Book: Stupid Children
Author: Lenore Zion
Type of Book: Literary novel
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Children are tortured with nasal balloons and animal entrails.
Availability: Published by Emergency Press in 2013, you can get a copy here:
Comments: The cover of this book drew me in. A white little girl – white skin, white underwear, long blonde hair – is standing behind a rope in a ragged backyard in late fall, or early winter. The look on her face is unfathomable to me, but the confrontation is undeniable. She is standing there, in her socks and underwear, unprotected in the wind, literally holding on by a string, and staring at you, the reader. Her expression could be anything from veiled disgust to melancholy to vague interest in the camera as a break in the bleak boredom of the landscape.
This book, at turns neurotic and gross, touching and funny, is grounded by this cover. This book has a strange, over-the-top cult that engages in really nasty rituals. The heroine of the book is hilarious and neurotic. The plot-line gets loose at times and the wackiness of the book can occasionally make the reader forget that at its heart this is still a book about a little girl whose mother is dead, whose father is in a mental institution, who ends up in foster care in the home of cultists who marry her off to an old man in a scenario reminiscent of so many stories that came out of the FLDS sects. Zion handles all of this heaviness with a humor and open-minded acceptance of the bizarre, but the cover ensures you remember a smart little girl in a forsaken place is at the center of the story. Outside of House of Leaves, I can can’t recall a time when a book’s cover ensures you don’t miss some of the most important details of the book. The girl on the cover helps you remember that this is a very upsetting book, even as you find the prose quite amusing at times.
Quick synopsis: Jane’s mother is dead and her father had a breakdown. He attempted suicide and becomes a long-term resident in a mental hospital. Jane is sent to live in foster care and ends up living with a family indoctrinated into the fictional Second Day Believers, a strange cult that merges properties of Scientology (weird ideas about mental illness and its treatment), FLDS (marrying young girls off to older men powerful in the cult) and a very gross, borderline pagan attraction to animal entrails. Jane becomes close to her foster brother, Isaac, and their relationship takes a dark turn as Isaac becomes rather unhinged himself, a young proxy in Jane’s affection for her unbalanced father. Jane eventually becomes far more valuable to the cult than the cult is to her but her love of Isaac keeps her from leaving the madness until Isaac forces the issue in an act of numb but horrifying violence.
Let me get the hard criticism out of the way before I sing this book’s praises. The ending was rushed and, in a way, a bit contrived. It all happened too fast. The reader doesn’t get to see what happens and because it is so rushed, we miss out on some catharsis. The reader needs that catharsis because this book, as funny and sarcastic as it can be at times, also has some hard and upsetting content. We need to have that BAM! moment and it gets lost in the rush. Not entirely – you won’t be left feeling like doors were left open, but you also don’t get the satisfaction of hearing those doors slam shut.
With my main criticism out of the way, let’s dissect why this book is worth reading.
Zion managed to capture perfectly the actions and manners of thinking of the gifted yet deeply neurotic child. Such children are generally considered mature for their age. I’ve heard them described as old souls. But generally they are no more mature than other children – they seem like they are little adults because most adults worry all the time, thinking of all possible results, mulling over all the potential disasters. Neurotic children just have fewer frames of reference for disaster, though in Jane’s case, she’d lost her mother and her father was institutionalized. But when Jane moves in with Madam and Sir Six, she was in for a world of education into the worst that could happen. The Sixes want to help cure her of her mental impurities, you see, and Jane does not have a reference for all that this could entail (I accidentally typed “entrail” just now and it was an apt error).
My father, having never once made the mistake of omitting crucial statistics on living well, would not have excluded mental impurities if they did, in fact, exist. But, my father had also, just one month prior to my invitation to the room with the black door, cut his throat open, nearly intentionally killing himself. And while I got the sense that Madam Six and Sir Six were not without their pitfalls (one of the first hints being the communal healing swim with the insides of animals and other children fresh off the foster boat), they had not yet proven to be people with malicious intent. My father always taught me that people should be given the benefit of the doubt, with a few exceptions, but as I was just ten years old at the time, I was not yet crystal clear on what those exceptions might be. So, suspicion was cast aside, benefit of the doubt was granted, and I did not pull away when Madam Six took my hand and led me through the black door…
In a sense, what happened behind that black door could have been so much worse. I will get to that in a minute. What hit me like a fist in the face here is that I cannot imagine what it is like to be a parent because my first instinct would be to tell my own children, had I any children, that they should give no one the benefit of the doubt. Possibly not even me. Do people still tell their kids to believe the best in people until proven otherwise? How does such a message go down when combined with the “stranger danger” kids are inculcated in. All I know is that if I were a mother, I would hope my kids would go kicking and screaming into the room with the black door, and perhaps that is one of the more obscure reasons why I would suck at being a mother (or possibly be the best mother ever, who knows).
