“What is Childhood? Where is it Located?” Lynda Barry asks in an illustrated afterword to her 1988 novella, The Good Times Are Killing Me. Republished this past September by Drawn and Quarterly, the book is a semi-autobiography of the author’s own childhood, set on one small street in 1970s Seattle. The question is of course totally insoluble, and Barry instead looks more toward archaeology of feelings than any kind of theorizing or fact-based exploration. She does so from the vantage point of seventh grader Edna Arkins, a sensitive redhead with an uncanny resemblance to young Barry and “the what-me-worry guy on the Mad Magazine.”
Edna aka Lynda paints a portrait of her street through a series of small vignettes and drawings, mostly surrounding her childhood relationship to music, her family, and former best friend, Bonna Wilils. The story quickly sets up Bonna and Edna’s fall-out, from the start, and the rest of the book works to fill in the pieces of how this misfortune unfolds. Familiar readers may remember this style from Barry’s slightly better-known 1999 illustrated novel, Cruddy, one of my all time fave books. Like Cruddy, the non-linear narrative weaves between the past and present, similarly beginning with a tragic ending only to look back and recount the narrator’s malevolent childhood from her teen self’s perspective.
The two books capture adolescent anguish with both a deep reverence and a maniacal sense of humor; in Barry’s universe, everything funny is always sad, but likewise everything sad is also somehow funny. This includes a particular eye for the very grotesque. Some good news, however, for those of you who thought Cruddy was a little too grotesque (a large group that regrettably includes most of the friends I leant it to who were unable to finish it): the Good Times has more… good times. Yet in true Lynda Barry form, it pairs a utilitarian optimism with the unsettlingly bleak: a tender and sinister naïveté that will leave even the most cynical readers deeply relating to their own rotten girlhoods.
This subject matter, the preadolescent girl child, has historically been undervalued and not taken seriously throughout all of history. Not that this matters to the author, whose art has long deviated from the norm, since she started drawing freak comics as a college student in Olympia during the mid-’70s. Indeed, Lynda Barry is a true freak. She hates rules and she hates our inherited systems for understanding meaning. She trusts and understands teenage girls instead, and includes children’s art in the curriculum of every college class she teaches. There, she believes everyone is an artist, and she does not believe in “good art” and “bad art.” She definitely believes everyone should sing. Investigating the questions of why we stop singing or stop making art are central to her practice as an educator, artist, illustrator and overall cool person, and her exploration of these learned constructs and how they happen are peppered throughout the book.
In other words, how and when does it get so twisted? Sociologists would probably argue that everything in society is made up, but how are these norms and constructs then disseminated? This is a particularly interesting question to ask about adolescent girlhood, where the violent forces of socialization lurk around every corner of a middle school hall. What is so impressive about Good Times is that Lynda Barry doesn’t write about these things, she writes through them. Written in deceptively simple prose that very aptly reflects on how eleven-year-olds actually speak, the author never hits you over the head with anything. Instead of throwing around the phrase “violent forces of socialization,” like I love to do, she describes the exact moments those forces unfold. We can viscerally feel Edna’s experiences as our own, and understand just how young we were when we experienced this sort of socialization ourselves. It’s a necessary unpacking for these adult selves: to unlearn and move past our destructive formative experiences, first we must understand how it came to be this way. When do people, specifically girls, figure out the mechanisms in which to hate themselves? And at the same time, when does behavior develop in order to sublimate the true self as well?
Likewise, when does self-consciousness develop? It’s the awareness of oneself, but more often I think the awareness of how one ought to be. How, why, and where does one internalize feelings of guilt and shame? Certainly there are readily available “human development and psychology” Wikipedia articles/podcasts (books even?) that I could dive into for some empirical scientific evidence or whatever, but I have always been way more interested in the visceral and emotional. Lynda Barry is the high priestess of emotional, and although Edna’s experiences throughout the book are pretty mundane and normal, it’s their accessibility that serves as a miraculous lens to the way growing up actually feels. She particularly nails the feeling of wanting to fit in, and both the guilt and shame that Edna (and every other character really) experiences when deviating from the norm that permeates the home, block, school, and ultimately society she lives in.
