This is the poignant story of a loving family: parents, Rosie and Penn, and their 5 boys; that is, they believed they had 5 boys until the youngest, Claude, declared that he wanted to bring a purse to kindergarten instead of a lunchbox. Gradually, it became clearer that Claude was much happier in dresses than pants and identified more with the princess in his father’s bedtime fairytale than the prince. While his parents and brothers were accepting of this, they were fearful that people around him were not, and they went to great lengths to protect Claude, who eventually called herself Poppy. As the story unfolds, we learn that while intentions may be pure, our actions may not be in others’ best interests and over-protection can lead to inadvertent harm.
This is a fictional story, but it has all the markings of a story that is true. Every character is endowed with a dynamic, vulnerable, and big-hearted quirkiness that makes all of them larger than life. We come to love each member of this family almost as our own. The story is enriched with some detail of how Claude/Poppy’s experience affects the other members of the family – as it certainly would – and their own struggles with growing and seeking their own identities. And most genuinely, Poppy’s struggle is not straightforward – she is not sure what her journey will be like or where it will end. This is the true meaning of a non-binary identity. One does not have to be male or female. While this may be hard for many to comprehend, it is even harder for others to squeeze themselves into one or the other, and I believe because of that, we all just have to get over ourselves and accept the vast space in-between.
I loved this novel, both for the message within and for the beauty of the story on its own merit. It is a story of a family dealing with a secret that they learn doesn’t have to be a secret. It is a story of a family learning to cope with difference, which most families have to deal with on some level, as no one is exactly like anyone else anyway. And it is a story about love and family bonds that keep a family tied together no matter what.
Working exclusively with young women over the past 15 years, I have seen a frightening trend of increased anxiety among them. There are many explanations of why this is so, but there are few answers as to how to help them cope. In this concise, articulate, and surprisingly upbeat book, Lisa Damour guides primarily parents in how to gently and supportively help their daughters to confront the sources of their stress and anxiety and in doing so, to combat them. As she points out, quite aptly, when one shies away from the cause of the anxiety, most often that anxiety only builds. Significantly, too, Damour does not demonize stress and anxiety. She points out that without stress, we might not push ourselves to do our best to achieve our goals; likewise, without the anxiety response, we might not be alert to dangerous situations. Stress and anxiety are only bad when they reach such high levels as to interfere with our normal functioning – that is when we need intervention.
The writing is insightful, readable, and filled with vignettes that engage the reader. Damour relates experiences with her clients as well as her own daughters, which make the issues she discusses come alive and tangible. She divides the issues into those that relate to girls in the home, girls in relationships with other girls, girls in relationships with boys, girls at school and girls as they are portrayed in our culture – and each of the stressors that are inherent to each of these realms. There are helpful tips along the way, lots of analogies, and very wise, concrete suggestions.
One takeaway I loved was her response when a young woman wasn’t sure how to respond to a conflict. Our culture conditions women to be agreeable and girls are expected to be and generally are particularly sensitive to others’ feelings. She summarized peoples’ responses to conflict as being either a bulldozer, a doormat, a doormat with spikes (passive aggressive responder), or (the desirable response) a pillar (stands up for herself without stepping on anyone else). I thought this was a great way to think about how we respond to conflict and and how we can guide others to do so in a constructive way.
I don’t think all of the advice in this book is exclusive to only girls. Some of it is generalizable to boys as well. But there is certainly plenty of evidence that girls experience more stress and anxiety than boys and that it is taking its toll on this generation of girls. Here are, finally, tools to utilize to help them resist this scourge and be resilient.
Deep in the hills of Idaho, among the potato farms and tiny villages, poverty reigns over large families like the Westovers, who cling to their Mormon faith for the little bit of truth that they can believe in. Dad preaches to his children his beliefs that the government is part of a socialist plot to undermine the Lord’s will and public education is just a manifest of this. So while the older children might have benefitted from having gone to school, the younger ones, Tara being the youngest of those, did not. So the kitchen where Tara mixes herbs with her mother and the junkyard where Tara sorts metals with her father and brothers become Tara’s classrooms. And the random, outdated history or mathematics textbooks that left around the house became her only source of book learning, such as it was. Sadly, her emotional learning was blunted by the abuse at the behest of her brother Shawn, and her ability to survive in her home was made possible only by quelling any feeling or reaction to what was going on around her. When she finally did allow herself to feel, she realized there was just too much rage at her whole family to do anything with it. This was the face of mental illness and this was the face of her family.
