From the Archive: “Are You There, Judy Blume? It’s Me, Rachel”, by Rachel Kessler
January 6, 2016
This essay was commissioned by SAL on the occasion of our program featuring Judy Blume in the 2014/15 Literary Arts Series, on June 11, 2015. It was written by WITS Writer-in-Residence Rachel Kessler.
Are You There, God? It’s Me, the Shy “Early-Bloomer” is the book I’d like Judy Blume to write next. By the time I came across the groundbreaking Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, puberty had already come and landed on my chest. The physical pain and emotional anguish of budding breasts in fifth grade may or may not have compelled me to pick fights with boys in PE. I wielded my floor hockey stick like my beloved, brave mouse warrior, Reepicheep, brandished his sword in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Most of my imaginative thought life was spent in Narnia. Unfortunately, C.S. Lewis offered no role model for a tall tomboy with boobs.
Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing did not prepare me for the hell of early menstruation, but it did show me how to deal with being the oldest in my family. I laughed in cathartic recognition of the trials and tribulations of Peter Hatcher as he soldiered through the shenanigans of his bratty two-and-a-half year old little brother, Fudge, and the hapless responses of his exasperated, exhausted parents. Peter, reporting from the frontlines of sibling rivalry, made me see my own situation as fodder for hilarious yarns. Blume clearly got what it was like on the ground as a kid: to feel as if the whole world is against you, even your well-meaning parents. Her sympathetic portrayal of “the big kid” did not try to guilt trip me into getting along with my little sisters. What a relief it was to find my stumblings reflected in the pages of a book. And then to realize I could exploit those frustrations. Into jokes.
Tales… may be the first book I read that was written in first person. Reading in that “I” voice revealed me to myself. It is a purposefully narrow, one-sided view, and inherently unreliable. My discovery of this technique allowed me to acknowledge the creeping awareness that everything was not OK.
By the time I read AYTG?IMM I was more like the outcast character Laura, that tall, quiet, “mature-looking” girl who everyone assumed was up to no good. I could not relate to the narrator and main character, Margaret, praying to God to start her period, performing bust-enhancement exercises with her clique. But Margaret’s new friend/antagonist, (the term “frenemy” had not been invented yet), Nancy: I knew her well. She reminded me of my bossy best friend, Nicole. Inclined to passivity and shyness, I required someone like her to incite action and help me find friends. Relying on Nicole allowed me to float along in my dreamy bubble; a “space cadet” to friends and family. A satellite wandering the outer orbit of adolescence.
I remember lying on Nicole’s bedroom floor one summer afternoon, absorbed in AYTG?IMM. She had procured this controversial book, as well as its even more eyebrow-raising companion book about an adolescent boy, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t. I scoffed at this ridiculous Margaret who stuffed cotton balls into her training bra, yet I could not tear my eyes away from her confessional of awkward desire and horrible thoughts. Our Christian school library did not carry these titles, and Nicole was determined to find out why. Years before, she had explained gay sex in my Barbie Dream House, using Ken dolls. Now she read to me, aloud, about Tony hiding his boner behind a raincoat in math class and how he spied on his neighbor undressing with bird-watching binoculars. Judy Blume, you blew my mind. For the first time since being betrayed by my mammary glands, I was thankful I was not a boy.
Nicole and I continued reading in what I considered to be a companionable silence. I did not notice as she crept up behind me, a pink Daisy razor in her hand. Earlier in the day, she had carried forth on Junior High being the time to start shaving my legs. Already imprisoned in a terrible white brassiere, I examined the blonde down on my shins, and shook my head.
“No,” I said. I had enough to deal with. In the 5th grade, after much haranguing during an excruciating visit to JC Penny, my mom corralled my ribcage, strapping my unasked-for bust into a bra. Sobbing on the car ride home I swore I would die from embarrassment.
“It will be less conspicuous if you wear it than if you don’t,” my mom reasoned. It was true. Hunching my shoulders and wearing baggy shirts could no longer hide the tectonic collision that erupted and formed my new breasts. “No one will know you’ve got it on, honey,” she assured me.
The first time I wore the thing, my younger cousin, a boy, jumped on my back, then recoiled, grabbing the back strap and tugging, hard, yelling, “Rachel’s wearing a BRA!” repeatedly while I tried to run and buck him off. He clung fast, like a rodeo cowboy, whooping, “A BRA! A BRA! A BRA!”
Even in my panic and overwhelming desire for the earth to open up and swallow me, I noticed adults in the room smirking. I hated all of them.
I did not die from embarrassment. My heart continued beating, my lungs respirated. Blood pumped. I had to continue to exist at this extended family get-together. My mom would not drive me home. After some time spent hiding and weeping in a pile of guests’ coats on the bed, the smell of hot dogs beckoned, and I arose and rejoined the party.
