Separation Anxiety by Laura Zigman

Dear Separation Anxiety audio book,

I’m writing this letter because I’m not sure I can review you. You see, my feelings about parents and children are too tangled up to be fair. Your author, Laura Zigman, start out with a fifty-year-old woman named Judy whose son is thirteen and not interested in being her baby anymore. Judy is married to Gary, whose chronic anxiety causes him to smoke lots of pot and keep a job most twenty-year-olds do because it’s low-key. Gary used to be a good musician, but he doesn’t play anymore. To make her feel comforted, Judy starts wearing the family dog in a baby sling she found in the basement. Like, not just in her house. She wears the dog in the baby sling to her son’s school assembly and coffee shops and even the dog park, where the other dog owners accuse her of torturing her pet. “Torture” is a pretty strong word, don’t you think? I mean, she’s preventing the dog from living a life natural to its species, but it’s not in a bamboo hut in Vietnam, am I right? Let’s not pretend John McCain and a fictional dog were both tortured.

Judy is a one-hit wonder children’s author, but after her book There’s a Bird on My Head was a hit and the PBS series based on the characters faded away, she hasn’t been able to score another success in publishing. I really did not appreciate the way you, Separation Anxiety, chose to make Judy purchase a spot for nearly $1,000 at a creativity retreat when her family is broke and then behave in such an awful fashion to the creativity retreat leader. Although Judy wants to be normal, for people to stop staring at her like there’s a bird on her head, she’s so focused on controlling Gary at the retreat (who was welcomed to join for free after their housing fell through and they are offered a spare bedroom in the retreat leader’s house) that she can’t produce anything after being given a prompt. Did she need to lash out by calling the retreat leader a phony and defacing the woman’s house before running off in the middle of the night? She’s so self-absorbed that it’s really aggravating.

But the part that really honked my hooter was the way Judy is emotionally pawing at her son, who is clearly asking her to back off, but she keeps at it instead of seeking out a therapist to talk about her emotional issues. She visits a marriage therapist because she and Gary are separated but they can’t afford two houses or divorce. Judy and Gary never take it seriously and always leave early. Why are they going? If they’re so broke, why pay for a therapist at all? Or Trader Joe’s. Or braces to try and seduce an orthodontist who used to be the boy she liked at school.

In 2020, this book should pay more attention to consent. Judy wants to rub Teddy’s back and caress his cheek, and he hates it. While she’s doing it, I know she feels love, but she creeps me out because her son so adamantly and obviously doesn’t want to be fondled by his mother. It’s not her that he likely hates her so much as in his teen life he’s think about sensual touch with another person his age, not his mom who thinks he was so much more precious at eleven and younger. She has no respect for the person her son is NOW. Here’s where I start getting ragey in my head. Any parent who tells me they miss when their child was a cuter age seems to have paper-shredded the memo that other people don’t exist to serve their emotional whims. People aren’t shoes to be swapped out for comfort or cuteness. We have to take each other as we are, which is hard because we’re always changing. Even Judy is changing, but she can’t appreciate that her son is, too. How many times did she have to say she misses her baby son while violating his boundaries?

Even though nearly every aspect of Judy drove me nuts — her controlling behavior, her whiny “what’s wrong with me??” pondering, her inability to seek help when it’s offered to her everywhere — I still wanted to see how this book ended. Yes, it’s too long. Yes, you have some parts that were completely unnecessary (A “secret pooper”? Really? What is this, an episode of Bob’s Burgers?). But the ending was so cheese ball and the absolute opposite of who your characters are, Separation Anxiety, that I rolled my eyes and dumped audio CDs back in the library drop box literally (yes, literally) a minute after I finished you.

And can I just say that while your audio book narrator, Courtney Patterson, has a good reading voice, she needs to know that actually whispering into the microphone when characters whisper is just not okay?

Sincerely,

Melanie @ Grab the Lapels

p.s. I can’t believe you treated people with mental health issues like immature jerks, and you weren’t funny even a little bit — your blurbs lied about that.

p.p.s After I read an interview with your author, Laura Zigman, on NPR, I realized she basically fictionalized her own life. Hoo-boy.

31 comments

  1. Yikes, that part in the interview when she discusses her own ambivalence around the world and not joining in on things because it takes effort, that does not make me want to read her book. I think that struggle to recognize your children as separate people with unique desires can be a really hard one but there are obviously better ways to figure it out!

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    • At some point, children (and I know it can be early!) start saying they will do things on their own. The first thing I usually hear is they want to put on their own shoes, even if those shoes end up on the wrong feet. Basically, in my mind, it’s listening and communicating with children and modeling good relationship skills. Being forceful sounds….well, forceful and a bit icky.

