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Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume - Jenny O'Connell

Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume

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Published: 3rd April 2009
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"I wonder if Judy Blume really knows how many girls' lives she affected. I wonder if she knows that at least one of her books made a grown woman finally feel like she'd been a normal girl all along. . . ."

FROM

Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume

Whether laughing to tears reading Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great or clamoring for more unmistakable "me too!" moments in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, girls all over the world have been touched by Judy Blume's poignant coming-of-age stories.

Now, in this anthology of essays, twenty-four notable female authors write straight from the heart about the unforgettable novels that left an indelible mark on their childhoods and still influence them today.

After growing up from Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing into Smart Women, these writers pay tribute, through their reflections and most cherished memories, to one of the most beloved authors of all time.

"From bittersweet to laugh-out-loud hilarious, the essays in this collection all sparkle with charm, style, and wit. No doubt about it, if you grew up reading Judy Blume, you will love this book." -- Sarah Mlynowski, author of "Bras & Broomsticks" and "Girls' Night In"

Then
You can't blame Mrs. Henderson for giving her daughter a copy of Forever on her eleventh birthday. Like all of us in Girl Scout Troop 196, Kim was a die-hard Judy Blume fan. Of course, I prided myself on being the most avid admirer of all, the only one in our troop to have read every Judy Blume book available in the Bayville Elementary School library, from Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret to Then Again, Maybe I Won't . So as I watched Kim tear open the Smurf wrapping paper to reveal a previously unheard-of novel by my favorite author -- one that promised a timeless teenage love story on its cover -- I became instantly and insanely jealous.
And that was before I learned that Forever was The Sex Book.
This discovery didn't take long, as I had taken it upon myself to "hold on" to the book as Kim opened up other gifts. I feigned interest in her new Duran Duran cassette, the assortment of rainbow ribbon barrettes, even the Cabbage Patch doll named Annalisa Marie. My fascination with the book and disinterest in the birthday loot deepened, until I was finally able to usher Kim and the rest of the guests upstairs to her bedroom.
"Listen to this ," I whispered as I went on to read the book's notorious first sentence, about a girl genius named Sybil who had "been laid by at least six different guys." Been laid! In the first sentence! Could this be the same Judy Blume I knew and loved? I wondered what was more stunning: The sex or its source? It was a far cry from the bust enhancement exercises in Margaret or even the wet dreams in... Maybe I Won't .
With the provocative opening as incentive, Kim, the other girls, and I bounced up and down on the frilly pink canopy bed, each taking turns skimming through the book, trying to outdo each other with the discovery of another dirty passage. Page 20: Michael tried to unhook Katherine's bra. Page 25: Michael felt her up under her sweater, then fumbled on the snap of her jeans. Page 40: Katherine's eleven-year-old sister accused her of "fucking" Michael in her bedroom!
Our fingers flew over page after page, only stopping when we hit a word such as "sex," "sexy," "moans," "penis," "sex," or "sex." Not surprisingly, we gave ourselves away. Mrs. Henderson -- alerted by our eardrum-cracking shrieks -- came through Kim's door, demanding to know the source of our hysterics. Mrs. Henderson was a divorcée, the neighborhood Avon lady, and our acting troop leader. She favored pearly pink lipstick, acid-washed jeans, and brassy hair teased to Jersey perfection -- a combination of artistry and products that I admired and never mastered. We all loved Mrs. Henderson and copped to the book's carnal content just as quickly as she removed it from Kim's clutches. She must have known that Troop 196 viewed her as being more hip and progressive than the other moms, so rather than merely banning Forever from our fourth-grade social circle, Mrs. Henderson told all our mothers that she would be happy to lend it to anyone in the troop, if they gave written parental permission.
My mother, of course, flatly refused. Though she didn't seem that different from Mrs. Henderson on the outside -- she, too, wore jeans and rarely left the house without applying mascara or "hot rollering" her highlighted blonde hair -- she was, at heart, the result of sixteen years of Catholic education.
" Mooooooooom ," I whined as she prepared that night's dinner, something involving red meat and a few token vegetables in a crock pot. "Why can't I read it?"
