This letter is a response to the Twitter incident involving Tommy Wallach–author of We All Looked Up and Thanks for the Trouble–that occurred several days ago, as well as an article written by V.E. Schwab on the issue. Because the Internet is vast and confusing sometimes and things fade into its oblivion almost as quickly as they appear, I have done all my research via the links and screenshots from Schwab’s article. Any factual inaccuracies are mine, not hers.
Also, trigger warning: suicide.
Dear Mr. Wallach,
I remember the first time I saw one of your books (We All Looked Up) on a shelf in the bookstore. I remember thinking it was such a pretty cover, and considering getting it after reading the back cover.
But I won’t be reading it now, unfortunately.
I have a policy of trying to give authors the benefit of the doubt at all times. And that’s not just a reviewing policy; it’s a life policy. Things that offend me might not be offensive to others. I will be the first to admit that I’m very sensitive–sometimes, overly so. But, overall, I consider myself a very generous, open-minded person.
However, even this benefit, when stretched too much, will disappear.
I first heard your name on Twitter via a blogger I highly respect. She was very hurt by your actions these past few days. At the time, I did not know what these actions were, but I did know the situation was bad enough to make her take a Twitter hiatus. I was intrigued, but, as I could not find any explicit details about the situation on Twitter, I pushed it to the back of my mind and kept scrolling.
A day or so later, I stumbled across an article V.E. Schwab wrote on YABC, detailing the incident. I clicked on the link almost immediately and began to read.
I will reiterate that I try to be very open-minded when it comes to people and their actions, even if those actions are offensive to some.
So when I saw the joke you made about suicide on Facebook in relation to one of your books, though it made me frown, I tried to give you the benefit of the doubt.
The joke made me uncomfortable, but surely the poorly-made joke was just a one-time occurrence. As a teenager who is striving to be a better advocate for mental health, I know sometimes even I say things that hurt my cause rather than help it.
But then I stumbled across a post you wrote: “On The Top 10 Literary Suicides” (which has since been deleted, but can be found in cache version here).
In this post, you ranked literary suicides from various books by “Emo-ness,” which would have been dangerously cheeky in and of itself. You, however, went the extra mile, and decided to included “Study Questions,” which included
Is it more or less emo to throw yourself under a high-speed train, such as the Acela?
as well as
Tolkien’s Gollum (played in Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptation by Steve Buscemi) is willing to jump into hot lava for a little gold ring. Which basically makes him indistinguishable from every woman on eHarmony. Heyoooo! Study Question: Would replacing “eHarmony” with “Christian Mingle” in the above joke improve the punchline?
My answer to the above question is no, it would not. Because suicide is not a joke, sir.
I should know. I, as well as many others, have lost at least one loved one to suicide. I’ve had to deal with the denial and the subsequent blame of wondering if I could have prevented it, if I could have “fixed” it, had I known.
As someone who struggles with both depression and anxiety, I’ve also struggled with suicidal thoughts before, fighting what feels like an uphill battle against the the lack of drive, the lack of will to live. This hopeless, hazy, heavy feeling is one of the greatest forms of Hell on Earth, and for many people, this is a reality. This state of wishing you could stop existing, stop being, is, for many, a state of being.
You write books for teenagers. So I would assume you would know that suicide among adolescents is the third-highest cause of death, and depression is the main cause of illness and disability for this age range. (Source and info achieved from Once Upon a Bookcase.) I would hope you know that, should you take on the very big responsibility of writing a book dealing with mental health and suicide, you would also know that there are many in your targeted demographic who can do more than just sympathize with these struggles–they can empathize with them.
I am one of them. I am one of many. One of many who probably would have read your book, because I am all for books that discuss issues like these, that address them and spread awareness by doing so.
But now I never will. Because, in more than one circumstance, you have portrayed the very serious subject of suicide as something that can be joked about. Something quirky and “emo,” whatever that even means.
And I am tired of authors portraying mental illness as something endearing or “quirky.”* Mental illness destroys. It is not edgy or fascinating–it is debilitating. That’s why it’s called “mental illness.”
Wanting to take your own life is not something to make light of. And joking about or downplaying mental illness has played a large role in forming a societal stigma against the mentally ill (“That’s crazy/insane!”, “You’re psychotic/mental!”, etc.).
Whether consciously or unconsciously, you have contributed to this, sir. You have taken a group that is already stigmatized by society–a group that has been for decades–and you have made them the punchline of your jokes. For someone in an industry where words mean almost everything, I would expect you to be more aware of this, and to think about all the people you might be hurting by making these jokes.
I’m not saying this because I feel offended, even though I am–anything can offend anyone nowadays. I’m upset because you are misrepresenting a very large group of people who deserve to be treated better than that. Many of us are born with these issues, and those of us who develop things like situational depression and anxiety usually experienced a traumatic event(s) as the catalyst(s). We were traumatized, and we are constantly having to prove to society that we are more than our trauma, that we are more than our illness. Your poorly-made jokes are not helping.
We are victims, but many of us are also fully-functioning human beings (or, at least, as “fully-functioning” as one can be after having to battle constantly with your own brain). We have to be strong, even when we don’t feel like it.
We are survivors. We are warriors. We are fighters.
We are not a punchline in your joke, sir.
*A note to authors in general:
Mental illness does not make your characters “unique” or “different” or “quirky” or “edgy”; it makes them more human and shows more representation, because not every human being has “perfect” brain chemistry.
Do not write about mental illness just so you can check off a box on the “Current Hot Issues for Teens” list. Do not use mental illness solely as a conduit for your character development. If you are writing about mental illness in any extreme, you must treat it with the care and respect this issue deserves, not as a cover-up for your lack of character development. That’s not how this works.