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Book Review: A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She is Today by Kate Bornstein (Audiobook narrated by Alice Rosengard)

June 27, 2013 1 comment

Red lettering on a yellow background stating "A Queer and Pleasant Danger" black lettering around the edge says the subtitle of the novel, "The true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology, and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today"Summary:
Kate Bornstein is a playwright, gender theorist, and queer activist.  She chose to write a memoir as a way to reach out to her daughter, Jessica, who is still in the Church of Scientology, and thus, must not speak to her.  Her memoir talks about growing up Jewish in the 1950s, feeling like a girl inside a boy’s body.  It then talks about why and how she joined Scientology (still identifying as a man, Al), climbing Scientology’s ladder, marrying, fathering Jessica, and finally getting kicked out of Scientology and becoming disillusioned.  From there the memoir explains to Jessica how and why Al decided to become Kate and talks about the person behind the queer theory, trying to explain who the incredibly unique parent she has truly is.

Review:
I was feeling bad about how far behind I’ve fallen in writing up reviews for the books I’ve finished reading, but with the historic DOMA ruling in the US yesterday (giving official federal support to marriage equality), I’m really glad I had a GLBTQ book in the queue ready to be reviewed.  And not just any GLBTQ book. An amazing one!  You can’t read that title and not be intrigued. It’s impossible.  I spotted it on tumblr and instantly knew I had to read it.  A memoir about a transwoman who was a member of Scientology?! It’s the intersection of three topics I find fascinating.

Kate is unabashedly honest about the fact that this book exists as a letter to her daughter, Jessica.  The prologue explains that this memoir came about as a way for Kate to reach out to Jessica and her children, even after Kate has passed away.  This lends a tone to the book of an elderly neighbor sitting down to tell you their life story, and you finding out gradually that your elderly neighbor is, in fact, a bad ass, and age has nothing to do with how cool a person still is to this day.  And Kate doesn’t hold back because of this perspective.  If anything, she is more brutally honest than she might otherwise be.  She wants Jessica to have a whole, clear picture of who she is.  Flaws and all.  One technique that I thought was brilliant for a memoir and helped establish trust in truth between the reader and the author was the fact that Kate would tell a family story she heard growing up and then say, well, that was a lie.  I thought it was true, but it turns out what people told me was a lie.  Given that, how can we ever know what really is true? Just because we think something is true doesn’t mean it is.  It’s an excellent grain of salt to be given in a memoir.

After the prologue, Kate tells her story chronologically.  Her story can be roughly summarized as the following sections: growing up a gender queer person, joining Scientology, break-down after getting kicked out of Scientology and coming to terms with her queerness, transitioning, life as a lesbian trans activist, finding BDSM, and overcoming depression and suicidal thoughts.  It’s an emotional rollercoaster ride, and one cannot help but feel empathy for this person just struggling to find a place in the world.  Personally, I think Kate’s life story is an excellent argument for breaking down the binary gender divide.  A lot of Kate’s struggles come from the rigid gender norms and expectations placed upon her by others.  It would have been much simpler for people to have let her be gender fluid, and indeed, Kate in more recent years has come to be an activist for gender fluidity and queerness (as is evidenced by her book Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us).  This memoir of course explores trans issues, but it also is an amazing gender queer memoir.

The Scientology section was surprisingly mundane compared to what I thought actually happens in Scientology.  Yes, there was abuse and lies and many other things going on that demonstrate the fallacies of L. Ron Hubbard, but honestly none of it was that much worse than religious extremists of any religion.  Scientology expects its followers to cut themselves off from people deemed poisonous and to proselytize non-stop.  It takes over the lives of the people in the upper-echelons, controlling every aspect of their lives.  We can see all of this in Kate’s years in Scientology, and while it was interesting, none of it is shocking to anyone moderately informed on Scientology.  I actually was more interested in how Kate wound up joining Scientology.  Scientology teaches the the soul is genderless, and you also reincarnate.  Everyone has been in both male and female bodies.  Kate (then Al) found this incredibly comforting.  It’s possible that his soul was just more frequently in female bodies, and so that’s why he felt like a girl inside.  What an appealing concept to a confused, unsupported trans or gender queer young adult.  I think this part of the book demonstrates clearly why it’s important for families and loved ones to be supportive of their glbtq teens and young people.  You don’t want a harmful group of people snapping them up with promises of understanding and caring and information that sounds more supportive than the people they live with.