This shame is most legibly traced through Edna’s relationship with music. We learn from the start of the book that she loves to sing, but in grade school she sadly learns that “eventually you are going to be divided by who can sing and who can’t sing.” She then relegates herself to the “can’ts” based on some arbitrary division from authorities that she then accepts as truth. So despite being obsessed with music from day one, she laments its ending in her own life at the ripe old age of fourth grade: “It turns out I’m a rotten singer. I’ve been tested. I know it for a fact.” This is just one of many scenarios that feels painfully relatable, at least to my own development. Like so many of us, Edna discards the thing she cares about most because of being ridiculed and not doing it according to the Rules.
Interrogating how this process happens is something Barry does so profoundly. Like, what is it that makes us shed the parts of ourselves that feel joy in order to assimilate to the world of our families, teachers, and peers? And how do we then contribute to enforcing those norms on other people as well? It is within her constructed world of 1960s childhood that she illustrates this necessity to fit in and to find the “right” way to express yourself, by exposing the small pieces of human cruelty that mechanize our desire to not be left out. She gingerly places her fingers on the wounds of what it does feel like to be excluded, the humiliation of being othered, feeling wrong. Of loving something uncool in the eyes of peers, and how quickly we learn to correct ourselves to avoid the social punishment of being bad, different, weird.
This punishment can so often stem from our conditioning toward creating hierarchy. From a young age, feelings of inadequacy are enforced by those protecting a capitalist social order. Even in elementary school, we are pitted against each other for power, however small the scraps of it might be, conditioned to make arbitrary and aggressive separations between ourselves. The Good Times is a map of how this separation occurs and its naming: the poor side of the street, the mean nicknames, the groups of who can sing and who can’t, the spoken and unspoken rules of hierarchy through race. Barry lets us step back to examine the things we do and say to enforce this brutal “othering.” It’s not just receiving pain, but giving it as well; how we take part in creating said hierarchies, especially socially. That we learn this behavior and elaborate on its cruelties as an act of protection is not lost on her-- there’s always someone worse off to elevate our own status.
The notion of status because especially crucial around this time, and the book reminds us of what a fragile moment it is to be twelve. Through Edna, we remember these desires: from craving the validation of older peers, to feeling excitement about liking something then realizing it’s not right when you get teased. The narrator isn’t particularly bullied as a kid, but as Barry so accurately depicts in the book, it’s not necessarily getting tormented in the most obvious ways that makes the biggest impact. Instead it’s the little things that cause pain and break us down, urging us to adhere to previously constructed societal blueprints for how to be.
These blueprints can of course be most legible when it comes to the politics of race, which is what the book is often marketed to be about, as well the long running off-Broadway musical of the same name for which Barry also wrote the script. Its setting—white flight Seattle where the narrator’s poor and fatherless family is left as the only white family on a street—is the perfect surrounding for the “forbidden friendship” between Edna and Bonna. Their love for each other is “against the rules” that are both spoken and understood; like Edna’s acute awareness that she was not allowed at Bonna’s aunt’s house in the projects, knowing full well she would get the belt. The narrator grasps this segregation despite being inundated with false promises of love and equality in both school curriculum and from the surrounding adults, who insist on such promises within moments of their own racist behaviors. Such insights are sadly still relevant today, in our own toxic climate of so-called “colorblindness” against an undeniable and egregiously intolerant American landscape.
Again, though, Barry doesn’t hit you over the head with all of this. All the historical and musical references are described through the eyes of a child, so part of this story’s potency lies in piecing the details together with an understanding of the time period. Every song on the radio is an intentional piece of the puzzle, and tastefully chosen by the author for maximum effectiveness with pathos. Through Edna, we naively witness the one small street against the looming consciousness of the Panthers, race riots, Negro College Fund, and other mounting tensions of “post-racial” America. And it is through these tensions that we can understand the inevitability of Edna and Bonna’s eventual inability to be friends as both an individual heartbreak and societal one.
