death so intensely that they have avoided life. Does living mean being safe and surviving? Or are we truly the most alive when death is possible? Davey is the fulcrum of tension between these two strategies. No longer a child, but not quite an adult, she’s a teenager who dreams of leaving, growing up, and entering the unknown.
Wolf becomes Davey’s journal. He represents freedom from her caretakers that she doesn’t have yet, and, perhaps more importantly, freedom from her grief. When Wolf ditches his college scholarship and takes off for Big Sur, Davey writes him letters that she doesn’t send. She never sees him again. A number of readers complain about the lack of closure with Wolf. There’s no resolution to their relationship. Do they ever get together? Do they ever see each other again? Probably not. She doesn’t need to. Davey’s journey through her loss is her own, and she emerges stronger and less afraid.
I didn’t have to deal with the death of a parent when I was a kid, but I had my own emotional minefield to traverse. I wish I’d had a Wolf who understood. I wish I’d had a friend who understood. Fuck, I wish I’d understood. That’s what Tiger Eyes gives to a young reader. It doesn’t promise that one day you will get the part or get your period or get “some” experience with boys. In fact, Tiger Eyes makes no promises at all. Davey’s mom claws her way back from depression and the family returns to Atlantic City, but her mother doesn’t have a job and they don’t have a place to live. Blume doesn’t wrap it all up for you, except to say that somehow, you will get through the trauma of growing up, even though the route won’t be entirely clear.
Tiger Eyes was the last Judy Blume book I read. Shortly thereafter, I got my period, cut my hair, and had “some” experiences. I entered the world that Tiger Eyes truthfully said was awaiting me: ever-changing, unresolvable, with fleeting moment of connectivity and sparks of life to chase. I didn’t need Judy Blume anymore. With Tiger Eyes, I graduated into teenage-hood.
THERE'S THE DIVORCE ONE. The race one. The bullying one. The scoliosis/masturbation one. The wet dream one. There’s the one with the teenage boy who names his penis Ralph. That’s the one my mother hid in the cedar chest; your mother probably did too. That notorious young adult novel, Forever … , was a departure even for the perennially banned Judy Blume. Most of her books were aimed at middle-grade readers, and my favorite was the straight-for-laughs Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Until I read the period one — this one.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, which was first published in 1970, is narrated by an 11-year-old girl who, I thought when I first read the book in the late 1970s, sounded kind of like me, lived in a suburb not unlike mine, and, like me, had puberty on the brain, if not on the body. A reluctant reader at the time, I found that Are You There God? went down suspiciously easily. Weren’t “good” books supposed to taste bad, like the novels about those sissy, slack-jawed Ingalls girls I was forced to read in fourth grade? If books didn’t taste bad, how else would you know you were learning something?
Are You There God? follows Margaret as she navigates her sixth-grade year at a new school after her parents decide to move from Manhattan to a well-heeled New Jersey suburb. The first friend she makes, Nancy Wheeler, is, I realize in retrospect, a mean girl in the making. At the first meeting of their four-girl “secret club” — they’re the “PTS’s,” for the “Pre-Teen Sensations” — Nancy has this to report about classmate Laura Danker (the one with “the big you know whats!”): “My brother says she goes behind the A&P with him and Moose,” the latter being Margaret’s crush object. Nancy mandates that everyone in the club think up a rule; hers is that each girl has to wear a bra. She leads the club in a breast enhancement exercise, accompanied by a chant that’s tattooed to the brain folds of women of my generation: “We must — we must — we must increase our bust!”
Talk of boys and bras — that’s all I wanted from a book at the time. But Blume’s novel has another, nonpubertal propulsive force: Margaret’s longing for a connection with God. Her prayerlike messages to God pepper the book’s pages, distilling her emotional life like diary entries.
Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret. Gretchen, my friend, got her period. I’m so jealous God. I hate myself for being so jealous, but I am. I wish you’d help me just a little. Nancy’s sure she’s going to get it soon, too. And if I’m last I don’t know what I’ll do. Oh please God. I just want to be normal.
As the story chugs along, the reader learns that a formal religious upbringing is a casualty of Margaret’s parents’ interfaith marriage. Margaret’s mother and father have entrusted her to choose her own religion when she grows up; her confirmation- and bat mitzvah–courting friends are equal parts envious and horrified. “If you aren’t any religion, how are you going to know if you should join the Y or the Jewish Community Center?” asks one. Only now do I see that for Margaret, this question is no less vexing than the question of when she’ll get her first period.
Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret. Life is getting worse every day. I’m going to be the only one who doesn’t get it. I know it God. Just like I’m the only one without a religion. Why can’t you help me? Haven’t I always done what you wanted? Please ... let me be like everybody else.