"It's not appropriate for a ten-year-old," she replied without looking away from the flesh on the cutting board.
"I'm almost eleven!" My birthday was, in fact, a week after Kim's.
"It's not appropriate for an eleven-year-old!" she said, slicing down the blade. "I'm not sure it's appropriate for anyone at all!"
"Mooooooooom."
"Megan Beth, if you want to know about..." She hesitated here, waving her knife in the air. " That sort of thing ...you should ask me."
This was a horrifying and altogether impossible proposition. Who wanted to talk to her mom about that sort of thing ? But my mother had invoked my middle name, so I knew better than to continue my fight. Fortunately, all my years as a precocious book lover had paid off. Reading comprehension was my strong suit, so even though I'd only skimmed the book, I got the gist of the whole plot: Katherine and Michael were seniors in high school. They met. They fell in love. And they had sex.
Some crucial details I committed to memory and could still recall twenty-one years later:
Michael named his penis Ralph (page 73).
Michael "came" too soon, before they got a chance to do it (page 100. I had only the vaguest idea what that meant. Something came out of him? Like pee? And why would that stop them from doing it?)
Michael devirginized Katherine on a multicolored rug because her blood could have stained the bedsheets (page 101).
After Kim's sleepover, Foreve r turned into a game I played alone in my bedroom. Katherine (my Brooke Shields doll) made love with Michael (Ken) in an empty tissue-box bed. Pre- Forever, making love had meant sleeping in a bed naked with someone. Very little effort involved. Post- Forever, I pretended that Ralph was hidden inside Brooke-as-Katherine. Of course, Ken-as-Michael didn't have a penis, and his anatomical incorrectness suited my fantasies just fine. I still wasn't sure what a penis looked like, having only glimpsed at my baby brother's teeny unit as my mother changed his diaper, but I was simultaneously enthralled and repelled by the idea of seeing one. My nascent pangs of lust left me confused and queasy, similar to the nausea I felt whenever I tried to read a book in the backseat of a moving car.
Later that spring, Troop 196 earned points toward community service badges by cleaning up a local beach. After a heated argument in Mrs. Henderson's minivan over one pop star's supremacy (Cyndi Lauper vs. Madonna was a popular debate at the time, and I was always in the minority opinion), the other girls piled out of the van together singing "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" louder than necessary as I stomped off to a more secluded area to work by myself. I stuffed my trash bag in defiance, silently mouthing the lyrics to my favorite song. Like a virgin. (Hee!) Touched for the very first time...
It was almost time to head back when I discovered a tattered copy of Playgirl hidden among the bottle caps and cigarette butts in the dune grass. The centerfold was miraculously intact. The model was in full-on hair-band mode, wearing a black leather studded jacket and nothing else. He was posed in front of a microphone, head thrown back, eyes shut tight as if he were belting out a power ballad...or on the verge of splooging all over the stage. His ginormous penis was obviously impressed with the performance, as it was in the throes of a standing ovation.
Even at eleven years old, this whole setup struck me as absurd. I mean, what would possess this guy to perform in a leather jacket and no pants? Duh. It made me wonder how Katherine could possibly look at Ralph-the-Penis without cracking up. How could she get hot and bothered by the idea of that...that... thing poking around inside her? It made no sense.
As unsexy as it was, I had no doubt that my fellow Scouts would take a prurient interest in the centerfold. My find could catapult me into popularity, if only for the rest of the afternoon. But I also knew if Mrs. Henderson found out and told my mom, the possession of pornographic materials would surely lead to a major grounding. My parents would be appalled, but my peers would be impressed. It was the virgin/whore, Cyndi/Madonna conundrum, and in this case, the good girl in me won out. I stuffed the Playgirl pages deep in my trash bag and didn't say another word about them.
Not long after that mystifying first introduction to the male genitalia, my mom took it upon herself to educate me in that sort of thing . She brought me across the street to my best friend Adrienne's house, which to this day remains the most orderly and pristine place I have ever visited. If Adrienne or her mom ever wore jeans, they were of the starched-stiff, high-waisted variety that could be subcategorized as slacks within the taxonomy of denim. We sat on the plump couch. Me, slumped and skeptical. Adrienne, respectful and ramrod straight like the ballet dancer she was. Together, in their darkened, dust-free family room, we watched a very special filmstrip borrowed from the middle school health class I would take two years later.
