Judy Blume for President
Meet the woman who invented American adolescence.
By Ellen Barry
MAY 26, 1998: Presumably, puberty would have happened without Judy Blume books, but there's no way to know for sure. A professor of mine once argued at great length that Shakespeare had invented modern love, because before we knew the words -- "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo" -- we didn't know how love was supposed to feel. Shakespeare himself may have thought he was merely depicting what already existed, but for a modern reader the two can no longer be untangled. This sort of thing is hard to research.
By comparison, there is a large body of evidence to the effect that Judy Blume is responsible for puberty as we know it. Talk to women in their 20s about Judy Blume and take note of the sweet, reminiscent looks that come over their faces. This isn't a matter of personal preference, like Nancy Drew versus Trixie Belden. When Blume came to town last week promoting her new adult novel, Summer Sisters (Delacorte Press), I called a series of fierce, intelligent women to find out what nail-you-to-the-wall questions they might have for the Poet of Puberty. None were forthcoming.
Several of these women responded simply, "We must -- we must -- we must increase our bust!" One woman gurgled that Forever . . . truism, "Once you have sex you can't go back to holding hands," and another friend, a woman who has had significant opportunity to snuggle up to Supreme Court justices, begged me in the most pitiful tone of voice to get her Judy Blume's autograph. This is the situation. Every unhappy adolescence was unhappy in its own way, but Judy Blume was universal.
In certain important ways, she raised us all. She presented us with a vision of adolescent sexuality stripped of shame and danger; where earlier girls in fiction had kept their first periods a closely held secret (when did Meg March get her period? Jo? Beth? Amy?), Blume's girls got downright competitive about it. Blume was our fairy godmother of sex. Feminist historians have identified a fault line in the way young women experienced sexual maturation: 1970, the year Macmillan published Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, the trauma-free tale of a suburban girl waiting to menstruate.
It is no coincidence that Blume's books became a battlefield between parents and children and remain so almost 30 years after Margaret reached for her maxi-pad. Here's a report from a school that attempted to ban Forever . . . in 1991:
An assembly organized by students to discuss the ban was quickly broken up by school administrators. Despite this, several students produced and wore buttons reading JUDY BLUME FOR PRINCIPAL and JUDY BLUME FOR PRESIDENT to school each day to protest the administration's actions.
You get the sense that Judy Blume did not expect to become a folk hero. In person, she turns out to be a stylish, effusive 60-year-old woman who is keen on kayaking and makes faces at strangers' babies. She still gets teary when she recalls a bad review of Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, and then again when she recalls a young boy with multiple sclerosis with whom she corresponded until his death, and then again when she reminisces about the 38-year friendship that inspired Summer Sisters. She enunciates very clearly, as if she is squeezing her words out of a pastry bag, and she says she is routinely impressed by the warm reception she gets among the 20-to 30-year-old set. "Overwhelming," she says of her fans' adoration. "Just fabulous."
She is -- just as clearly -- no firebrand, at least not on purpose. Asked whether she is a feminist, she says yes: "I think it's wonderful that medical schools and law schools are filled half with women and half with men. I think that's terrific. I think women having careers is wonderful." But she is also quick to say that her books were never political in their aims -- not overtly political, not covertly political, not political at all. "I'm a storyteller. That's it. Open and shut. I tell stories."
When she published Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, which portrayed young girls monitoring each other's sexual maturity, she had no idea that she was doing anything remotely controversial. At 12, Margaret plays Two Minutes in the Closet and cries out Please God, let me be normal. She desperately wants breasts and regards those girls who have them with marked suspicion. It seemed benign enough at the time.
"I didn't know anything," says Blume. "I was really young and naive and inexperienced. I would write what I knew to be true from my own experience growing up."
Margaret raised some hackles, but it was nothing compared to her next few books, like the scoliosis/masturbation classic Deenie and Forever . . ., the book that made high-school sex seem normal. Blume says she was never trying to push the social envelope, just to reflect kids' reality. In some cases, that alone seems to have been enough to get her in trouble -- her books came off as morally neutral, lacking the clear last-chapter lessons generally present in children's literature. Between 1982 and 1992, the 1974 novel Blubber -- in which an overweight girl is taunted by her classmates until one of them, the narrator, becomes the new scapegoat -- was removed from library shelves at least 13 times, according to the National Coalition Against Censorship. One challenge came from an elementary school in Perry Township, Ohio, where school administrators judged the book dangerous because "bad is never punished. Good never comes to the fore. Evil is triumphant."
