Sunday, 29 July 2018

Review: I Have No Secrets by Penny Joelson

Author: Penny Joelson
Genre:  YA Contemporary thriller
Pages: 323
Source: College library

I Have No Secrets is the story of Jemma, a fourteen-year-old girl with cerebral palsy so severe she can't move voluntarily at all and thus can't communicate. She thinks fine and is intelligent, but is completely locked in and can't communicate her wishes in any way, not even through eye movements or blinking. Because Jemma can't communicate with the world, people tell her their secrets. One day, a family friend (Dan) tells her he's the name who murdered the neighbour. She desperately wants to tell someone - especially because Dan is dating Jemma's beloved carer, Sarah, and has repeatedly threatened to put Jemma out of her misery. But what can she do?



This book is really all about representation, and it was so interesting. Jemma lives with her longterm foster parents, her foster brother Finn, who's autistic and around ten years old, and her foster sister Olivia, who's a similar age to Finn and has very troubled behaviour and has been in five foster homes before this one. So clearly her parents are up for a challenge. 

It was so eye-opening to think about what life is like for Jemma, and I really appreciated that the book was in first-person and let me into her head so I could get that perspective (which I hope is accurate). It was so hard to get my head around the idea of just not being able to communicate at all - I kept thinking 'ok but she can do this thing right?' but no. So for example, she loves her longtime carer Sarah, but Sarah has no way at all of knowing that, of knowing that Jemma thinks anything about her at all. Her emotions don't even show on her face. 

When Jemma was ten, she was able to communicate by blinking her eyes, but then she got an eye infection and stopped being able to control them voluntarily. She said she was sort of glad; it was stressful and tiring trying to respond to people's questions by blinking, and they'd keep repeating the question or assume she didn't understand. But now that she's been told about the murder, she has something she really wants to say.

It's also frustrating in other ways; Finn, her autistic little brother, hides in a cupboard when he gets upset and her parents freak out thinking he's wandered off and been killed on the road, calling the police, etc. - when the whole time he's in a cupboard and she can see him with the way her wheelchair is facing, but she can't tell anyone that she sees him because she can't communicate. She manages to make a sort of bleurgh noise with loads of effort, but then her parents just think 'oh look now Jemma's upset too because Finn is lost'. It applies to smaller things too - she wasn't given ketchup for years because once while she was able to blink she said 'no' to some. Her parents always have to make decisions for her even though she has her own preferences; they just have to guess what she would want. It's weird seeing a character with literally zero agency (at least for part of the book).

At one point she has a temporary new carer who comes well-reviewed - but then comes and reads Jemma The Little Mermaid and then puts on The Wheels on the Bus for her. It's horrendous for her, a fourteen-year-old, and the carer is totally oblivious, until Olivia thankfully comes in and laughs and says something like 'you're enjoying it, but is SHE?'. The carer just assumed she should treat Jemma like a toddler even though she's 14, because she's disabled.

Reading from Jemma's perspective really made me think about the importance of being able to communicate, and about how much more important it is to be able to communicate in some way than it is how that communication is done. A lot of parents get very upset if their child doesn't speak; but this really drove home that it is so much worse to not be able to communicate at all, and if someone communicates through AAC or writing, we should respect that and not insist they communicate just like we're used to.

It was also really strange to think about how helpless Jemma is. Even if she learned how to communicate in some way, she would still be completely, 100% paralyzed. It's so strange to think that there's just no way for her to protect herself. At a couple of points she feels someone behind her wheelchair and just has to wait there terrified to see whether it's something innocent or someone there to kill her - she can't even look around to check, and she certainly can't defend herself. It's weird thinking how dependent her existence is on a civilized society and on well-off, patient parents. 

Re: the title - the idea is that Jemma has no secrets because she can't do anything on her own. She can't have snuck out, she can't have showered on her own, she can't have done anything without someone knowing about it. Her only secrets are other people's; the things they tell her because they think their secrets must be safe with her because she can never tell. 

The book is written in Jemma's voice, and has a noticeable lack of commas and complex sentences, which I guess makes sense as people didn't really bother to give her much of an education.


Family Dynamics

I really liked this part. The plot has a strange structure - while the overarching goal is to solve the murder and to somehow communicate that Dan did it, there's a lot of time where nothing happens and we just see family scenes through Jemma's eyes. 

1) Finn. I loved Finn; I think it's the first time I've seen autistic representation in a novel, and it warmed my heart so much and is still doing so now. He was a bit of a stereotype but he was adorable nonetheless, and I guess stereotypes exist for a reason. He's nonverbal, constantly lines things up, rocks and/or hides curled up in cupboards when upset or scared, and flapped his arms, among other things. His family got him a box of matchsticks for his birthday, which was so adorable because it was exactly what he wanted - more things to line up. His foster parents were so kind, and Jemma kept saying 'Dad gets Finn.' which was just lovely. It made me so happy when it described an autistic trait, like the arm flapping he was doing when he went to the park; I find that sort of thing so cute.

[I didn't really like how Jemma thought about him sometimes - she kept saying she didn't think he understood what was going on around him, but how would she know that? He could just be like her and be unable (or unwilling) to communicate his understanding. I got a bit of a 'hold out hope for Jemma because her condition is physical so her mind is intact, but not for Finn because his condition is neurological' vibe from that, which wasn't great, but I could be reading it wrong, and Jemma does also say she feels a kinship with him.]

2) Olivia. Olivia is a new addition of noise into a house that previously held two non-verbal children, and she is very noisy. She constantly has tantrums and yells, and clearly has behavioural issues and gets in trouble in school for being violent and angry after people tease her for being in care. There are some really poignant moments; she doesn't understand why her foster parents are asking what she wants for her birthday because that's months away and she doesn't think she'll still be there then. She's never had a stable home. Unfortunately, that makes her do desperate things that, in her child logic, she thinks will help her stay. She's clearly so traumatised and it's such a sad situation when you have to weigh up the interests of a traumatised child who's become violent as a result against the safety of the people around them. As someone who grew up in an abusive home, I have seen the way abuse and trauma can cause children to become violent themselves, and the range of different reactions kids have to trauma. [Technically we don't know why Olivia is in care in the first place, so it might not be what I'm presuming it is.]

3) The foster parents (Mum and Dad) are very sweet and really impressive for holding it all together, although we do only see Jemma's perspective so they may not be doing so when out of earshot. But either way they are good to their kids and work hard to help them out and accept them.

4) Jemma's twin sister Josie. This is a bit of a spoiler but I don't think it should affect your enjoyment of the book. Jemma turns out to have a twin sister Josie, and they were adopted separately when it became clear how disabled Jemma was. They have a reunion but it's certainly not a fairytale one, and it's hard for Josie to deal with Jemma - how similar they look but how disabled she is. It's not pleasant, but it is quite nice to see that it's not sugarcoated. That's a big strength of this book; things aren't super sugarcoated, but they also aren't all doom and gloom either. Jemma explicitly thinks about how she is happy to be alive, but isn't made out to be a 'saintly cripple' either. 


In summary: An OK plot, but the real star of the show is the disability and trauma representation here - cerebral palsy, autism, and foster care. I consider myself a bit of a disability advocate and it still made me think; when I got off the train after finishing the book [which I read the last 220 pages of in a day of barely stopping], I passed a man in a wheelchair who was making the blegugehreureru sort of nosies Jemma makes when she's trying really hard to express something, and I realised that he might be trying to express something specific rather than sort of just moaning as I'd assumed before. I still didn't know what to do or if he wanted help, but I think it's a step towards understanding.

Such a unique book!

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