At its core, The Good Times Are Killing Me is a thus book about living with loss. First Edna with the loss of her father, and friend, Bonna, who has also lost both of her brothers. Plus it’s against the backdrop of autobiographical loss as well, as the book serves as a memory for Barry’s own childhood friend, who we can infer is based on Bonna. Accordingly there is a permeating sense of grief throughout the book. That the two girlfriends are even able to experience any good times whatsoever after experiencing such trauma and sadness at such a young age is in itself a small miracle. Which brings me to another question: is it ever really possible to move through trauma and grief? What does it mean to not avoid but actively work through something painful? That isn’t just ‘going to therapy?’ Lynda Barry once addressed this profoundly in an interview, while talking about the subjective role of art with the Paris Review:
“In terms of evolution, it’s the immune system that allows the body to fight off a bacterial infection. I believe that the arts are like an external immune system. I believe that they have a biological function.
The fastest way I can explain it is that there is this brilliant neuroscientist named V. S. Ramachandran, who wrote a book called Phantoms in the Brain. He was very interested in people with phantom-limb pain, and he had one patient who had lost his hand from the wrist down, but the guy’s sensation was not only that the hand was still there, but that it was in a painful fist that kept clenching. Ramachandran built a box, with a mirror and two holes in one side. When the guy put his arms in, he saw the one hand reflected. When he opened the hand, he saw it open and it was like the missing hand was unclenching. It fixed his phantom-limb sensation. That’s what I think images do; that’s what the arts do. In the course of human life we have a million phantom-limb pains—losing a parent when you’re little, being in a war, even something as dumb as having a mean teacher—and seeing it somehow reflected, whether it’s in our own work or listening to a song, is a way to deal with it.
The Greeks knew about it. They called it catharsis, right? And without it we’re fucked. I think this is the thing that keeps our mental health or emotional health in balance, and we’re born with an impulse toward it.”
I think a lot of other people already knew this, but I had never really heard it spelled out in quite this way. Not sure how I made it so long without understanding that since the dawn of time people have potentially been using art as a way to reflect and ultimately heal from pain, but better late than never! Sometimes it takes the unsuspecting genius Lynda Barry to really drive the point home. I don’t know if The Good Times Are Killing Me is trying to say that art heals all wounds or anything quite so definitive (or corny). However, I think something can be said for dusting off the wounds, revisiting them, touching them, like, really touching them, and reflecting them in your work, whatever that may be. The book is not prescriptive, suggesting there is only one way to grieve, but it is illuminating that Barry’s own art includes this extended memory of her friend that she lost. I’m not sure whether this is already a concept in regular psychology—I have yet to encounter it in the limited Wikipedia pages I’ve had access to—but at the very least, giving grief a discernable shape and form is not mentioned in the universal “Seven Steps.” And while the book doesn’t necessarily offer answers to the overwhelmingly dark questions it brings up, perhaps by subtly encouraging its readers to peer within and investigate them, it provides a first step toward a roadmap for healing.
This means it’s not enough to just pick up a crayon or whatever, but using one can be a tool to peel away some of the layers we have all internalized in order to find what’s really there, as we embrace such darkness. You don’t need to have had an idyllic and pure childhood (lol who did?) to understand that we carry around a lot of baggage from this time, on both a personal and societal level. Everyone is a lil’ sponge just absorbing centuries-old, toxic, socially-constructed values and then, if we’re lucky, spending the rest of adulthood trying to suck that poison out and figure out who we actually are, irrespective of such biological and cultural impositions. Again, there are no clear answers to what you might find underneath, but the clues might be in the author’s relationship to music. Even when music becomes a source of shame for Edna, under those layers of self-consciousness, we still witness true love and emotion, even in the face of overwhelming tragedy.
It’s something that’s always on my mind: in spite of the shit pile, how do we still experience authentic joy and freedom? To transcend the lifelong impositions of both self and society, the body, whatever, to step outside of them and tap into being totally free, if such a thing is even possible. Even when the book can feel unavoidably bleak, Barry’s life work instead seems to be about tapping into the emotions and experiences that universalize us, like hearing a song that instantly transports you to a specific memory beyond your control, or the subversive satisfaction of touching something you are not allowed to touch. To read a book that gives voice to these emotions in such similarly relatable language is a gift. And even though The Good Times Are Killing Me can be brutal at times, I’m thankful that Barry allowed us a peek into her window of grief, offering a transcendentally dark, funny, and poignant meditation on teen girlhood and beyond.
Jolie Maya-Altshuler is from Miami, Florida. She can be reached at 305-968-6907.