Interestingly, the much more shocking section was the one in which Kate discusses discovering BDSM and getting pleasure from pain.  Kate was part of a BDSM triad for quite some time, and this is addressed.  It does, however, come with a warning for Jessica and readers who might not want to hear the details so they can easily skip over it and still get the most important information without getting all the details.  I thought that was a nice touch from Kate, showing her maturity and openness.  Of course, I read that section, and I will say that Kate had a more intense BDSM relationship than you tend to see in literature, and it was interesting to read about.

It’s also interesting to note that from the prologue Kate is honest with the reader about being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder years ago.  This is not something I knew coming into the book, and I don’t think Kate’s mental illness played very much into the book.  I certainly think she would have had a better time coping with her mental health issues if she had had a supportive environment for her queerness.  Even within the GLBTQ community, she was ostracized for some of her less mainstream beliefs within that community.  It’s sad that even a community of people ostracized by the larger society, people can still be unaccepting and unloving.  In spite of the fact that the book talks a lot about depression, self-injury, and other mental health issues, I am hesitant to label it as counting for my Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge.  I don’t want the casual reader to think that I’m equating being queer with having a mental illness.  However, the fact remains that Kate herself states she was diagnosed with BPD, and trans and queer people certainly can have mental illnesses.  One does not cause the other, although certainly I think lack of acceptance and loving increases symptoms of mental illnesses.  In any case, for this reason, I am counting this read for the challenge, but I want to be crystal clear that this is due to Kate’s BPD and NOT her queer/trans orientation.

The narration of the audiobook was perfect.  Thankfully, they chose to use a female narrator throughout, which fits perfectly with the image of an older Kate Bornstein telling her life story to her daughter.  Alice Rosengard was a perfect narrator.  She became Kate in my mind, and there’s not a better complement you can pay a narrator than that.

I feel like I’ve rambled a lot about this book.  It’s hard to succinctly discuss a memoir as unique as this one, let alone a book you love as much as I loved this one.  It’s amazing. It’s unique.  It does exactly what a memoir should do. It tells a unique life story in an engaging way that forces the reader to put herself into someone else’s shoes and feel empathy and maybe even come out of it with a changed worldview, however slightly.  I strongly recommend this book to everyone, really, but especially anyone with an interest in GLBTQ history/theory/studies or an interest in the first few decades of Scientology.  I will definitely be reading more of Kate’s works, myself, and want to thank her for being a pioneer, in spite of everything.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Waiting For Daybreak Blog Tour: Author’s Wrap-up!

September 1, 2012 3 comments

Wow. It’s hard to believe my first book release blog tour is over.  Overall, this was a very wonderful experience, and I learned a lot about running a tour, which I will share with other indie authors in future posts.  This post though is about Waiting For Daybreak, my future writing, and the wonderful participating bloggers.

I of course was pleased (and relieved) to see that bloggers mostly enjoyed my first novel.  Getting so much feedback and opinions let me see what quips and qualms were personal and what were things to bare in mind for my future books.

So what things did people disagree on?  The ending was mostly loved, although a few people thought it was a bit abrupt.  The length was deemed just right by some and too short by others.  Some people found the level of information about the zombies and amount of horror content just right. Others wanted more.  These are all choices that are ultimately up to the author, and I’m still pleased with the choices I made (or rather with the direction Frieda dictated the story to go).

