YA Book Review: Hello Cruel World by Kate Bornstein
I loved Kate Bornstein’s Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks & Other Outlaws! The alternatives it gives are dangerous and subversive. Bornstein talks unapologetically about gender, sex, religion, desire, bullying, oppression, breaking rules, running away from home, sex work and other tough and sometimes taboo subjects. She talks about these things in a way that is intentionally accessible to all types of people, but clearly intended for queer teens. Who talks about stuff like sex work or BDSM or Satan worshiping to teens? Kate Bornstein does. She offers some more conventional suggestions, like calling a suicide hotline or taking a deep breath or making long-term plans too, of course. But many of her suggestions are dangerous, unconventional and subversive. She only has one rule, which is that you are not allowed to be mean.
If you liked the “It Gets Better Project,” you should read this book. If you hated the “It Gets Better Project” you should probably read this book too.
In her creative, off the wall, gender outlaw way, Bornstein draws wisdom from a variety of world religions, including (but not limited to) Judaism, Buddhism, Wicca, Christianity, 12 Step Programs and Scientology (yep), which is rad because I always hate the way queer culture tends to respond to the bad things that religion does to us by trashing religion. Even as someone who is not the slightest bit religious, I always feel let down when I hear queer people trash-talking any type of religion—not only does it mirror the ignorance of our oppressors and lump a lot of bad stuff into the same category as good stuff, but it alienates queers and allies who could be rad members of our communities. But Bornstein borrows the good from various world religions and cultures and leaves the bad, while urging readers to do the same.
It’s hard to talk about Hello Cruel World without also talking about Dan Savage‘s “It Gets Better Project.” Considering that Bornstein’s book actually says “It Gets Better” on the back cover as well as numerous times within the text and it came out a whole 4 years before Dan Savage started the “It Gets Better Project,” it’s a little weird to me that I’ve never heard Hello Cruel World mentioned in reference to the project’s history or mentioned by Dan Savage, even though Savage must have read her book— probably way before he ever had the idea for the “It Gets Better Project”.
Every time Bornstein uses the phrase “it gets better,” which is now cemented in our culture as the thing to say to suicidal queer kids, but lacked that legacy when Bornstein wrote her book, I wonder why Bornstein never got any of the credit for that. Not that it’s about credit—I’m sure Bornstein is actually pretty thrilled about getting the message out. The thing is, this is a great book and people should know about it, so it feels really unsettling that Dan Savage’s project–which was so successful that Google tried to take credit for it in one of their ads (totally successful advertising, btw, it makes me cry and feel loving feelings for Google, even though I hate Google!)–never mentions or gives credit to Bornstien or tries to promote Hello Cruel World. It’s not even mentioned on their website as a resource.
Why is that? Well, obviously I have a theory. I wonder if it’s another way that the LGB(t)q rights movement is trying to push out trans people and other weirdos or outlaws in it’s mission to gain widespread cultural acceptance.
The way that the “It Gets Better Project” took off last year and became a part of mainstream culture is pretty much the biggest example of widespread acceptance of the LGB(t)q rights movement I have ever seen. Random people who have nothing to do with queer culture made videos telling all these gay kids that life was going to get better for them when they grew up. President Barack Obama made a video telling LGB(t)q kids “it gets better.” JUSTIN BIEBER went on Ellen and told LGB(t)q kids “it gets better” (how does he even know?)!
I don’t mean to fully dis the project because it does something great. My point is, Bornstein’s book is the thing that could help all those people sitting in front of their computer screen looking at “It Gets Better” videos and getting hope answer the question, “how can I make it better now???” You would think that all the people orchestrating this project would want those people to get those answers. But what happens when those answers are weird, dangerous and freaky? What happens when the answer is not that life gets better for depressed queer people when they neatly assimilate into mainstream culture? What happens when the answer is that queer people and trans people and other people who are different can make their lives better by embracing the things that make them freaks and weirdos and outlaws and deviants and say “fuck you” to mainstream culture that tries to stop us from doing that? Well, I don’t think mainstream culture would really appreciate that too much. LGB(t)q folks get accepted by mainstream culture by following their rules, not by breaking them, and that’s why the t and the q are usually left out and pretty much stomped on in the process.
Bornstein doesn’t try to tell anyone that bullies get pushed into a wood chipper at high school graduation and they magically go away. She doesn’t say you will mysteriously wake up one day and all your problems are gone. Instead, she acknowledges that it takes a lot of work (and often willingness to be freaky and different) to make your life better. But if your only other plans were to kill yourself, what does it hurt to wait a few weeks or months while you try some of her ideas? She makes a point of seeking to empower readers to build a better better lives for ourselves and makes it clear that she is right by our sides on that quest. She even talks about her own suicidal history, which helps make the book feel like it’s being written by a caring friend who actually knows what she’s talking about.
This book is for all people trying make their lives better, not just those who have reached the point of considering suicide. If you liked the “It Gets Better Project,” you should read this book. If you hated the “It Gets Better Project” you should probably read this book too. If you wished this “It Gets Better Project” had a “how to” manual, this book IS that manual. Bottom line: YOU should read this book—even if you’re not depressed or suicidal. Go check it out from your library (seriously, if no one checks books out librarians usually have to get rid of them after a couple years and then no one can read them, so help keep it in your library) and if your library doesn’t have it, see if you can request that they purchase it. If you are a librarian, buy this book for your collection and if you already have it, make an awesome display promoting it. If you are a teacher or other type of person who works with teens, buy a copy for your classroom/professional library. If you know someone who’s having a rough time, recommend this book to them or even buy them a copy.
Next week I will be writing about I Am J by Cris Beam and I am so excited about this one. As always, ask the cute librarian to help you find it at your public library if you want to read along!