Maybe God Wrote “Change”: Review of Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Saenz

So I have another wonderful book to share with you all. I am probably the last one to read Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Saenz–another Cinco Puntos Press book–but it was one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read.

Summary: Zach is eighteen. He is bright and articulate. He’s also an alcoholic, and he’s in rehab instead of high school, but he doesn’t remember how he got there. He’s not sure he wants to remember. Something bad must have happened. Something really, really bad. Remembering sucks and being alive—well, what’s up with that?

I have it in my head that when we’re born, God writes things down on our hearts. See, on some people’s hearts he writes Happy and on some people’s hearts he writes Sad and on some people’s hearts he writes Crazy on some people’s hearts he writes Genius and on some people’s hearts he writes Angry and on some people’s hearts he writes Winner and on some people’s hearts he writes Loser. It’s all like a game to him. Him. God. And it’s all pretty much random. He takes out his pen and starts writing on our blank hearts. When it came to my turn, he wrote Sad. I don’t like God very much. Apparently he doesn’t like me very much either.

Review: This is an achingly honest story of a boy transitioning from the dual coping mechanisms of alcoholism and dissociation to healing and a hopeful future. Zach’s parents are both emotionally checked out. His mother is depressed, his father an alcoholic. Besides the obvious neglect, his mother also harbors incestuous tendencies towards him. His brother is homocidally violent and unpredictable. Zach copes with his life by becoming an alcoholic early on.

At the beginning of the novel, however, we find him in some form of inpatient trauma treatment center. In addition to having been fondled by his mother and beaten by his brother, he has now experienced some unspecified trauma which he is completely unable to recall. The story is his journey to a better self-esteem and awareness, from forgetting to remembering, and towards a family and a future with hope.

Zach’s journey feels absolutely authentic, and Saenz never talks down to his reader. And, I might add, the writing is fluid and at times breathtaking. There are a million things this book does brilliantly. Chief among them is that it shows almost a road map of the journey from trauma to healing–a journey, I might add, that tends to take years. The fact that he could collapse it into two months and make it feel real and helpful to others is, well, remarkable. But he did.

I cannot say enough about this book. I think it’s potential to help kids who have survived trauma is enormous because of its honesty. Also because of its hope. This book is like Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson in that it provides a container for the child who has survived trauma to gradually open up those painful feelings over the course of the book but then close them again at the end because the ending is so hopeful (and, I might say, unrealistic, just as Anderson’s is). I went into why this is so important in another post about rape.

So which children in specific do I think would benefit from this book? Well, I think that it should be on the shelf of every single inpatient treatment center in the country. Teens who cope by drinking or using drugs could use this book. Kids who have experienced incest and are ready to start opening up that wound. Kids who have been beaten or emotionally neglected, as well. Really, this book covers A LOT of ground. It’s a relief to see a book about trauma that has a boy protagonist for once, so  any boy who has had a bout of familial crapiness might benefit from this book. The MC is half latino, as well–also not something you see very often.

And I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that this is one of the first I’ve seen in a much-needed category of books for the Q in GLBTQ, as well as future GLB readers. It isn’t an obvious gay book; the MC never comes out of the closet. It isn’t even post-modern gay by having a gay character (but that’s not the point of the story . . .) Zach is what I’ll call potentially gay, pre-gay. What this book does that is faintly dangerous, but I think really necessary, is that it implies a relationship between sexual and emotional abuse and confusion in sexual identity. It’s a fact that we don’t much like to talk about, having left behind the years when homosexuality was listed in the DSM as a disease, but sexual abuse and emotional neglect can both inhibit the desire for intimacy and can therefore make it harder to develop any sexual identity whatsoever.

I think many kids who have suffered trauma and who will later identify as some brand of queer struggle with this. And Saenz does a great job of subtly weaving in this point. I strongly believe, as a result, that this book would also really benefit many youth who are actively questioning their sexual identity.

I must say as a cautionary note that I think there is one group of kids who SHOULD NOT READ THIS BOOK. I have to emphasize this because the consequences could be drastic and horrible if they did. That is children who are actively dissociating and are not yet in a safe enough environment to start overcoming that. As long as the treatment facility is sound, I think it’s a a wonderful, possibly life-changing book to have there because it is a safe place for a teen to start opening up these feelings. But if a teen is still living at home and has developed the strategy of dissociating in order to survive a traumatic family life, then it is NOT safe for him or her to read this book. I cannot state this loudly enough. The consequence could be suicide.

People dissociate naturally in order to block out single events or patterns of events that it would be dangerous for them to hold within conscious knowledge. In this book, Zach is dissociating the knowledge of his parents murders by his brother. But he is safe to stop dissociating now both because he is in a treatment center with therapists and groups and classes that can all help him process what he has been dissociating, and because all of the people who had hurt him are dead. However, some kids dissociate throughout their lives as a way to block out parental violence or incest because they need the primary attachment figures (see my post about cats) in order to feel safe, but could not hold the abuse within their consciousness minds and still feel safe with the attachment figures.

By showing the signs of dissociation, the emotions that go along with it, and the types of things that are dissociated, this book has the power to show a child what she might be using as a coping mechanism. If she is in a safe environment, then this is a wonderful gift to give her. If she is still within the abusive situation, however–if she still NEEDS to dissociate–then reading this book, even if she doesn’t know why, is likely to provoke horrible anxiety at best, suicide at worst.

Books are tricky and powerful things. I wholeheartedly recommend this book for the right kids. And I really don’t for the kids who aren’t ready to read it yet. Luckily, dissociation is a natural response to horrible trauma, but it’s not the most common coping mechanism, I think. And if an adult cares enough about a particular kid to give her a book like this to help her, then that kid is probably already on her way to being in a safe environment.

But different kids really do need different books. I’ve talked about this in the rape post and when talking about fantasy, but I think it deserves to be explored more. SO:

Next Week’s Topic: Why all kids should not be forced to read To Kill a Mockingbird.

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About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
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9 Responses to Maybe God Wrote “Change”: Review of Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Saenz

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