Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

21 MAY, 2014

Children’s Endearing Letters to Judy Blume About Masturbation, and the Beloved Author’s Response

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“Dear Judy, I want to ask you a very important question…”

In 1879, Mark Twain delivered a brilliant satirical lecture about masturbation, mocking the cultural hypocrisies around a practice so prevalent, so natural, yet so condemned. Nearly 130 years later, science writer extraordinaire Mary Roach traced the perilous religious roots of these hypocrisies. But the most poignant reflections on the subject come from those that suffer from such stigmas most acutely and with the least social support available: children. It’s no surprise, then, that kids whose parents and teachers either don’t address the subject or shroud it in censorship and condemnation would look for solace elsewhere.

Generations have found such solace — as well as a comforting sense of being less alone and less abnormal in their unwitting normalcy — in the books of beloved author Judy Blume, who has tackled many timelessly tricky subjects in her young-adult novels, including masturbation in the 1973 classic Deenie. But Blume addresses the subject directly in a chapter of the wholly excellent Letters to Judy (public library) — the same wonderful vintage compendium that gave us children’s moving letters to Blume about being queer.

Judy Blume signing a copy of Deenie (photograph by Mariah Jasmine Bonifacio)

In one letter, 13-year-old Nikki sends an itemized list of questions that might appear amusing at first glance, but is, upon closer inspection, emblematic of a profound cultural failure — a failure to inform, and an implicit failure to comfort by normalizing the very thing that is so natural and common yet so capable of instilling a soul-shattering sense of isolation in children made intentionally unaware of this prevalence:

Dear Judy,

I read your book Deenie. You wouldn’t believe how happy I was to know that I’m not the only person to do what Deenie does. You are the only person who has ever mentioned anything about this. So could you please answer my questions.

  1. How did you find out about this?
  2. Is it a kind of disease?
  3. How did I know to start doing this?
  4. Am I weird?
  5. How many other letters have you received saying that other people do this (if any)?
  6. Approximately how many people do this?
  7. Is what I do going to harm my insides (like by not letting me have children)?
  8. Am I a fag?

I hope to hear from you very soon. Please!

Blume targets the source and addresses the parents who make such anguishing and unnecessary spirals of anxiety possible, relaying a story at once heartening in showing that kids will always find a way to pursue their curiosity, and heartbreaking in revealing the outrageous acts of censorships of which adults are capable in their efforts to curtail that boundless curiosity:

When you are choosing books about sexuality for your kids make sure that there is an honest discussion of masturbation included. Chances are, they’re not going to want to talk about it with you, but just finding out that it’s okay will be a relief for them.

A young man wrote that he didn’t get a good night’s sleep during his adolescent years. He tried to train his mind before he went to sleep to think about mathematical problems. He tried to concentrate on them so he wouldn’t have erections, or worse, wet dreams.

When Then Again, Maybe I Won’t was published I met a woman who told me that her son had been given a copy for his twelfth birthday. She read the book first but before giving it back to him she cut out two pages. “How did you do that?” I asked. “With a scissors,” she said. When I asked why she had cut out those two pages she told me that she didn’t think her son was old enough to read about wet dreams or masturbation.

Last year I met her son. He is twenty-four now. I asked him if he remembered the book. “Sure,” he said. “And I always knew that my mother had cut out those pages even though she told it was a printing error. So I went down to the public library and I read the rest of the book there.”

Another 13-year-old, Jolene, speaks to the precious gift of Blume’s books in pulverizing that sense of isolation and aberration:

Dear Judy,

I have read all of your books. They helped me not to be afraid and they answer my questions. I thought I was different but I’m not. In your books are things I would never bring out in the open with my mother. Like in your book Deenie — she touches her special place. Well, I do that too, but I always thought I was the only one.

14-year-old Barbara is on the same page:

Dear Judy,

My mom and I have a very open relationship. But the one thing I cannot bring myself to mention to anyone is masturbation. I know (and your books helped me to understand) that it’s not bad. Just something about it is really embarrassing.

