YA Book Review: Hello Cruel World by Kate Bornstein

by jack on October 18, 2011

I loved Kate Bornstein’s Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks & Other Outlaws! The alternatives it gives are dangerous and subversive. Bornstein talks unapologetically about gender, sex, religion, desire, bullying, oppression, breaking rules, running away from home, sex work and other tough and sometimes taboo subjects. She talks about these things in a way that is intentionally accessible to all types of people, but clearly intended for queer teens. Who talks about stuff like sex work or BDSM or Satan worshiping to teens? Kate Bornstein does. She offers some more conventional suggestions, like calling a suicide hotline or taking a deep breath or making long-term plans too, of course. But many of her suggestions are dangerous, unconventional and subversive. She only has one rule, which is that you are not allowed to be mean.

If you liked the “It Gets Better Project,” you should read this book. If you hated the “It Gets Better Project” you should probably read this book too.

In her creative, off the wall, gender outlaw way, Bornstein draws wisdom from a variety of world religions, including (but not limited to) Judaism, Buddhism, Wicca, Christianity, 12 Step Programs and Scientology (yep), which is rad because I always hate the way queer culture tends to respond to the bad things that religion does to us by trashing religion. Even as someone who is not the slightest bit religious, I always feel let down when I hear queer people trash-talking any type of religion—not only does it mirror the ignorance of our oppressors and lump a lot of bad stuff into the same category as good stuff, but it alienates queers and allies who could be rad members of our communities. But Bornstein borrows the good from various world religions and cultures and leaves the bad, while urging readers to do the same.

It’s hard to talk about Hello Cruel World without also talking about Dan Savage‘s “It Gets Better Project.” Considering that Bornstein’s book actually says “It Gets Better” on the back cover as well as numerous times within the text and it came out a whole 4 years before Dan Savage started the “It Gets Better Project,” it’s a little weird to me that I’ve never heard Hello Cruel World mentioned in reference to the project’s history or mentioned by Dan Savage, even though Savage must have read her book— probably way before he ever had the idea for the “It Gets Better Project”.

Every time Bornstein uses the phrase “it gets better,” which is now cemented in our culture as the thing to say to suicidal queer kids, but lacked that legacy when Bornstein wrote her book, I wonder why Bornstein never got any of the credit for that. Not that it’s about credit—I’m sure Bornstein is actually pretty thrilled about getting the message out. The thing is, this is a great book and people should know about it, so it feels really unsettling that Dan Savage’s project–which was so successful that Google tried to take credit for it in one of their ads (totally successful advertising, btw, it makes me cry and feel loving feelings for Google, even though I hate Google!)–never mentions or gives credit to Bornstien or tries to promote Hello Cruel World. It’s not even mentioned on their website as a resource.

Why is that? Well, obviously I have a theory. I wonder if it’s another way that the LGB(t)q rights movement is trying to push out trans people and other weirdos or outlaws in it’s mission to gain widespread cultural acceptance.

The way that the “It Gets Better Project” took off last year and became a part of mainstream culture is pretty much the biggest example of widespread acceptance of the LGB(t)q rights movement I have ever seen. Random people who have nothing to do with queer culture made videos telling all these gay kids that life was going to get better for them when they grew up. President Barack Obama made a video telling LGB(t)q kids “it gets better.” JUSTIN BIEBER went on Ellen and told LGB(t)q kids “it gets better” (how does he even know?)!

I don’t mean to fully dis the project because it does something great. My point is, Bornstein’s book is the thing that could help all those people sitting in front of their computer screen looking at “It Gets Better” videos and getting hope answer the question, “how can I make it better now???” You would think that all the people orchestrating this project would want those people to get those answers. But what happens when those answers are weird, dangerous and freaky? What happens when the answer is not that life gets better for depressed queer people when they neatly assimilate into mainstream culture? What happens when the answer is that queer people and trans people and other people who are different can make their lives better by embracing the things that make them freaks and weirdos and outlaws and deviants and say “fuck you” to mainstream culture that tries to stop us from doing that? Well, I don’t think mainstream culture would really appreciate that too much. LGB(t)q folks get accepted by mainstream culture by following their rules, not by breaking them, and that’s why the t and the q are usually left out and pretty much stomped on in the process.

Bornstein doesn’t try to tell anyone that bullies get pushed into a wood chipper at high school graduation and they magically go away. She doesn’t say you will mysteriously wake up one day and all your problems are gone. Instead, she acknowledges that it takes a lot of work (and often willingness to be freaky and different) to make your life better. But if your only other plans were to kill yourself, what does it hurt to wait a few weeks or months while you try some of her ideas? She makes a point of seeking to empower readers to build a better better lives for ourselves and makes it clear that she is right by our sides on that quest. She even talks about her own suicidal history, which helps make the book feel like it’s being written by a caring friend who actually knows what she’s talking about.

This book is for all people trying make their lives better, not just those who have reached the point of considering suicide. If you liked the “It Gets Better Project,” you should read this book. If you hated the “It Gets Better Project” you should probably read this book too. If you wished this “It Gets Better Project” had a “how to” manual, this book IS that manual. Bottom line: YOU should read this book—even if you’re not depressed or suicidal. Go check it out from your library (seriously, if no one checks books out librarians usually have to get rid of them after a couple years and then no one can read them, so help keep it in your library) and if your library doesn’t have it, see if you can request that they purchase it. If you are a librarian, buy this book for your collection and if you already have it, make an awesome display promoting it. If you are a teacher or other type of person who works with teens, buy a copy for your classroom/professional library. If you know someone who’s having a rough time, recommend this book to them or even buy them a copy.