Those “And This, Too, Shall Pass” Adults must have forgotten the Agony in High Definition afforded by the pituitary gland, while my fellow pubeteers staggered around in the dark, spewing false information and behaving like wild animals. I hid inside my fort built of hormones and hair and melancholy, determined to put off dealing with depilatory decisions for as long as possible.
Then Nicole ambushed my leg hair with her razor, clearing a swath along my calf.
“Ha! Now you have to shave!” She said, bent over my legs. Although I wanted to kick her in the face, I froze. Razors could slice through tendons and arteries. She could kill, or disfigure me. Weary and mentally beaten down, I proceeded to the bathtub where she instructed me in the dangerous art of body hair removal. And thus began the rest of my life, battling razor burn, ingrown hairs, and other rashes. I became a well-groomed young lady.
Judy Blume was right there, in my hands, whispering assurance throughout. Margaret made mistakes, questioned God, did dumb things, and had a conflicted relationship with her best friend, yet as I read this diary-like book, spending time in this imperfect character’s head, I did not despise her for her blunders. As I appreciated Margaret’s humanness, I began to learn of and accept my own.
Re-reading her books as an adult, I realize how much I internalized Blume’s voice. My own 7th grade diary tried to imitate that voice. I wrote complaints (and thanks) to God, trying to make sense of my jumbled feelings. Encountering Blume’s characters 30 years later is like turning a corner and running into an old friend. So completely did I internalize Blume’s writing, I stored some of the character’s emotional experiences as my own. I forgot the plots of her books, but certain characters glow in my memory. Even when I couldn’t relate to a character’s motivation, they were so well rendered that they stuck with me, secret pen pals from that rough patch of adolescence.
Margaret’s spiritual quest at age 12 rings true today. I am researching and writing a book about the intersection of religion and puberty, and the way this heightened state of being shapes our perception. Drawing on what neuroscience knows about adolescent brain development and what old stories tell us of saints and other spiritual seekers who began having visions around the onset of puberty, I propose that this critical, if angst-filled, time of life renders humans capable of an expanded experience of the unseen, whether it be through mysticism, science, or both. AYTG?IMM is a compassionate manual to guide the questioning pubeteer through a particular (middle class Judeo-Christian) cultural and social landscape, and it is one of the books that got me thinking about where our ideas of God come from.
As a teenager I didn’t read Forever, which is number seven on the American Library Association’s Most Frequently Challenged Books. It has been banned again and again since its publication in 1975. Reading it as an adult, I felt a little ashamed when my 15-year-old picked it up and read the back copy out loud:
“THE BED IS BRASS, covered with a patchwork quilt, and ‘nice and firm,’ Michael says, ‘in case you’re interested.’ KATHERINE IS INTERESTED.”
I snatched it from her and retreated to my bedroom. My daughters have Rookie and scarleteen.com. I had the Holy Bible, (which, truth be told, a girl could find a lot to work with in Song of Solomon), and, glory-be, The Act of Marriage: the Beauty of Sexual Love, by Tim and Beverly LaHaye, and Intended for Pleasure, the Christian Joy of Sex my little sister and I discovered buried behind the concordances on my parents’ bookshelf. I can’t think of anything sexier than an introduction to a book that begins: “this book is unlike any other I have ever written. It should be read only by married couples, those immediately contemplating marriage, and those who counsel married couples.” Who is not ready to read on after that warning? It was my generation’s version of “click here if you are over 18.”
I am still reeling from Forever. Not only does a 17-year-old girl have sex with her boyfriend, but she goes to Planned Parenthood first, on her own. Then she has sex and enjoys it. She doesn’t get pregnant. Her boyfriend loves her. She loves him. Then she is attracted to someone else, which is confusing because she still loves her boyfriend. It is like Anne of Green Gables in sexually progressive Sweden. Straight-forward and healthy, it is still scandalous today. When I ask people my age if they read it when they were teens, many reply that they knew about it, but were too nervous of the knowledge contained within or wary of its reputation, unable to bring themselves to check it out from the library. It was infamous for being, as my partner puts it, “titillating.”
What if I had read it in high school? I try to imagine what my diary would have read like. Would I have made smarter choices with Blume’s validation of my feelings? Maybe. Forever still makes me nervous. I see it by my daughter’s bedside and put it back up on my bookshelf, just tidying up.
Rachel Kessler is co-author of books Who Are We? (with 7″ record) and TYPO, made as co-founder of poetry performance collaborations Vis-a-Vis Society and Typing Explosion, respectively. Her work has appeared in The Stranger, USA Today, Tin House, Poetry Northwest, Narrative and elsewhere. Inspired by everyday occurrences, she has performed poetry in parks, on buses, disguised as a tree, aboard water taxis, in phone booths, hair salons and public restrooms.