It happens every time, in every city, with every book tour.
I’ll do a reading, and talk about my new book—where I got the inspiration, how I decided on a setting, which characters were my favorites, what messages I hope readers take away. I’ll answer questions from the audience; then, when there’s no global pandemic, I’ll sit and sign books and pose for pictures. Readers wait in line patiently. They wrap their arms around me, and press their cheeks close to mine as we smile for the camera.
And every time, at least one woman touches my arm, and says, “I feel like we could be best friends!” I smile back, and say something polite. And every time, my heart breaks a little bit. Because, every time, a voice inside of me says, Where were you when I was in junior high?
People like me now. At least, that’s what they tell me. They come to my readings, they buy my books, they find me and friend me and follow me on social media, where they offer the highest praise: They say I write women who feel like real people—like they could be you, or your sister, or your mom, or your best friend.
It’s flattering. It’s also, still, a little hard to hear, because when I was a kid, it was a different story.
I am the oldest of four, the daughter of a child psychiatrist and a teacher. I was smart—I learned to read early, and I read voraciously. I was also a friendless outcast. Even though I had my books to keep me company, I was lonely a lot of the time.
I’ve learned to package those years as anecdotes, stories I tell that make people laugh. I say that I was a weird little bookworm with a gigantic vocabulary and no friends, and that my situation went from bad to worse after I skipped from second grade to fourth, an added challenge to my basically nonexistent social skills.
My new classmates didn’t get my jokes. They gave me funny looks; they avoided me in the halls. I wasn’t invited to birthday parties or to other kids’ houses to play. I joined the soccer team and the Girl Scout troop. It didn’t help. I can still remember Grace Henry,* lips curling with disdain, blonde head bent next to Chrissy Kincaid’s blonde head, whispering, “She thinks she’s so smart!” after I’d used a big word. It was bewildering. I was smart. Smart was a good thing. Until it wasn’t.
I don’t have a lot of happy memories of those years, and the painful memories live on the surface of my mind, close to my skin. At any given moment, I can slide effortlessly from What should I make for dinner? and When will this barre class be over? to sitting on a bus, on a summer trip to Israel when I was 15. I can feel the way my heart lifted when Jodi Blum, the queen of the mean, popular girls, swooped down into the inevitably empty seat beside me. “Is this seat taken?”
“It’s all yours!” I chirped, and then, as she got to her feet, I thought, Stupid, you should have just said “Yes”! You should have just nodded!
Jodi sashayed off. A minute later, a glum-faced Jonathan Litwin, my male equivalent, plopped down beside me. I don’t know if he’d been sitting next to Jodi and she’d wanted him gone, or if he, too, had been sitting alone and she’d decided we made a cute couple. I remember burning with humiliation.
All of this was a long time ago. I finished high school, left my small town, went to college, moved to a big city, made friends, and got a great job. Then, when I got dumped, I wrote a novel about a girl like me, and the book became a best-seller. I got married and had kids and wrote books that let me live for months at a time in my own imagination. I’m happy and content. I love my husband, my city, my work, my daughters. I wish I understood why those painful memories are still so present, so right-at-the-surface all the time. I wish I knew why I can’t reliably locate my keys or my glasses, but I can tell you exactly what Krissy Keller was wearing when she hissed the word loser at me in the hall (button-down blue oxford with a navy blue ribbon at the collar, Levi’s straight-leg dark-rinse jeans, and Tretorns). I wish I knew the why of it. Did picking on me make the mean girls feel more powerful? Were they imitating the way they saw their older siblings or parents behave? Were they lashing out because they, too, were hurting? Or was there something about me that made them want to grind me like dirt beneath the heels of their tennis shoes?
Adulthood gave me no answers. Social media has made it worse. I can’t tell you how disconcerting it is to have those girls, now women, find me on Facebook. There’s the girl who got the whole soccer team to stop speaking to me, I think, as I consider clicking on the Confirm button under my friend request. That’s the one who came to the pool party my parents let me throw and told everyone that she’d peed in the hot tub. I accept their friendship—or, I guess, their “friendship.” I scroll through pictures of them, now middle-aged, with children and houses and dogs and divorces. I see where they went on vacation, and what they made for dinner, and I wonder if they remember how they treated me. I wonder, too, if I was just as mean to other people, if I’ve forgotten my own instances of cruelty even as I’ve tended my wounds.
It’s all right there, this maddening jumble, when I think about my daughters—one just finishing high school, one in the trench of social awkwardness that is middle school. Good parenting means you’re supposed to tell your kids to be entirely themselves, and mostly, I do…but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a part of me thinking, Oh, God, not Broadway, it would be so much easier if you liked popular music, or Oh, Lord, not that sweater. Not those shoes. Not that hobby, not that joke. They’re going to laugh at you like they laughed at me, and that pain will stay with you always.
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I think that what doesn’t kill you makes you your best, kindest, most authentic version of yourself. The freaks and geeks don’t necessarily grow up to rule the world, but many of us do end up successful and a lot happier than we were as kids. Our history as outsiders gives us empathy and confidence—because, really, what’s a little breast cancer or a divorce when you’ve made it through sixth grade?
My hope, now that I’m on the far side of 50, is that the pain I suffered means that the next generation will do better. My daughters know that being mean, that making fun, that excluding others is the worst thing they can do. And they know that I will come down on them like the relentless wrath of heaven if I ever learn that they’ve made another girl feel like she didn’t belong. Maybe some mean girls stay mean. And maybe some hurt girls never get over it. But maybe those wounds become our superpowers. Maybe they give us empathy and confidence and, most of all—best of all—the ability to raise daughters, and sons, who will do better.
*All names have been changed.
This article originally appeared in the May 2021 issue.
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