In this heartbreaking letter, 12-year-old Heather offers another account of the traumatic and toxic cultural narrative purveyed to children about one of the body’s most natural physical experiences:

Dear Judy,

I want to ask you a very important question. Okay, I’ll start from the beginning. When I was little, about four or five, I started touching my special place. And I got a nice feeling. I had a baby-sitter during this time. Her name was Donna. And she knew that I touched my special place. She said that if I kept touching it, it would get big, then it would bleed, then it would fill with pus and pop! Then I would have to have an operation. So I stopped touching it.

When I was going into sixth grade I started again. And one day this stuff came out of me. My mom said it was discharge and that it’s normal. But I’m scared to even touch my special place now. I think it will pop. This is serious. I told my mom and she told me that Donna was just lying but I’m still scared. Can you explain what happened? Please answer this letter as I am very scared.

Blume addresses the all too pervasive issue:

Yes, there are still myths about masturbation! The stories that Donna told Heather were frightening and destructive. A grown man wrote that his adolescent years were “a quiet hell of silent suffering.” He said that he thought it was the fact that nobody ever talked about masturbation that led him to believe that he was the only disgusting, degenerate pervert in the world.

I never heard the word masturbation when I was growing up. Yet at twelve I knew I had a special place and that I could get that good feeling by touching it. I talked about it with some of my friends, who had also discovered that they had special places. I never found anything relating to my early sexuality in books, so there was some comfort in finding out from my friends that I was not alone.

For an added delight, complement Letters to Judy with Amanda Palmer’s tribute to Judy Blume, from the altogether fantastic collaborative record An Evening with Neil Gaiman & Amanda Palmer:

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15 MAY, 2014

Writing for the Godless: Flannery O’Connor on Dogma, Belief, and the Difference Between Religion and Faith

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“For me a dogma is only a gateway to contemplation and is an instrument of freedom and not of restriction.”

As humans, we are wired to cling tightly to our beliefs, even the most delusional, and to automatically dismiss conflicting evidence. This is especially true in areas where our beliefs are particularly charged, such as politics and religion. For those of us skeptical of organized religion, who find transcendence in nature and spirituality in science, who fall closer to the atheism end of the belief spectrum, it’s especially challenging to consider perspectives on faith that come from the other end. But something magical happens when we allow the walls of the psyche to soften and become permeable, if only for a moment, to another’s experience of the world — little compares to the self-transcendence that such receptivity invites.

One of the most extraordinary meditations on religion and the role of spirituality in society comes from beloved author Flannery O’Connor, whose writing blended her Catholic faith with strong secular themes of ethics and moral philosophy, and nowhere does her singular spirit shine more luminously than in The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor (public library).

In July of 1955, when she was thirty, O’Connor received a letter from a young woman, initially unknown to her, who later chose to remain anonymous upon the publication of the letters. Both hungry for conversation and intrigued by the woman’s intensity of conviction, the author felt compelled to reply, and so began a nine-year epistolary friendship that continued until O’Connor’s death in 1964 from complications due to lupus. The letters to “A.” are among the most extraordinary in the collection, exploring with remarkable dignity and dimensionality matters of faith and religion, the difference between the two, and the role of spirituality in O’Connor’s writing and her personhood.

Flannery O'Connor by De Casseres

In her first letter to the young woman, dated July 20, 1955, O’Connor writes:

I am very pleased to have your letter. Perhaps it is even more startling to me to find someone who recognizes my work for what I try to make it than it is for you to find a God-conscious writer near at hand. The distance is 87 miles but I feel the spiritual distance is shorter.

I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic. This is a fact and nothing covers it like the bald statement. However, I am a Catholic peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness, that thing Jung describes as unhistorical, solitary, and guilty. To possess this within the Church is to bear a burden, the necessary burden for the conscious Catholic. It’s to feel the contemporary situation at the ultimate level. I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it. This may explain the lack of bitterness in the stories.

Lamenting the triteness of reviews that call A Good Man Is Hard to Find “brutal and sarcastic,” O’Connor wryly notes:

The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. I believe that there are many rough beasts now slouching toward Bethlehem to be born and that I have reported the progress of a few of them, and when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.