The one universal quip, and which I admit I have always known is a fault of mine, was a desire for stronger setting/world building.  Although the world is always 100% clear in my mind, I can sometimes struggle to be sure that it is coming through on the page.  I have come up with a few strategies to improve this in future books and appreciate the honest feedback from all the bloggers.

The fact that everyone was so honest means I can trust that the one thing that everyone loved is truly good.  That is character building.  People loved Frieda, and they loved Snuggles.  They found her three-dimensional and well-rounded.  Flawed, aggravating sometimes even, but ultimately understandable.  A few people even mentioned that they came away with more empathy for people with a mental illness.  You guys, this feedback blew me away.  My whole concept and point was to create a main character in a genre book with a mental illness as a way to fight stigma and ableism.  The fact that this worked on any level at all…. Well. It rocked my world.  I hope seeing people talk about relating to Frieda and feeling for her will be an encouragement to people dealing with mental illnesses.  Plus, on a writer’s level, it’s just good to know that I can create deeply flawed characters who are still someone readers can root for.

I couldn’t’ve asked for much more from a blog tour for a debut book.  It’s strong, solid feedback for a first novel.  I know more clearly what I do well and what to keep a closer eye on in my editing process.

In addition to the feedback, I got to get to know a bunch of book bloggers.  I’ve never interviewed an author on my own blog before, and participating in interviews made me see how much fun they can be!  They gave me the chance to explain where my idea came from, clarify some aspects of who I am and how I write, and just connect on a more personal level with my readers.  It was so much fun!  Also having the blogs host giveaways of my book brought it to a broader audience.  It was so nice for me to see who chose to enter the giveaways and why.  I also greatly appreciated the space for guest posts to talk more about my own perspective of my book.  It was all-in-all a very positive experience for me.

One thing that came up repeatedly during the tour was people wondering precisely what mental illness Frieda has.  I honestly didn’t realize people would be so curious about this!  I’ve added an author’s note explaining her mental illness to the ebook versions (although I couldn’t add a note on to the print version).  I will reproduce it here now so those with review copies, giveaway copies, or the print book can satisfy their curiosity. 🙂

Frieda has Borderline Personality Disorder, commonly known as BPD.  The Diagnostic Statistical Manual IV-TR, which psychiatrists use in diagnosing mental illnesses, requires that a person exhibit at least five of the nine symptoms associated with BPD.  Frieda has all except for number one.

The diagnostic criteria are:

“(1) frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment. Note: Do not include suicidal or self-mutilating behavior covered in Criterion 5.

(2) a pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation

(3) identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self

(4) impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating). Note: Do not include suicidal or self-mutilating behavior covered in Criterion 5.

(5) recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior

(6) affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood (e.g., intense episodic dysphoria, irritability, or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and only rarely more than a few days)

(7) chronic feelings of emptiness

(8) inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights)

(9) transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms”

MICHAEL B. FIRST, M.D., ed. 2000. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – 4th Ed. (DSM-IV-TR™, 2000). Washington, DC. American Psychiatric Association. ISBN 0-89042-024-6, ISBN 0-89042-025-4. STAT!Ref Online Electronic Medical Library. http://online.statref.com/document.aspx?fxid=37&docid=314. 8/30/2012 12:18:14 PM CDT (UTC -05:00).

For more information on BPD, please see the DSM-IV-TR cited above.

There were two other things everyone wanted to know.  1) will there be a sequel? and 2) what am I currently working on?

I didn’t write Waiting For Daybreak with the intention of it being the start of a series.  But. A few weeks after finishing it, the germ of an idea jumped into my head.  I believe that Frieda’s story is not complete.  There are still many questions, primarily about her family, but also about what she will do with winter coming on.  I do intend to write a sequel addressing these questions.  However, it will require a bit of a road trip or two for research, so it won’t be coming out for at least two years.  It also has to wait for me to finish my current work in progress.