Blume never did play adult -- she refused to tell readers that the mean kids would suffer for their crimes. And it is precisely because of that that kids sent her bags and bags of mail asking the questions they could never ask their parents -- which the author eventually anthologized in Letters to Judy (Turtleback, 1987). The fact is, by fourth grade kids already know that evil is occasionally triumphant. To teach them otherwise would be rank malpractice.
Name that PubeJudy Blume's books are a hymn to normalcy. Set in the suburbs, they usually center on children whose fondest wish is to not be deviant -- they frequently have exceptional friends or siblings, but themselves show no quality remotely out of the ordinary. The writing is simple enough to invite grade-level hopping; in fact, you'd be hard pressed to find a paragraph of description in any of Blume's books. There are no haunting ideas, no current slang, no poetic language.
So why do we remember every single one of them? Well, never mind. We do. Here are excerpts from four of Blume's coming-of-age classics.
Nancy and her family went to Washington over Lincoln's Birthday weekend. I got a postcard from her before she got back which means she must have mailed it the second she got there. It only had three words on it.
I GOT IT!!!
I ripped the card into tiny shreds and ran to my room. There was something wrong with me. I just knew it. And there wasn't a thing I could do about it. I flopped onto my bed and cried. Next week Nancy would want to tell me all about her period and how grown up she was. Well, I didn't want to hear her good news!
-- Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret
On Thursday we made Linda show the boys her underpants. She wasn't anxious to do that, so Caroline had to hold her hands behind her back while Wendy lifted her skirt.
Irwin found some names for Linda in the Random House Dictionary, which Mrs. Minish keeps in the corner on its own table. He's really good at looking things up. He can tell you exactly on what page certain words are found. We called Linda "flubsy," "carnivore" and "bestial." I didn't recognize any of them, but they all sounded good.
I woke up suddenly. It was morning. I felt wet and my pajamas were sticky. Oh God! There is something wrong with me. Really wrong. Dr. Holland doesn't know what he's talking about! I am so sick. This proves it.
Wait a minute. Wait just a minute. Maybe I had a wet dream. Yeah . . . I bet that's it. How about that? I thought they'd be different though. I thought a lot more stuff would come out. And anyway, I wasn't so sure I'd have one. At least not yet.
-- Then Again, Maybe I Won't
"I didn't feel anything." I wrapped a beach towel around my middle and went to the bathroom. When I wiped myself with a tissue I saw a few spots of blood, but nothing like what I'd imagined.
On the way home I thought, I'm no longer a virgin. I'll never have to go through the first-time business again and I'm glad -- I'm so glad it's over! Still, I can't help feeling let down. Everybody makes such a big thing out of actually doing it.
-- Forever . . .
The only book that drew more fire than Blubber was Forever . . ., which was as much a part of my school-bus experience as the steering wheel. Forever . . . seemed impossibly illicit when we first got hold of it -- fifth grade, as I recall -- although the book now comes off as kind of '70s, with its quaint VD scares and cool, hippie family. ("Were you fucking?" "Jamie!" "That's not a bad word . . . hate and war are bad words but fuck isn't.") Kath, the heroine, is portrayed as aggressively normal -- her decision to have sex is studied and responsible -- and here, too, Blume says she had no idea she was going to rock the boat. When she wrote the book, in 1975, she was responding to a specific request from her daughter.
"She was reading a lot of books which were all about pregnancy and terrible things that happen because of sex," Blume says. "And she said, 'Couldn't there ever be a book about two kids who do it and nobody has to die?' And I hated the idea of sex and punishment."
So she felt that book was a little political in its motivation?
"I'm not saying that. What I'm saying is that I wrote it because she asked me to."
But a few signs suggest Blume does know she was rewriting American adolescence. For one thing, she has come to value her readers' approval over that of the traditional arbiters of taste. After years of being passed over by kiddie-lit awards panels, she finally won the American Library Association's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996, an event that she says made her "worry -- is this good that they're accepting me? I mean, the whole library thing."
And then, there are recent gestures aimed at keeping her books current. The brand-new first page of Forever . . . warns young people to use condoms even if girls are on birth-control pills -- it's the sole mention of AIDS in the whole book. And after years of consideration, the new paperback editions of Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret will no longer feature sanitary napkins suspended from belts, a contraption that sounded medieval by the early '80s and downright Neanderthal by the age of "wings."
