Of Autism and Americans: On Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s “Hurt You”
By Carol Roh SpauldingAugust 6, 2023
Hurt You by Marie Myung-Ok Lee
Zeus Pak, the book’s heartthrob lead, is reading Of Mice and Men, on which Hurt You is based, when the new girl in school, Georgia Kim, first meets him. “You can tell something bad is going to happen,” Zeus says to his friends, who shrug and ignore him because they all read the book long ago. Georgia takes this in. A Korean kid in remedial reading? With sexy hair. The novella itself, about Lennie Small and George Milton and Curley and his wife, doesn’t register with Georgia or any of the others. Nor does the book lurk in the pages of Hurt You as a plot device. Instead, Georgia and her older brother Leo head up this contemporary retelling of Steinbeck’s classic set in a Korean American community in suburban California. And the author’s conceit, that these young people are living out a narrative whose relevance never actually occurs to them, deepens in poignancy as Georgia’s and Leo’s fates mimic George’s and Lennie’s.
Leo Kim has autism. From the book’s prologue we know that “something bad is going to happen” because the novel opens with Georgia posting on forum after online forum seeking justice for her brother and repeating a truth too little recognized, that a mentally ill person is more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than the perpetrator. Since the tragedy has played out, it is for readers to examine how Leo’s fate becomes—and remains—almost inevitable.
Leo’s neurodivergence manifests in ways reminiscent of Lennie’s too-ardent affection for bunnies. Once, seeing “a bumblebee napping in a flower,” Leo became animated. His sister tried to imagine what he must have seen: “Fluffy, peaceful, adorable.” Before she could stop him, “he’d reached over, crushed the entire flower, bee and all, in his fist, then howled when he got stung.” That was Leo. Now, Georgia frets about how her brother will handle life in the Bay Area town of Sunnyvale, California, after growing up in New York City. They’re outsiders like George and Lennie. Whereas Steinbeck’s pair are saving up for a small farm where they can “live off the fatta the lan’,” Georgia’s dream is just acceptance for Leo, and maybe a chance to catch the hot guy’s attention. The storm cloud on her horizon is college. Her parents insist that she think of her own future, but Georgia is ferociously loyal to her brother and has stalled on college applications. She doesn’t intend to go.
Enter Curley, whose family name is never revealed, and his girlfriend, who, like Curley’s wife in Steinbeck’s story, has no name. (“She’s not a person, she’s a symbol,” Steinbeck said of her.) It’s no accident that their monikers remain unchanged from the original. The book’s epigraph, a line by Steinbeck, teaches us how to read Curley: “It isn’t that the evil thing wins—it never will—but that it doesn’t die.” Like Lennie Small, Leo Kim has an early run-in with Curley that registers his unpredictable behavior as potentially threatening. When Leo sees Curley’s girlfriend for the first time, he vocalizes in what Georgia describes as his “prehistoric bird-screech exhale.” Curley’s response is mocking, Trumpian: “I love the handicapped. […] I speaky their language.” But as they exit, the girlfriend casts a worried glance behind her.
Like Curley’s wife in the Steinbeck version, Curley’s girlfriend harbors frustrated ambitions. Georgia even feels a bit sorry for her, wondering if she’ll ever be able to harness her popular girl status in ways that don’t involve belonging to a guy. One day in the lunchroom, the girlfriend shows a passing interest in Leo through his caretaker, Penny, since a community service record may be her only hope of getting into college. The next day, Leo sits up straight at the scent of her (Georgia can’t see it, but her kid brother’s hormones are likely a factor now) and can’t resist traipsing after her in hopes of getting to touch those new “Kylie” (as in Kylie Minogue) braids. This happens, whereupon the girlfriend cries out, and Curley comes to the rescue by whacking Georgia with a golf club meant for Leo. Confused, Leo bites Curley’s jacket and, in turn, Georgia’s shoulder. Curley’s willingness to use violence in a school cafeteria against a fellow student he knows has a disability should result in reprimand. Instead, he immediately recasts the situation as Leo’s attempted “sexual assault” of his girlfriend and his own actions as justified defense. Leo’s a “perv” and a “menace.” Calm, competent Zeus Pak manages to defuse the situation by saying he caught the whole thing on video, thereby dissuading Curley from calling the cops. But the die has been cast.