The mere mention of the word "filmstrip" hopelessly dates me, I know. As a brief primer for those who have come of age in the digital era, a filmstrip entertained and informed one boring picture at a time, with a breathy narrator on a cassette tape going on at length about the subject represented by each still frame. When the anonymous speaker finished her oration, the cassette would signal the need to manually forward the reel to the next boring picture with a mechanical-sounding BOOOOOP!
A diagram of the female reproductive system. BOOOOOP! A bottle of douche with a red slash warning that it is not a valid method of birth control. BOOOOOP! A grinning girl running rapturously through a field of wildflowers feeling so free and April fresh...ummm...because she has just used the douche for nonbirth-control purposes? BOOOOOP! This last image was particularly striking. I had just branched out of the Blume canon to read Go Ask Alice, and it seemed more likely to me that this girl was having some sort of acid freak-out and was not, as the voice-over implied, simply carried away by the joys of reproductive maturation.
It was this primitive form of audiovisual infotainment that taught me all about the 3 P's: Puberty, Periods, and Pregnancy. I'd go through Puberty, get my Period, and -- if I wasn't careful -- I'd get Pregnant and ruin the rest of my life . One P conspicuously deemphasized was Penis, which was discussed in the most clinical manner and only in regard to how it could be used to get me P for Pregnant and (repeat it with me) ruin the rest of my life . I remember thinking how much more interesting the lesson would have been if the filmstrip had been an actual movie starring Brooke Shields with a soundtrack by Michael Jackson. Yet it had the desired effect on my best friend. Adrienne had six years of Catholic school education behind her and couldn't wait to make a vow of lifelong chastity.
"I'm never going to have sex," she proudly declared to her mom.
And I thought, That's because you didn't read the good parts in Forever.
Over time, Forever lost its hold on me as the dominant inspiration behind my sweatiest daydreams. As I left my (secular) elementary school behind, The Sex Book was replaced by more visual and visceral stimuli including (1) the T&A teen flick Private School, in which a rich red-haired temptress taunts Matthew Modine with a bouncy topless horseback ride; (2) the "Take My Breath Away" Top Gun tongue bath between Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis; (3) any River Phoenix movie. At twelve, thirteen, and fourteen years old, these were the images that aroused confusing pit-of-my-belly longings for...for what exactly?
I figured I'd finally find out at fifteen, when I got my first serious boyfriend. B. was the first boy to kiss me. It took place in our school's parking lot right before the buses were about to pull away. A meaty proboscis pried open my puckered lips and proceeded to probe the rest of my face. His wet tongue roamed around, more outside my mouth than in, perhaps so that it could be easily viewed at a distance, thus putting an end to the hassling the basketball team was giving him to "French" me already. This inauspicious start might have served as a warning of letdowns to come.
Back then, I never could have imagined that those disappointments would serve me well and I would be lucky enough to make my living just as Judy Blume made hers, telling fictional stories about teenage girls struggling with the choices before them. And though I imagine our story is more common than not, when B. asked me out at fifteen, he had no idea that I would turn out to be a professional writer. Or perhaps he did. Either way, despite countless battles and breakups and get-back-togethers, B. turned out to be my only serious boyfriend in high school. Together, we fumbled through that first kiss and the other firsts that followed.
And none of it was his fault.
Now
Not too long ago, I spotted a paperback copy of Forever at my local library. I hadn't picked it up since squealing over the good parts at Kim's sleepover two decades earlier. I couldn't help but notice that it hadn't been checked out in more than a year. No surprise there. In a discussion about influential authors, I'd once asked an audience of about a hundred high school students if they had read Forever, and only about a half-dozen hands went up. And these girls had read it only because they had been encouraged by their moms, for whom it had been an unforgettable rite of passage.
Yes, what my mom had once forbidden was now a source of mother/daughter bonding. When I shared this irony with my audience, they were dumbfounded. "What was so scandalous?" asked a particularly blunt sophomore. "Katherine didn't even give him a blow job." They were even more surprised when I told them that Forever remains one of the most banned books by parents and educators. Of course, these conflicting attitudes regarding teen sexuality are reinforced in the media, which depicts our nation's youth as being equally torn between public purity pledges and private rainbow parties.
