Monday, April 13, 2015

My Heart and other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga

"I can't help but laugh. If I have a boyfriend, his name is Death. And I'm pretty sure Roman is in love with him, too. It's like a love triangle gone wrong. Or maybe it's a love triangle gone right: we both get the guy on April 7."
Sixteen year old Aysel Seran lives in Langston, Kentucky with her mom, stepdad Steve, and her half sister, Georgia and brother, Mike. Aysel is obsessed with killing herself. Her life is hell after her father was sent to prison for murder.

While working at Tucker's Marketing Concepts, Aysel joins an online suicide group, Smooth Passages which is dedicated to helping people kill themselves. Aysel sees a message on the Suicide Partners forum which pairs up people who help each other commit suicide, and decides to respond to it. The message is from a seventeen year old guy who lives in the adajacent town and who uses the handle FrozenRobot.

Aysel's life has been made intolerable by her father committing a crime which is only fully revealed to readers near the end of the novel. That crime involved the death of Langston's golden boy, Timothy Jackson, three years ago. Timothy was Langston's Olympic hopeful in track and field.

She's lost her friends who "scattered as fast as they could once the news of my dad's crime traveled through the halls of school".  As a result of her father's incarceration, Aysel has come to live with her mother and Steve full time and she feels she's never really fit into her family. "I've never fit, not really before my dad lost it, and certainly not after..." Aysel believes she is a constant reminder to her mother of her dad and her potential to become a criminal like him. For Aysel suicide is the means to prevent "myself from growing into the person I've terrified of becoming."

Aysel and FrozenRobot, whose name is Roman Franklin, meet at the root beer stand on Route 36 which is between their two towns of Langston and Willis. When Aysel sees Roman for the first time, he's not what she's expecting. He's tall, lanky with "buzzed chestnut-colored hair and deep-set hazel eyes." Roman doesn't look like someone who is intent on committing suicide because he looks like he cares about his appearance and he seems to be popular at the root beer stand where the waitresses flirt with him.
However, to Roman, Aysel does fits the part of someone who wants to kill herself because she looks so terribly miserable. From their first meeting, Aysel learns that Roman is an exceptional basketball player, who used to work out with Brian Jackson, the younger brother of the boy her father killed. However, he no longer plays the sport he loves so much.

At school, Aysel's physics teacher, Mr. Scott, assigns a project to the class that involves taking pictures to illustrate the principles of the conservation of energy. Mr. Scott chooses the teams by picking names out of a hat resulting in Aysel being paired with Tyler Brown. Aysel doesn't care much about completing the project because it is due after April 7th, the date she and Roman have chosen to kill themselves.

The second time Aysel and Roman meet, Roman reveals why he wants to commit suicide. One day Roman was babysitting his nine year old sister, Madison, who suffered from seizures and couldn't be left alone. However, Roman had his girlfriend over and while he was making out with her, Madison had a seizure and drowned in the bathtub. He gets little sympathy from Aysel though, who believes that unlike her, the world does feel compassion for Roman and what happened to him.

Aysel and Roman drive up to Crestville Pointe which is a park overlooking the Ohio River to scout out a location to commit suicide. Aysel refuses to tell Roman why she wants to kill herself and he tells her that he wants to know because if her reason is stupid he will try to talk her out of it. Aysel begins to see how Madison's death has affected Roman. Although he is classically good looking, the type who is popular in school she realizes "...the more I stare at him, the more I see his grief wrapped around him like shackles he can never take off. I try to imagine him without the grief...but it's hard to see him as anything other than desperately sad." Roman wants to jump off the cliffs at Crestville Pointe and into the Ohio River because he feels that drowning like Madison did is the right way to die.

The next day when school is canceled due to snow, Aysel's half sister, Georgia calls Aysel out on her attitude. She tells Aysel that her dad has given Aysel a home, implying she should be grateful. She tells Aysel that she is not to blame for what her father did. "I'm tired of you spending every day feeling sorry for yourself just because of what your dad did. Newsflash: You aren't your dad. And you should stop blaming everyone else for what he did. Yourself included." Aysel is touched by the concern of her half sister who tells her "I just wish you weren't so sad all the time, Aysel" and the love of her half-brother, Mike who begs his mom to make sure she puts more chocolate chips in the pancake batter because "Aysel loves chocolate chips." Suddenly Aysel realizes that leaving them is going to be difficult.

Tyler and Aysel decide to take pictures at the zoo for their physics project and arrange to go to Louisville the following Saturday. At Roman's on Friday evening, Aysel agrees to allow him to tag along with her and Tyler. Dinner at Roman's home makes Aysel feel good because she's the center of attention which she surprisingly enjoys; Mrs. Franklin cooked a Turkish meal for her and wants to know her opinion on everything. Roman's mother is friendly and kind towards Aysel. However, the fact that she mistakenly believes Roman's interest in Aysel is a sign he is recovering from his sister's death make Aysel feel guilty.