Next week I will be writing about I Am J by Cris Beam and I am so excited about this one. As always, ask the cute librarian to help you find it at your public library if you want to read along!

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Morgan M. Page October 18, 2011 at 2:26 pm

“[...] which is rad because I always hate the way queer culture tends to respond to the bad things that religion does to us by trashing religion. Even as someone who is not the slightest bit religious, I always feel let down when I hear queer people trash-talking any type of religion—not only does it mirror the ignorance of our oppressors and lump a lot of bad stuff into the same category as good stuff, but it alienates queers and allies who could be rad members of our communities.”

THIS. SO MUCH OF THIS. I will be writing a PQ article about this very topic soon.

Also, though I’m not the biggest fan of Bornstein (anyone who has ever mentioned her around me would agree), I really want this book now! Thanks for the excellent review, Jack!


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jackrad October 18, 2011 at 5:00 pm

I read Bornstein when I was first coming to terms with being trans and liked her as a kind of intro, so I have a special place in my heart for her, although I have felt a bit more critical of her as I’ve grown–I don’t know if i just don’t feel like her stuff is relevant to my life anymore or if I really have a problem with anything she has to say. I would be interested in hearing your criticisms of her.

One thing I do like about her, though, is her tone of writing and the way she is able to take complex stuff and make it accessible and just as fun or easy as reading a magazine. YA sections in libraries usually only have really small non-fiction collections that are limited to the kind of stuff teens would actually enjoy reading and care about (like sex & dating)–I would feel totally comfortable putting pretty much any of Bornstein’s stuff in a YA non-fiction collection and I really like that about her.

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Claire October 18, 2011 at 6:08 pm


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Morgan M. Page October 19, 2011 at 12:52 am

Accessibility is definitely a yay!


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Claire October 18, 2011 at 6:08 pm


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Claire October 18, 2011 at 6:07 pm

I love all of this so much! I loved this book! I love her! I hate the It Gets Better project, but I totally have cried at some of the videos! I think you are right about the little t! The part about checking out books from your library so they don’t get deaccessioned is true! Yes!

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BlaydenWaydonLeydon October 18, 2011 at 10:30 pm

This comment will lack cohesion, and I’m probably going to make an arse of myself nevertheless.

That Dan Savage’s project never credited Bornstein’s previous use of “it gets better” is about as shocking to hear as Dan Savage loving trans people (and especially trans women) about as much as he loves genital “axe wounds” (as many a cis gay boy has indelicately referred to pinks bits of the internal kind). Savage does have a working relationship with Bornstein, as evidenced by his Savage Love column when he turns to her to be the authority on All Matters Trans, but I don’t think Savage really doesn’t have it in him to credit an idea he liked to a person who happens to have a trans body. I say this as someone who has had quite a few tête-à-têtes with Savage and someone who has known Bornstein for over fifteen years (although that last time we talked was probably about nine years ago). I don’t know whether the two met in person when both lived on Capitol Hill in Seattle. I wouldn’t be too surprised if they had.

I respect Bornstein as a person, and I think she has a good heart. I am not enamoured with her steady promotion over the years of incrementally trivializing di-gendered trans people and people with transsexual bodies as antithetical to her gender outlaw discourses. I’m also not a fan of her cult of genderfuckery (but considering the source, she learnt all the tools for cult building in her “Amberstone” years). When My Gender Workbook was published, I’d known her for some time by then, and I found myself putting down the book after the second chapter (after, of course, marking through the first chapter), feeling like it was going out of its way to not speak to my experiences (or to render them as something else entirely, as something inferior to being a gender bender/explorer/outlaw/etc.).

I will always look up to her on one level, but the gender politics she has moved towards since we first met is increasingly more and more alien to my own articulation of gender and to the relationship I have with my own transsexual body. Maybe that makes me conservative and stuffy. I don’t really care. I see her as a product of her time — a time when the birth and height of post-structuralism and post-modernism was invested to upend everything which had preceded. In that sense, Judith Butler and even Riki Wilchins are a part of that group.

Enough lack of cohesion. I probably shouldn’t be writing just before going to sleep. Thanks for reading.

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missanthrope October 19, 2011 at 1:31 am

I have similar feelings about her.

I respect for her for the good things she’s done and Gender Outlaw did me a lot good when I was doing the whole “what the hell is wrong with me” thing. Though I think she has a good heart, I think she’s hurt a lot of people in the community for the reasons you posited above.

Butler is widely misunderstood by many of her trans critics, but on the same coin, many of her uber-post structuralist supporters (to an extent Wilchins too) totally miss what she was saying also. I think that many of her points got mired down by Darridan gobbly gook and then swept-up in the fury of a radical chique that embraced her theor.

But in the end, trans people seemed more like a theoretical foils to bounce ideas off of to cis post-structuralists rather than real, live people with experiences that we can speak about in the place of having academics having to interpret or decode.

If that makes me reactionary in some people’s eyes or that I don’t have the correct gender politics for expressing that, then they’ll have to find a way to deal with that.

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Abbie Cohen October 19, 2011 at 2:29 pm

Excellent review, Jack.

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Valerie Keefe November 9, 2011 at 12:08 am

Well, to be sure, Dan Savage ‘thought’ of IGB the moment he said something unforgivably offensive about trans women… again… and decided that this would be cheaper and better for him than a donation to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project or whatever the trans equivalent of UNCF is.

And yes, this is the kind of sentiment that IGB misses and that I love. Reading Riki Wilchins say that she was going to kill herself but thought she’d try transition first rang so true.

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