Gaining Visibility: How books helped me find myself by Jessica Rinker
My parents raised me like a free-range chicken. They set me out on eight acres, surrounded by hundreds more, and basically said, “Come home by dark.” Actually, come to think of it, I don’t think they ever said that. I did have a bedtime, however, and that’s quite simply the only rule I ever remember having to follow. I spent my days traipsing through meadows, collecting fossils from the creek, catching frogs, stealing jars of pickles from my mother’s canning cellar, feeding and playing with our menagerie of animals, and even jumping on the back of one of our horses, barefoot and fearless, and riding around the pasture like a princess, the heroine of her own story.
All this freedom probably sounds like dream to most people. In many ways, it was a dream, idyllic wilderness and endless play. I look back on these memories with incredible fondness. The freedom my parents gave me enabled my imagination to take over my life. The stories I read became the stories I played out which then became the stories I wrote. Reading, writing, and playing outside were the only things I did until I was about fourteen—and even then I didn’t stop, I just added a bit of a social life. I’d had some friendships earlier, but I was never very good at them. I played alongside other girls more than connected with them. I watched how they dressed their Barbies, or magically set up Mouse-Trap, a popular board game in the 80’s, or mastered Mario Bros on Nintendo. These were all things I never had because my parents were struggling to keep us fed. And learning how to connect in a relationship was something I never learned because there was a much darker side to my childhood, the black holes of alcoholism and mental illness. I essentially lived parallel to my parents, and if friends or family or teachers had any idea what was going on in our home, they never did or said anything about it to me. That was all I ever knew. I was invisible.
Children don’t have to have such drastic experiences to feel invisible. Children are inherently powerless. They don’t have the awareness to know what neglect is or the comprehension that the abuse they witness is not normal or even that they can speak up about a mean kid at school. Children are used to life happening around them and to them. Children constantly have to accept consequences for choices they didn’t make. Many of them grow up doing the same thing as adults.
“Could be worse,” you’ll hear. True. But could also be better.
When I started reading about Gloria Steinem, it wasn’t because I wanted to write a book about her—that came later. I started reading about her because I learned that her first twelve years were spent on the road. This fascinated me. It was so different than my first twelve years, and yet I sensed the isolating nature of her childhood and identified with her desire to read stories where girls were their own hero. Even though I grew up in a tiny corner of New Jersey, and she was crossing the country repeatedly, all she knew was what her parents presented to her—a limited view of what life looked like. And that had been my childhood as well—I’d only had a tiny glimpse of life, and a fairly dysfunctional one at that.
Gloria’s mother was mentally ill, her father self-absorbed, and they loved her as best they could. And somehow, even in her madly spinning world of freedom-that’s-not-actually-freedom, Gloria was able to find grounding. She knew what she wanted and she was relentless in pursuing it. Gloria took a stand again and again. But she did more than take a stand, she listened. Often women are touted as “listeners,” but Gloria was more than a shoulder to cry on, she listened to people who felt invisible, who had been marginalized and discriminated against. And she acted on what she heard.
She learned people’s stories and then when they weren’t allowed or able to speak, she spoke for them. Ironically Gloria was terrified of public speaking, and yet through the support of her friends, she became the mouthpiece for a movement about true equality and making sure all voices are heard. Although many strides had been taken, and many laws passed, Gloria knew it could be better. She did not settle for the consequences of other people’s choices.
I learned this as well. By the time I was a sophomore in high school I knew I needed to actively reject the chains my parents had shackled themselves with in order to make a difference in my own life. Through some loving teachers, I began to realize I was not actually invisible, that I had talent and that I could make my life what I wanted it to be, not the version my parents had presented to me. And, it took time, but I did.
Gloria’s life-story has firmed up in me the importance of listening to people, truly connecting and understanding, and believing that we can always do better–for ourselves, our communities, and especially our children. I no longer feel invisible. I no longer feel like I have nothing good to say or contribute. It can take a tremendous amount of time to pull oneself out of the dark place of feeling inconsequential. I hope my books are a tiny seed of what I didn’t know as a child, that children of all ages can make a difference, that their dreams are not unreachable, and that they deserve to be heard.
Jessica Rinker’s debut picture book biography, GLORIA TAKES A STAND, comes out March 12, 2019 from Bloomsbury Children’s Books. Her second biography, SEND A GIRL: The Brenda Berkman Story, comes out March 2020. Jess also writes middle grade and her debut novel THE DARE SISTERS comes out Fall 2020 and Fall 2021 from Imprint/Macmillan. Currently she lives in New Jersey in a tiny town along the Delaware River with her husband, Joe McGee, who is also a children’s author. You can find her online at www.jessicarinker.com.