"I have just changed -- some people get really upset about this, but it has nothing to do with the story -- I have updated the equipment that Margaret uses," she says. "No one uses belts any more. Half the mothers haven't used them. [Contemporary readers] have to go to their grandmothers.
"I'm not taking out her velvet party dress. I'm not taking out her giant hair rollers, but just the equipment. I'd been thinking about it for a long time," she says. "And some people said, 'Oh, no, it's a classic. You can't mess around with a classic.' And I said, 'Look, we're not messing around with the character or anything else. We're just messing around with the equipment.' "
Most authors don't rewrite their novels to keep their paper products current, but then Margaret was not just a novel. If Blume familiarized readers with wet dreams, masturbation, and sexual fantasy, she actually revolutionized the social meaning of menstruation. Kathleen O'Grady, a feminist historian now studying at Cambridge University, refers to herself as a "product of the Judy Blume generation," and she isn't joking. When she and Paula Wansbrough began collecting women's memoirs for their 1997 book Sweet Secrets: Stories of Menstruation, they noticed a difference between people who grew up without the books and those who read them.
"In the generation before Judy Blume, a huge number of women thought when they had their first menstruation that they were dying," O'Grady says. "They had very little information. Prior to widespread TV advertisements about sanitary protection, there weren't a huge number of sources. Judy Blume, I think, really opened up discussion in that area."
In fact, for women who went through a note-passing, doctor-playing Judy Blume puberty, it's virtually impossible to imagine the world before her. As late as 1870, professors of medicine were claiming that menstruation was a new phenomenon, according to Joan Jacobs Brumberg's The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (Random House, 1997). In an 1895 study of high-school girls in Boston, a full 60 percent reported that they had no idea what was happening to them when they got their first period. The taboos lasted well into this century; while O'Grady was doing research for the book, she looked with interest at a new critical edition of The Diary of Anne Frank, which included significant material that had previously been censored on orders from Anne's father, Otto Frank.
"I thought it would have to be something horrific, something to do with the Holocaust," she says. "But it turned out what had been censored out were passages about menstruation. I think we just hit that whole menstrual taboo. We can give young kids books in school about the Holocaust, but we can't let them know about menstruation."
So Margaret, which featured four girls so eager to "get it" that they lied to each other about it, broke some ground. The only children's book that had mentioned menstruation before was Louise Fitzhugh's The Long Secret, published in 1965, which offers the jolly imagery of rotten pebbles cutting you up inside and then falling out of you.
Blume threatened parents every bit as much as she won kids over. Since the week after Ronald Reagan was elected, when the first challenges began to roll in, Blume has been one of the most frequently censored novelists in America. She has come to the conclusion that what really bothered people was not so much what her books contained as the fact that they were meant for kids in the 9-to-11 age range -- before many parents see the need to dispense information about sex. Blume herself argues that kids start thinking about both the biological and the emotional aspects of sex far earlier than anyone wants to admit. In reality, this curiosity is kind of benign -- "I was in love all the time when I was little," she says. "I can remember having a crush in first grade." But again and again over the years, parents have made the decision that knowledge about sex is more dangerous than lack of knowledge.
Blume disagrees. And so she stepped in, with or without the sanction of elementary-school librarians. She got to kids before their parents were quite comfortable talking about sex with them, and imprinted them with a certain vision of life. This literature was fourth-grade samizdat: the homes were suburban, the moms swore, kids were sometimes mean, there was frequently no moral to the story, and sex was something that people talked about all the time. Much of that information has seen us safely into adulthood. We all have different parents, and we all had different social studies teachers, but there was only one sex-ed teacher, and that was Judy Blume.
At Blume's reading in Framingham, the bookstore is packed with women carrying copies of books that represent her turtle-eating, bra-stuffing, and biker-sex periods. ("Wifey is tired of chicken on Wednesdays and sex on Saturdays. This morning a mysterious motorcyclist flashed and revealed himself to Wifey and brought her frustrations into rigid focus!") It's the women who grew up pre-Blume that seem to best understand what the books did. One woman in her 50s says she realized the world had changed some years ago when her husband invited her teenage daughter to go running and she told him she had "wicked cramps."
"You wouldn't have said that?" says her daughter, now 23.
"Never," says the mother, shaking her head and laughing. "Never never never."
This, then, is the work of Judy Blume. The mother is laughing at the very idea. Her daughter is looking at her like she is crazy.
Ellen Barry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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