Warning: spoilers ahead.
I read this 335-page novel in one day. In fact, I stayed up late to finish it, and I never do that because I’m an old person. I’d been wanting to read it for months, so I was excited when it was conveniently assigned for my multicultural lit class.
This book was actually kind of harrowing for me to read. I have thoughts and I have feelings. But let me start at the beginning.
Symptoms of Being Human is about Riley, a high school junior who has just transferred from Catholic school to public school after a failed suicide attempt and a six-week stay in a mental hospital. Riley’s father is a congressman who is currently campaigning for reelection, so Riley spends a lot more time in the spotlight than they would prefer. Riley is also genderfluid.
This book is exactly the type of novel I generally like: it explores the main character’s personal identity, growth, relationships, and mental health. It’s moody and full of feels. It’s very YA.
The novel begins when Riley is starting as a junior at Park Hills High. They struggle to navigate their new surroundings and classmates while dealing with dysphoria, severe anxiety, and the pain of being in the closet—but they do make a couple new friends. There’s Solo, the outcast-cum-football player, and there’s Bec, a cute girl who introduces Riley to a transgender support group.
At their therapist’s recommendation, Riley starts to share their experiences and feelings online, at “Bloglr” (clearly a parody of Tumblr), under the alias “Alix.” They gain followers
unrealistically super quickly. After just a handful of posts, Riley’s blog is deemed worthy of being featured on a popular website called QueerAlliance, which attracts even more followers. Riley begins to receive a lot of anonymous abuse online, as well as requests for advice from other trans* and genderfluid individuals.
One particularly urgent plea for help is from Andie, a trans girl considering suicide after coming out to her parents. After Riley offers the girl support online, Andie returns to her home, where she is badly beaten by her father. This incident is widely reported on, and Andie mentions in an interview that she had reached out to Riley during her crisis, which results in over 50,000 (!!!) followers for Riley. In other words, Riley almost instantly achieves the ever-elusive but much-sought-after Tumblr fame. But soon Riley has a cruel online “stalker,” who may know Riley’s true identity.
What I Think
Where do I even start? I guess with my
overly dramatic emotional response to the story.
This was a heart-pounding read for me. It’s been 11 years (!!!) since I was outed in high school, but it all came rushing back as I read Symptoms. For me it was Myspace—remember Myspace?—but when Riley was discovered on Bloglr and outed in real life, it hit me pretty hard. The panic attacks…ugh. The fear, the dread. Yeah. It’s terrible to suddenly lose control over who gets to know your deepest, most closely held secret.
And on the other hand, I could relate to how Riley felt the first time they went to the trans* support group: accepted, understood, and even celebrated. I still feel that way when I’m with my (now huge!) group of LGBTQ+ friends. And I remember seeking out other people like me when I was a teen (mostly online, because rural Midwest).
So long story short, the story struck an emotional chord. I sat curled up with the book in the papasan chair in my living room at midnight and felt my heart squeeze up.
In my multicultural lit class, we talk a lot about authenticity. Who should be “allowed” to write whose story? Can an outsider really do justice to a story about a person of a different culture or identity? One thing I’ve learned is that it’s difficult for an author to represent all the nuances of a culture with which they do not identify. It’s about more than the big things like clothing and food and holidays. It’s about a culture’s values, family structures, vocabularies… so many things. The little things are important. Really important.
Jeff Garvin, the author of Symptoms, is a straight cis man. As such, I’m not entirely sure this was his story to write.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m delighted that a YA book with a non-binary MC exists. It’s a huge step in the right direction, and I do think that this book will open many cis readers’ eyes to the variety of genders that exist. It’s clear from reading Garvin’s blog and the author’s note at the end of Symptoms that he cares a lot about the LGBTQ+ community and that he did research gender fluidity, to some extent.
I guess this leads me to the parts of the book that I found…puzzling. (This is based on my own experiences and understanding; I certainly don’t mean to speak for others, and I don’t claim to speak “the Truth.” I’d love to hear others’ opinions, no matter what those opinions may be.)
First, it is never revealed whether Riley was assigned female or assigned male at birth. On the one hand, I like this, because it teaches readers to check their assumptions and to frame Riley as a character without the constraints of their assigned gender. However, Riley’s assigned gender and socialization would have had an effect on how they were perceived by others and how they moved about the world. These details would have added greater depth and authenticity to Riley as a character.
Furthermore, because talking about body parts is subsequently off-limits, Riley’s experience of dysphoria seems, to me, slightly off. Dysphoria is usually described as feeling like certain body parts or physical characteristics do not match one’s gender identity. Riley combats their dysphoria by donning “gendered” clothing—there is no mention of their body. Just a simple change of clothes. But perhaps some do experience dysphoria in this way. Or maybe the author was trying to describe social dysphoria? I’m not entirely sure yet how I feel about the representation of dysphoria. The experience of gender fluidity varies, so perhaps Riley’s dysphoria is accurate to some.
And no one in the book—no one—uses they/them pronouns. Riley never talks about them in their blog. No one at the trans* support group uses them. (They don’t even share their pronouns when they introduce themselves! Whaaat?) Does the author not know about they/them pronouns? Or did his editor think readers would be confused? It was just an extremely glaring omission. I mean it really kind of blew my mind. If the whole point of writing a book about a genderfluid character is to educate people about non-binary genders, wouldn’t it be useful to mention the pronouns that are so commonly used by genderqueer people?
One more huge thing stood out to me. Most of the trans* or genderfluid characters in the book are victims or survivors of suicide or sexual assault. I know that the rate of suicide is much higher for trans* people than it is for cis people, and that trans* people experience violence much more often than cis people do. So it’s not exactly inaccurate, per se. It’s just… I don’t want to read about trans* people getting hurt and hurting themselves. I’m tired of it. There’s a lot to be said for books that feature healthy, thriving trans* people. Young readers need to see those characters.
There are other little things that seem off, too, like how the author writes “cismale” instead of “cis male.” Having Riley hide in the bathroom (the bathroom! of all places!) at school. And some things just seem too convenient. Riley was given a gender neutral name at birth, but many (if not most) trans* people have to contend with having a name that does not match their gender identity.
Would I Recommend?
It depends. I think it’s important for all readers to learn about genderqueer people, but I wonder if, in the end, this book will speak more to cis teens and fail to ring true for trans* teens. Will it open cis teens up to learning more about other genders? Yes, I think so, and that’s really important. I recognize that, and I think this book has its place and its reader.
Is it 100% authentic? Nope. Is it valuable? I think yes.