Children in peril!

Do Jodi Picoult's bestselling novels about traumatized kids release our anxieties -- or just make us more paranoid?

By Kate Harding

Published June 19, 2009 8:20PM (EDT)

A list of novelist Jodi Picoult's plots reads, says Anna N. at Jezebel, "a bit like The Gashlycrumb Tinies... Her child characters suffer from the bone disease osteogenesis imperfecta (and a wrongful birth lawsuit), sexual abuse, murder, cancer, and multiple operations designed to save a sibling's life. One of her protagonists experiences such profound isolation that he shoots up his school, creating, of course, a whole new group of child victims." There's also a teenaged suicide pact, a kidnapping, and a child heart attack, according to a quick glance at her Wikipedia page. For those of us who enjoy the macabre game of guessing which headlines the Law & Order franchise will next "rip from," we could easily fashion a similar Picoult-prediction game. I'll start: I'd bet cash money she'll eventually write a novel about a mother or father who tragically forgets a baby in its carseat, and the resulting breakdown of the parents' marriage. And I would probably read it.

In the New York Times, Ginia Bellafante takes a close look at Picoult's equally ghoulish and bestselling oeuvre, exploring why these child-in-peril narratives are so popular right now. (As opposed to, say, the 1950s, when books about sociopathic children and sympathetic child molesters were -- for real -- bestsellers.) She dates our cultural obsession with Protecting Our Children to the 1980s, when the Satanic panic was flourishing, eating disorder TV movies became all the rage, and mainstream crime writers began publishing books with child victims. But then, where did that come from? I was a kid myself, then, so my grasp of current events was rather limited. But I do remember being terrified that the Russians were going to blow the whole world up, probably starting with my family's house in suburban Chicago; there's that. I also remember the whole fam gathering 'round to watch TV movies like Adam -- the story of eventual "America's Most Wanted" host John Walsh's young son's kidnapping and murder -- and "Alex: The Life of a Child," the story of sportswriter Frank Deford's daughter, who died of cystic fibrosis at the age of 8. Perhaps my generation produced a big crop of morbid Jodi Picoult fans because we were raised on stuff like that.

My guess, though, is that the '80s were about the time people started speaking openly about death, disease, and other personal traumas once thought to be too deeply shameful to acknowledge. We've all heard stories of older relatives, or a friend of a friend's older relatives, who couldn't say the words "cancer" or "divorce" without whispering, and for the last 25 years, it's been their grandchildren and great-grandchildren writing airport novels and TV dramas. In the '70s, the women's movement pushed especially hard for domestic violence and sexual abuse to be de-stigmatized, so victims could open up and get the help they needed. Addicts and their children have also been encouraged to let go of self-destructive shame, eating disorders are now widely recognized as real and dangerous mental illnesses, and today, divorce is sometimes openly celebrated with cake and everything. We've come a long way in terms of knocking down the old "Leave It to Beaver" facades and admitting what actually goes on in people's lives. (Well, upper-middle-class white people's lives.) Generally speaking, this is a good thing.

But it also ratchets up our collective anxiety. When you talk about all the things that can happen, you start to fully realize that anything can happen. For the last couple of weeks, one of my childhood friends has been sleeping on a cot in a burn unit while her 8-year-old daughter recuperates, after flesh-eating bacteria took out a swath from her groin to her armpit and nearly killed her; I've been following the girl's recovery by checking her mom's Facebook updates. I'm grateful for that, not wanting to intrude on their family with frequent phone calls and e-mails, but such easy and open communication also means I now know a lot more about necrotizing fasciitis than I ever wanted to, and... holy crap, man. Add that to the long list of Really Unbelievably Scary Things That Probably Won't Happen To You But Could -- i.e., Jodi Picoult's stock in trade.

The thing is, people don't read Picoult -- or watch "Law & Order: SVU," or follow 24/7 news coverage of the latest beautiful white girl to meet a suspicious fate -- to truly understand on a visceral level what it would be like to live through traumas that will never touch most of us. Child-in-peril stories aren't ghastly rehearsals for some personal devastation to come; they're primarily a release valve for our own anxieties -- because hey, it's actually not happening to us, at least not right now. We have the luxury of closing the book or turning off the TV when it gets to be too much, and that's kind of the whole point. As Picoult says, a bit of comforting magical thinking can even come from looking into somebody else's personal abyss, real or fictional: "There is a part of me that believes that if I think about these issues, if I put myself through the emotional ringer, I somehow develop an immunity for my own family" -- even though she knows "that this kind of thinking is completely ridiculous."

So while I believe that the constant messages telling us our! children! are in danger are generally overblown and can often cause parents undue anxiety, I actually think the Jodi Picoults of the world might be helping with that problem, not exacerbating it. By allowing us to confront our fears within the confines of a story that will have, if not a happy ending, then at least a satisfying resolution, Picoult and her fellow professional ghouls take the edge off our terror. So for my part, I hope she writes dozens more incredibly bleak novels about families rent apart by tragedy, and that they're all bestsellers.


Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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