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Lit Matters: What “My Brilliant Friend” Tells Us About Survival

by Erika Krouse

When I was 12, a girl in my grade gave herself an abortion with a pencil. It didn’t work completely, and she ended up in the hospital. She was in special ed; she had Down syndrome. Without talking about it, we all understood that it wasn’t her idea, none of it. That it wasn’t even her pencil.

In my public elementary school in Kingston, N.Y., children showed up with constellations of pinprick scabs on their cheeks from hairbrushes, with triangular burn marks on their shoulders from the tips of irons, with wrist bruises, with bald patches ripped from the sides of their heads. They were beaten with their own shoes. One girl came to school with a nearly perfect handprint on her thigh, swollen into welts. We gathered around, fascinated, and she said with something like pride, “My mother has leather gloves.”

Teachers were also allowed to hit children as hard and as long as they wanted, provided they used yardsticks. About once a month, a teacher would disappear down the hall with a child. Sharp cracks and frustrated sobbing echoed into the classrooms. Then the teacher would return with a limping child and, often enough, a broken yardstick.

The school kept buying the teachers new yardsticks. My fourth grade teacher, whose name rhymed with Shmiamond, once grabbed a boy by the back of his hair and slammed his face four times into his wooden desk. Then my teacher returned to the blackboard, crying through the lesson as the boy cried and bled into his sweater. I loved this boy; my desk was next to his. Nobody told. We understood that the boy’s parents would beat him again, worse, for getting in trouble with the teacher.

To call it child abuse feels strange, since that term implies that it was an outlier. There was no other reality. This was what children were used for, among other things. We did it to each other, too—dealt drugs to each other, fought with our older brothers’ switchblades, made sexual trades in the cold woods. One recess in fifth grade, a child was publicly stoned; nearly every kid in school pelted a girl with the sharp rocks that bordered the paved playground. She was the most popular girl in our grade. Nobody was safe.

By now, you’re wondering, where were the books? This is about books. Of course, books were everywhere—tucked into textbooks or read in snatches while we pretended to search for rulers, desk lid up. After the stoning, I struck a deal with the school librarian, who let me stay in the library during recess if I shelved books every minute I was there. She once caught me reading instead of shelving and threatened to force me back outside “with the animals.”

So yes, books helped me escape back then, but that’s not why books matter to me. They matter to me because they help me understand these old worlds now.

my-brilliant-friendMy Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante, is about a friendship between two young girls in Naples, from the age of 8 to 16. The narrator’s best friend is Lila Cerullo, the genius daughter of a shoemaker. Lila is
fearless and unflinching, always angling for her survival, and willing to kill for it. The two children try to navigate families who treat them like breeding stock at age 14, who beat them because “look what you made me do,” who deny them education (despite Lila’s genius) because what was the use in educating girls? The book echoes the childhood I can never talk about because nobody ever believes me. An excerpt from My Brilliant Friend:

Suddenly the shouting stopped and a few seconds later my friend flew out of the window, passed over my head, and landed on the asphalt behind me.

I was stunned. Fernando looked out, still screaming horrible threats at his daughter. He had thrown her like a thing.

I looked at her terrified while [Lila] tried to get up and said, with an almost amused grimace, ‘I haven’t hurt myself.’

It was almost a physical relief to read about Lila Cerullo. Lila waits for no savior—she relies on herself. There’s no hope, only maneuvering. Her life is her own, something to be fought for at knifepoint. It’s constantly threatened and, therefore, valuable.

But more than safety, it’s the story that matters to Lila and Elena. All they have are their voices, which they find in each other and over which they form a lifelong rivalry. Whose story is it? Who will survive, in the only way a person can—through her words? Lila constantly risks her safety to keep her voice because without it, she knows she’s nothing. She’s right.

Back in Kingston, 7-year-old John Whalen had to leave our classroom every other day to take calculus classes at the community college. He infuriated our second grade teacher by correcting her math when she said there was no number less than zero (“Negative one, negative two, negative three, negative four…”). Our teacher (rhymes with Mrs. Shmonnenberg) tried to silence him by lifting his desk high and dumping it out over him. Thick textbooks with pointy corners, plastic binders—the whole mess fell onto his head. Then, surrounded by splayed books and worksheets and notebooks and pencils and pens and rulers and erasers, John began again in his high, clear voice: “Negative one-point-one, negative one-point-two, negative one-point-three…”

Ha ha ha ha ha. I love you, John Whalen; I love you, Lila Cerullo. No matter what they dump on you, or how much they fling your bodies about, your voices remain intact, forged stronger from the damage.

This post is part of our Lit Matters series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts is meaningful to them. Lit Matters stories will be posted throughout the month of November, leading up to Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 8 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!

Erika Krouse has been teaching fiction writing at Lighthouse since 2008. Her most recent book is a novel, Contenders, published this year.

10 comments on “Lit Matters: What “My Brilliant Friend” Tells Us About Survival

  1. bravelycreative
    November 2, 2015

    Reblogged this on bravelycreative.

  2. cathyannelaine
    November 2, 2015

    Whoa…this is so good Erika!! Sad, but good.

  3. judithsaragelt
    November 2, 2015

    I love you, Erika Krouse!

  4. Jenny itell
    November 2, 2015

    This is beautiful, Erika. Thanks. I love how you give voice to why My Brilliant Friend matters. I’m glad you made it out of your school experiences with your voice!!

  5. andreadupree
    November 2, 2015

    Another example of how Erika kicks the behind of any and all obstacles. (And by ass-kicking, yes, I mean hiding out in the library.) Bravo, chica!

  6. sandramcrae
    November 2, 2015

    Heart-wrenching stories. Damn fine writing.

  7. EmilyS
    November 3, 2015

    Loved reading this, Erika.

  8. Erika
    November 4, 2015

    Thanks, all! You rock.

  9. Anonymous
    November 7, 2015

    So powerful, both the story and the writing. Thanks EK.

    The nuns use to smack us so hard that it shook Jesus off his crucifix on the wall. Pretty much when I lost my religion.

    • Anonymous
      November 7, 2015

      Oops. This is Mike Nugent. I need to register before next post.

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This entry was posted on November 2, 2015 by in Good Books and tagged , , , .

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