Brain Pickings

Children’s Endearing Letters to Judy Blume About Being Gay and Her Timeless Advice to Parents

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Warm wisdom from the beloved author to console on one of life’s deepest sources of isolation.

“Dear Judy, please send me the facts of life, in numbered order.” So requested 9-year-old Fern in one of the many gems collected in Letters to Judy (public library) — an infinitely endearing compendium of the missives beloved author Judy Blume received from children, whose classic capacity for asking questions at once simple and profound shines here with soul-expanding luminosity.

Because her young-adult novels have tackled such timelessly tricky subjects as teenage sex (Forever…), sibling rivalry (The Pain and the Great One), divorce (It’s Not the End of the World), masturbation (Deenie), menstruation (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret), and bullying (Blubber), Blume shares a special bond of emotional intimacy with her young readers, generations of whom have seen in her — and continue to see — a private confidante who approaches with nonjudgmental understanding what no one else seems to understand and everyone else seems to judge.

Sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, always earnest, these letters cover everything from the innocent joys of first love to the despairing anguish of loneliness and loss to the general psychoemotional turbulence of puberty. But one of the most moving sections deals with children’s inquiries about same-sex crushes and homosexuality, following which are Blume’s own wise words on the subject — doubly so for writing in 1985, decades before marriage equality reclaimed the dignity of love.

In one such letter, 13-year-old Margo shares her story, post-scripted with the heartbreaking self-doubt and alienation achingly familiar to those of us who have spent our teenage years with a profound sense of being different:

Dear Judy,

I am a girl in seventh grade and I have a funny feeling about one of my teachers. I am afraid I might be in love with her or something. My friend says she feels that way about her cousin. I’ll bet a lot of girls — and boys — feel this way. Could you please write a book about it?

Thank you.

P.S. You don’t have to. Maybe it is only me who feels this way.

In another, 11-year-old Polly writes with endearing earnestness:

Dear Judy,

I like boys but I think I am gay! Please don’t think I am just thinking that. I do believe I am gay.

Often, too, kids don’t even have the proper vocabulary to articulate their sense of difference or are too timid to try, but get their point across obliquely. Longing for an answer to their inner turmoil, they seek the answer in a book — after all, what is a book for if not, to paraphrase Anne Lamott, to decrease our sense of isolation? Here is 14-year-old Ned, writing with palpable and disarming desperation:

Dear Judy,

I am close to my mother but not my father. However, sex is not an open subject with us. Would you do me a favor and consider writing a book about how homosexuality becomes involved in good friends in grades four through eight. It isn’t something that will stick but it does happen. Thanks.

But one of the most stirring letters comes from a once-child, a now-adult named Joanne, who writes:

Dear Judy,

When I was about twelve I noticed that I was feeling toward girls the way most girls begin feeling about boys. I had no label to put on it and certainly no one to talk to about it. It was tormenting, horrible, and I kept trying to cover it up and hoping one day I would miraculously find a boy I could feel the same way about. I was desperate to find The Boy who would change me and save me from this awful thing. Of course, I never did.

Anyway, for the sake of a lot of young kids out there who think they’re the only ones in the whole world, would you consider writing a book about this.

Blume addresses the central concern that unifies these intimate cries for help with her signature warm wisdom:

Like Joanne, other adults have written sharing their experiences and urging me to write a book about a young person who is gay. A man in his thirties wrote that when he was young, he felt “despairingly lonely.” There was no one he could talk to about his feelings. He searched bookstores, hoping to find a book that would let him know he was all right. Another man wrote poignantly about having denied himself the joy of young romance. He still does not know how to tell his family he is gay. He is afraid they will reject him.

Because I tend to write out of my own experience and feelings I don’t know if I will ever write that book. But others have written about being gay and will again. I hope parents will remember that early same-sex crushes, sexual play and experimentation do not necessarily mean that a person is homosexual. What is most important is to prevent young people from feeling judged or condemned for their feelings and to encourage them to feel good about themselves, no matter what their sexual preference.

Letters to Judy is an immeasurably wonderful read in its entirety. Complement it with this compendium of contemporary writers’ answers to kids’ questions about how life works, including one from yours truly, as well as kids’ amusing and poignant responses to gender politics during the second wave of feminism in the 1970s and 1980s, then treat yourself to this lovely musical homage to Judy Blume by Amanda Palmer and see more children’s correspondence with C.S. Lewis and Albert Einstein.

