Ummmmm…so, motherfucking TRIGGER WARNING here for a couple quotes from a favorite classic book for 8-12 year olds, taken slightly out of context and made HORRIFYING.
I just re-read Judy Blume’s Blubber for the first time since…I dunno, elementary school, presumably, right?
Holy motherfucking shit, that book is fucking brutal.
Blubber is as fucking brutal as Lord of the Flies, and the lessons that it imparts about humanity and about childhood vs adulthood and about the innate human tendencies toward evil are exactly the same. Jesus Christ, there’s even similarly over-wrought, horrifying symbolism in Blubber. This scene happens immediately during/following one of the big escalations of bullying toward the character Blubber, when the other children up the ante in their cruelty toward her. This takes place when the narrator (one of the bullies) is on a stage at school in front of an audience:
All of the sudden [my loose tooth] wasn’t there anymore. It didn’t fall out of my mouth but I could feel it rolling around on my tongue. I didn’t know what to do. I was afraid if I let it stay in my mouth I would swallow it, so I spit it into my hand and stuck my tongue in the space where my tooth used to be. I tasted blood.
Holy shit! “I tasted blood!” Childish things are falling away! She is becoming an adult! Adulthood is violence and the attempt to hide the violence that happens to you, so as to present to the watching world a calm smooth unharmed facade!
(Incidentally: That night, when her parents remind her to leave it under her pillow, and say that they hope the Tooth Fairy comes, she says: “Do you think she could leave me a check this time, instead of cash? … Made out to the Winthrop Stamp Company for $2.87.” What more adult request could she possibly have made, except a check, so that she could buy stamps??)
(Her mother is a particular master of this art of the adult veneer, of pretending that things are okay and hiding one’s own pain to present a pleasant image to the world. The mother smokes. Throughout the book, the narrator needles her mother to quit. She tries, but ultimately fails: we find her hiding at one point, “crouched in the corner of the bathroom” with the water running full-blast, smoking. Later in the book, after walking up what the narrator’s brother points out is a set of 37 stairs, she says: “Whew… No wonder I’m winded.” When the narrator complains that a dress she’s wearing itches, the mother tells her: “It can’t. … It’s acrylic, not wool.” When the narrator insists that her pain is real, her mother waves it away: “There’s probably a scratchy tag inside. I’ll take it out later.” She also gives her daughter the advice that one student’s blatant racism should be handled by laughing it off.)
(In the end, her parents do indeed reward her for her display of adult behavior – the way she managed to hide her physical pain and disfigurement onstage, and the economic transaction she performed using her body: She wakes up with the check for $2.87 underneath her pillow.)
Okay okay so hold on, super-briefly, for those of you who haven’t ever read Blubber (and I assume what that means is: “For those of you who are boys,” right?): Blubber is about a group of 10-11-12-ish year old children who begin bullying a chubby girl in their class, who they start to call “Blubber,” inspired by a report she gives on the whale. It’s narrated by one of the bullies – not the head bully, but absolutely in that group: the #2 best friend of the head bully. Eventually, the narrator stands up to the head bully, challenges her on something, and the head bully turns on her: the next day suddenly the head bully is best friends with Blubber, and has convinced all of the other kids to also ostracize and bully the narrator. The book ends with the narrator sort of pointing out the head bully’s bullying ways to the rest of the class, who kind of re-form into new friendship groups. The final scene is of both the head bully and the narrator now eating lunch with someone brand new, and Blubber once again eating all by herself, ostracized, but at least ignored. It’s a happy ending.
The first thing that really struck me with this reading of the book is how BAD the bullying is.
(Also: it is never ever once referred to as “bullying.” I know the particular modern connotations of that word are relatively recent – that “bullying” used to just be an annoying thing that happened all the time, not a massive social problem that needed to be addressed and rectified – but it’s actually never even really named as a problem at all in this book. Whatever it is that’s going on is not named, and therefore isn’t even a THING at all, somehow. People are acting jerkishly, but it’s just a bunch of individuals, individually acting like assholes in individual incidents – rather than a system or a set or a singular THING which can be addressed and therefore changed. Um. Words are powerful? Naming things is useful? I don’t know exactly where I’m going with this.)
The bullying is so bad in this book that it very genuinely verges on sexual assault more than once. I mean…maybe “verges on” isn’t even correct. Certainly if I saw this scene happening between students in a bathroom at Columbia, it would absolutely 100% be sexual assault:
“I wonder what’s under her cape?” Wendy asked.
