Tag Archives: John Green

Our Faultless Stars: What John Green Got Wrong

13 Aug

So I finally did it. I read The Fault in Our Stars, easily once of the most beloved novels by one of the most beloved novelists.

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I didn’t read it earlier because I feared that my own cancer story would make me biased. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to give it a fair shake, wouldn’t be able to see whatever one else saw. And what did everyone else see? Something like this from the New York Times Book Review:

“The Fault in Our Stars” is all the more heart-rending for its bluntness about the medical realities of cancer. There are harrowing descriptions of pain, shame, anger and bodily fluids of every type. It is a narrative without rainbows or flamingoes; there are no magical summer snowstorms. Instead, Hazel has to lug a portable oxygen tank with her wherever she goes, and Gus has a prosthetic leg. Their friend Isaac is missing an eye and later goes blind. These unpleasant details do nothing to diminish the romance; in Green’s hands, they only make it more moving. He shows us true love — two teenagers helping and accepting each other through the most humiliating physical and emotional ordeals — and it is far more romantic than any sunset on the beach.

“Unpleasant details….make it more moving” Yeah. Cancer is pretty unpleasant. No doubt. Too bad the unpleasantness tips from honesty to…I don’t know…some sort of cancer porn that you find so moving but we’ll get to that later.

The reason that I chose to read this book now is because I’m writing my own cancer book. It’s different than Fault for many reasons, the biggest of which is that I actually had cancer. I’m not saying that someone who doesn’t have cancer can’t write about someone who does have cancer but like with any chronic illness or disability, or race, or gender, the view from the inside is a little, well, different.

I tried really hard not to hate this book. But I suppose we all have our internal biases and quiet frankly I was already tired of seeing sick kids die so that other people can learn to appreciate life. While everyone thinks it’s romantic (and I know you all do because we’ve been weaned on suicidal Ophelia and Romeo and Juliet for all of eternity) I find it sort of, well, tiresome.

I’m not saying dying is easy. It’s not. But there are other things that can be even harder. I’ll get to that later.

The reason why I didn’t think I would like it is cause from the onset Hazel Lannister (Stage IV thyroid cancer metastasized to her lungs) makes it very clear that this is NOT a cancer book. Except it might be the MOST cancer book to ever cancer book.

Ever.

Hazel meets Augustus Waters in support group who is smart and gorgeous and had osteosarcoma which means he wears a prosthetic leg. After their first meeting, they decide to go hang out together and Augustus is going to drive. Which is does HORRIBLY, nearly killing them. He also struggles with getting out of the car and general movements and all I could think reading this was John Green didn’t take the time to talk to a single amputee because if he did he would know they could drive. They can run. They can do all the things that he can do. Why would someone who doesn’t know what the experience of having this specific disability choose to write it to do so with such a lazy disregard?

I don’t know. All I can do is look to my friend, Kati Gardner, (who wrote a fabulous book about her cancer story called Brave Enough which has a sequel coming out. If you want good cancer rep read this instead) who was talking to me about this and answered my question quite clearly.

She said, “Because he didn’t care.”

These kinds of details, knowing how a disease works, these are things that kids with cancer will pick up on. Hazel doesn’t know what drugs she’s on or what the side effects are. That might be one of the most untrue things in the entire book. There is no way a teenager with cancer doesn’t know what is happening. Neither does her father, just her brave long suffering mother.

But what Hazel does do is talk about cancer. Constantly. She and Augustus and Issac, who goes blind from his treatment, spend a LOT of time talking about cancer even though they claim to not be one of those “sick kids.” Eventually it starts to feel like there is nothing to these characters but their cancer. And this is where John Green starts to spill into Sickness Porn. There is an obsession with harm. Issac going blind, Gus stopping treatment so he can take his girlfriend to Amsterdam to fulfill her Wish (which is his Wish but whatever). It feels like a fetish, like he can’t wait to kill one of them off. In what universe would parents or doctors agree to this? Then when discussing his dead ex girlfriend Augustus calls her tumor (brain cancer) the Asshole Tumor but then amends this to say that maybe it wasn’t the tumor and maybe she was just a bitch. (I cringed thinking about all the kids with brain tumors who had this book shoved in their hands). When cancer is all that your character is then you don’t have a character. You have a disease that talks. And even if, like Hazel, she can recite poetry from memory. Also John Green picks and chooses which parts of cancer to talk about. There is one scene, when Augustus needs an ambulance that felt, authentic but that was it. Everything else was romanticized. Horribly disturbingly romanticized. It’s like I almost like dying young is the most beautiful romantic thing that can happen. (Looking at you Shakespeare)