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The Dark Side of Certainty: Jacob Bronowski on the Spirit of Science and What Auschwitz Teaches Us About Our Compulsion for Control

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“Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible… We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power.”

Richard Feynman memorably argued that the chief responsibility of a great scientist is to remain uncertain. “It’s a wonderful idea: thoroughly conscious ignorance,” Stuart Firestein asserted in his wonderfully poetic TED talk on why ignorance rather than knowledge drives science. And yet the toxic belief persists that science is about our insatiable appetite for knowledge, power and, ultimately, control over the world.

In 1973, a year before his death, Polish-born British mathematician, biologist, and science historian Jacob Bronowski captivated the world with his pioneering BBC series and companion book of the same title, The Ascent of Man (public library), tracing the development of human civilization through science, from flint tools to alchemy to quantum physics. Celebrated as one of the first works of “popular science,” it bears Carl Sagan’s succinct and perfectly descriptive one-word blurb: “Superb!”

In this excerpt from the eleventh episode of the series, titled “Knowledge and Certainty,” Bronowski addresses with goosebump-giving poignancy the most dangerous extremes of our counterproductive compulsion for control and our quintessential discomfort with uncertainty:

There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit. The assertion of dogma closes the mind and turns a nation, a civilization into a regiment of ghosts — obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts.

It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false — tragically false.

Look for yourself.

This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas — it was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance.

When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible…

We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.

In the preface to The Ascent of Man, which is a magnificent and incredibly important read in its totality, Richard Dawkins captures Bronowski’s singular gift for weaving science and culture together:

Who more than Bronowski weaves a deep knowledge of history, art, cultural anthropology, literature and philosophy into one seamless cloth with his science? And does it lightly, effortlessly, never sinking to pretension? Bronowski uses the English language — not his first language, which makes it all the more remarkable — as a painter uses his brush, with mastery all the way from broad canvas to exquisite miniature.

The full documentary is well worth watching as well. Complement it with Richard Feynman on the universal responsibility of scientists.

Thanks, Scott

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Anthony Trollope’s Witty and Wise Advice on How to Be a Successful Writer

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“My belief of book writing is much the same as my belief as to shoemaking. The man who will work the hardest at it, and will work with the most honest purpose, will work the best.”

“Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time,” I paraphrased Debbie Millman in the last of my seven life-learnings from seven years of Brain Pickings. While the notion of “grit” as the greatest predictor of success may be a product of modern psychology, the ethos behind it is something creative people, and writers in particular, have known for ages. The novelist Isabelle Allende put it best: “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.” E.B. White, too, admonished that “a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” Indeed, a look at the daily routines of famous writers makes one meta-point clear: Showing up day in and day out, without fail, is the surest way to achieve lasting success.

But no one captured this grand truth more unequivocally and elegantly than Anthony Trollope (April 24, 1815–December 6, 1882), one of the most prolific and successful Victorian novelists. In April of 1860, 45-year-old Trollope responded to a letter by his neighbor, Catherine Gould, whose husband had decided to try his hand at writing for money and wanted to know the secret of the trade. The letter, found in The Letters of Anthony Trollope (public library), is brilliantly timeless and timely, a much-needed reality check for all aspiring writers as well as entrepreneurs of all stripes in our age of expecting instantaneous success:

My dear Catherine.

I have no more doubt than you have, — and probably in truth much less, that a man like Gould with good education & good intellect may make money by writing. I believe that the profession requires much less of what is extraordinary either in genius or knowledge that most outsiders presume to be necessary. But it requires that which all other professions require, — but which outsiders do not in general presume to be necessary in the profession of literature, — considerable training, and much hard grinding industry.

My belief of book writing is much the same as my belief as to shoemaking. The man who will work the hardest at it, and will work with the most honest purpose, will work the best.

All trades are now uphill work, & require a man to suffer much disappointment, and this trade more almost than any other. I was at it for years & wrote ten volumes before I made a shilling –, I say all this, which is very much in the guise of a sermon, because I must endeavor to make you understand that a man or woman must learn the tricks of his trade before he [or she] can make money by writing.

Trollope’s wisdom joins this growing archive of notable advice on writing. Complement it with more advice to aspiring writers from Ernest Hemingway, H.P. Lovecraft, and Neil Gaiman, then see more thoughts on the question of writing for pay from John Updike and Michael Lewis.

Donating = Loving

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.