Jane does go into the room with the black door, and one of the most upsetting scenes I’ve read recently ensues:
Because I knew nothing of mental impurities, I hushed my misgivings about the methods Madam Six and the others exercised in flushing me of these contaminants, and kept quiet as two deflated, worm-shaped balloons were systematically inserted into my nostrils – one balloon per nostril. I continued to silence myself as a motorized inflation device was placed into the ends of the balloons, and muzzled my impulse to cry for help when I was forced down on my back, and held firmly in place by three cloaked men, one of whom was Sir Six, my new father. I could not, however, keep myself quiet when the motorized inflation device was switched on and the balloons rapidly distended inside my nostrils, causing my nose to break instantly. Blood came pouring out from inside me, and seeped into my mouth.
In a case of strange coincidence, I read the following passage just after Mr. Oddbooks blew a capillary in his nose and needed a “rhino-rocket” inserted into his nasal cavity. The ER doc refused to listen that he had over-inflated it, and I watched helplessly as Mr. Oddbooks exhibited pain-related aggression. Only intense pain prevented him from taking a swing at someone, anyone. When the doc left the room, I had to fish a syringe out of the trash and partially deflate the balloon. Mr. Oddbooks is not a bad ass but he was stabbed once and served his country in a foreign conflict. He’s not a man given to the level of complaint you have all grown to expect from me, and he described the inflation of the rhino rocket as torture (note to any ER doc who may read this – give the shot of painkiller before you insert the goddamned rhino rocket). Reading the above happen to a little girl was so upsetting to me I almost quit reading this book, but I persevered because I figured the rest of the content of the book would not be so strangely specific to my experiences.
Even though reading this was brutal, it was important because neurosis has been reduced in modern interpretations as Woody Allen wrecking his relationships via films because it’s funny when unattractive Freudians can’t make it work with beautiful women because they just can’t get over the fact they wet the bed well into their thirties. Neurosis can be funny, but it’s a short skip and a jump into straight up personality disorder if you don’t get it in check before it becomes a genuine part of all your thinking and habits. This book, told in past tense, by a woman whose sentence structure is interestingly similar to my own, wordy and comma-laden, is the story of a little girl tortured into neuroticism by one horrifying event after another, coupled with people who never really respected the fact that she was a child, from her father to the foster family cult.
Don’t get me wrong. This book has some very funny moments because the way neurotics structure their thoughts can be quite funny. It isn’t all child abuse and bloody suicide (though a lot of it is), but it was nice reading someone who gets it. Neurosis isn’t just the skinny girl in glasses on sitcoms, the one who fears germs and is cutely obsessive. It’s also children abused into maladaptive behaviors. I love that Zion understands what neurosis is, what causes it and what one has to go through to confront it.
Because the heroine does confront it, but that happens after she has escaped from the cult that alternately tortured her and convinced her she was the golden child. It’s clear Jane spends a lot of time as an adult cleaning her way out of the mess the adults in her life created when she was a child.
Zion combines all of this horror with some funny moments. For example, when Jane and another character, Virginia, try to have a night on the town, it ends poorly, to put it mildly, but luckily there was someone to save the two girls from a very bad fate. A nice Korean man brings them inside and tries to comfort them as they wait for a cab.
Then, in his continued attempts to minister to us, he tried to feed us popcorn. I did not want to eat the popcorn – in fact, the popcorn was revolting to me at the time – but it seemed rude to refuse it, and my father did not raise an ill-mannered young lady, so I put one piece in my mouth at a time, stuffing them all in and chewing, but never swallowing. Eventually I had a wad of chewed popcorn stored in my cheek. I looked like some sort of psychotic squirrel, and the man just looked at me and looked at me.
Jane was wearing kitty ears as she ate the popcorn, tripping balls on acid. Take note of the mention of the person her father raised her to be, this idealized version of herself that is so strong that it can penetrate even the other-mindedness of hallucinogenics. That’s neurosis at work – Zion is sharp.
The Second Day Believers engaged in a strange behavior wherein they forced people to hold in their urine. Jane, who didn’t drink much water anyway and further dehydrated herself to avoid humiliation, never developed the kidney infections her peers did. An ability to control one’s urine meant the person had an other-worldly control over his or her organs and therefore was holy in some respect. Evidently by holding in one’s pee, one could grow a second spleen. But even her ability to avoid kidney infections worked against Jane because it brought her to the attention of the old man who founded the cult, Sir One.