I'm on the more liberal side of the ideological divide, so I picked up Forever that day in the library thinking it would be nothing more than a nostalgic hoot. A quaint throwback to the era of fondue parties, "queers," and VD. And yes, as I read it for the first time in its entirety, I chuckled at the seventies-style Public Service Announcements I had originally skipped over in favor of more salacious material. Like when Katherine's grandmother -- her grandmother! -- sent pamphlets from Planned Parenthood and encouraged her to go on the pill. Or when her mother wanted to have a heart-to-heart talk about a newspaper survey on the subject of sexual liberation. And when Katherine's acquaintance, Sybil -- the nympho genius from the infamous first sentence -- got pregnant because she made the most heinous error of all: sex without love.
And yet despite the infrequent lapses into corniness, Judy Blume's perspectives on teen sex were indeed more progressive than I had expected. Here was a seventeen-year-old female narrator who knew her desires were natural and didn't deny them to herself or her boyfriend. In an era when even pro-sex advocates focus more on Girls Gone Wild -style provocation than actual pleasure, Katherine's candor and unapologetic lust struck me as revolutionary. Specifically, here's what I had missed about Forever :
Katherine described losing her virginity as a "letdown."
Katherine "came." Without foreplay, from intercourse alone. Multiple times.
Katherine checked out Ralph-the-Penis not because Michael pressured her to but because she wanted to.
Now, all these years later, I realized getting up close and personal with the contents of my first boyfriend's tightie-whities had been totally out of the question. I know this sounds bizarre -- and it is -- but in three years of dating, I never so much as sneaked a peek, let alone studied B.'s penis with scientific interest. And yes, this means that I never performed that certain sexual act that the oh-so-jaded millennial sophomore took for granted. Never. Not before, during, or even after we did it . Which we did, after more than two years of dating, a few weeks after both of our seventeenth birthdays, on an overnight retreat for peer leaders at a religious campground. (Sorry, Mom and Dad.) While the actual act turned out to be less than what I'd hoped for, at least my devirginization at a faith-based gathering was steeped in irony.
I can identify with Katherine's anticlimactic deflowering. And yet while she was honest about how it was more of a relief to have it over and done with than anything else, I lied to myself (and one or two confidantes) by turning my first time into an exquisite body-and-soul transforming experience that it never was and wouldn't be until years later with the man I married.
It wasn't because I was inhibited by the classic virgin/whore dilemma or the threat of a bad reputation. And despite my filmstrip indoctrination, I wasn't worried about pregnancy (or STDs for that matter) because I was vigilant about protection. Nor was I still haunted by that first hilarious glimpse at Mr. Rock-n-Cock in Playgirl. No, it wasn't even the capital P for Penis that made me so uneasy about sex and my first love.
Forever...
Katherine and Michael believed in the first-and-only vows of everlasting love. When the newspaper survey asked a question about how the relationship would end, Katherine was deeply offended by the query. B. would have been, too.
He told me many times that I was his female equal, and he was wrong. B. was far more popular than I was, and I took some comfort in my elevated status by association. He was good-natured and charismatic. He was as adept at being the sensitive guy who listened to girls' troubles as he was at engaging in grossed-out guy humor. I was moody, quick to judge, and used sarcasm to shield typical teenage insecurities. His body was amazing, with the carved-instone musculature of a natural athlete, and he had no shortage of girls who would have been more than happy to do anything for him in and out of bed. As for me, if any other guys in high school thought I was hot, I certainly never knew about it. These disparities might have been why we weren't considered for Class Couple in our high school yearbook. I wouldn't have even voted for us.
But I guess we were well matched in the sense that we were considered the male and female Most Likely to Succeed. We were both ambitious straight-A students, three-sport varsity athletes who rounded out our college applications with a long list of extracurriculars. Maybe this was enough for B. He was so convinced that I was The One that he repeatedly reminded me in furtive late-night phone confessions and in tightly folded notes he left for me in the pocket of his varsity jacket -- the one that he said I didn't wear often enough. But usually he'd gasp promises in my ear during frenzied sessions of making out (and more): We're meant to be together forever . Less often -- but often enough -- he told me if I ever broke up with him, he would kill himself. The vein in his forehead bulged, and my bicep turned white in his grip.
