Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

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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20 MAY, 2014

The Greatest Commencement Addresses of All Time

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Kurt Vonnegut, J.K. Rowling, David Foster Wallace, Patti Smith, Anna Quindlen, Steve Jobs, and more.

The commencement address is the secular sermon of our time — a packet of timeless advice on life, dispensed by a podium-perched patronly or matronly shaman of wisdom to a congregation of eager young minds about to enter the so-called “real world.” But the genre’s finest specimens speak to all of us looking for some guidance on the path to the Good Life, transcending boundaries of age or occupation or life-stage. The best commencement speeches are also masterworks of paradox: On the one hand, they gently remind us that what we think we know, we don’t; on the other, they urge us to trust our deepest intuitions about confidence, kindness, integrity, and all those embarrassingly elemental truths which, in all other contexts, our culturally conditioned cynicism leads us to dismiss as tired truisms. But not here — the commencement address is society’s most potent mechanism for clearing the clouds of our cynicism just long enough to allow a few rays of receptivity to shine through, long enough to hang our beliefs and vulnerabilities and hopes on something solid and soul-affirming, and to do so in a non-ironic way.

Gathered in this ongoing archive are the best commencement addresses I’ve encountered over the years — words of wisdom that offer such rare respite, a source of sincere solace for us cynical moderns. Please enjoy.

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20 MAY, 2014

Seth Godin on Vulnerability, Creative Courage, and How to Dance with the Fear: A Children’s Book for Grownups

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“If you just pick one human you can change for the better, with work that might not work — that’s what art is.”

At the 2014 HOW conference, Debbie Millman, host of the excellent interview show Design Matters and a remarkable mind, sat down with the prolific Seth Godin to discuss courage, anxiety, change, creative integrity, and why he got thrown out of Milton Glaser’s class. She used an unusual book of Godin’s as the springboard for their wide-ranging conversation: V is for Vulnerable: Life Outside the Comfort Zone (public library) — an alphabet book for grownups illustrated by Hugh MacLeod with a serious and rather urgent message about what it means and what it takes to dream, to live with joy, to find our purpose and do fulfilling work.

I had the pleasure of seeing and recording the conversation — transcribed highlights below.

On how moving away from the economy of scarcity is changing the motives for making books:

[You used to] create an item that is scarce, and that thing that you created that is scarce has value because it’s scarce and you can sell it. In the world we live in now, none of those things are true — we don’t know the people that made the internet, we don’t have to pay them. And we type something, or we design something, and it can be seen by hundreds of thousands or millions of people, if it spreads. That’s a whole new way to think about how we make things. So why bother making a book, ever again? What’s the point, if can reach ten times as many people with a blog post as will ever read one of my books? … If I’m going to make a book, there’d better be a reason experientially.

On why he used the format of a children’s book to shake grownups into absorbing a serious message:

I wanted to capture the way [that] I felt as a three-year-old when my mom read me a book. I wanted to capture the way, as a parent, I felt when I read a book to my kids. And that feeling isn’t something we get when we hand a kid an iPad in a restaurant and say, “Don’t bother me.” Something magical happens when we read a book to a kid, when we’re read a book.

So I wanted to steal that feeling — that’s why the format looks like a kids’ book, so that I could get to that part of your head that’s pre-cynical, the part of your head that isn’t yet afraid of what other people are going to think of you, the part of your head that has the bravery to do this work that matters. If I can steal that and get in, that’s my goal.

Anxiety is experiencing failure in advance. Tell yourself enough vivid stories about the worst possible outcome of your work and you'll soon come to believe them. Worry is not preparation, and anxiety doesn't make you better.

On what telling ourselves that we’re limited in our work by faulty others — crappy clients, bad bosses — is really about:

My thesis of humanity is that we are not squirrels. If you watch squirrels in the fall, they all do the same thing — they hide the acorns and stuff, they never help each other out, and they don’t do anything non-squirrel-like. They’re just squirrels — that’s their job. We’re beyond that, I would hope. And if we’re spending a lot of time in squirrel-like behavior, we’re selling ourselves short.

There are so many people in this world that don’t have the leverage and the trust and the promise that we’re lucky enough to be born with. With got this huge head-start, and to use it just to hide acorns feels to me like a cop-out.

When we see the designers that we admire and the people that we look up to, they also have lousy clients. They also have bosses that are pushing them to fit in — but they refuse. Because it’s hard to refuse, and that’s the work. The work isn’t kerning — everyone here knows how to kern… Kerning just gets done for you — that’s not the craft. The craft is looking the client in the eye and saying “No” — that’s the part that computers are never going to be able to do for us.

