I may have come to Judy Blume a little late, but I think she’d be pleased to know that her books accomplished exactly what they were intended to. As she writes on her website about the book Forever:
My daughter Randy asked for a story about two nice kids who have sex without either of them having to die. She had read several novels about teenagers in love. If they had sex the girl was always punished—an unplanned pregnancy, a hasty trip to a relative in another state, a grisly abortion (illegal in the U.S. until the 1970’s), sometimes even death. Lies. Secrets. At least one life ruined. Girls in these books had no sexual feelings and boys had no feelings other than sexual. Neither took responsibility for their actions. I wanted to present another kind of story—one in which two seniors in high school fall in love, decide together to have sex, and act responsibly.
I was 17, and I’d exhausted all the shelves at the public library that had my mother’s automatic approval. She had stopped screening my library books when I was 15, but I still mostly stayed to the “Assignment” shelves in the adults’ room, and actually I mostly still got books from the children’s room.
Right next to the “Assignment” shelves (which had mostly books that are usually assigned in high school and college) was a stack of tear-jerker novels by Lurlene McDaniel. They all featured young couples, one or both of whom is diagnosed with some tragic illness, usually cancer. I got really into those for a while. It was a dark few months…
And then one time, when I was back upstairs in the children’s room, I came across a Judy Blume book. I had never read Judy Blume before – I had been more interested in historical fiction when I was the age to read her books, and I was more interested in fantasy after that.
But since I’d accidentally stumbled into this genre of cancer-love stories, when I saw her book Deenie and read the description on the back cover (a girl whose mother wants her to a model, but is diagnosed with scoliosis and therefore gets to make her own choices about her career), I was hooked.
Besides, Deenie is Jewish, and I had a weird fascination with reading books about Jewish girls who didn’t “really” represent Jewish life…
When I brought the book home, my mother saw it. I was no longer giving her all my books to go through before I read them (that’s how I was barred from reading Harry Potter), but she caught sight of the book and commented on it.
“Judy Blume – really? She’s provocative just for the purpose of being provocative. You don’t need to be reading that kind of garbage.”
I remembered then that she had taken numerous Judy Blume books out of my stacks of library books throughout the years when she did screen all my books.
Ah well. I wanted to read this book. It was obviously a children’s book, I was obviously an adult, and I couldn’t imagine there was anything in it that could so terribly influence me.
Little did I know…
The book is mostly about Deenie and her sister, Helen, breaking out of the boxes their mother put them in. “Deenie’s the beauty and Helen’s the brains,” she would say. In the mode of Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, she was actually trying to make sure her daughters would be provided for. The scoliosis is mostly a plot device to get the girls to speak their own minds about what they want to pursue, regardless of what talents they have.
But then there’s a certain scene. The one where the gym teacher goes through a box of questions that students submitted. I understood this concept – our gym teacher had spoken to us about body odor and deodorant and making sure to change pads frequently. It made sense for the gym teacher to talk to students about their bodies.
But the book’s version of a question box was very different from my experience. One of the questions is about masturbation.
I had never heard the word before.
Some students in the book hadn’t heard the word before.
When some kids giggle at the word and the teacher says that it’s just a word, and come on, everyone, let’s say it together – I whispered it along with the kids in the book. Mas-tur-ba-tion.
I became very conscious of my age (17) in relation to the students (13). I felt like the big dumb kid in the room. But I felt a thrill when I whispered the syllables anyway.
The teacher defined it as “stimulation of the genitals.” I wasn’t sure what “genitals” were, but Deenie touches herself throughout the book, so I figured it out.
“I touched my special place practically every night. It was the only way I could fall asleep and besides, it felt good,” Deenie says. And “Usually I take showers and get in and out as fast as possible. But the hot water [in the bathtub] was very relaxing and soon I began to enjoy it. I reached down and touched my special place with the washcloth. I rubbed and rubbed until I got that good feeling.”
I read that and remembered how, when I was about 7 years old, my mother had found me sleeping on my stomach, with my hands tucked underneath my body, on my lower abdomen. She had told me that could hurt me, I shouldn’t put my hands there. Now I started wondering if it was because she thought I had been touching my “special place.”
That night, I lay under my covers and breathed deeply. I thought about the definition: “stimulating the genitals.” Okay. Now I know what genitals are. The word sounded funny. So I thought of it as my special place. That felt weird and juvenile. I was an adult, after all. I went back to genitals.
Clinical. Keep it clinical, and that’s easier to think about. This is just an experiment. I want to know what that good feeling is that Deenie describes. Purely an intellectual exercise.
I told myself a lot of lies that night.
Also (I told myself), I’d been having trouble sleeping lately. And Deenie says it makes her sleepy. She’s 13 years old, and I’m 17. I don’t know why that matters to me. Leave that aside. Okay. One more deep breath. And here we go.
The book doesn’t describe how to stimulate the genitals. So first I just rested one finger lightly on my “special place.” Hm. It does feel good. A little warm. But maybe that’s just the adrenaline of doing something I probably shouldn’t be doing?
When I moved my finger, I realized that this “special place” has many parts. I didn’t know which part I should be stimulating.
I figured it out. Not that first time. But I continued trying – masturbation is the kind of thing you can figure out once you’re not afraid of hurting yourself by putting your hands anywhere near your “special place.”
When I was 19, my mother must have suspected I was masturbating. She didn’t say anything to me about it directly, and she certainly did not use the word masturbation. But she did raise the topic in order to quote from Talmud about how that “act” causes blindness.
I wasn’t in the habit of arguing with her at that time. So I just listened and nodded.
But I thought, “I’ve been doing it for two years now, almost every night. I don’t think I’m going blind. I mean, I’ve had to get a stronger prescription for my glasses during that time, but my eyesight is still fairly decent, and… Well, maybe I just keep watch for it. If I feel like I’m starting to go blind, I’ll stop.”
Logical, of course.
I terrified myself a few weeks later when, having apparently gotten pretty good at it, I actually did cause myself to go blind for a moment. Deaf too. That’s what a good orgasm can do.
Once my terror subsided and my eyesight came back, I thought “hm, maybe that’s what ‘it can cause you to go blind’ means. In which case – rock on.”
In my college bio class, during group presentations, one group chose to present on masturbation. As tends to happen in college bio classes…
I listened with great interest to their argument that male masturbation is not only not unhealthy, but in fact that lack of regular emissions can be harmful to men.
I used this as an opportunity to raise the topic again with my mother. I pointed out their citation of research that conclusively proves that masturbation does not cause blindness. (They cited actual research, if I recall correctly. Not just their own personal research.)
“Not physical blindness, maybe,” my mother said. “But it causes moral blindness. It causes diminished vision of what is correct and what is okay.”
I wanted to have a clear sense of right and wrong. I wondered if my masturbation habit had already caused my moral compass to be irrevocably damaged.
I continued masturbating anyway…