When I was a kid we were forced to read a lot of depressing books. I knew which ones were going to be a problem way beforehand, but reading and writing book reports on those tearjerker novels were rites of passage—or a form of hazing, depending on your view.
Nothing, nothing was worse than the animal stories. I hated that young adult crap of the day, though there was less of it back then. Why couldn’t I just pick titles off my parents’ bookshelves like I had been doing since first grade? They had all the basics, from the classics to the modernists to the beatniks. One of the first books I ever remember reading was the utterly delicious play Bad Seed.
Why make a kid read The Yearling? Or Old Yeller? Or Where the Red Fern Grows? I still don’t know. I didn’t learn any lessons from these books except that adults suck and life sucks. The books weren’t inspiring to me in any way. They were disturbing and horrible, and to some neurotic kid who’s stupid over animals they may as well have been pornography. Wait, there was pornography on the shelves in my house. My father had Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Story of O, and plenty of Henry Miller. Nobody ever told us that any of the books were off-limits. Maybe we didn’t actually read the racy stuff in front of my parents, but we sure as hell read it on the sly.
But even the most violent, smutty adult fiction I devoured as a kid didn’t affect me like the animal stories. There is no animal story that isn’t a tearjerker, they don’t work that way. The truth is I’m a basket case long before the ending so I can barely concentrate, because each word leads closer to abuse and/or death. I recently read a scene in a Joseph Wambaugh novel where an ashamed, alcoholic cop is preparing to commit suicide. His dog knows. He puts cottage cheese in the dog’s bowl as a final act of love and then walks outside and shoots himself while the dog howls in agony, not touching the food. I was howling myself by then and I admit I threw the book. So if I get that mental over a scene in a book at this age, imagine the 10-year-old version with a damp, snotty copy of The Yearling in her hands.
As I grew up my fear of animal stories deepened. If there was the slightest suspicion of animal abuse I wouldn’t read it. I never read Charlotte’s Web, Black Beauty, My Friend Flicka, Call of the Wild—all very popular books when I was growing up. People have told me many times what I’m missing.
I can’t watch Incredible Journey or Eight Below or Marley & Me or the Horse Whisperer. People say, “oh I cry every time I see that movie!” Huh? You mean you watched it more than once?
I know I’m hopeless and no one feels the weight more than I do, but everyone has some baggage we just can’t unload, this is in a suitcase of mine.