Vulnerable is the only way we can feel when we truly share the art we've made. When we share it, when we connect, we have shifted all the power and made ourselves naked in front of the person we've given the gift of our art to. We have no excuses, no manual to point to, no standard operating procedure to protect us. And that is part of our gift.

On anxiety and Steven Pressfield’s notion of the Resistance in creative work and the value of being disagreeable — for the right reasons — in the client business:

The discipline … is to first understand that “No” might mean you want to make art, but “no” might also mean you’re hiding — that being disagreeable is a perfect way to hide from criticism, because if you’re disagreeable enough, you won’t have any customers, you won’t have to do anything scary… I think we have to be disagreeable in the service of the client, not disagreeable in the service of the Resistance — that when we’re being disagreeable, we’re doing it on behalf of the client achieving more — not our ego achieving more, not us being more famous, but the client getting more of what he or she wants. That means you have to pick clients not who pay, but who want the things that you want.

Quality, like feedback, is a trap. To focus on reliably meeting specifications (a fine definition of quality) is to surrender the real work, which is to matter. Quality of performance is a given, it's not the point.

A beautiful definition of design:

Design, at its core, thrives when a human being cares enough to do work that touches another — it doesn’t thrive when it gets more “efficient.”

On how what to do, as creative people, when our amphibian brain begins to whisper into our mind’s ear every possible disaster scenario and assuring us of our prospective failure:

That is what we do for a living — we dance with the Resistance, we don’t make it go away. You cannot make it go away — you cannot make the voice go away, you cannot make the fear go away, because it’s built in. What you can do is when it shows up, you say “Welcome! I’m glad you’re here. Let’s dance about this.”

[…]

What we need to do is say, “What’s the smallest, tiniest thing that I can master and what’s the scariest thing I can do in front of the smallest number of people that can teach me how to dance with the fear?” Once we get good at that, we just realize that it’s not fatal. And it’s not intellectually realize — we’ve lived something that wasn’t fatal. And that idea is what’s so key — because then you can do it a little bit more.

On reconciling making art with making a living and how the sacrifices that art necessitates clash with our chronic discomfort with uncertainty, using Patti Smith’s time as a starving artist as a humbling example:

There’s a collision of the cultural and the Resistance and many other things, which is: “I would like to make art, but I’d like to do it while making a steady income, and I want to make sure that steady income is respected by everyone around me and has no uncertainty associated with it.” Well, there’s a good reason not a lot of people make art, and that’s one of them. If you read Patti Smith’s book about her and Robert [Mapplethorpe] called Just Kids … she was homeless for years — HOMELESS! — living on bread from the garbage can, sleeping in the park, to make her art. And what’s fascinating about the first third of the book is never once does she say, “I’m a homeless person.” She says, “I’m an artist who hasn’t found her muse yet.” She’s on her way to being an artist and the homelessness is a temporary moment…

But what the industrial economy seduced us into believing is that the deal was simple: You work your day doing something you’re not proud of, and you decompress at night with television and whisky, and on weekends you can go for a run. Right? Do that forever, and forty years from now you’re dead — that’s the deal. And we sold that deal to a lot of people.

Gifts are the essence of art. Art isn't made as part of an even exchange, it is your chance to create imbalance, which leads to connection. To share your art is a requirement of making it.

On the difference between those who want more and aren’t getting it and those who want more and do get it:

It’s back to this idea of what are we truly afraid of. I am more afraid of settling — I am more afraid of not giving what I can give — than I am afraid of doing it. And so when we’re sitting quietly, there’s a debate we have to have with ourselves all the time, which is: “What is my work?” And if “My work is to have more impact,” I don’t think we start by asking — I think we start by giving… Once you get hooked on that, culturally, then doors open — doors open because your work precedes you. You are your work — not your resume, but the ruckus you have made before, the people you have touched before…

Can you name someone who has built a life around that who’s a failure? I can’t!

Zabaglione is a delightful Italian dessert consisting mostly of well-whipped foam. It takes a lot of effort to make by hand. Each batch comes out a little different from the previous one. It's often delicious. It doesn't last long. It's evanescent. And then you have to (get to) make another batch.

On creative courage — something Millman herself has addressed beautifully — culminating with an exquisite addition to history’s finest definitions of art:

For the [creative person], what’s going on outside is trivial compared to what is going on inside… Don’t try to change the structure of the outside world [hoping that] then you’ll be fine, then you’ll be creative and then you’ll be brave. No. First, figure out how to be creative and brave and courageous, and the outside world will change on your behalf…

It’s always the same case — it’s always the case of you’re a human, trying to connect to another human. And if you just pick one human that you can change for the better, with work that might not work — that’s what art is.

The full conversation is well worth listening to, and V is for Vulnerable is an unusual delight in its entirety.

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