My current work in progress is a dark fantasy.  It is set in the Lovecraft universe and follows four siblings fifteen years after the Dark Ones have taken over Boston.  It will examine many themes, but the primary ones will be sibling relationships and what makes family family.  Each of the siblings will take turns expressing themselves, and I’m very excited about the opportunity to get into four very different minds.  I’ve had a love for Cthulhu for a long time, so I am truly enjoying getting to bury myself in this world.

I think that’s about it for my wrap-up, except for the all-important huge THANK YOU to every single participating blogger!!! Thank you for being willing to accept indie books in general and mine in particular.  Thank you for your honesty in reviewing and positivity in hosting guest posts, interviews, and giveaways.  Thank you for helping my writing to reach a broader audience.  Thank you for everything you did to help make my first blog tour and novel release a success!  There wouldn’t even have been a blog tour without you all, and I look forward to hopefully working with you all again in the future.

Note: If you would like to see the reviews, interviews, and guest posts, please check out the blog tour and reviews page.  It will remain up and be updated with new reviews as they show up, even though the tour is now over.  If you are interested in more of my writing, please check out my publications page.  Thanks!

Friday Fun! (Teaching, Fitness, Blog Tour)

July 13, 2012 2 comments

Hello my lovely readers!

I hope you all had great weeks. Mine has been incredibly busy but in a fun way.  The teaching sessions at work have been increasing since medical schools and medicine in general run on a calendar that starts in June (except for the first year students who start in August).  I was warned things would get busier, but I must admit it still has been a bit of a shock for me!  But I’m a person who enjoys being busy, so I’m loving it.

In fitness news, I had plateaued for a few months. I took a few tips from other fitness folks to increase intensity across the board.  Well, this week I decided to check my measurements (I don’t weigh myself), and in the last 1.5 months I’ve lost half an inch (1.27 centimeters) on my waist! Also an inch (2.54 centimeters) on my chest and hips, but the waist is the important factor!  You’re supposed 33 inches or under around the waist (for women) for cardiovascular health, and with the heart disease that is strongly prevalent in my family, that is one of the things I keep tabs on for my fitness. (source)  I’m so happy to be half an inch closer!  I now only have two inches to go.  🙂 Also this means that the changes I made in my fitness routines are working, so yay!

In other exciting news, today is the first day of the official Waiting For Daybreak blog tour!  I’ll be adding links to features as they come in, but I also will be mentioning the features in every Friday Fun post for the duration of the tour, since not everyone will be clicking through to the blog tour page.  Since today is the first day of the tour, there isn’t too much to talk about this week, but I do want to call attention to the reviews and interviews that have gone up that were not a part of the official tour.

The Chronicles of an Enamored Soul is running an international giveaway that ends July 17th, so you have plenty of time to enter!

Kelsey’s Cluttered Bookshelf says, “This book is recommended for Zombie fans, there are some sexual scenes and violence, but it’s not over the top which is good. This was a great first debut book for the author.” Be sure to click through to see her whole review.

Waiting For Daybreak was also reviewed on Beauty in Ruins, who said, “The writing is solid, the dialogue creatively engaging (even with Freida’s silent cat), and the novelty of the personality issue alone definitely makes this worth a read.”

Nicki J Markus says, “The pacing of this piece is well managed and the tension was maintained perfectly from start to finish.”

And Reflections appreciated Frieda, “Even though Frieda has a personality disorder and periods of extreme depression, the character was still somehow easy to relate to.”

Finally, in addition to a review best summed-up with the great phrase, “Wonderful book!” Love, Literature, Art, and Reason also interviewed me!  Be sure to check out the interview to find out everything from how I deal with writer’s block to why I decided to give Frieda Borderline Personality Disorder.

Phew! No wonder I’ve been feeling so busy…..Evidence-Based Medicine, fitness, and book tours. Oh my!

Happy weekends all!