This is the true account of the life of Tara Westover – and it’s truly a miracle that all of the children actually survived, especially Tara. The severity of the neglect and abuse at the hand of her father (and her mother) is staggering. It is really not entirely their fault, as they clearly are mentally ill – at least her father is severely so. The most egregiously violent and abusive one, however, is her brother Shawn, who is viciously violent and his parents repeatedly turn a blind eye to his cruelty.
I find that the one I am most angry with by the end of the book, interestingly, is Tara’s mother. She has so many opportunities to come through for Tara. There are moments when it appears she just might finally side with Tara. That she might stand up against Tara’s father, or against Shawn, and say that Tara may be right in accusing Shawn of acting violently toward Tara, or of Dad having mistreated Tara when she was younger, not having given her opportunities or believed her when she was telling the truth (that she was NOT a whore, as she was so often accused of being). Even later, when her mother had more financial success and independence and might have had a chance to break free and it might have appeared she’d stand up for herself. But no, she did not. Such. a disappointment for Tara. No wonder there was such heartbreak and fury.
The fact that Tara has achieved the success that she has is miraculous and I applaud her intellect and courage. I only pray for her that she is able to find the support that will allow her to find kindness toward herself that will allow her to heal from all the hurt.
I thank her for sharing her story with all of us. It has been so powerful. Mental illness rears its ugly head in so many ways. Sadly, the worst is toward children.
For anyone who works with or parents a young person who has entered college starting the year 2013, you will have noticed a difference from those who started at any time prior. There is a rate of anxiety unlike any generation that has preceded it – and it is compounded by parents who perpetuate the sense of fragility that these students have by continuing to overprotect them and college administrations who do the same. Why? The researchers who have written this book give explanations based on the following 3 “untruths” that get perpetuated by these parents and college administrators:
- What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. (Actually – it makes you stronger. But we still strive to shield our young from any and all potential harm. This of course deprives them of the opportunity to learn how to cope with adversity.)
- Always trust your feelings. (NO! Our feelings are often inaccurate. We need to explore and learn and find that there really isn’t a ghost hiding under the bed, and that girl over there looking at us might not hate us, but might just be shy herself. We need to look at facts, not at just our own perceptions.)
- Life is a battle between good people and evil people. (This may be the most dangerous of the untruths, creating the us-vs-them mentality that informs the current toxic discourse on college campuses today. There is so much more intolerance of opposing views and so much less ability to have civil conversation about anything at all controversial that even professors are shying away from anything that may smack of real import in their classrooms. This is actually a threat to education itself.)
The book expounds upon these ideas, given fascinating – and often appalling – examples of real incidents on college campuses and some high schools where these theories and ideas have come about. They also expound upon what might have caused this situation and what might improve it.
As someone who not only has children exactly this age and who works professionally with students at a college, I fully appreciate the message of this book. It is a harsh statement about how restricting free play time, scheduling so many activities, making the college application process so all-consuming that it has to start in preschool (!) — this takes away from a persons ability to develop normal self sufficiency. There is no room for failure from which to learn valuable life lessons. And when we don’t learn how to fail, we don’t learn that we can ever be wrong – and that is quite dangerous.
This is an outstanding book that I have to recommend as a MUST READ!
Rarely have I had the opportunity to review a book written by someone I know – what an intimidating responsibility this is. Lucky for me, I found this book by Elana Zaiman – a woman I grew up with and whose path randomly crossed mine so many times over the years – very engaging and helpful. So much so, that I’m contemplating writing a few Forever Letters of my own.
The “forever letter” is an outgrowth of the ethical will, a will or letter that expresses your thoughts, wishes, stories, or apologies to anyone of significance in your life. Elana’s rationale is that when you put pen to paper, you can pour out your heart, but at the same time think through exactly what you want to say to a special person in your life. Many of us can write things we cannot say – whether they sound too corny or make us cry too much or feel too awkward – and sometimes we feel the other person may not be able to hear what we have to say directly from us without reading it in a letter. In addition, having something written allows for someone to potentially keep it with them long after you are gone.
