When I was a kid, I was semi-obsessed with the photographer and author Jill Krementz. She was most famous for a series of book length photo essays in which she profiled kids who excelled at various sports and creative endeavors, told through their own words and with candid photos of them living their lives. There was “A Very Young Dancer”, “A Very Young Gymnast”, “A Very Young Skater”, “A Very Young Circus Flyer”, and a few more, but not enough for me. I used to go back to the shelves where they were kept in the children’s room in the library when I was 6 or 7, and will for another one to appear, I loved them so much. I liked projecting myself into what I perceived as their very exciting daily existences (okay, a bit of wish-fulfillment) but I also just liked the combination of words and images about real kids’ lives. Most picture books I read as a child were fiction, and the non-fiction kids’ books available were mostly full of straight facts, not good storytelling. These books stood apart.
A few years later, I stumbled upon another series she wrote, called “How It Feels…” “How It Feels To Fight for Your Life,” “How it Feels to be Adopted,” “How it Feels When Parents Divorce.” Once again, but in a different way, I was fascinated by the first person accounts by regular kids of what it was like to go through challenging experiences I had never been through. The interviews were paired with straightforward black and white images of the kids, and again I kept scouring the shelves for more volumes.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that series lately in relation to my current work. Another title for Grief Landscapes could be “How It Feels to Grieve” (which Jill Krementz essentially did a version of, with “How It Feels When a Parent Dies”). What I find myself drawn to again and again is people telling their own stories, in their own words, about things that we often don’t give ourselves permission to talk about.
In the preface to her book about the terrible loss of a parent, Jill Krementz writes, “I hope the book will help such children to realize that they are not alone—-either in suffering so great a loss, or in the feelings that have about it…Most of all, I hope the book will show children that there aren’t any right feelings or wrong feelings; that acknowledging how you feel and not being afraid to express it is what matters—-and helps—-the most.”
We often talk to children about how all of their feelings are valid, and yet I’ve noticed how when we become adults that quickly goes out the window. There becomes a dominant narrative for how we’re supposed to feel, whether that means putting pressure on new moms not to acknowledge difficult feelings of pain and ambivalence, or on urging people grieving someone who died to “get over it” after a certain prescribed period of time. And it seems that sometimes we can’t win either way. I’ve also heard from people who were given a hard time because they didn’t feel particularly devastated when someone close to them died, but somehow felt they were supposed to act that way.
And maybe I’m even being overly romantic about how we let children have all of their feelings. That pressure of having to be and act a certain way depending on what’s expected of you can start early. In 2011, The New York Times published an article about Stephanie, the little girl in Krementz’s book “A Very Young Dancer”—one of my favorites in the series. The book described how Stephanie had danced the lead in The Nutcracker for the New York City Ballet, and it ends with her happily continuing to study dance. But the article, looking back over thirty years later, tells a different story. A few years after her starring role, she was asked to withdraw from the ballet school due to faltering attendance. The book had put her in the spotlight, and she didn’t feel that she could tell people what had actually happened. So she covered up the pain of the rejection by saying she had quit, and kept up that fiction for three decades. The shame that followed led to many struggles and episodes of depression through the early part of her adult life. Although she acknowledges in the article that she might have had a hard time regardless, and it’s often hard to find oneself after leaving an all-encompassing pursuit, I still have to wonder if she might have had an easier time of it if she had been able to be honest with herself and the world about how she really felt.