On Saturday, Georgia invites herself to come with Tyler, Roman and Aysel to the zoo.At the zoo, Tyler tells Aysel that Georgia is trying to be friends with her and that she is concerned about her. Talking to Roman about Georgia leads Aysel to realize that she wants to see her father before she dies. Roman doesn't like this because he considers that Aysel is trying to find reasons to live, however, he decides he will go with her to see her dad.

After rummaging through papers in her mother's bedroom, Aysel learns that her father is at McGreavy Correction Facility. She calls the facility and then decides to visit the following Saturday. With eleven days before April 7, Aysel starts to become more involved in life. She finds that actually doing her work makes her shift at TMC go faster, and then she invites Roman to go with her to the Langston carnival, the one place she can remember being truly happy.

At the carnival, Aysel tells Roman more about going to see her dad and that he is in prison. When Roman seems unfazed by this, Aysel is grateful for his unconditional acceptance of her. However, Roman is more concerned with why she wants to see him and he is convinced that she is "flaking out" on him - not intending to go through with jumping off of Crestville Pointe.

Aysel and Roman plan to visit McGreavy Correctional Facility and then go camping for a night. Roman continues to be puzzled as to why Aysel wants to see her father. When things don't work out at the facility, Aysel and Roman spend the night at a muddy campground, eating hotdogs and drinking red wine. That night which sees Roman kiss her and hold her in his arms makes Aysel finally recognize that she no longer wants to die. Roman tells her that this shouldn't change anything, that he needs to remember Madison and she needs to remember her reasons for wanting to kill herself. It is her reasons that stop Aysel. She's afraid that if she tells Roman her reasons for wanting to commit suicide he will agree that she has to die.

Aysel now realizes that her relationship with Roman has changed her perspective. "He's no longer the person I want to die with; he's the person I want to be alive with." But can Aysel give Roman a reason to live, can she do for Roman what he did for her?

Discussion

My Heart and other Black Holes is a deeply moving novel that portrays teen depression and suicide in a way that is intensely realistic. The message is one of hope, that no matter how dark the depression may be, it is possible to overcome the sadness. My Heart and other Black Holes portrays that difficult, sinuous journey out of darkness and into hope.

Warga offers us two teens who are contemplating suicide as a result of  life-changing events they have experienced. Both Roman and Aysel have withdrawn from life despite both having things in life that they deeply love. In Roman's case, his guilt doesn't allow him to pursue the things he enjoys; he has stopped playing basketball which he excelled at, stopped training with another athlete and abandoned his friends. Roman's guilt tells him he deserves to die.

For Aysel, her father's incarceration leaves her feeling unmoored and deeply depressed; she's now living with her mother whom she does not feel close to.  She's angry and jealous of her younger sister, Georgia who seems to fly though life. Aysel doesn't do her job at the call center and she avoids participating in class, even in physics which she loves. Her father's crime has changed Aysel's perception of herself and those around her. Aysel believes she will turn out like her father. Suicide is the preventative to that happening.  "Without me, my mom won't have to stay up at night, worrying that the criminal gene, the murderer gene, was passed to me and that any day now, I'm going to blow up the school or something awful like that... I want to say that I know for sure that I'm different from my dad...But I'm not sure. Maybe the sadness comes just before the insanity...All I know is that I'm not going to stick around and find out if I become a monster like my dad."

It is this theme of perception or as Aysel describes it, perspective, and how our perspective affects how we live our lives, that dominates the novel. Aysel's perception of herself and others is deeply distorted at the beginning of the novel but undergoes a significant change throughout the novel. Although in the beginning of the novel,  she acknowledges that her mother used to look at her "with a combination of love and longing" before her father's crime, she now believes her mother views her not with love but with suspicion. "She'd never say it, but I am an intruder in their happy home. An infestation. I've gone from being a bruise to an open festering wound." Aysel also believes those around her do not like her, that she inspires "the desire to wash their hands clean".  At school she states "...I can hear their whispered insults, but it all sounds like a mumble of hisses to me..." Aysel admits that although she lost most of her friends after what her father did, her best friend, Anna Stevens stuck by her but Aysel pushed her away because it was for Anna's own good.  She describes Mr. Palmer, her boss at TMC as speaking to her like she's "a stray mutt raiding his garbage can."

Roman begins to pull Aysel out of herself because she notices that despite his handsome, boy next door good looks, he is wrapped in grief. In physics class, Mr. Scott asks his students about Einstein's Theory of Relativity. After pressing Aysel she responds, "Doesn't it have to do with how our perception of things can't always be trusted?" - a foreshadowing of what Aysel will come to realize about her own life and Roman's life too. After giving a brief description of Einstein's theory, Aysel states that time isn't constant and that "it's all about the perception of the observer."  This causes Aysel to think about the last few weeks of her life since she met Roman and made the decision to die together. "Ever since I met Roman and made the Crestville Pointe jump plan, time has flown by. I want to believe that the change has nothing to do with Roman. That maybe time just moves the quickest at the end...I know everything is close to being gone forever, so my desire to rush it is a little less."