And this is how my ability to hold my urine for long periods of time without medical consequence is what piqued Sir One’s interest in me – the old man really bought what he was selling, I supposed, because when he heard through his channels of communication that the girl who shared a spirit animal with the late Madam One, and resembled her to boot, avoided infection, he determined that he and I would meet. No infection, you say? Why, she must be only moments away from sprouting a secondary spleen! And with that, I was suddenly and officially the front-runner in the race to be the brand new bride of Sir One, the contemporary and pristine Madam One, the first high priestess since the original had perished. “There’s no greater compliment a girl can receive than finding out that she’s been chosen!” Madam Six squealed at me. Chosen for servitude because of a perceived feasibility of unnecessary organ development – what an honor.
And it pretty much sucks because Jane’s going to end up the bride of a man so old he’s near death. She panics, which makes perfect sense to me. She decides it’s time for her and the other kids to leave the cult, though they didn’t leave after this revelation.
I knew I had to get them out of there. It worried me that Virginia had turned eighteen, and even though we’d talked about how she’d leave the moment the clock hit midnight on her birthday, she stayed, claiming that she’d miss me and Isaac too much to leave without us. They were sinking into the brainwashing that the Second Dayers were so adept at applying to impressionable kids, and I was slated to be offered up for a marriage to an old man with two spleens. This was no place for kids…
Zion is excellent at comic understatement. She’s also amazing at taking the leaps that a self-aware yet really-neurotic woman would take as she ponders her nature. Jane was given a psychiatry book when she was sixteen, more or less identified with every single mental illness, and managed to extrapolate how she’d be affected by her mental disorders later in her life.
Did I engage in excessive self-sacrifice that is unsolicited by the intended recipients of the sacrifice? Certainly within me there was this intense self-pity that made me sometimes fantasize about cutting both of my wrists all the way to the elbow, and then as I’m bleeding, show up at some man’s house, any one of the much-too-old-for-me men with whom I had forced a melodramatic and tragic relationship, and wrap my bleeding arms around his body, staining the back of his shirt red as I die. In my mind, this man would keep the shirt in a box, and over time the stains would turn from bright red to dull brown, and eventually they’d just appear to be dark, indistinct stains. He’d take it out of the box once or twice a year – perhaps on my birthday and the anniversary of my senseless death – and he’d hold it in his hands and stare at the stains. And this poor man, he’d be so affected by my theatrical advent at his door that he’d never be capable of moving on with his life. He’d go on dates with women, one after the other, and he’d just stare right through them as they talked about how delicious their chicken parmesan was, and what a nice time they were having. “Yes,” he’d say, but his would be vacant as he spoke, and the women would know. They would know. “The man is in love with a dead girl,” they’d tell their friends on the phone after the date. I would have him forever and I wouldn’t even be alive. Was that okay?
If you found this passage funny, you really should read this book. If you have ever engaged in similar flights of dark fancy, you have to read this book.
I want to leave you with one last quote, one that shows best the sort of humor you find in this book.
Marriage is never what you think it will be. That’s what everyone says after getting married – they talk about how marriage is hard work and it’s not what you expect, that they had no idea they’d have to compromise so much. And you sit and listen, wondering what exactly the compromises are, because to hear people talk about it, it sounds like marriage is almost always an institution bonding two completely self-absorbed assholes who simply cannot agree upon the type of towels they will purchase and hang from the towel rack in the bathroom, because one member of the couple feels that the other always gets his way, that motherfucker, and as a result, the submissive spouse doesn’t even feel like she even has a voice in this relationship, even though last week she was permitted to select all of the new curtains for the entire house. Doesn’t she remember that? No, no, of course she doesn’t, because that detail is inconvenient and inconsistent with the story of victimization she is weaving.
If anyone ever was entitled to feel like most people are just assholes bitching about the petty travails of marriage, it’s Jane. But you’ll have to read all the reasons why on your own.
I really enjoyed this book. I more or less walked into it with no idea what it was about, sucked in by that pale, unprotected and confrontational girl, daring you to read her story, to understand why she is in her underwear outside, with nothing between you and her but a rope. It proved to be less a confrontation than a trip through the mind of a little girl whom no one protected, who had to grow up and protect herself. Some may see the ending as happy, as a final death, the last one mentioned in the book, sets her free. I didn’t feel the same way, because, as I mention above, the ending is rushed, but also because the person who was last to die was the one I would have killed myself, for reasons I cannot explain lest I spoil the ending. Perhaps that desire to kill that particular character is due to the lack of catharsis I felt at the end, but that urge could also come from my own neuroses. We all have neuroses, I suspect. May we all rise above them as Jane does. I rather love this funny, accurate, at times over-the-top depiction of the damage done to the helpless. Highly recommended!