Book Review: The Buddha and the Borderline: My Recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder through Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Buddhism, and Online Dating by Kiera Van Gelder

November 23, 2010 6 comments

Woman holding buddhist mala beads.Summary:
Kiera here recounts her struggle with mental illness, first undiagnosed and indescribable, marked by episodes of self-harming, frantic attempts to avoid abandonment (such as writing a boy a letter in her own blood), alcohol and narcotic abuse, among other things.  Then she recounts how she was finally diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (definition) and her struggles to recover from this difficult mental illness usually caused by a combination of brain chemistry and trauma in childhood.  Kiera recounts her experience with the most effective treatment for BPD–Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).  She honestly discusses her struggles to encounter and interact with the world and establish relationships, often utilizing online dating websites.  Finally she brings us to her final step in the recovery process, her embracing of Buddhism, which much of DBT’s therapy techniques are based upon.

Review:
Many memoirs talk about events in a person’s life, but the thing about mental illness, is the person writing the memoir must somehow be able to show her audience what it is to be inside that head.  Inside that person who perceives the world in her own unique, albeit messed-up,way.  It takes a certain level of brutal honesty with yourself to be able to do so.  Kiera achieves this with flying colors here.

BPD is an illness that, unless you have encountered it in your own life either by having it yourself or caring deeply for someone who does, is often difficult to clearly describe in a sympathetic manner.  Popular culture wants us to believe that these, by and large female, sufferers are akin to the femme fatale or the main character in Fatal Attraction.  But people with BPD aren’t bunny boilers.  They are individuals who experience emotions much more extremely than everyday people do.  A visual Kiera uses throughout the book that I believe is quite apt is that a person with BPD is like a person with third degree burns all over their body.  A touch that wouldn’t hurt a non-injured person makes the burned person cry.  That’s what emotions are like for people with BPD.

Kiera depicts what it feels to suffer from BPD with eloquent passages such as these:

I am always on the verge of drowning, no matter how hard I work to keep myself afloat.   (Location 236-240)

In an instant, I shift from a woman to a wild-haired girl kicking furniture to a balled-up weeping child on the bed, begging for a touch.  (Location 258-263)

Similarly Kiera addresses topics that non-mentally ill people have a difficult time understanding at all, such as self-injury, with simultaneously beautiful and frightening passages.

I grew more mindful as the slow rhythm of bloodletting rinsed me with clarity.  It wasn’t dramatic; it was familiar and reassuring.  I was all business, making sure not to press too deep. (Location 779-783)

But of course it isn’t all dark and full of despair.  If it was, this wouldn’t be the beautiful memoir that it is.  Kiera’s writing not only brings understanding to those who don’t have BPD and a familiar voice to those who do, but also a sense of hope.  I cheerleader who made it and is now rooting for you.  Kiera speaks directly to fellow Borderlines in the book, and as she proceeds throug her recovery, she repeatedly stops and offers a hand back to those who are behind her, still in the depths of despair.  Having BPD isn’t all bad.  People with BPD are highly artistic, have a great capacity for love.

I become determined to fight–for my survival, and for my borderline brothers and sisters.  We do not deserve to be trapped in hell.  It isn’t our fault.  (Location 1672-1676)

So while it’s undeniable that BPD destroys people, it can also open us to an entirely new way of relating to ourselves and the world–both for those of us who have it, and for those who know us. (Location 5030-5033)

Ironically, the word “borderline” has become the most perfect expression  of my experience–the experience of being in two places at once: disordered and perfect.  The Buddha and the borderline are not separate–without one, the other could not emerge. (Location 5051-5060)

Combine the insight for people without BPD to have into BPD with the sense of connection and relating for people with BPD reading this memoir, and it becomes abundantly clear how powerful it is.  Add in the intensely loving encouragement Kiera speaks to her fellow Borderlines, and it enters the category of amazing.  I rarely cry in books.  I cried throughout this one, but particularly in the final chapter.

This is without a doubt the best memoir I have read.  I highly recommend it to everyone, but particularly to anyone who has BPD, knows someone with BPD, or works with the mentally ill.  It humanizes and empathizes a mental illness that is far too often demonized.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Movie Review: Back from the Edge (2006)

April 12, 2010 3 comments

Summary:
This is a documentary produced by New York-Presbyterian Hospital on Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).  BPD is an Axis II personality disorder that generally first shows up in teen years or young adulthood.  According to the DSM-IV-TR, to be diagnosed, a person must have 5 or more of the following 9 symptoms:

  1. frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment (some clinicians expand this to include fear of abandonment)
  2. a pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation
  3. unstable self-image or sense of self (identity disturbance)
  4. impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (such as sex, spending, substance abuse, reckless driving, etc…)
  5. recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, threats or self-mutilating behavior (such as cutting, burning, head banging, etc…)
  6. a marked reactivity of mood (e.g., intense episodic dysphoria, irritability, or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and only rarely more than a few days)
  7. chronic feelings of emptiness
  8. inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger
  9. transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms (from page 710 of the DSM)

BPD affects approximately 10 million Americans or about 2% of the population.  It is more prevalent than bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.  75% of those with BPD are female.

This documentary features interviews with people who have BPD, their families, and leading clinicians specializing in BPD such as Dr. John Gunderson, Dr. Marsha Linehan, and Dr. Perry Hoffman.

Review:
This documentary is divided into sections starting with each of the symptoms then leading through causes, treatment options, and hope for remission.  Each section start with a quote directly from a person with BPD.

This documentary is beautifully done.  We see pictures of the people with BPD from their past including both the good times and the bad.  We also see excerpts from their journals and letters sent to others.  The clinicians all display evident empathy and desire to help not only the patients but their families, friends, and other loved ones.  The family members are given the space to express their confusion over their loved ones’ behaviors before they were diagnosed and relief after.

It’s not common to see a documentary of a mental illness that does such an excellent job of humanizing an illness that can be scary both to those who have it and those who don’t.  The clinicians carefully explain in clear terms the causes behind the most frightening BPD symptoms–self-injury, clinging, and suicidal ideation (a lack of caring whether or not you die).  They show real brain scans comparing BPD brain activity with that of non-BPD brain activity.

My only complaint is that they do not discuss the fact that numerous studies have shown a marked prevalence of abusive childhoods among people with BPD.  They are far more likely than the non-BPD person to have been abused physically, emotionally, or sexually by at least one caregiver.  I believe they generally left this out from a desire to create a welcoming atmosphere for family members, but it is important for people to know that it takes both a certain environment and the BPD-specific brain chemistry and pathways for BPD to develop.

That said, this is still a very important documentary.  It offers so much hope for both those with BPD and those who care for someone with BPD.  The filmmakers obviously want the public to know that BPD is treatable, contrary to the stigma attached to it.  Most people with BPD who get treatment go into remission (most of the symptoms are gone) in about 2 years.  It is so important for everyone to understand mental illnesses.  I highly recommend this documentary.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: library

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Book Review: Pretties By Scott Westerfeld (Series, #2)

August 19, 2009 3 comments

coverprettiesSummary:
Tally Youngblood lives in a dystopian society where everyone is given an operation at the age of 16 that makes them perfectly pretty.  What is not known by the general population is that during the operation lesions are put on the brain to make people dumbed down and easy to control.  A few people are selected to be “Specials.”  They don’t have the lesions and control the rest of the society.  Some people resist the operation and the control and live in the wilderness, calling themselves “Smokies.”

After being captured from The Smoke, Tally has been made pretty.  She has mostly forgotten her experiences and has a new boyfriend, Zane.  They belong to a New Pretty clique called The Crims.  The book follows what occurs after teens from the New Smoke bring Tally pills created by adults in the New Smoke that are supposed to cure the brain lesions.  She and Zane share them and begin plotting their resistance of the regime and escape from New Pretty Town.

Review:
I am quite torn about this book.

On the one hand, I like that Westerfeld is clearly gradually moving our traditional hero, Tally, toward turning into one of the bad guys in this society.  It’s a move not commonly seen in YA lit, and I think it’s a bold thing to do.  It could lead teens to question what makes people behave badly versus what makes people behave well.  It’s a bit reminiscent to me of the key question in Wicked: Are people born bad or do circumstances make them that way?

On the other hand, I am profoundly disturbed at how Westerfeld presents Shay, Tally’s one-time best friend and the one who came up with the plan to escape to The Smoke in the first book, Uglies.  Tally followed Shay there, won over the guy Shay had her eye on, and betrayed Shay to the Specials, causing her to be turned Pretty.  Oh, and in Pretties she completely leaves Shay out of the whole pills-curing-people-and-escaping-to-New-Smoke-thing.

Since Tally is leaving Shay out, Shay is left to her own devices.  These are delineated in the chapter titled “The Cutters.” In this chapter Tally and Zane discover that Shay has discovered a way to temporarily clear the fuzziness in her head caused by the operation.  She is ceremonially cutting herself and has some followers who are now doing the same.  They call their clique “The Cutters.”

Self-injury is a real element of multiple mental illnesses.  People suffering from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative identity disorder, and borderline personality disorder will display this symptom.  However, it is most well-known and highly associated with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), which is already stigmatized and misunderstood by the media and general population.

Westerfeld’s presentation of self-injury in his storyline reinforces multiple stereotypes regarding it.  First is the idea that self-injurers only cut.  This is not the case.  Burning, head banging, hitting things until your knuckles bleed, picking at and peeling skin, and pulling out hair are just some of the multiple methods people used.  Cutting, burning, and head banging are the most common.  Thus, showing all of The Cutters using the exact same self-injury method to clear their heads is misleading.

Second, Shay and the other Cutters proudly display their scars and make a show of the bleeding.  Self-injurers must face the prejudice that they do this for attention, that they do it in places people will notice to garner that attention.  For the vast majority of self-injurers this is not the case.  They do it in places that are easy to hide, such as upper thighs, or purposefully wear long sleeves to hide the marks.  They are usually profoundly ashamed of what they did, or at least terrified that people will find out.  It would be much more accurate to portray Shay cutting herself in a private room and have Tally accidentally see it, than to have the large ceremony in the middle of a park that is portrayed in the book.

Third, while it is true that some self-injurers say their mind feels clearer from injuring, others say it helps them shut down emotions they don’t want to feel.  It’s perfectly plausible for Shay to be in the former group, but it seems to me that at least one of her followers would be in the latter group.

My real issue though comes from the fact that Tally seeing Shay self-injuring is the final decisive straw to her.  She emphatically announces that Shay is crazy, and Zane agrees with her.  No one dissents from this viewpoint.  Shay’s scars are the markers that she’s gone off her rocker; there’s no turning back.  To top it all off, the cutting is what makes the evil Specials decide that Shay and her group should be Specials themselves, thus associating self-injury not only with “being crazy” but also with being evil.   Additionally, the ceremony in the middle of the woods is clearly connotated as being primitive.

Can you imagine what reading this portrayal would do to a teen struggling with self-injury?  She is portrayed as purely crazy, evil, and primitive.  Shay is a lost cause in the book, and clearly the teen must be too.  So little sympathy is given to Shay.  Not even a spark of goodness is visible in her.

I’m not the type to say that if you display thus-and-such group as evil you’re saying they’re all evil.  I think it’s just as discriminatory to always portray a certain group as good.  However, the portrayal of Shay turns so one-dimensional with the on-set of her self-injury.  There is zero depth to her character, zero exploration of her as a conflicted person.  She could have had rich character development.  Indeed, the entire group of “Cutters” could have been a wonderful opportunity for Westerfeld to explore more depth in his story-telling.

Yet he went the easy, sensationalist route and portrayed an evil, crazy, primitive female slashing her arms while reciting a spell, letting the blood drip down in the rain.

An incredible image to visualize? Yes.  A deep, accurate one?  No.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

Previous Books in Series:
Uglies

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