Review: Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

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One of the most important parts of the conceit of this blog and the modern disability rights movement is the phrase “nothing about us without us.” Taking this into consideration, this title was a perfect choice for me to review: I was a genderqueer suicide-attempt-surviving teen with depression and anxiety. I’m still all those things, except no longer a teenager. Symptoms of Being Human explores gender identity, bullying, oppression, and how these things intersect with mental illness with deft narrative, compassion, and only a few missteps.

SYMPTOMS OF BEING HUMAN at Goodreads“Boy or Girl?” is the question that defines the narrative and haunts our protagonist, Riley. The author, Jeff Garvin, manages to avoid using third-person pronouns to refer to Riley throughout the narrative, which is no mean feat, even in a first-person novel. (I’ll be using the singular they to refer to Riley in this review.) We meet Riley soon after they are discharged from the hospital following a suicide attempt. Riley is starting at a new school, starting a blog on the advice of their therapist, and is not out to their parents about being genderfluid. At the same time as Riley is navigating the difficult social landscape of home and school, their blog is noticed on a national level, and they meet a love interest who is impossible to ignore.

Beyond never using third-person pronouns for Riley, Garvin manages never to confirm whether Riley was assigned male or female at birth. This is an interesting literary conceit, possibly the most interesting thing about this book, and while a reader may spend some mental energy trying to tease from the text what kind of genitals Riley has, it is remarkable how quickly such questions fade into the background, even in a book so focused on sex and gender. The unfortunate flip-side of never revealing the gender that Riley was assigned at birth is that the experiences of trans and genderqueer people who are assigned male at birth are often profoundly different to those of people who were assigned female at birth. There are commonalities to be sure, but the dysphoria, ability to skate by unnoticed, societal condemnation, and other experiences are often very different for people assigned male than for people assigned female.

But ultimately this review is supposed to be about the disability aspects of the novel, not the queer ones, although they are interrelated in very realistic ways throughout. There is no dismissing Riley’s mental illness: the novel explicitly talks about their feelings and behaviors, therapy regimen, and pharmaceutical treatment. One of the frustrating things about the comorbidity between LGBT identity and mental illness is that it can be used to dismiss either identity. Either the queer identity is an outgrowth or symptom of mental illness (an attitude that is thankfully falling out of fashion), or the mental illness isn’t truly real, just a product of oppression, and therefore doesn’t need treatment. Garvin addresses this head on through the mouthpiece of Riley’s therapist, making clear that although all the things that they are having adverse reactions to are real, their extreme sensitivity is also real, and that those feelings are valid. I cannot count the number of similar conversations I have had with mental health professionals when I feel, as Riley does, that my anxiety is over nothing; the truth is that there is a lot going on, and that coupled with underlying mental health concerns just escalates everything.

Riley’s embodied depression and anxiety is familiar and rings quite true. Hyperanalysis of every action, lack of control, numbness and tingling, the simultaneous desire for and hatred of pharmaceutical treatment; all of these are experiences I’m extremely familiar with. Riley’s casualness about their own suicide attempt, as well as the ways that suicidal ideation pops its head into their thought processes, reminds me very much of my own relationship with suicide. I cannot speak to Riley’s probable PTSD in the later chapters of the book, but I appreciate that, even with all the progress they have made in the areas that are so challenging (friendship, dating, family acceptance, clothing choice), the anxiety wasn’t ignored. It is still present and, at times, debilitating. The resolution of various stressors helps, but does not cure, Riley’s mental illness. This is not a book that argues that if you just come out and get some friends, your mental illness will be cured. Instead, it acknowledges that depression and anxiety are exacerbated by, but not dependent on, oppression and social environment.

This is a queer novel first and foremost, but the undercurrent of depression, anxiety, and PTSD is very well realized, in some ways better than the genderfluid core of the story. It is a well-researched exploration of how mental illness can interact with queer identity, especially for those just discovering themselves during a volatile time of life and those with less well understood identities.



About Author

L. Lee Butler

L. Lee Butler is a public school librarian on paternity leave. He's a pretty typical librarian: likes to read, does crafts, gay. In addition to serving on YALSA's Best Fiction for Young Adults Selection Committee 2013, he also reviews diverse titles for School Library Journal.

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