“Probably nothing,” Caroline said.
“Oh, there’s got to be something,” Wendy said. “There’s got to be her blubber…at least.”
“Stay away from me!” Linda told her, walking backwards.
“I’m not going to hurt you, stupid,” Wendy said. “I just want to see what’s under your cape.”
“Don’t touch me!”
“Oh, don’t worry…that’s not my job…Jill’s the flenser.”
“That’s true,” I said. “I am.”
“And the flenser’s the one who strips the blubber,” Wendy said.
I wasn’t exactly sure what Wendy had in mind.
Linda tried to run but Caroline and Wendy blocked her.
“Strip her, flenser!”
“No!” Linda said. “Don’t you dare strip me!”
Caroline and Wendy grabbed hold of Linda’s arms and held her still.
“Do your job,” Wendy said. “Prove what a good flenser you are.”
“Okay,” I said, pulling of Linda’s cape. She had on a regular skirt and shirt under it.
“Strip her some more!” Wendy said, yanking up Linda’s skirt. “Hey…Blubber wears flowered underpants.”
“Let go of me!” Linda squirmed and tried to kick but Caroline grabbed her shirt and tugged until two buttons popped off.
Or the super-fucking-creepy threat in this scene, which echoes that one, but happens later in the book, after the narrator is the one being bullied:
When we went to the Girls’ Room Wendy blocked the toilets and wouldn’t let me use one until I said, I am Baby Brenner. I’m not toilet trained yet. That’s why I stink.
I shook my head at her.
“You have to say it!” Wendy told me.
“No way,” I said. “I won’t.”
“Then I’ll have to check your diapers myself.”
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.
When Blubber does something that pleases the head bully, her “reward” is to be made to kiss one of the boys in class, after which the narrator observes: “If you ask me she enjoyed it.”
It is around this point in the story that she says: “It was easy to get her to do it. I think she would have done anything we said. There are some people who just make you want to see how far you can go.” This shit is fucking CHILLING.
(Imagine watching THIS GUY say that in, like, an interview with Steve Kroft.)
The second thing that struck me was how smart and complicated the narration of this story was. The writing is really really really brilliant here. It’s not JUST that the story is told from the bully’s point of view. It’s that the bully’s point of view is so genuinely disturbing. It is disturbing in two different ways: I will argue that the bully never really “learns her lesson,” or, at least, that the lesson she learns is not the one you would expect her to or WANT her to learn, but I will get to that later. But first, because it’s more interesting and more shocking and also because it’s fucking GREAT WRITING on Judy Blume’s part: the narrator’s point of view is so disturbing because she is genuinely a BAD PERSON. (There’s presumably some sort of case for arguing that she’s actually “evil,” even, but – I think narrating a children’s book from a genuinely BAD PERSON’s point of view is radical and shocking enough.) In fact, she’s…kind of a sociopath. Literally.
Over and over and over again, the narrator recounts performing some horrifying act of physical or psychological cruelty and then immediately follows it up with a blithe retelling of the rest of her day’s activities – seeing dyed blue daisies for the first time, explaining why she doesn’t like to eat pineapple in public, the problems with the remodeling of the school gym – in the exact same chatty, fifth-grade voice. Her lack of appropriate affect is a classic symptom of sociopathy. She claims to have emotions; she talks about emotions and uses emotion-words and she knows logically what emotions probably ought to happen when, but she does not react to most situations in the way that you would expect (or hope) a healthy normal human person to react. She’s too cold, too distanced, too uncaring. I want to say “too observant,” but that implies some sort of particular intelligence that I don’t want to ascribe to her. She’s socially intelligent, maybe – she does observe people so that she can maintain her social position among them, and knows pretty well how THAT works. She manipulates people, she observes people manipulating and being manipulated and she dissects and analyzes THAT, and files THAT away for later use. But she feels no particular horror at it. She feels no horror at any of the cruelty she inflicts on Blubber. Actually – that’s worth repeating. That’s worth a new paragraph:
The narrator never feels remorse at what she’s done to Blubber. She never feels guilt. She never even reflects on it at all. That’s fucking crazy for a kids’ book, right? Even when the tables have turned and she becomes the victim of exactly the same kind of bullying she had been inflicting on Blubber, she never once thinks: This must be how Blubber felt. She only thinks: This is Blubber’s revenge on me. Blubber got back at me. How can I make this stop? How can I plot another turnaround? (Among her avenues of recourse suggested and/or tried: Laughing at people. Spitting on people. Biting people. Wearing pants instead of skirts [you know, to prevent sexual assault]. The one that eventually works is bullying all of the rest of her classmates for allowing themselves to be bullied, until finally everyone turns against one another.)
