back to school with judy blume: deenie

The exact edition from my youth. Bless those crazed vintage buyers.

Dear Judy,

Deenie. Where do I even start?

Deenie was the second of your books to reach me in my youth and after rereading, I find myself with a fondness for Deenie and her story akin to the one I have for Margaret and hers. I see flaws in their characters more clearly than I did as a kid, but they are the ones who knew me when, two of my favorite companions on the torturous path of adolescence.

Okay, Judy, let’s get personal. By sixth grade — Deenie’s very age — I had already worked out the whole masturbating thing. Not just the doing it bit, but that it was normal, that it wouldn’t kill me, and that lots of people my age — people I actually knew even! — did it too. It was not a Big Deal. I can attribute this both to having a much older sister, well-adjusted and open parents, good friends, and the internet. Growing up in the internet age was by far the thing which most contributed to assuring me that I was not in fact a constantly mutating and grotesque monster. What a gift.

But, sadly, not every person I counted among my friends was as knowledgeable and while I can no longer remember most of the details, I somehow ended up in Serious Friendship Trouble with two of my friends — K and S — for “keeping secrets” with another and ended up confessing that we’d been talking about — gasp! — masturbation. I made this confession on what I think must’ve been an AlphaSmart or similar brand mini-laptop processor keyboard, which we all used on typing days to pass notes back and forth to each other. These two friends were totally weird about it, Judy, and for the first time I felt really weird about it! But, regardless of how horrified I might’ve been, I thought that was the end of that entire awkward moment.

Of course it wasn’t the end because adolescence is generally terrible and never-ending. A couple of days later, K presented me with her copy of Deenie. She’d been diagnosed with scoliosis at that year’s annual check and had started wearing her modern Milwaukee Brace — mostly plastic instead of metal and I don’t think she had a neck stabilizer and only wore it for two years, if memory serves — and she said, “You and I both have something in common with her.”

I can’t fully explain why this was a pivotal moment for me as a human being, but it was. I hadn’t ever been that close to K — she was very religious and very conservative and, to be slightly less than kind, totally uptight for a twelve-year-old — and she, of all people, had reached out in this extremely kind and gentle way. Sometimes adolescence was okay! We ended up bonding and she was my friendship rock over the summer because we spent hours on the phone talking about how scared we were to go to junior high. You brought us together, Judy! And that’s so cool. Fiction is remarkable for so many reasons, but its ability to draw people together is one of my very favorites.

As an adult, I also appreciate the frankness with which Mrs. Rappoport discusses masturbation with the girls in Deenie’s gym class. She tells them it’s okay! For everyone, boys and girls alike, and that it won’t kill them or make them crazy or weird! It’s so refreshing! And, after growing up in the weirdly repressed 90s, it seems shocking for its era to me as an adult. We always seem to assume that we’re advancing every year, getting better, but instead, we’re often going bizarrely backwards.

I really loved Deenie all over again. A lot. I love Helen and Deenie’s dad and when Janet and Midge take her to get a nightgown when they think she’s going to need an operation to correct her spine, I actually choked up. Friendship! I love Barbara! I even love the little bit of Helen’s romance with Joe. I love the strife of Deenie’s relationship with her mother and the pain of expectation and disappointment and all those tangled up feelings of what’s “meant” for you and struggling to figure out and be what you want to be. For some of us that struggle lasts well into adulthood and it never gets all that much easier.

Thanks for Deenie, Judy. I’m grateful for her sisterhood.

– Ash