God may not be taking Margaret’s calls, but the book does feature a responsive quasi-hoary presence: Sylvia Simon, Margaret’s Jewish grandmother, about whom Margaret notes early on, “I think we left the city because of my grandmother ... I can’t figure out any other reason for the move. Especially since my mother says Grandma is too much of an influence on me.” Of course, over the years I had completely forgotten about Sylvia: why would my 11-year-old self care about this character when Are You There God? was awash in people my age, thinking thoughts so like my own? But now I notice something quite interesting about the Sylvia Simon character: she’s the book’s only reliable adult.
Blume seems to be making a point — a brave one, then as now — about the inadequacy of those responsible for (as we now call them) tween-agers. Are You There God? is full of disappointing adults: the new young male teacher doesn’t get much respect from Margaret and her classmates (and he doesn’t particularly deserve it, at least at first); Nancy Wheeler’s mother plays chaperone at the kids’ social events but has done a lousy job overseeing her daughter’s development; Margaret catches her own mother in a lie, just as she catches her friend Nancy Wheeler lying about getting her period. By book’s end it is clear that Margaret’s parents’ disinterest in helping their spiritually voracious daughter explore organized religion is burdensome to her, and perhaps even a mark of neglect.
For me as an adult reader, the most sympathy-arousing part of the novel is Margaret’s disillusionment following the woefully insufficient puberty presentation that she and her female classmates finally get at school: it doesn’t tell them “how [menstruation] feels, except to say that it is not painful, which we knew anyway.” You get the sense that Sylvia Simon, from whom Margaret is convinced that she is being kept, is the only grown-up who can be counted on to truthfully relay how anything feels.
In Blume’s writing is evidence of an immensely talented listener. In her hands, Margaret’s voice is so authentic that it’s practically inaudible. “Our new car is a Chevy. It’s green,” is the unassumingly note-perfect conclusion to one paragraph. “She had a big behind. Also, she wore a hat” isn’t played out as a body-parts joke; it’s simply what Margaret sees. Blume employs no tricks: no pointedly botched grammar, punctuational explosions, or would-be comically incongruous “adult” observations ripped from the pages of a Disney Channel teleplay. “The booklet recommended that we use Private Lady sanitary supplies. It was like one big commercial. I made a mental note never to buy Private Lady things when and if I ever needed them.” Blume may be editorializing here, but because we know Margaret so well by now, the comment seems incontestably Margaret’s own.
Another reflection of Blume’s skill is that the book holds up almost impossibly well given its dressing of details that capture the era: the hair rollers, the loafers, the school square dance that the sixth graders are maybe a little too excited about. There are also the boys who tease girls about their flat-chestedness or big-tittedness; thanks to feminists of Blume’s generation, today Margaret and her friends could get those little bastards busted for sexual harassment.
There was only one part of Are You There God? that I winced at the prospect of my 11-year-old daughter reading: is it in any way helpful, I can’t help but ask, for her to know that Playboy exists? (If I knew about Playboy at age 11, it was probably from this book.) Might it even be in some way crushing for a girl who has an ambivalent relationship with her blossoming body to read Nancy Wheeler’s decree that 14-year-old boys are only interested in “pictures of naked girls and dirty books”?
I was fretting about this aspect of Are You There God? when I started reading 2007’s Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume, a collection of personal essays by authors of what is apparently chick lit for teens. Contributor after contributor reminded me that Blume’s female characters are lusty in a way that good girls weren’t allowed to be in books, or in any media, until then, and this reassured these writers as preteens and teens that they were, in Margaret’s word, “normal.” It’s true that Blume’s Pre-Teen Sensations gape without shame at the image of a nude male in one girl’s doctor dad’s anatomy book. You wouldn’t have caught strawberries-and-innocence Jan Brady — the character would have been just about Margaret’s age when Are You There God? came out — asking, as one of Margaret’s friends does, “[d]o you suppose that’s what Philip Leroy looks like without his clothes on?”
When I told my 11-year-old that I would be writing about Are You There God?, she knew what I was talking about; the book has been making the rounds among her friends. After I brought a copy home from the library, she took the first turn with it. But she didn’t want to talk to me about it. I know better than to ask her if she’s looking forward to getting her period. On several occasions over the past year she has expressed near-teary remorse at the notion of growing up. Either my husband and I should be pleased that we’ve given her such a spectacular childhood that she never wants to kiss it goodbye, or we’ve done an atrocious job showing her how much fun it is to be an adult. I could send her a message of assurance:
Are you there, sweetie? It’s me, Mom. Trust me: Being an adult is way better than being a kid.
And I could sign it, “Another adult who isn’t telling a kid the truth.”