September 2nd sees the release of Rachel M. Wilson‘s debut Don’t Touch, a contemporary YA novel from HarperTeen about a girl whose OCD is endangering her aspirations of becoming an actress. For our one-year anniversary, we invited Rachel to the blog to discuss the book.
To make things even more exciting, we’re giving away a signed ARC of Don’t Touch! Details at the end of the post.
Rachel M. Wilson: Don’t Touch began as a very personal book. I experienced OCD and anxiety from age ten into high school, and even after my symptoms were under control, I was left with a lot to process. My first pages were close to my own experience, but I needed more distance to be able to craft a story.
Once I decided to focus on Caddie’s fear of touch, I was partly inspired by superheroes like X-Men’s Rogue. Caddie doesn’t have superpowers, of course, but we all have the power to affect the world around us. If we don’t trust ourselves, that can be scary. As a magical thinker, Caddie worries that her thoughts or actions might have dangerous consequences, and this freezes her up. She’s scared to act, to change or move forward, and compulsions like avoiding touch give her a temporary sense of control over those fears.
During the writing process, other bits and pieces gradually came to seem essential to my story. The scene in which Caddie and Peter visit an abandoned pool, for example, was inspired by an exploratory drive into old Irondale. That setting led me to Ophelia and to so much more of Caddie’s story.
Kody: I think a lot of people think it’s easy to write your own disability, but in my experience, it can be tricky. How was this experience for you? Were there any challenges you faced in writing about a character with OCD?
Rachel: Yes, I found it very tricky. First off, OCD can consist of many different obsessions and compulsions at once, and these are often hard for someone without OCD to understand. Media portrayals of OCD often stick to neat freaks obsessed with cleanliness or germs, but most of my own fears and compulsions were much more “creative.” For example, for years I avoided gum and blueberries like the plague for fear of blowing up like Violet in Willy Wonka.
All the different symptoms in my first draft overwhelmed my early readers and took away from a coherent story arc. My last advisor at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Martine Leavitt, wisely encouraged me to narrow my focus, and at that point I zeroed in on touch. I considered presenting Caddie’s fear as a phobia, but that didn’t fit in with her magical thinking. Eventually, I found a balance by acknowledging that Caddie has other symptoms without spending too much time with them on the page.
The other big challenge was that obsessions are often constant. I had the phrase “don’t touch” in my novel about a zillion more times than it appears in the final draft. My editors convinced me that a little goes a long way, and we really pared it back. That was for the best because readers still comment on how constant that obsession feels to them.
I also found it hard to handle the dueling beliefs that go along with OCD. Some call OCD “the doubting disease” because OCD sufferers know our fears aren’t justified, but we doubt this knowledge. What if we’re wrong and the compulsions really do matter? We’ll do almost anything to avoid that uncomfortable worry. It’s good practice in fiction, though, to invest your characters with unshakeable drives and convictions. Some of my early readers had trouble with Caddie questioning or even ridiculing her OCD beliefs. I had to be true to that doubt, but it was challenging to make sure that it wouldn’t diminish the force of Caddie’s fear for the reader.
On a less technical note, writing about Caddie’s anxiety often brought up anxiety for me, but experiencing an emotion while writing doesn’t guarantee that your reader will feel it. I needed to make sure that those feelings came through on the page and not just in my head. The only way to do that is by getting distance from your character and reading with fresh eyes—or by soliciting feedback from honest readers. For me, getting distance came not only from taking time away between revisions but from giving Caddie experiences that weren’t as personal to me. Yes, I love theater, but I’ve never played Ophelia. I understand separation and loss from other experiences, but my parents are nothing like Caddie’s and they’re still happily married. The ways in which Caddie is not like me were as important as the ways in which she is for me to be able to write fearlessly.
Kody: Every disability has its tropes. Were there any specific OCD stereotypes you tried to steer clear of in writing DON’T TOUCH?
Rachel: Yes. For one, OCD is often portrayed as quirky or cute. I don’t mind a comedic point of view on OCD as long as it’s balanced with the reality of how awful it can be. I addressed the quirky trope head-on by having Caddie attempt to pass off her symptoms as “artistic quirks.” She’d like people to think she’s a whimsical oddball if the alternative is being perceived as crazy, but she’s hiding the pain. In reality, this kind of anxiety can be completely debilitating, even life-threatening. It isn’t cute, and I don’t think anyone who reads the book will perceive it that way. Even Caddie’s friends, who want to support her, find her OCD frustrating. That’s true to life—it can be hard to empathize and be patient with someone who’s highly anxious. Caddie’s friends connect to her because of how she works to be open with them—not because her OCD is some adorable quirk.
