Talking to the YA Author Behind This Generation's The Bell Jar
90% of people who self-harm start when they’re teens; Kathleen Glasgow was one of them. Fortunately, she got help, made a full recovery, and now, as an adult, has written an outstanding novel loosely based on her experiences. We talked to her about her debut novel Girl in Pieces, how she overcame so much adversity, and which books changed her life as a girl.
Girl in Pieces reminded me a lot of The Bell Jar, which really affected me in a big way as a teen. Did any novels do that for you?
The Bell Jar! I had a kind of dark childhood and when I first read The Bell Jar, it was a like a strange homecoming. I don’t know if I should be sad or happy about that, but it was one of those books that took the breath out of me. When I read it (and then re-read and re-read and re-read), Esther Greenwood’s life was mine. Her darkness, her depression, her eerie and fatalistic way of seeing the world, her inability to breathe without feeling like she’s suffocating. There’s also so much in The Bell Jar about the way the world treats young women, both in terms of sexuality and intelligence. Other books that had a profound effect on me were Go Ask Alice and 45 Mercy Street by Anne Sexton.
Whether it's cutting or a totally different kind of self-harm, girls go through so much hard stuff and often have few resources. What's your advice for someone who needs help but doesn't know where to look?
It’s very hard to admit when things have spiraled out of control and that you need help. But I can also say that when you do get the kind of help you need, you will feel so much release and relief—it’s okay to ask for help. You matter, and you should take care of yourself.
First, you need good listeners, like non-judgmental friends who have your back. People who encourage you to stay in unhealthy behaviors are not your friends. Find out if there is a girl's self-empowerment group in your community. Check out your local college—do they have a women’s resource center that offers discussion groups for women only? Often, groups like these do accept adolescents, and you'll find the discussions powerful and accepting. It’s only when we talk to other women openly that we find out that so many of us have been through the same things. Finding out you aren’t alone in your experiences can be a great comfort and relief. If you have the gumption, start your own girls' discussion group at school, maybe with a nurse or a counselor sitting in. Invite the librarian to a meeting and discuss a book every few months—I wrote Girl in Pieces so teens could find themselves in the pages. There are so many books now that talk about depression and mental health, sexuality, relationships. Talking is breathing is living! And never forget resources like the National Suicide Hotline or Crisis Text Line—sometimes help is just a phone call or a text away.
You've said that you wrote Girl in Pieces partly to talk about how hard it is to be a girl in a world that doesn’t value your brain or dreams. How can a girl ignore and overcome everything that's stacked against her?
I don’t know if I have any answers for that, sadly. It’s hard to be a girl, and a woman, in the world. After the most recent presidential debate, in which Donald Trump repeatedly interrupted Hillary Clinton, someone posted a tweet along the lines of, “Donald Trump interrupted Hillary Clinton 51 times. In other news, for most women, this is called ‘Tuesday at the office.’“ And that’s true! I guess one way is just to forge ahead; keep your friends close; keep your eyes on your prize.
I think a lot of things need to change. I think the way we raise our boys needs to change. I think the way we raise our girls needs to change. Did you know boys cry more until the age of nine than girls do? And that after nine, girls cry more? This is probably because at nine, we tell boys to “man up,” right? And we tell girls they need to be more ladylike: “you’re growing up now, you can’t run around without a shirt on,” etc. Maybe girls start to cry more at that age because of frustration with the world, not because they are “the weaker sex.” We’ve automatically shut down their independence around that age and told them to step to the back of the line. This is only reinforced when you get to middle school and high school—don’t wear a tank top because it will distract the boys! If you like kissing, you’re a slut, not a girl who is tentatively exploring her sexuality. There are just so many conflicting messages for girls—it’s hard to know how to win. I wish I had the answer. I really, really, really, really, really wish I did. When I figure it out, I promise to write a book about it.