The first thing I did after finishing Lenore Zion’s Stupid Children was get in the shower, and the second thing I did was cry. Like Zion’s first book, the collection My Dead Pets Are Interesting (published by TNB Books), Stupid Children is atypical in nearly every sense, but these eccentricities work in its favor, and work only because Zion is such a capable writer, rendering Stupid Children with a refreshing brutality, in both subject matter and also in her merciless scrutiny of the novel’s diverse cast of characters. Though brief, the book demands time and attention, triggering far more thought than its 150-page count will lead any reader to expect. I laughed to the point of pain on multiple occasions, and to get the tears out, which before Stupid Children, and Lenore Zion, I hadn’t thought possible.
What makes Lenore Zion’s writing unique and special is that she presents stories and characters intended to be unsettling, but which become increasingly so as they progress and the reader realizes the distinction between the page’s life and their own is minuscule, and that at some point, the distinction is irrelevant. Stupid Children is a seemingly bizarre coming-of-age story about a girl named Jane and a cult called the Second Day Believers, which she unwillingly becomes a member of after her father stabs himself in the neck at the kitchen table and she is subsequently entered into the foster care system. Once initiated, Jane remains there for years, where she becomes one-half of many more unconventional relationships given the backdrop of multiple unconventional ceremonies, with unusual motives even a girl raised by an unusual man can recognize. But for seeming so bizarre, Stupid Children is shockingly realistic.
Due to her background in clinical psychology, and because she is a darn good writer, no character in Stupid Children is flat, namely Jane, who tells the story in past tense, all of the book’s events taking place when she was an adolescent, so the reader can sleep knowing she survived her gruesome upbringing and lived to tell. The narration is electric, immediate, and laden with profundity that never compromises the instancy of the scenes but is enough to give the reader perspective. Much of Stupid Children deals with perception, of mental illness, evil, and what leads a person to become mentally ill or evil, and what constitutes those diagnoses. Zion writes that “Human beings do many things that can seem nothing short of evil, but this is because you’re looking at these people and their actions through only one lens” (57). Jane eventually sees humanity in the Second Day Believers, in their rituals and hierarchy, understanding that each person was lead to the group by traumas in their lives likely more similar to Jane’s than she can realize without actually knowing what their traumas were, and that they stay because it is safe and consistent, no matter how backwards, or violent, because they cannot believe in the world that hurt them so instead believe in Sir One, the paralyzed leader of the cult who Jane is late in the book made to “marry”. Jane eventually sees humanity in her father, too, in her foster parents, in her friends, and lastly, in herself.
Before this realization of humanity, though, Stupid Children’s narrator is self-destructive, under the influence of others’ own patterns, and due to the cult’s isolation, feeding from them, a fitting example being that not long after arriving, Jane begins a juvenile, cult-informed relationship with another young Second Day Believer. Together, they mutilate each other, Jane later thinking, “I don’t think Kent liked to cut himself. I think he enjoyed cutting me, and he wanted to make me happy, so he let me cut him, too. This was misguided, of course, and he completely misunderstood me, because I didn’t care about cutting him. I just wanted to cut myself.” (26) Jane is unable to recognize this as it is happening, but following their inevitable breakup and his inevitable suicide, sees her piece in the puzzle form, though for the time being, the self-destruction continues, her friend Virginia also in her own cycle, brought to the Believers because of and due to her own traumas. When trying to open a can of cat food to offer a stray cat, Virginia chooses a knife instead of a near can opener and predictably maims herself. Zion writes that Virginia “just wrapped her hand in a paper towel and then smiled…this might not have been a sign of toughness-rather, it might just speak to the neglectful reaction Virginia subconsciously believed her own pain deserved—but in a way, that too proves her resilience.” (74) So Stupid Children also deals with perceptions of self-destruction, and the nature of mutually-destructive relationships.
When Jane’s father tries to kill himself Zion writes that “melodrama is a natural response to living happily” (8). This is true. She later writes that “Unless you are armed with a weapon, you are dead” (141), but what is the weapon? Regardless, this, too, is true. We are all Jane to our own Second Day Believers. Their measures to be cleansed may be gruesome, such as being “baptized” in a pool of animal organs or ushered into womanhood through the carcass of a cow, but they have lived gruesome, and are now looking to control it. They are simply a more radical-in-their-containment version of people we encounter every day, doing what they feel they must in order to survive. Their First Day was their trauma, and they are now beyond it. When is our Second Day? Are we living the Second Day? What is beyond even that? The Believers may never fully comprehend their complexities, but feel they must operate under their pretenses, and within their constrictions, and in that sense, we are all Believers. Stupid Children is about a girl challenging those pretenses, and defying their constrictions, and the complications that ensue, and the result is a one-of-a-kind book by a one-of-a-kind writer. Surprisingly wholesome, meticulously-crafted, Stupid Children is a grotesque, nauseating, uncomfortably hilarious, and romantic satire. A girl falls in love with herself, and also into a cult. It’s revolutionary, really.