Why Children’s Books Make Me Cry

CW: emotional abuse, intersex

I’ve been preparing for the fall 2019 semester this week. A few days ago, I wrote an introduction on Blackboard. I ask my students to introduce themselves by answering a few questions about themselves, and it’s only fair I do the same.

For my class on children’s literature, one of the questions I asked is: “What’s your favorite children’s book?”

The answer I gave:

One of my favorite children’s books (because you can’t make me choose just one!) is The Moorchild by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, published in 1996. It’s a middle grade novel about a girl who doesn’t fit in and is made fun of by her whole village. She in fact does not belong – she’s a changeling, switched for a human baby because she couldn’t do enough magic to please the Moorfolk (kind of like fairies). Turns out, her mother, one of the Moorfolk, slept with a human man, so Moql/Saaski (the girl) is half-human and half-Moorfolk. She makes a place for herself and learns to love herself and accept friendship from people who accept her for who she is. I love that message. I have a soft spot for books with outsider main characters who find their own way…

I almost wrote more. About how I felt like an outsider almost all my life, in so many ways – gender, religion, smarts, interests, hobbies. But then I decided it wasn’t entirely appropriate, and/or I didn’t want to spill my life onto the screen for my students to read.

I haven’t been able to read and enjoy books for quite some time. Years ago, I used to read at least one book a day, maybe even two or three if they were aimed at younger audiences. My shelves filled with Young Adult and Middle Grade books because I read them, and loved them, and returned to them over and over. But over the past few years, I’ve been struggling to concentrate on the page.

I could attribute it to the strain of reading for orals, writing my prospectus, trying to write my dissertation, rewriting a whole new prospectus, and getting to work on the new dissertation.

But that’s not the reason I couldn’t read.

It was because I was always crying on the inside, and the books I like best make me cry on the outside, and I knew that if I unleashed the tears, they would never stop.

Back when I was in my teens, from about 7th grade onward, I dreamed of being in the Bais Yaakov High School play. After my shower every night, I would stand in front of the bathroom mirror and act out random scenes. They were always overly dramatic, and almost always tragic. Many of the scenes I made up on the spot involved a girl in an orphanage, usually Miriam from A Light for Greytowers. I spoke the lines I made up in a whisper, staring into my eyes in the mirror, until my eyes welled up with tears and the tears streamed down my cheeks. Then I would wipe my face with my towel and get on with drying myself off and getting dressed.

There are times now when I feel the tears stopped up, when I think “I really need to cry,” and I engage in similar exercises to gain the sweet release of tears. (It’s a coping mechanism, and not one without scientific validation.)

But the kind of crying I get from YA or MG books is special. It can reach deep inside me and twist my guts into knots, make me feel things I haven’t let myself feel for fear of the emotions taking over me.

I’ve been getting better at regulating my emotions (thanks, therapy and anxiety meds).

And over this past summer, I’ve had to read many many Middle Grade books as I prepared my syllabus for my class on children’s literature. I’ve enjoyed them, though I was reading them with a critical eye, an eye towards whether and how the books would fit my syllabus and be teachable. Now that my syllabus is finalized, my Blackboard site is set up, and my first-day PowerPoints and lectures are prepared, I’ve been relaxing with some of the books I got from the library, books that I knew I wouldn’t teach but wanted to keep an eye on anyway. I’m reading these purely for pleasure, for enjoyment. Maybe with an eye towards using them in future courses, but mostly just curling up with a good book.

And they are indeed making me cry again.

One of those books is Alex as Well, by Alyssa Brugman. According to the publisher’s website:

Alex is ready for things to change, in a big way. Everyone seems to think she’s a boy, but for Alex the whole boy/girl thing isn’t as simple as either/or, and when she decides girl is closer to the truth, no one knows how to react, least of all her parents. Undeterred, Alex begins to create a new identity for herself: ditching one school, enrolling in another, and throwing out most of her clothes. But the other Alex-the boy Alex-has a lot to say about that.

Heartbreaking and droll in equal measures, Alex As Well by Alyssa Brugman is a brilliantly told story about being intersex, exploring gender and sexuality, navigating friendships, and finding a place to belong.

I’m not intersex, but I struggle with my gender identity. And there was a time in my teens when I worried that I might be intersex (I do have PCOS, which is why I had some symptoms that made me freak out).