In the next letter, dated August 2, O’Connor apologizes for responding so promptly that it forces a pace beyond her correspondent’s time budget, then arms up the conversation with a similarly sweet and self-deprecating remark about the creative life:

I myself am afflicted with time, as I do not work out on account of an energy-depriving ailment and my work in, being creative, can go on only a few hours a day. I live on a farm and don’t see many people. My avocation is raising peacocks, something that requires everything of the peacock and nothing of me, so time is always at hand.

Flannery O'Connor and her peacocks

She then resumes the question of “Christian realism,” about which her correspondent seems to feel particularly strongly:

I believe too that there is only one Reality and that that is the end of it, but the term, “Christian Realism,” has become necessary for me, perhaps in a purely academic way, because I find myself in a world where everybody has his compartment, puts you in yours, shuts the door and departs. One of the awful things about writing when you are a Christian is that for you the ultimate reality is the Incarnation, the present reality is the Incarnation, and nobody believes in the Incarnation; that is, nobody in your audience. My audience are the people who think God is dead. At least these are the people I am conscious of writing for.

In considering the misinterpretation and misapplication of dogma, O’Connor makes an allusion that would later inspire the title of the fantastic posthumous collection of her essays and writings, Mystery and Manners:

Dogma can in no way limit a limitless God. The person outside the Church attaches a different meaning to it than the person in. For me a dogma is only a gateway to contemplation and is an instrument of freedom and not of restriction. It preserves mystery for the human mind. Henry James said the young woman of the future would know nothing of mystery or manners. He had no business to limit it to one sex.

O’Connor has a way of letting her subtle wit slip in through the backdoor of even her most serious convictions:

I won’t ever be able entirely to understand my own work or even my own motivations. It is first of all a gift, but the direction it has taken has been because of the Church in me or the effect of the Church’s teaching, not because of a personal perception or love of God. For you to think this would be possible because of your ignorance of me; for me to think it would be sinful in a high degree. I am not a mystic and I do not lead a holy life. Not that I can claim any interesting or pleasurable sins (my sense of the devil is strong) but I know all about the garden variety, pride, gluttony, envy and sloth, and what is more to the point, my virtues are as timid as my vices. I think sin occasionally brings one closer to God, but not habitual sin and not this petty kind that blocks every small good. A working knowledge of the devil can be very well had from resisting him.

However, the individual in the Church is, no matter how worthless himself, a part of the Body of Christ and a participator in the Redemption. There is no blueprint that the Church gives for understanding this. It is a matter of faith and the Church can force no one to believe it. When I ask myself how I know I believe, I have no satisfactory answer at all, no assurance at all, no feeling at all. I can only say with Peter, Lord I believe, help my unbelief. And all I can say about my love of God, is, Lord help me in my lack of it. I distrust pious phrases, particularly when they issue from my mouth. I try militantly never to be affected by the pious language of the faithful but it is always coming out when you least expect it. In contrast to the pious language of the faithful, the liturgy is beautifully flat.

In another letter from a week later, O’Connor writes:

In the face of anyone’s experience, someone like myself who has had almost no experience, must be humble. I will never have the experience of the convert, or of the one who fails to be converted, or even in all probability of the formidable sinner; but your effort not to be seduced by the Church moves me greatly. God permits it for some reason though it is the devil’s greatest work of hallucination. Fr. [Jean] de Menasce told somebody not to come into the Church until he felt it would be an enlargement of his freedom. This is what you are doing and you are right, but do not make your feeling of the voluptuous seductive powers of the Church into a hard shell to protect yourself from her. I suppose it is like marriage, that when you get into it, you find it is the beginning, not the end, of the struggle to make love work.

She adds:

I think most people come to the Church by means the Church does not allow, else there would be no need their getting to her at all. However, this is true inside as well, as the operation of the Church is entirely set up for the sinner; which creates much misunderstanding among the smug.

Cartoon by Flannery O'Connor. Click images for details.

O’Connor ends with an intimation that not only bespeaks her lucid, intelligent approach to the subject, but also calls to mind Buckminster Fuller’s scientific revision of The Lord’s Prayer with a sentiment that would’ve gladdened Carl Sagan:

I have some long and tall thoughts on the subject of God’s working through nature, but I will not inflict them on you now. I find I have a habit of announcing the obvious in pompous and dogmatic periods. I like to forget that I’m only a storyteller.