She’s also very very bad at associating punishment with wrongdoing. She doesn’t learn lessons from things like punishment. Or, rather, the lesson she learns is not that she was punished because she did something bad, but that she was punished because she was caught doing something bad. (Which, again, is a trait associated with sociopaths, right? They learn to do things not because of believed, internalized rules or morality, but only to avoid or attain the reactions they want from the people around them.) One example:
On Halloween, the narrator and her best friend Tracy (an innocent outsider and the moral compass of the story [FAR more so than the narrator's parents, especially her mother, as you might expect, since she does TALK about this with her mother a few times, and she gives her advice about it] who is NOT in the narrator’s class, has nothing to do with the bullying, and who in fact prompts the narrator’s eventual confrontation of the head bully) break rotten eggs inside a mean neighbor’s mailbox. (All we know of the meanness of the neighbor is: “He deserves it. He won’t give to Unicef and if ever there was a person who’d put razor blades in apples, it’s him,” and again, later: “We only did it because he’s so mean…he hates kids…he won’t even give to Unicef…” We do eventually see that he turns his garden hose on trick-or-treaters who fuck with his house on Halloween, and takes photos of them fucking with his house so he can identify them later, but of course these are effects, rather than causes, of the neighborhood kids fucking with him.) When they are caught, the narrator’s father asks: “You know you did wrong, don’t you?” Tracy nods, but the narrator says: “In one way I know we did wrong, but in another way, he really deserved it.” Neither of her parents replies to or discusses or reacts in any way to this statement. They settle, with the neighbor, on the punishment of having to rake the leaves in his yard. “Maybe this way you’ll both learn that it’s not up to you to decide who deserves what in this world,” the father says. Not: “Maybe this way you’ll learn not to commit acts of vandalism, destroy other people’s property, act cruelly toward another human being – no matter who they are or what they’ve done or whether you like them.” He’s implying that it IS okay to punish people, perhaps even in exactly the way they punished this neighbor. It’s just not up to THEM to have judged the punishment of THIS particular person, an adult. Stick to bullying your own age group, girls. On the day of the leaf-raking, the narrator pees behind a tree in the neighbor’s yard. “‘Oh, Mr. Machinist…’ I sang softly. ‘This time you’re really getting what you deserve!’” And when her father picks her up at the end of the day, and the neighbor is rude to him:
“Damn it,” Dad muttered. “He really is a -”
“I told you, didn’t I? I told you he deserved to get eggs in his mailbox.”
“Hmph…” was all my father answered.
So whatever skewed small lesson her parents were even TRYING to teach her was #1. Not learned by her in the first place, and #2. Later actively rescinded by her parents, anyway.
Parents and adults in general are just the fucking WORST in this book, though, anyway. Teachers and principals believe outlandish lies covering up acts of cruelty, since it’s so much easier than going to the bother of protecting those being abused. When punishment is finally meted out, it is undermined: three different times during the day of leaf-raking, various parents stopped by to deliver cookies and lemonade, commiserate, and speak poorly of the mean neighbor. They are often bullies themselves as well, but their bullying comes almost entirely through neglect: When Blubber gets tripped and falls, a teacher tells her to try to pay more attention where she’s going. When an apple is stolen from her lunch and thrown against a wall, a teacher asks her if food belongs on the floor, and makes her pick it up and throw it away. Later, when the narrator is the one being picked on and the other students throw her school books out into the street in front of the moving school bus so that she has to run out in front of it to retrieve them so they’re not run over, the bus driver yells at her for taking too long.
Though adults’ bullying doesn’t come ENTIRELY through neglect. Sometimes it is active. The children’s specific act of body-shaming is shown to have been a learned act:
Right after group science Mrs. Minish told the girls to line up alphabetically. “We’re going to the nurse’s office to get weighed.”
Everybody groaned. We get weighed every fall and again every spring.
“Hmmmm…Sixty-seven and a half.”
I smiled at her to show I was pleased.