Before asking Michael to drop his pants so that she could examine Ralph-the-Penis, Katherine confessed, "I want to see everything...I want to know you inside out." The truth is, I didn't want to know B. inside out. In a way, the less I knew, the better. This emotional detachment was indistinguishable from my physical detachment when we were intimate, an odd not-really-there feeling that I needed in order to cope with this intense relationship for which I was not at all prepared yet couldn't bring myself to get out of. Unlike Katherine, I thought about how our relationship would end all the time. And it never went well.
So what makes Forever still relevant for me isn't the genius nymphomaniac, the famously personified penis, or any other dirty detail. It's what the novel says about love -- especially first love -- and how it dies.
Katherine bravely ended her first relationship because she wanted to experience physical and emotional passion with someone else. She was no doubt emboldened by the knowledge that someone else was already waiting for her in the form of Theo, the hunky tennis instructor she met during her summer away from Michael. "I thought of pretending," Katherine said after she reunited with her boyfriend and realized she wanted out. "I'm no good at pretending. And anyway, pretending isn't fair." I knew that, too. And yet the good girl in me pretended.
After six months with B., I pretended that I wasn't curious to kiss the cocky actor I met at a summer arts camp. After a year, I pretended that I wasn't intoxicated by the class lothario, a poet/addict who went out of his way to flirt with me in front of B. After two years, I pretended that I wasn't completely taken by a shy, smart sophomore who once dated B's younger sister. For nearly three years, I pretended that I saw a future for us because I was afraid of what would happen in the aftermath of our breakup. But I wasn't very good at faking it, either, and I spent the greater portion of my high school years acting like a bitch, blaming every frustrated attraction on too much PMS or not enough sleep. Why B. put up with this, especially with so many other options available, I'll never understand. Perhaps he was driven by the same fears of what would happen if he stopped.
I'm not sure when or how we broke up, and I would be making it up if I said otherwise. I remember a protracted series of dramatic fights and exhausting crying fits, of jealous flirtations and violent empty threats, and a failed attempt (his) at one last boozy fling for old time's sake. I went to my senior prom with B.'s best friend, an arrangement that indicates we split well before graduation. I cannot recall the final break, and this monumental event is mysteriously absent from the pages of my journal. But I don't think I've blocked out the details as a defense mechanism. I prefer to believe that I've let go of the most bitter memories because I didn't need to hang onto them.
Not too long after high school, I fell in love again. I had my heart broken. I later regretted not sleeping with someone I cared about deeply and then got involved with someone else who should have never been more than just a friend. I withheld empty promises of tomorrow. And finally, I made the only lifelong vow worth believing in.
I moved on. And B. did, too.
I still can't help but wish my mom had let me read Forever from start to finish instead of showing me that lame filmstrip. By the last chapter, it's clear that Katherine and Michael got over each other. Their lost love wasn't a tragedy. It was inevitable. And if I had read more than just the good parts, maybe I would've mustered the courage to break up with B. sooner, sparing us both many tears and much pain in the process.
Then again, maybe not.
Probably not.
We were fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years old and had no clue what we were doing. We were each other's trial and error, as all first loves are. And I'm not convinced Judy Blume's wisdom would have helped one bit back then.
I was at the library to return the book -- my husband browsing down the shelves, our three-year-old son grabbing my hand -- when I realized that I'd never noticed the ellipses in the title: Forever... Only after a few decades of living, of loving and being loved in return, can you comprehend that Forever... means something very different than Forever . Only then can you understand that any vow uttered by an adoring adolescent is accompanied by invisible ellipses. "Forever...Then. Now."
Table of Contents provided by Publisher. All Rights Reserved.

ISBN: 9781439102657
ISBN-10: 1439102651
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 275
Published: 3rd April 2009
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Dimensions (cm): 20.955 x 13.487  x 20.955
Weight (kg): 0.249