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      • Yes! It’s a natural (and healthy) stage of growing up where they realize they are individuals and want to be independent. You’re right about the getting dressed aspect. It can be super frustrating as a parent when you’re just trying to get out the door. It’s still faster for me to do a lot of things for Pearl and it can be excruciating waiting for Rose to put her shoes on. But you’re right, communication and clear expectations are key. Forcefulness never ends well.

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  2. Well done! That was a great way to approach this review. I did write an open letter to an author once to tell him his faults, or at least the faults in his book, but I’ve never even thought of writing a letter to the book. I can see the book writing back, “don’t blame me, it was her fault.” Do you think the author is apologising for her inappropriate behaviour? Presumably, if she can write about it, at least she’s recognising that it occurred.
    I’ve done relationship therapy so I can imagine reasons for walking out early, like it was going nowhere, or it was getting too intense.
    And I don’t like my mother touching me, not when I was 6, nor when I was 16, nor when I was 60.

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    • I wrote to the book instead of the author because I try to not enter that place where it sounds like I’m reviewing a person. A person doesn’t always capture themselves in a book, or even communicate fully what they wanted. I know Goodreads actually has a rule against writing things about authors, asking members to be careful about focusing on the work, not the person.

      I will say I was surprised at how much Zigman’s book sounds like Zigman’s life based on the interview with NPR I looked at. In that case, if she were to ever see my review and assume I’m talking about her, that’s a her problem.

      While I enjoy hugs, there are loads of ways people touch each other that I can’t stand. My back, neck, shoulders — I’m pretty sure I’m just describing that weird dude in the office who would massage his female coworker’s shoulders and tell her to “relax.” But I’ve had experiences where women try to do the same thing to me, and that’s a no go.

      If I’m going to hug someone, I always ask first. People start to notice and will copy the behavior, asking for consent, too.

      Can you and your mom first bump if she feels like she’s missing out?

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  3. 100% agree with your comments on consent when it concerns children and teenagers, and also with this: ‘Any parent who tells me they miss when their child was a cuter age seems to have paper-shredded the memo that other people don’t exist to serve their emotional whims.’. Sounds like one to avoid!

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  4. Oh this is a great response to a book you had so many issues with. It sounds horrible and creepy and not at all entertaining or meaningful. Is she … oooh yes, she is, the woman that wrote the horrible book about growing up with animals that I discarded after a few pages.

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    • LOL! I love that new exclamation, too 🙂

      My co-worker’s son loves these Wimpy Kid books, too, but I recommended The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White to her. I’m not sure if you’ve read it to your son, but it’s about a boy who loves to observe things, and White doesn’t portray him as always running around and damaging things. The swan on a nest he observes thinks about how grateful she is that he isn’t a destructive boy.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Yikes yikes yikes. This book sounds SO problematic, and I’m glad you called it out. On another more important note, can I start using ‘honked my hooter’ regularly? I just love it, it’s hilarious, and just saying it makes me smile. I feel like incorporating this phrase into my every day speech will make me a happier person, but I don’t want to steal your saying without your permission

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  6. This book sounded kooky when I first saw the blurb. This sounds not good. My friend has a 10 year old who is getting to make (non-life threatening) decisions about some of his medical care. The doctors directly ask him questions. I thought that was interesting that this office cared about consent. The kid actually thanked his mom and also asked age appropriate questions after the appointment about why the doctor spoke directly to him. Life lessons being imparted in a good way.
    x The Captain

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  7. This does not sound like a book I would enjoy. One of the things that I talk about a lot with my students is the importance of getting consent from the children you’re looking after – not at risk of their lives (at least until they are old enough to understand), but from a pretty young age you can start by explaining what the medicine you are giving them will do and waiting till they hold out the arm with the IV line in, rather than just taking their arm and administering the medicine (for example). It’s respectful, and it also sets good habits for when they are older children or teenagers and starting to make more serious decisions about their care. The same goes for them deciding what types of physical contact they want, if any.

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  8. Very thoughtful review of a book that I will DEFINITELY pass on now! Parents who glorify the time when their children were younger and cuter get a massive red flag in my book. And “treating people with mental health issues like immature jerks” is also super problematic. So glad you called out the author.

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    • I was pretty concerned to read on NPR that this book mimics quite a bit of the author’s life. I wonder if she wrote this novel because she thinks it’s interesting, or to get it out of her system, or to defend her choices to a wider world.

      Liked by 1 person

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