Elana has traveled around the country, giving workshops on this subject and peppers each chapter with anecdotes about individuals grappling with the complex issues these letters raise. How do I transmit to my children the values I hold dear without leaving too restrictive a “commandment” when I die? How can I express anger at a parent for their absence but not sever a tie with them? Is it too late to apologize to my sibling after all these years? There is a lot of emotional baggage that is dragged out of storage when you are talking about these types of letters and writing them, actually putting these feelings into words that are permanent can have lasting effects. This must be done very thoughtfully. And each chapter is therefore written with this in mind, giving examples and prompts and guidelines to encourage the writer to be reflective and mindful, but also loving and honest in the writing of these letters.
Elana includes a lot of personal vignettes, her own forever letter that she received from her father that triggered her understanding of the impact of these letters, and her forever letter to her own son. These are powerful and allow us into her life in a very intimate way. She shares her own vulnerabilities – mistakes and successes – and allows us to see her not just as a rabbi, spiritual leader, and speaker, but as a human being with a deep emotional life and normal human frailties. Likewise, she emphasizes that these are components of the best forever letters.
If you are contemplating such a letter – or if you’ve never heard of one! – this is a compelling book for you to read!
So as you can see by this blog, I am not a huge reader of self-help books. Not because I am not in need of any help (!), but there are just too many other books that I’d rather read. This one, however, captured my attention. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, experienced the tragic, sudden death of her husband, to whom she’d only been married for 10 years. In trying to cope, she speaks with her psychologist friend, Adam Grant, who suggests that since she can’t have her husband back (Option A), she has to just kick the s–t out of Option B. And there is the birth of this book and her finding her way out of her despair and learning the basic building blocks of resilience.
I think there are many useful and inspiring lessons here. I love her 3 P’s, most of all. She teaches that when we have a crisis, our first inclination is to assign it the 3 P’s: Personalization, Pervasiveness, and Permanence. That is, everything is personal – ie. it’s our fault. We might have been able to prevent the catastrophe that has occurred, even when rational thought would have us know that this isn’t true. That the issue is pervasive – that everything is terrible and bad and that this will affect everything. Most of the time, this, again, is not true. And that the catastrophic event will have effects that will last forever. Of course, if you are dealing with the death of a loved one, that is permanent; nevertheless, the affect of this on your life will evolve over time and your life goes on even if that of the loved one does not. These are probably much easier to read about than incorporate into one’s life, but certainly they are important concepts and seemed to have been extraordinarily comforting to her as she was going through her crisis.
I found that the vignettes and stories that Sandberg uses to illustrate points are also useful to drive home her points. She uses others’ stories as well as her own to generalize the concepts that she discusses, so that it is not all about her. But she also bravely reveals a lot of herself in this book as well. I am hoping it was somewhat cathartic for her to write about her experience – I’m sure it was extremely painful as well.
I think since life throwing curveballs is a universal experience, this book can universally be appreciated and utilized. We can all learn how to catch those curveballs more gracefully and more resiliently!
A stark departure from my usual posts, this non-fiction book is the product of a neuroscience researcher who also survived as a single mom raising her own 2 sons through their adolescent years. It is written for parents – not just for those of us who work with adolescents – so while it is somewhat technical, it also is quite readable. While the authors describe many studies about how the brain functions and how adolescent brains function uniquely, they also pepper the chapters with anecdotes about specific individuals who illustrate their points. The stories are quite poignant and really keep the reader engaged.
What I like about this book is that it is not all negative and bad news. Adolescents often get slammed when written about, with emphasis only on the risky behaviors and the poor decision-making that they are capable of. While there is some of that here, there is also explanation for why they are vulnerable to unwise decisions – their still developing frontal cortices, primarily. In addition, there is also very positive discussion about the plasticity of their brains, which enables them to learn much more easily and quickly than those of us who are older. There is interesting discussion about why adolescents are more vulnerable to addiction, whether to smoking or drugs or gambling, etc., and there is also discussion of mental illness and legal issues. Finally, there is also discussion of the emerging adult, or the post-adolescent, which is a newer area of investigation.
In this text, you’ll find reasoned parenting advice, strategies to help teens cope with difficulties, and resources, which any parent of a teen can benefit from. This book is not for everyone, but if you are a parent of teens and have questions or issues, I would recommend this as a resource. Also, if you work with teens in any capacity, this is a must-read. Check it out!