Stupid Children by Lenore Zion
Emergency Press, 2013
There’s a reason childhood and adolescence are often referred to as formative years. Kids are impressionable. Their brains are like underground caverns waiting to be made into landfills for knowledge. They absorb and learn from everything around them, for better or for worse. That capacity for learning is perhaps matched only by vulnerability, a dangerous combination.
At ten years old, Jane discovers her single father bleeding out on the kitchen table. Up until he decided to slit his throat, he’d been a decent parent. Sure, he didn’t actively encourage his daughter to practice proper personal hygiene, and he was somewhat of an insomniac who woke Jane at three in the morning so she could accompany him to the diner, but he also taught her to think for herself, to be her own master, to avoid drugs. To help her understand her mother’s death, of which Jane really had no memory, he bought her a pet hedgehog for the sole purpose of Jane seeing it die.
While his suicide attempt is unsuccessful in ending his life, it effectively ends his life as a father. He is taken to his new home, a mental hospital, and Jane is assigned to a foster family. Being thrust into a new home and a new family with a new set of values and expectations is never easy. Jane’s problem is just slightly exacerbated because her foster family happens to be important members of a cult called the Second Day Believers, a group with loose, complicated beliefs and bizarre rituals emphasizing nudity and animal innards. The Second Day Believers take in foster children in droves and indoctrinate them (often unsuccessfully) through physical and mental abuse, which they refer to as “cleansing.” She becomes less of a daughter than a prisoner. A strange series of coincidences leads the cult members to view Jane as the reincarnation of their former matriarch, and so she is groomed to become the wife of their crippled, maniacal leader. But Jane never forgets her former life, the wisdom granted to her by her father, and she longs to escape and be reunited with him.
Stories of trauma and upheaval (especially those with a first-person point of view) are often told with a fractured, warped narrative. The purpose, in theory, is for the narrative to match the state of mind of the protagonist. Fortunately, Stupid Children does not adhere to this standard. Jane’s narrative is acute and detailed, equally in its portrayal of events and characters. This is evident in her description of her first trip beyond the black door, the place the children are taken for cleansing:
Because I knew nothing of mental impurities, I hushed my misgivings about the methods Madam Six and the others exercised in flushing me of these contaminants, and kept quiet as two deflated, worm-shaped balloons were systematically inserted into my nostrils… I could not, however, keep myself quiet when the motorized inflation device was switched on and the balloons rapidly distended inside my nostrils, causing my nose to break instantly. Blood came pouring out from inside me, and seeped into my mouth. I shrieked loudly, physically fighting to free myself of the men holding me down… No comfort was offered, not even a reassuring glance, and I was left to organize my confusion independently. After the procedure, or, as they called it, the “ceremony,” I curled into my bed, beneath the disorienting black ceiling, cotton stuffed into my nostrils, eyes clinging to the nightlight I had brought with me from my real home, terrified, my mind unquestionably more plagued by demons than ever before.
These are the words of an abused, imprisoned child, but they are also thoughtful and rational. Rarely does Jane’s suffering overwhelm her to the point that she is unable to effectively communicate it.
The supporting cast of characters is made up of demented cult members and drug-addicted, violated foster children. Jane forms bonds with very few of them, including her best friend Virginia and her adoptive brother Isaac. Virginia shares a story from her life before being adopted by Second Day Believers, an “anecdote about the ways in which her grandfather was the source of all her emotional problems.” At its conclusion she says, “So, yeah, I know that from that story you think my grandfather fucked me when I was a kid, but he didn’t.” Jane’s response:
“I don’t believe your grandfather fucked you, Virginia,” I said. But, secretly, I did believe that it caused tremendous confusion and hurt her greatly that he didn’t. It was as though he was courting her, the way she made it sound. It was creepy. But everyone had creepy stories, it seemed.
Isaac’s creepy story is his biological mother, an unfortunate woman who loved him, but “wanted meth just a little bit more.” Jane forms close relationships with her friends in the face of these troubling histories. In fact, these unsettling experiences pique her interest; she enjoys dissecting and analyzing each one. After all, she has a somewhat creepy story herself, inspiring endless, careful introspection.
With a narrator trapped, exploited, surrounded by mad cult members, it would not be unfair to expect a morose, distant tone to this novel, yet Zion imbues the story with generous amounts of wit and satire. Jane finds humor in the most unlikely pockets of her life, such as the absurdity of the fetishes of her sexual partners, or the drug-induced stupor her adoptive mother indulges in each night, or wondering how her community manages to replenish it’s supply of fresh animal organs: “Hello, can you spare some of what you’ve torn from the inside of a farm animal? We’re all out.”
Stupid Children is a bildungsroman of twisted proportions told with startling clarity through the filter of a smart, psychoanalytic perspective. No character is safe from Zion’s unapologetic examinations. She bestows her protagonist with an open mind, a sharp intellect, and a sweltering imagination—all of the requisite ingredients for a disturbing, fascinating novel.