Meg Wolitzer is a novelist whose most recent works include The Uncoupling and a book for young readers, The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman.
You know how people talk about so-called gateway drugs — drugs that lead to harder ones? I think some books can be considered gateway books, because reading them leads you to start reading other books that are similar but more intense. Lisa, Bright and Dark, John Neufeld's 1969 novel for young adults, is one of these.
I credit this novel, which I read at age 13, to leading me, a few years later, to Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, which would go on to become an essential book in my life. Lisa, Bright and Dark was like The Bell Jar's little sister, an easier-to-read, less literary, slightly less harrowing look at mental illness, meant for younger readers.
The thing is, when you're a teenage girl and you read about girls who fall apart, whether it's through depression, as in the Plath, or through a more nebulously defined mental illness, as in the Neufeld, you definitely start to wonder if the same thing might happen to you.
Lisa, Bright and Dark is about a group of kids who are all worried about their friend Lisa Shilling. Lisa has her "bright" days, when she's fun to be around, and her "dark" days, when she does and says things that don't make sense. Her friends, one of whom narrates most of the book, try desperately to get the adults in their midst to take notice and help Lisa. But none of the grown-ups seem to care, even as Lisa gets sicker and sicker — finally, in a scene that's the dramatic centerpiece of the book, walking through a pane of glass.
I never forgot that glass. I feared that I, too, might go mad and do something equally shocking. I looked critically at my parents across the dinner table, wondering if they would take me seriously if I told them, as Lisa tells her parents, that I needed help. I think the fear of losing one's mind is a pretty common one for a teenager, but I think the more important idea that this book brought out in me was that, if I did fall apart, I would be taken care of. Even though Lisa's parents are total washouts in this department, her friends really come through for her, helping her to the best of their ability and getting her a psychiatrist, who will probably save her life.
That feeling of wanting to be taken care of predated my love for this novel, or for any young adult novels. When I was 8 years old and didn't feel well, my mother took my temperature. As soon as she left the room, I held the thermometer up to the light, sending the mercury up to 108. My mother almost fainted when she saw it, but all I had wanted was a little attention for being sicker than I really was.
Lisa Shilling was sick, really sick, and so, in a different way, was Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar. And so, of course, was Sylvia Plath. But for me, who was not mentally ill and who, at age 13, was just trying figure out what an inner life consisted of — its idiosyncrasies and fragilities — Lisa, Bright and Dark was a gateway, no, a doorway, with its own gleaming pane of glass that I was very relieved never to walk through.
PG-13 is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman with production assistance from Gavin Bade.
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.