As when Lennie crushes Curley’s fist in their first altercation, Leo’s reaction to Curley II’s attack is aggressive but done in self-defense—mostly. As Georgia later explains to her friends, Leo can be violent, and the distinction about when and how he becomes so isn’t that easy to explain. Georgia’s friends get it; they seem to love and accept him, in any case. But Georgia’s unending tasks in this capacity—of serving as her brother’s exegete, remaining hypervigilant in every public situation, and maintaining an acute sensitivity read on Leo’s every action—are causing her stress, which she won’t admit to herself because to do so might doom her brother to life in an institution one day. He needs her. He will always need her.
Meanwhile, the contemporary version of “living off the fat of the land” takes shape in a business idea the kids have come up with: Leo’s Lucky Rabbit handmade wallets, using bolts of Mylar that Zeus has access to. As the business idea takes shape, Georgia has many opportunities to observe the mutual regard between Zeus and her brother. Not only does she admire how resourceful Zeus seems to be, but she’s also beginning to think that maybe she could leave Leo with someone like Zeus. The hot guy isn’t just hot; he’s deeply humane, and he adores her brother. What’s more, Georgia’s mother makes clear that she wants her daughter to leave as much for Leo’s sake as for her own. Leo needs to differentiate; Georgia needs to let go. Just as she begins to think this might be possible, that she and Leo might have a future with Zeus even if just as friends, things start to unravel. That this unraveling convincingly parallels what happens in Of Mice and Men, a story first published in 1937, should give us pause.
To be sure, Hurt You smartly updates Steinbeck’s classic for a young adult readership, foregrounding issues of class, cultural identity, disability, and gun violence. Each of Lee’s beautifully complex characters reveals a potential not captured by the labels that overtake them in young adulthood. That’s an important message in a YA novel, and it suggests a vital subtext: labels are limiting, not just for Leo Kim but for all of us. Take American-born Georgia. She feels like an outsider to her own Koreanness. She’s not petite, she doesn’t speak Korean, and she’s never even heard the Korean word for after-school study hall, hagwon. Her identity centers around being Leo’s little sister and protector. Her friend, Yunji, the unofficial hagwon leader, is a very together but prickly pink-haired badass. Zeus defies Asian stereotypes because he likes to work with his hands and has no intention of becoming a doctor or lawyer or even a preacher like his dad. And although it doesn’t excuse his actions, even Curley “Three Sticks” (Curley the Third) lives by a certain brand of white meanness and dominance that seems less personal volition than a prescribed social role handed down by his family, who owns half the town.
The only character who never struggles with labels is Leo. As Georgia notes, he is 100 percent authentic. Perhaps not surprisingly (for who gets to be authentic with impunity?), Leo’s fate most convincingly and tragically updates the novel for our time. The counterparts to Leo Kim and Curley II are no longer Lennie Small and Curley I; they are Jordan Neely and Daniel Penny.
I don’t know if Of Mice and Men has stood the test of time. If it has indeed survived the waves of book bans that happen in my part of the country, it can only be because disability lacks cultural salience. We’re much less conversant about the rights of disabled people than about those of the triumvirate race-class-gender. Most of us, most of the time, forget the disabled are there, much less take issue with their depiction. Still, a contemporary retelling of a classic means that the story maintains relevance, and I find Hurt You profoundly relevant right now.
When my own son was diagnosed with ASD, I discovered that, if autism is what you have, there has never been a better time to have it. Society has learned so much more in recent decades about treatment protocols, educational intervention, and advocacy. Neurodivergent people have enjoyed greater understanding and acceptance than ever before. But that was before disability could be openly mocked by a US president. Before open-carry laws in public became the norm and COVID-19 bred hostility toward the ill and, for that matter, Asians. Before the case of Daniel Penny and Jordan Neely made clear that blaming the victim could be a legitimate form of self-defense.
What if George Milton hadn’t shot Lennie Small? Curley and his gang were coming for him. Georgia Kim doesn’t perform the equivalent of a mercy killing on her own brother, but the ending Lee gives us is just as tragic. In a devastating move, Lee pulls back from Georgia’s point of view, offering instead a series of accounts from varied sources, using language like “rampaging mentally ill man who came from the city” or “gang-related” violence connected to Asians moving to the suburbs. The real story slips through the cracks. The tragedy is not just that Lenny dies but that, the better part of a century later, despite advances in research and advocacy and awareness, Leo does too.
Carol Roh Spaulding’s collection Waiting for Mr. Kim and Other Stories won the 2022 Flannery O’Conner Award for short fiction and is due out in September 2023 from University of Georgia Press. Her forthcoming novel, Helen Button, received the 2021 Eludia Award from Hidden River Arts.
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