It takes a lot of courage to face the blank page to create a story. And it takes an inordinate amount of courage, as Karol Ruth Silverstein has done, to create a story that challenges a cozy and familiar trope: the long (and quietly) suffering hero. The truth is that not every cloud lining is silver; sometimes the light burns out before you get to the end of the tunnel; sometimes the darned glass is cracked. In her debut novel, Cursed (Charlesbridge), Karol Ruth Silverstein draws on personal experience to create a very real character dealing with a very tough situation.
Leading up to the June 25 launch my debut YA novel, Cursed (Charlesbridge), about a young teen who’s newly diagnosed with a painful chronic illness, I was equal parts thrilled and terrified. It’s an #ownvoices story drawn significantly from personal experience, which is nerve wracking for any author. But for me there was added fear of a specific type of pushback.
My protagonist Ricky does not exactly handle her illness with grace. She’s angry, snarky and—truth be told—feels more than a little sorry for herself. With her family in disarray, there’s not much support available to her (and it’s questionable whether she’d accept help if it was offered). So Ricky turns it all inward—the anger, the fear, the profound sadness—and does her very best to tough things out alone.
I know Ricky in my bones because I was her—angry and terrified. I did not handle getting sick well. I didn’t inspire those around me with my plucky, glass-half-full attitude or do my best to assure my family and friends that I could handle this and everything would be okay and we’d all get through this together and blah, blah, blah. That narrative is featured in a lot of stories about ill or disabled people and on inspirational posters telling us “the only disability is a bad attitude”—a concept the late, great Stella Young described as inspiration porn in her amazing TED talk.
There are absolutely people, young and old, who handle illness with amazing grace, and I admire them. It just wasn’t my story. It took me years to come to terms with my chronic illness diagnosis—which blossomed into a disability when I was 21. (I say “blossomed” because crossing that threshold was actually an empowering thing for me.) Early on, though, I raged against whatever universal forces had dumped this awful circumstance in my lap without consulting me. And, yes, I felt more than a little sorry for myself. Societal expectations around self-pity is that it’s a shameful character defect to be avoided (or at the very least hidden). But isn’t feeling sorry for yourself when something truly unpleasant happens to you a reasonable human reaction? I’d never suggest wallowing in self-pity indefinitely, but my experience is that I can’t force it away. If I shame myself for feeling self-pity, then I have two problems: the original thing I’m struggling with and the shame I’ve blanketed it in.
So in the days leading up to the release of Cursed, I found myself wondering, “Is the world ready for my kind of sick kid?” Ultimately I decided it was a risk worth taking. I needed to write this story, to present this version of dealing with an overwhelming diagnosis—poorly—because I knew there would be readers who needed to see their own lack of grace reflected—and validated. Sometimes a bad attitude, at least initially, can be an appropriate and lifesaving coping mechanism, societal pressure be damned.
KAROL RUTH SILVERSTEIN grew up in Philadelphia and is now based in West Hollywood, CA. A writer and screenwriter, she is happiest working in her home office (generally in her PJs) but can occasionally be convinced to leave the house for karaoke nights with her writer friends. Her debut novel Cursed is loosely drawn from her experience of being diagnosed with a painful chronic illness at 13. She lives with her two exceptionally fluffy cats, Ninja and Boo. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.