NOVEMBER 27, 2012
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.