But that’s not why I related so much to the book that at times it felt like someone was punching me in the chest.

It was because of Alex’s parents, because of the interludes where Alex’s mom posts to “motherhoodshared,” a parenting forum, about her troubles and anguish and how much Alex is hurting her, and how she’s a terrible mother, and how she wishes Alex would just be a good boy.

“Your choices make me a failure as a mother,” my mother said to me. “My purpose in life is to raise Yidden with yiras shamayim, children who do mitzvos and follow the Torah. My purpose in life is to raise children like that, and you – my child – are throwing that away. And that means I failed at life.”

It was because of lines like “And then I recall that some of the times he held me down, it might have been because I was having a bit of a tantrum. You are a shit, Alex says. And it’s not just Mum and Dad who think so. Those reports in the attic said you were a shit too.” Because of Alex’s Dad, who says, “You are now, and have always been, a hyperactive, self-obsessed little shit, and caring for you is exhausting.”

“You were always so dramatic,” my mother said to me. “How was I supposed to know when you were really upset and when you were just being melodramatic?” And I would wonder, maybe this is my fault. Maybe if I had been better-behaved. Maybe if I hadn’t always been “chin-in-the-chest” upset, maybe if I hadn’t been “ungebluzen,” maybe if I hadn’t been such a “slob,” maybe my mother and father would have loved me more?

It was because of Alex’s Dad who says “you still haven’t actually asked anything. You have guessed, and assumed, and accused,” about Alex’s intersex status and the reason for her double birth certificate, it’s because Alex then remembers “that first night – back at the beginning – when I said I felt like a girl and my mother had the big hysterical fit, he left. He just walked out,” and my hearts screams for this young teen who didn’t follow her parents’ unspoken rule about asking and that’s why she didn’t get any answers and instead got called a pervert.

Maybe if I had spoken more rationally, I think, maybe if I hadn’t gotten upset, maybe if I hadn’t sarcastically said “don’t worry, I haven’t been raped yet” when she expressed concern over my new mode of immodest dress, maybe I could have patched things over with my mother, I think. And then I remember to be kind to the crying child I was, despite being over 25 by that point.

It was because of “It’s abuse, isn’t it? I’m not being a pussy. But it’s not the sort of abuse I could go to the Department of Community Services about – my father wanting to wrestle with me or my mother insisting that I eat French toast,” and pages later a brief memory of Alex’s mother hitting her with the phone, and who even needs to go that far ahead when in the previous paragraph Alex remembers how she fought back and asked her father to stop, and cried because she didn’t want to wrestle.

“Could you stop” was a laughing refrain in my childhood home, a remnant from when my father was tickling my younger sibling and they weren’t enjoying it, and asked for it to stop, but my father was having fun so he didn’t. My throat closes up with the memory of how my father hugged me when he was sad, or when one of “the boys” was in trouble at school yet again, and I knew he was hugging me for his own comfort and I felt suffocated, but I went along with it because if I didn’t his eyes would get all hurt and he would accuse me of not loving him. And I remember how I watched my friends’ families with envy, wishing I had their homes, and then berating myself because a parent hugging a child is not abuse, is it.

It was because of what Alex thinks while she and her father pack up clothes for her mother in the hospital: “This is good – taking things of hers and packing them in a bag, as if I am taking memories and packing them in the back of my mind.”

The dream finally stopped. It used to happen once or twice a week: I would be visiting my parents for Shabbos or Yom Tov, and either something would happen or I would just feel horrible, and I would try to pack up my things and leave. But no matter that, in every iteration of the dream, I was trying to pack the same belongings I had come with into the same bag I had brought – the things would never fit inside. I would stuff them, and stuff them, further and further in, and they still kept overflowing. Each time, I wound up taking extra bags away from the house with me as I escaped into the air outside.

Last time it was different. Last time, just two weeks ago, and the dream has not happened since. This time, my dream-mother said something unforgivable, and I responded calmly, standing up for myself. Then I went upstairs to my bedroom, took a big suitcase from under the bed, and calmly packed up every single one of my belongings. Neatly, carefully, and they all fit into the suitcase. All my clothing, all my books, all my memorabilia – not a stitch of me was left on the shelves. And then I left, and that house does not get to contain me anymore.

It was because of “You know what it comes down to? Alex says to me. People who don’t want to lose their babies shouldn’t treat them like shit.”

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