This leads to Aysel beginning to try to savour moments that she won't experience again, like eating her granola bars slowly so she can taste the chocolate chips, tasting the citrus in her orange juice, or doing extra practice problems in physics because she loves it so much.  However, this begins to have the opposite effect in that it slowly awakens in Aysel the desire to live.

What ultimately changes Aysel's perspective on life is her trip with Roman to see her father. On the drive to McGreavy,Roman does a sketch of Aysel using charcoal pencil. After visiting the correctional facility, while camping, Roman admits that he cares about the things that Aysel cares about and he knows he's made her happy. But Roman insists that this perception isn't real, because (their) "happiness is fake, it's fleeting." and they need to remember their reasons (for wanting to die).

But Aysel knows that their changing perceptions are important and have made a difference - at least to her. Meeting Roman has changed her.

"But maybe meeting Roman has helped me to understand myself better. Yes, I'm broken. And yes, he's broken. But the more we talk about it, the more we share our sadness, the more I start to believe that there could be a chance to fix us, a chance that we could save each other."
"Everything used to seem so final, inevitable, predestined.But now I'm starting to believe that life may have more surprises in store than I ever realized. Maybe it's all relative, not just light and time like Einstein theorized, but everything. Like life can seem awful and unfixable until the universe shifts a little and the observation point is altered, and then suddenly, everything seems more bearable."
When Aysel looks at the drawing Roman did of her, she is astonished because the drawing shows her as she could be. "The girl I'm staring at is not me, but she is me. Her large eyes are focused away from the viewer, but there's something in them I don't immediately recognize: hope. Her posture looks straighter than mine, like she's stronger, more resilient."

Roman's drawing gives Aysel the hope she needs to grasp on to and so she takes the drawing as a keepsake. "I need it to remind myself that I can be this girl, that this girl is inside of me. This hopeful, strong person."Aysel becomes that strong person, the person that Roman sees and she repays him by saving his life. Later, Roman admits that he drew the picture "To try and show you the person I see when I look at you, not the person you seemed to think you were."


Aysel's change in perspective is also demonstrated by her relationship with her mother and sister.  Aysel's distorted perception of her mother undergoes a transformation by the end of the novel. When Aysel tells her mother that she's not going to turn out like her father despite the fact that she is sad all the time, her mother admits that she did not know how to talk to her about what happened. That she was afraid to say and do the wrong thing. Aysel's mother asks her to open up and talk to her about her sadness, demonstrating that she does not share Aysel's earlier perception that she would become like her father.

Aysel's perspective about Georgia, the stepsister who by Aysel's reckoning she hasn't "had a real conversation with in about two years" is also distorted. At the beginning of the novel she describes her sister as "not having the time to worship anyone other than herself" and as someone who "loves the sound of her own voice."  She describes her stepsister as being like the sun while she is "like the bumpy, brooding moon." But on the morning of the snow day, Aysel realizes that perhaps her mother, Georgia and Mike actually do care about her when she overhears their conversation at breakfast. Later on Tyler tries to convince Aysel that her setp-sister really does care about her.

One of the strengths of this novel is how Warga describes what it feels like to be depressed. Aysel's depression is personified by a black slug - an image that is both ugly and scary. Aysel describes what she's feeling as though something is wrong inside her. "I bet if you cut open my stomach, the black slug of depression would slide out."  The black slug is something that "devours any happy thoughts I allow myself".  She claims she hasn't cried since she was ten. "I think it's because the black slug sucks up any of my potential tears." But as her perspective on living changes, Aysel wishes that the black slug in her didn't exist.

I also really enjoyed how Jasmine Warga weaved her knowledge of science and specifically Einstein's Theory of Relativity into the story line. 

My Heart and Other Black Holes is an outstanding piece of realistic fiction that is deeply emotional in its portrayal of depression and suicide. Warga's writing will resonate with teens and adult readers alike. We all know someone who has contemplated suicide, maybe someone who has committed suicide, someone who is depressed or deeply sad. We can change the conversation about mental health issues especially when it comes to young people, by reaching out to one another when we see someone struggling. Aysel and Roman's families recognized that they were struggling but were unable to move forward and help them.

Jasmine Warga writes that she wrote My Heart and Other Black Holes because of the death of a friend and the writing allowed her to process what she was feeling. Warga writes in her Author's Note at the back that, "My Heart and Other Black Holes has always been a story about the people who understand you, all of you, even the scariest and weirdest parts of you. It is about those people who come into your life when you least expect it, in the strangest of ways, and change everything -- it is about the importance of letting those people in, of opening up to them. It is about the people in your life who help you to see yourself differently and the true power of human connection."

In the words of Aysel, "I want you to live for you because I know there's so much more waiting for you. There's so much more for you to discover and experience. And you deserve it, you might not think you do, but you do. I'm here to tell you that you deserve it." 

Amen.

Book Details:
My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga
New York: Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers     2015
302 pp. 

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