She checked the chart. “That’s not much of a gain…only half a pound since last spring. … You should try to build yourself up. I’d like to see you weigh about seventy-two. Why don’t you start drinking a malted every day?”
“Now, let’s see…oh my, ninety-one pounds…that’s too much for your height.”
“I have big bones,” Linda siad.
“Even so, according to my chart you should lose some weight.”
“But I’m on a diet.”
“Well, that’s a step in the right direction. Remember, no sweets.”
“I know it.”
(Did that shit actually happen in the 70s? I remember those mortifying scoliosis tests [when everybody wore a swimsuit under their clothes to school that day!], but I don’t think I remember ever having been WEIGHED in school.)
The terrible moral and social lessons that the adults around the narrator are teaching her, and her terrible inability to learn the socially desirable lessons that life and general consequences would otherwise hopefully teach her even without proper adult instruction or interference, become, in the end, the final hilarious joke of the book. The lesson the narrator learns in this book is: “Blame the victim.” The lesson she learns is not “Don’t bully,” but “Don’t allow yourself to be bullied.”
In the last pages of the book, as the classroom’s social circles have been upended and rearranged and the narrator scans the classroom, looking for someone to eat lunch with, she contemplates approaching a new girl and thinks to herself: “You sometimes have to make the first move or else you might wind up like Linda – letting other people decide what’s going to happen to you.”
Jesus fucking christ.
Remember when Sesame Street re-released a bunch of old episodes from the 70s on DVD, but packaged with a warning that the shows were intended for adult viewing only? The actual warning on the package read: “These early ‘Sesame Street’ episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.” I feel like Blubber needs such a warning. This book was harrowing and exhausting. The scenes of assault were nerve-wracking. (The words Blume uses in those! “Holding her hands behind her back,” and “If you ask me she enjoyed it,” and Blubber’s cries of “Don’t touch me!” and “No!” Good lord.)
This brings me back to the claim that Judy Blume is doing some high-level writerly shit in this book. I claimed earlier that making the first-person narrator – the person inside whose head we live and the person with whom we are therefore forced to identify – making this person a possibly-literal sociopath is a bold choice and a very effective one. Maybe especially because it’s not completely clear whether or not she actually IS a sociopath, or actually IS a bad person. We IDENTIFY with her. We UNDERSTAND her. After all, everybody says, “children are cruel!” We were cruel, and people were cruel to us. So perhaps all this – the sexual assault, this brutal programming and manipulation, this creation of Stockholm Syndrome or PTSD or whatever (Because remember: Blubber does IMMEDIATELY – overnight! – accept the head bully’s offer of friendship and become her #1 bestie as soon as the head bully decides to turn the tables and put the narrator in the bullied position. And consider also this line from a little earlier on than that: “Two days later she was saying I am Blubber, the smelly whale of class 206 without anyone forcing her to. She said it before she got a drink at the fountain, before she went to the toilet, before she got on and off the bus, and during lunch, she said it before she started eating.” She’s doing it automatically, without being forced, without even being asked. That’s some bad fucking brainwashing shit right there. That girl is no longer emotionally or psychologically well, and those children are the ones who made her that way.) – perhaps, this book forces us to think, perhaps even all that is just children being children.
But the fact that we are forced to identify with this bad person – that’s a very cool writerly trick. Joyce Carol Oates did cool things with the same trick in Zombie, and Breat Easton Ellis did cool things with it in American Psycho. But…maybe it shouldn’t be so easy to compare Blubber to Zombie and American Psycho. Maybe that’s a problem. Maybe the 8-year-olds that Blubber is aimed at are not literate enough, are not sophisticated enough readers, to understand that this is a literary trick and that they maybe should NOT identify with the sociopathic trauma-inflicter.
On the same Halloween night that the rotten eggs are smashed inside the mean neighbor’s mailbox, the narrator also visits Blubber’s house:
We ran up and down the front walk, squirting pink Silly String on all the bushes. I was having the best time. I wished Halloween came more than once a year. I shook the can and aimed it at the hedge right next to the house. “A person gets what she deserves,” I sang. But when I pushed the button nothing came out of the can. “It’s empty,” I told Tracy.
Yes. It’s empty. Just like you are, Jill Brenner. Empty inside.
Just like we all are, perhaps.
You cruel fifth-grade motherfuckers, you.
So, uh. Anywho. What I’m trying to say is, this is what I did at the library today: