Bites

Janet talks about the craziness of books (just not in the way you might think) below and has offered up a signed copy of her own crazy book, THE BABYSITTER MURDERS, to give away as part of her Ban This! post! Just fill out the form at the end of her talk for your chance to win! Thanks so much, Janet, for the giveaway and for your awesome post!

When a Book Drives You Crazy

I write books about mental illness. My first, The Opposite of Music, is about a family dealing with the father’s life-threatening depression. The second, The Babysitter Murders, is about a babysitter who is tortured by thoughts of harming the child she cares for.
Lots of people (including some of my family members) choose not to read these books because they are too disturbing. I can understand this, and I accept it, as long as those close to me are supportive of my career overall. I would probably find my books disturbing too except that, as the writer, I know that most of the events in these stories are imaginary.
What I didn’t expect as I embarked on this career was that people would say my books had, essentially, driven them crazy. These readers fall into two categories. First are the readers who’ve had illnesses akin to those of the main characters, and who felt that the stories triggered symptoms. Some of these readers regretted having read the book or decided to stop reading halfway. I support that decision. Controlling their mental environment and filtering out messages they believe are harmful are important parts of these readers’ self-care.
Second were the readers with no history of mental illness who found themselves going a little crazy while living in the world of the book. Some readers with no history reported that they became depressed while reading The Opposite of Music. I felt a twinge of guilt at this, but I also felt thrilled. It meant that the book had achieved its goals: depicting how it feels day by day to have a seriously depressed relative, creating a story that grows more desperate with each page, and describing a family whose boundaries are so porous that when one member gets sick, they all get sick.
Maybe you’ve had this experience too, of feeling crazy when reading a book about mental illness. When I asked my friend John Hicks (who trained as a therapist) and my sister Diane Young (who trained as a librarian), they cited Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values as one that had made them feel mentally unstable. The main character is schizophrenic and has had shock treatments that altered his personality. John described the character as “slipping and spinning” in and out of reality.
This summer, I was driven crazy by a book: Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. It was recommended to me by my friend Joe, whose sweet, smiling demeanor often makes me forget that his book and play suggestions are unremittingly dark. Kevin is about a fifteen-year-old boy who commits a Columbine-like mass murder at his school. The story is told by his mother, who racks her conscience and memory to determine how responsible she is for the murders. You know from the start that Kevin will go on a killing spree. But the way he kills is so hideous, and the author’s descriptions so thorough, that I felt almost as traumatized as if I’d been present. At night I worried that Kevin had found me and gotten into my house, and that the sound of my hammock stand creaking was bodies propped up in the yard, and if I turned on the lights in my backyard at night I would find his victims.
So powerful was my horror that I sent this email to Diane, who was listening to the audiobook version at the same time.
To: Diane
From: Janet
Subject: Possibly stop reading Kevin?
If you’re still fairly early in the book, you may want to just put it aside. I’m finishing it tonight, and it’s definitely the most violent, gruesome, and sadistic book I’ve every read. A masterpiece, too, of course, but still. Some of the people on Goodreads (don’t look there–possibly spoilers) say that Kevin gets into your head and never leaves, and I can see what they mean!
Diane wrote back:
Omigosh! I’m not afraid.
Later, I asked Diane what she had thought about our exchange. She said that she knew she wasn’t the kind of person who would have a problem with a book’s violence. In fact, she said, she had found the ending to Kevin to be full of hope. As some commenters on this blog have said, kids read to their emotional level and drop books that aren’t a good fit. This can be said of adult readers as well.
Would you call my e-mail a form of censorship? I would. Even despite the cute tone and the question mark in the subject heading, which makes “stop reading” a suggestion rather than a command. A couple of days later, when the creaking in the yard became my hammock again, I felt embarrassed about trying to step between my sister and what I consider one of the most important books I’ve ever read.
But my Kevin experience helps me better understand the parents, school systems, and libraries who censor. The book had aroused an instinct. I was upset and horrified, and I wanted to protect someone I loved from the same horror and upset. I meant well, just as most parents mean well. I wonder if any time we talk other readers out of book for reasons other than quality, we are banning that book one copy at a time. Can you, blog readers, think of times you’ve tried to take a book out of someone’s hands?
If books have the power to make readers crazy, then books are powerful indeed. And it can be delicious and edifying to live for a while in a character’s unstable mind. But readers have the right to say no to that experience and the right to say yes to an experience that another reader finds overwhelming. As authors, teachers, parents, and booklovers, let’s let readers choose how far and in what directions they will go.

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