The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor is a gorgeous and revelational read in its totality, emanating the timeless beauty of an inner life cut tragically short by an untimely death. Complement it with O’Connor on why the grotesque appeals to us and her little-known satirical cartoons.

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12 MAY, 2014

How to Pitch Yourself: A Lesson from Young Eudora Welty’s Impossibly Charming Job Application to The New Yorker

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An exquisite yin-yang balance of erudition and irreverence, dignity and self-deprecation.

“Only when we take ourselves lightly can we take ourselves seriously, so that we are given the courage to say, ‘Yes! I dare disturb the universe,’” Madeleine L’Engle riffed on T.S. Eliot in her magnificent meditation on creativity. But in the quest to find fulfilling work, we stand in our own way all too often by taking ourselves too seriously to dare “disturb the universe” in any meaningful way.

In March of 1933, shortly before her 24th birthday, Eudora Welty penned the polar-opposite counterpart, if there could be such an oxymoron, of Sherwood Anderson’s perfect resignation letter: She mailed to The New Yorker what’s possibly the loveliest job application of all time, offering her services with equal parts respect and irreverence, self-esteem and well-placed self-deprecation — an epitome of what it means to find your purpose and do what you love. From offering to step in for the great James Thurber “in case he goes off the deep end” to showcasing her affinity for E.E. Cummings with disarming unsubtleness, Welty’s missive — found in Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (public library), that wonderful collection based on Shaun Usher’s labor-of-love website, which also gave us young Hunter S. Thompson on how to live a meaningful life and E.B. White’s heartening response to a man who had lost faith in humanity — is a timeless lesson in how to pitch yourself to your dream job.

March 15, 1933

Gentlemen,

I suppose you’d be more interested in even a sleight-o’-hand trick than you’d be in an application for a position with your magazine, but as usual you can’t have the thing you want most.

I am 23 years old, six weeks on the loose in N.Y. However, I was a New Yorker for a whole year in 1930–31 while attending advertising classes in Columbia’s School of Business. Actually I am a southerner, from Mississippi, the nation’s most backward state. Ramifications include Walter H. Page, who, unluckily for me, is no longer connected with Doubleday-Page, which is no longer Doubleday-Page, even. I have a B.A.(’29) from the University of Wisconsin, where I majored in English without a care in the world. For the last eighteen months I was languishing in my own office in a radio station in Jackson, Miss., writing continuities, dramas, mule feed advertisements, santa claus talks, and life insurance playlets; now I have given that up.

As to what I might do for you — I have seen an untoward amount of picture galleries and 15¢ movies lately, and could review them with my old prosperous detachment, I think; in fact, I recently coined a general word for Matisse’s pictures after seeing his latest at the Marie Harriman: concubineapple. That shows you how my mind works — quick, and away from the point. I read simply voraciously, and can drum up an opinion afterwards.

Since I have bought an India print, and a large number of phonograph records from a Mr. Nussbaum who picks them up, and a Cezanne Bathers one inch long (that shows you I read e. e. cummings I hope), I am anxious to have an apartment, not to mention a small portable phonograph. How I would like to work for you! A little paragraph each morning — a little paragraph each night, if you can’t hire me from daylight to dark, although I would work like a slave. I can also draw like Mr. Thurber, in case he goes off the deep end. I have studied flower painting.

There is no telling where I may apply, if you turn me down; I realize this will not phase you, but consider my other alternative: the U of N.C. offers for $12.00 to let me dance in Vachel Lindsay’s Congo. I congo on. I rest my case, repeating that I am a hard worker.

Truly yours,

Eudora Welty

Disappointingly, the editors at The New Yorker seemed too dainty and immune to Welty’s intelligent charisma — her letter produced no response. Only years later would the magazine obliquely recognize that initial failure by eventually publishing some of her short stories. Exactly four decades after her brilliant plea for employment, Welty won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel The Optimist’s Daughter — a title inadvertently poignant in the context of her New Yorker rejection — and seven years later, in 1980, she became the first woman to receive the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom in literature.

Letters of Note is a treasure trove of heartening humanism in its entirety — highly recommended. Sample its soul-quenching goodness further here and here.

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