Cancer treatment is a huge part of our lives but….we still have lives. And I think that might be the part that John Green missed the most. To him, we don’t have lives. We just have dramatic deaths, we just waste away so that other people can appreciate what they have. Augustus (SPOILER! for the last person on earth who hasn’t read this book) doesn’t even get a death that feels like it was his. He’s too busy making sure he leaves behind little clues so that once he’s gone, Hazel will know it’s okay and that she was loved.

I want more generosity in death then that. Generosity from the LIVING. Yes the living experience the death of their loved ones but the dying are doing it too. This is happening TO THEM.

I have seen so many bad representations of this – most recently being John Wick. John Wick’s dying wife has time to find and arrange the delivery of a puppy so that he’ll have something to love. This is so ridiculous. Have you never seen someone die? It really takes up all their time what with it being the end of their life and all.

All I’m saying is if you’re going to insist about writing about dying children, then the least you can do is have some respect for them.

And while you’re at it, try and acknowledge that cancer doesn’t make you profound. It doesn’t make you wise or pretentious. Tumors don’t offer advice. Cancer did two things to me. It made me scared and it made me angry. I wasn’t a warrior. I did with the doctors told me to do and I hoped for the best because more than anything surviving cancer is a CRAP SHOOT. Sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t. That’s it. There’s no magical thinking, no wistful poetry recitation. There is just treatment and then hoping for the best.

And what is the best? Living, right?

Except living after thinking you were going to die is hard. Living after you’ve stared into the void, after you’ve been told that this might not work out the way you hoped, after carrying that darkness around in you – a darkness that sometimes shifts into such blinding anger that you could tear the stars from the skies – learning how to live around that, how to breathe, how to stop being afraid, THAT is hard.

Living is hard.

But living, especially in childhood cancers, more often than not is the outcome. Survival rates for childhood and adolescent cancers are 80%-90%.

See that’s the thing, John. Lots of sick kids live. They deserve to see that in the books they read. But I’m starting to realize, John you didn’t write the Fault in Our Stars for sick kids. You wrote it for the healthies so they can romanticize death and illness without ever having to really get too close and stare it in the face. They can play sick without being sick.

My friend, Kati, whose book I mentioned before (Brave Enough) had a note at the end of her book that really drove the point home. She said:

“When I was a teenager and reading every book I could get my hands on, I was desperate for a girl that looked like me. For a girl who had cancer and lived. And it was really hard to come by. So, I wrote one.”

Sick kids deserve to see themselves. Representation matters.

So with this book that I’m writing, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to write the kid that went through it, that stared into the void, that has to learn how to live again. That has to learn how to carry the anger and the fear of remission. That has to learn how to be a kid again.

It’s what sick kids deserve.

Stories Are A Lie And A Truth All Rolled Up Into One

22 Nov

When I was in college, a friend told me that she thought I had Borderline Personality Disorder.

I didn’t know what that meant so I looked it up.

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a serious mental illness marked by unstable moods, behavior, and relationships.

Here’s some of the signs:

  • Extreme reactions—including panic, depression, rage, or frantic actions—to abandonment, whether real or perceived
  • A pattern of intense and stormy relationships with family, friends, and loved ones, often veering from extreme closeness and love (idealization) to extreme dislike or anger (devaluation)
  • Distorted and unstable self-image or sense of self, which can result in sudden changes in feelings, opinions, values, or plans and goals for the future (such as school or career choices)
  • Intense and highly changeable moods, with each episode lasting from a few hours to a few day
  • Chronic feelings of emptiness and/or boredom

 

Needless to say, she was wrong. She didn’t mean borderline like that. She meant borderline like something on the edge. Open to interpretation.

She was trying to say that I have a malleable personality.

Flexible? Yes.

Ranging in extremes? Yes.

Subject to flights of fancy? Hell yes.

I saw my oldest sister the other day and during our conversation she told me a story about one of our Ya-Ya weekends together. Our Ya-Ya weekends were when my two sisters and I would get together for one weekend a year and hang out. We all live far away, my family had been through some hard shit at the time, so my sisters and I decided that we would make a point of seeing each other, just the three of us, once a year.  I have fond memories of these weekends.