I’ve also been put off by stories that treat OCD (or any mental illness) as a character flaw or weakness of will. When the movie As Good As It Gets came out, I was excited because I’d never seen a movie or read a book about someone with OCD, but I was disappointed that Melvin’s OCD seemed conflated with his misanthropy and general nastiness. When he said he wanted to “be a better man,” it felt like he was saying that OCD made him a bad person and that he’d suddenly chosen to “fix” himself. It’s tricky because of course one can be nasty and have OCD; one might even become nasty in response to illness. But something about how that narrative mashed up out-of-control compulsion with willful bad behavior left me feeling icky.
I don’t think of Caddie as perfect by any means, but she’s trying to be a good friend and handle her anxiety as best she can. There’s strength in that, and I hope that comes through even when she’s struggling.
Kody: How similar is Caddie’s experience with OCD to your own?
Rachel: Caddie’s younger history of handwashing and magical thinking is close to my own. My biggest symptom from fourth to eighth grade was handwashing—the bit about Caddie having raw and bleeding hands that her parents suspect might be caused by allergies comes from experience. At another point, a teacher thought I might have diabetes because I asked to go to the bathroom so often—for handwashing, of course. I never wore gloves, though I might have liked to. Instead, I kept my hands tucked under my arms and used my elbows to open doors and turn on faucets. I wore socks at all times and used my toes to change TV channels. I lined my school bag with paper everyday so it wouldn’t be contaminated by my social studies book, which had been contaminated by a copy of Watership Down that I checked out from the library. Random things like that were always turning menacing to me. Something about the intelligent rabbits—their glossary and the violence of the first few pages had really disturbed me. So all year, the social studies book had to be lined with paper and kept in its own cubbie hole—until one day, I accidentally let it touch my vocabulary book, and then there were two books in the cubbie hole.
My own fears around touch had more to do with contamination, while Caddie’s are tied up with magical thinking—if she touches another person’s skin, her parents’ separation will be permanent. I had a lot of magical thinking games, but not specifically around touch. Some of mine involved clicking my teeth or blinking while looking at a particular color, focusing on “good” words or images to cancel out “bad” or scary ones, and repeating prayers over and over in my head. I chose to focus on touch with Caddie because it’s such a clear metaphor for what her anxiety does—it keeps her from connecting with other people.
Kody: What have you learned from your experience writing Don’t Touch? Do you have any advice for writers trying to negotiate that balance of writing characters with their own disabilities?
Rachel: Well, one danger of writing about your own issues is that you do have ownership. You may feel a sense of entitlement to write what feels true to you, but it’s important to remember that you’re still representing a group of people who are often underrepresented. There’s a need to step back and make sure your story doesn’t have implications you didn’t intend . . . But once you’re conscious of that, at a certain point, I think it’s important to let go of the fear of getting it wrong.
I definitely worried about getting things wrong in fictionalizing OCD, but ultimately I gave myself permission to tell a story. I learned that—for me—it was more important to capture the feeling of OCD and anxiety than to write the experience literally, moment-to-moment. Had I written a stream-of-consciousness account of my own OCD, it would have been distancing, chaotic, and frustrating to read. Some of that might serve my story, but a little goes a long way. I also found it important to be conscious that every element of a story doubles as metaphor. The idea of thinking about OCD as a metaphor made me uncomfortable, but I needed to consider how it worked as metaphor to know what story I was telling. There’s a delicate balance to that—the balance between medicine and metaphor—and I can’t promise I’ve handled it perfectly, but I think it’s more important to attempt the balance than to avoid sharing our stories altogether out of fear of getting it wrong.
Thank you, Rachel!
Rachel has generously donated a signed–and personalized, if desired–ARC of Don’t Touch to be given to one of our followers. To enter, simply leave a comment here on WordPress or reblog our Tumblr post. (Yes, doing both increases your chances!) In one week, we’ll select a single winner from one of these locations to win the book. This giveaway is open to US and CA addresses.
The giveaway over, and the winner has been notified. Thanks to everyone who entered!