Then Again…

Judy Blume has been in the press lately for her first novel for adults, In the Unlikely Event.  The reviews also referred to how important and popular her earlier books for children and adolescents have been.   I decided to sample her work to see what I missed.  Starting with, Are You There, God?  It’s Me, Margaret, I was taken inside the mind and emotions of a pre-adolescent girl.  I thought she nailed Margaret’s emotional changes as her hormones carried her into puberty.  How would she do with boys?

As a psychotherapist and analyst, I hoped I might gain some insight into how my male patients experienced this time of life. I turned to Then Again, Maybe I Won’t,Book cover--Then Again the story of Tony Miglione at 12 through 14. Tony had to deal with a lot of changes along with the physical and emotional impact of puberty. Before the book began, his oldest brother was killed in Vietnam. His grandmother, who lived with them and cooked for them, had had an operation for cancer of the larynx, and lost her ability to talk. In the book, his father sold an invention, electrical cartridges, not ever clearly defined and surely not understood by Tony.  The family became instantly wealthy. They moved from Jersey City, New Jersey, leaving Tony’s friends behind, to Rosemont, Long Island. His father went to work for the company that manufactured his invention. His older brother, who had trained to be a teacher, joined him. They hired a maid, putting his grandmother out of a job.  Deeply offended, his grandmother took to her room and isolated herself from the family.  Tony had to make new friends, one of whom liked to shoplift for fun.

Tony’s biggest problem was his stomach. The stress of his new life and friends expressed itself through his gut, terrible stomach pains that ultimately sent him to the hospital, where Tony met Dr. Fogel, a psychiatrist.  To my surprise, this book is also a case study in how to help an adolescent embrace life and gain confidence in himself through “the talking cure.”

In Tony’s first appointment, he freely talked about the changes in his life.  In classical form, Dr. Fogel nodded, shook his head, smiled, and grunted.  He asked a few short questions related to Tony’s multiple ambivalences.  He loved his mother but hated that in her striving to imitate her wealthy neighbors, she hurt his grandmother. He hated that his friend Joel shoplifts but was afraid to report him and lose his friend. He loved his brother but resented that he was going into the cartridge business. He missed his old life in Jersey City but liked having plenty of money. Dr. Fogel’s longest remark was, “Well, Tony…we’ve had a very good first session.  I’ll see you again next week.”

Tony saw Dr. Fogel regularly, though now the impact of their work was revealed through his thoughts and actions outside the consulation room. He had a crush on the older sister of Joel, his next-door neighbor, and he spied on her with binoculars through his bedroom window. He said, “Last week I told Dr. Fogel about my binoculars….I thought he’d be really surprised. But all he said was, ‘How does that make you feel,’ so I told him…Dr. Fogel didn’t tell me to stop doing it.”

When his brother told him he and his wife were moving to Rosemont, he was conflicted about his brother’s materialistic concerns, having a bigger house, giving up his plan to teach.  Yet Tony realized he could look at his brother without hating him and found that he could accept that he and his brother were different people and that he might even become more like his brother.  But he gave himself latitude: Then again, maybe I won’t.” He realized: “Well, at least I got through thinking about all that without getting pains. I’m learning how to handle myself. Dr. Fogel will be glad when I tell him next week.”

Tony had a positive transference to Dr. Fogel. He expected that Dr. Fogel would be pleased with his progress. He did not feel judged. He was grateful that Dr. Fogel was helping him handle his problems.  Yet he realized Dr. Fogel never told him what to do, which slowly built his confidence in his own judgment and reduced his fear that his decisions would bring on a catastrophe–anger of friends, disapproval, pain, loss.

As the story wound up, he was able to see his parents as fuller people. He noticed that his father was getting older, that he was now a grandfather, his son killed in Vietnam would be 28. His transference toward his parents changed. He was able to listen to his mother trying to keep up with the neighbors with both amusement and sadness. He realized his father trusted his judgment, that he believed his son could face things.

His dreams also changed.  In a dream, and presumably in his life, his crush on his neighbor began to shift toward a more age-appropriate girlfriend.  His shame about his wet dreams, the last bastion of bad things he was afraid to tell Dr. Fogel, also waned. “I think I’ll ask Dr. Fogel about my dreams. Can too many of them hurt me?”

A More Fearless Tony
A More Fearless Tony

After he had flown down a hill, hands free, on his bicycle, he mused that maybe he was ready to put away his binoculars, but concluded, “Then again, maybe I won’t.”

Tony was a good psychotherapeutic patient.  He knew he needed to talk about what was happening to him, but he recognized, realistically, that most people could not relate to his feelings. Ironically, his grandmother would have been the ideal person, but she was voiceless. He also had a strong super-ego that reflected the positive values of his family. By 14, he became more aware of his feelings and fears, which reduced their power to double him over in pain. I enjoyed reading about how his treatment helped him through this difficult transition.  This book not only captured how it was for Tony to go through early adolescence but also demonstrated how useful my own profession can be.

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