But the story she told me  was one I didn’t remember, which isn’t a shock – I have a terrible memory. It’s the reason I have kept journals since I was a teenager.

So at one of these weekends I apparently burst into tears when my sister was faux-complaining about the “press 1 for English” thing on the phones. Again, I don’t remember this. I can only assume it happened because it SOUNDS like me.

I think it’s empathy to a fault.

Faulty empathy. Squishy-mushy personalities. I can quite easily put myself in someone else’s shoes. The problem is, I never seem to give them their shoes back. I just sort of keep them, carry them around with me emotionally.

I’m like an emotional junk lady.

labyrinth

Remember her?

I just keep collecting other people’s stories and twisting them together with my own.

When I was younger I had a problem with lying. I like to think it was an unhealthy expression of my innate desire to tell stories but the fact is I hurt people so I don’t deserve to get off the hook that easily.

But it’s like I would pick up pain or happiness or fear or anger and stick it on my back and it would become a part of me. Even if I didn’t own the cause of those feelings to begin with.

I was thinking about this because the number one question I have gotten from people who have read my book This Is Sarah is that they want to know if this is based on a true story.

And I tell them again and again, it’s not. I am not Sarah, or Colin, or Claire.

No one I knew had been kidnapped.

So, they wanted to know, how did I know so much about what it’s like to go through something like that?

Because everyone I knew had lost someone.

Had grieved. Including me. And grief, regardless of how it arrives, is universal.

I thought that was a pretty good answer. And yet more often than not they were disappointed.

As if my “making it up” was somehow untruthful.

A lie.

I had deceived them.

They wanted the story itself to be real. It didn’t matter that the emotions were. It didn’t matter that the pain and the anger and the fear were. It didn’t matter that some people, like Colin, shut down in the face of death. That other people, like Claire, refused to. None of that mattered as much as wanting it to be true.

Strange how people are, isn’t it?

John Green wrote a book called The Fault In Our Stars. You’ve probably heard of it. It’s pretty famous. He dedicated the book to Esther Earl. Esther was a young girl that died of cancer, and the author of “This Star Won’t Go Out.

Mr. Green met Ms. Earl at a Harry Potter convention. He was moved by her story and he credits her with being part of the inspiration for his character Hazel. The book was published in 2012, after her death.

In a goodreads interview John said the following:

I could never have written this if I hadn’t known Esther. She introduced me to a lot of the ideas in the book, especially hope in a world that is indifferent to individuals, and empathy. She redefined the process of dying young for me.

Walking out of the hospital in 2000, I knew I wanted to write a story about sick kids, but I was so angry, so furious with the world that these terrible things could happen, and they weren’t even rare or uncommon, and I think in the end for the first ten years or so I never could write it because I was just too angry, and I wasn’t able to capture the complexity of the world. I wanted the book to be funny. I wanted the book to be unsentimental. After meeting Esther, I felt very differently about whether a short life could be a rich life.

But a lot of people have interpreted that to mean that John’s main character IS Esther.

As if a story about death – the most universal thing of all – the only thing that equalizes every living creature – wasn’t as powerful if there wasn’t one specific life behind it.

Again, people are strange.

Gayle Forman, also pretty famous, wrote a book called If I Stay. It is the story of Mia, a girl who narrates her story from a hospital bed after losing her entire family in a car crash. Except Mia is in a coma.

Gayle wrote a piece for the New York Times about how that car full of people were her friends. Except for Gayle, no one lived.

Mia, the cellist, was fiction, but the accident, and Mia’s family — her punk-rocker turned 1950s throwback of a father, her strong-willed mother and her adorable little brother — were resurrected from the ashes of my loss. A loss that no longer had the power to sucker punch but instead had become part of me, like a scar, or maybe a smile line.

I fell off a waterfall one year in high school. I also fell in love with a boy who fell in love with another boy. That’s a story I’m working on telling but in the end, it will just be that: A story.

The power in stories lie in the fact that they are universal. That the people that populate them are us.

You. Me. Them. Us.

That they are talking about something that we all know.

Love. Sadness. Hearbreak. Fear. Joy. Misery. Loneliness.

Stories are woven. They’re partially the writer, partially the people they know, part strangers, part imagination, part reader.

They’re a lie and a truth all rolled up into one.

And if they’re good, then they make us remember what it means to be us.

 

 

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