I LOVE CHICKEN SOUP, especially made from organic free-range chicken (sans garlic, onions and black pepper since I’m ridiculously allergic to these). If I’m sick, chicken soup makes me feel better, or at least I imagine I feel better. I cannot say the same for the Chicken Soup for the Soul books. Call me a cynic, but they have the opposite effect and actually make me a little nauseous.
The Chicken Soup books are about happy, smiley, sugary things: hope, heart and spirit, with a splash of god and sunshine. I feel the same way about the Chicken Soup books as I do about All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: I am not content with coloring inside the lines, keeping my hands to myself, being polite, and taking naps. Plus, I’m an atheist. You call it divine intervention, I call it luck.
But apparently a lot of people eat this stuff up. Why, I wonder, is there an endless market for these books? I’m guessing that the main audience is the suburban middle-class mom. Which is not me. (Can you see me driving a minivan? If you want to stay on my good side, the correct answer is ‘no.’) Perhaps no one wants to face their demons or acknowledge the dark side for fear of transforming into Lord of the Flies. So people hold tightly to hope and the magical healing power of chicken soup. They share their stories compulsively, as if writing the words will keep their lurking dissatisfactions at bay: A woman discovers she is having twins, a soccer mom takes her son for his driving test, an inner city kid rescues a baby pigeon, an adult recalls their childhood discovery of Gramma’s secret hard candy stash and lives happily ever after, because no one in Chicken Soup books chokes on hard candy, gets cavities, or is allergic to Red Dye #40.
So many people have inspirational stories to tell, that now the Chicken Soup books are published on one topic at a time, such as Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Cat’s Life, not to be confused with Chicken Soup for the Soul: What I Learned From My Cat, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Loving Our Cats, and Chicken Soup for the Soul Celebrates Cats. There is also a Chicken Soup for the American Idol Soul, and I’m not making this up, Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR.
One woman I know got an essay published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Power Moms. I found it difficult to congratulate her. I couldn’t decide if my reaction was because I loathe the Chicken Soup books, or because I was jealous, since I can’t imagine that they’d ever choose to publish one of my irreverent essays. Where are the stories about women acting from a place of empowerment and courage? How about Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reality Check? Or Chicken Soup for the Soul: Gay For a Day, Queer for a Year? Chicken Soup for the Soul: Bitches Unite?
My life is not devoid of a-ha moments; mine just may not be appropriate for print, like the one about my mother’s secret candy stash. One afternoon when I was having a weepy-PMS-teenage-girl kind of day, she paused while making dinner and in a gesture of compassion showed me her clandestine hoard of chocolate chips in the cabinet beneath the phone, and we shared a special mother-daughter moment. I’m not talking ‘let’s have a cute nip of chocolate together.’ This was an ‘I’ve had a hard day’ kind of moment. We tilted back our heads and poured the chocolate chips into our mouths.
“Chocolate always helps,” my mother said. Then she added, “They are always here. It’ll be our secret.” We both knew my siblings and my dad didn’t even like chocolate, but I still felt important because I was the only one who knew. After that day, I was allowed to eat as much and whenever I wanted, as long as I replaced an empty bag. A piece of hard candy from Gramma can’t hold a torch to a coming-of-age chocolate binge with your mom.
Here’s my type of inspirational story, the kind that teaches what life is really about, the kind you want to pass on to a young person someday to help them cope with the grievous challenges life brings:
When I was five, I had a yellow bathing suit with a star cutout on my butt. I adored this swimsuit and was proud of the tan star emblazoned on my butt cheek. But when two older neighborhood girls demanded I show them my ass, I sat down on the grass and refused. They picked me up by my ankles and wrists and started swinging me like a hammock. Then they threatened to throw me into the pool when they knew I didn’t know how to swim. I panicked. This was when I turned my head and clamped my teeth onto the arm of one of the girls. She screamed, and they dropped me on the ground. By the time I ran the few hundred yards to my own house, the girl’s mother had already called my mom to complain about her daughter’s bleeding arm. The girls never bothered me again, and I didn’t get into trouble, which left me feeling justified but confused. In Sunday school they told us we should turn the other cheek. I didn’t think they meant my butt cheek. My five-year-old brain grappled to understand that this god stuff could be wrong, but the audacious seed was planted. Hurting someone might, in the right situation, be a good thing.
This philosophy did not go over so well at home with my older sister, so I let go of it as a regular practice. However, in late high school, the wisdom of this day by the pool came back to me. After three years of tolerating daily harassment from the boys on the school bus– they would grab my breasts, rip my schoolbooks, and shove their hands up my plaid uniform skirt – I snapped. First I shot a warning round of gummy bears at one of the boys’ heads, which I thought might deter them. Instead, the boy tackled me and began smashing my head against the bus window. My feisty five-year-old self came alive, and my foot connected with his groin. Hard. Twice. He let go.
I spent the morning crying in the vice principal’s office that day, especially when I found out that everyone on the bus – all of whom went to the boys’ school while I went to the girls’ school – said I asked for it. I didn’t know what to do with my feelings of betrayal. The boy’s principal wanted to know how I was going to be punished. However, the look on my vice principal’s face said everything I needed to know. I had never seen Ms. McCarthy so angry, except the time she caught Samantha Schramm smoking pot in the faculty bathroom. Ms. McCarthy never said the words to me, but her anger at the boys and their principal, and the reflection in her face of how helpless she felt to save me from the abuse, gave me a sense of empowerment that I had not felt so clearly since the day I bit that brat on the arm when I was five.
To my relief, the boys kept their distance from me after that day. If I had known they would leave me alone, I would have kicked one of them in the nuts years earlier.
These are the stories I want to share with other women, with young girls, with suburban minivan jesus-loving moms. Women don’t need to be infused with more messages inspiring them to be nice and to spread joy. Don’t misunderstand me, love and compassion are great. But even the Dalai Lama said, “Forgiveness doesn’t mean forget what happened. … If something is serious and it is necessary to take counter-measures, you have to take counter-measures.” Translation: If Bin Laden hurts you on the school bus, kick him in the nuts.
So go ahead, rescue those baby birds and tell the world all about the double rainbow you saw after the thunderstorm. But as I bask in the hope-filled sunset that ends another glorious day, I want to read your other stories, the ones in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Fight Back, Chicken Soup for the Soul: You’ve Fucked with the Wrong Woman, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Bring it On, and my personal spirit-infused favorite, Chicken Soup for the Soul: I Need A Drink.
Amelia Sauter is a freelance writer and a columnist/cartoonist for the Ithaca Post. Her blog can be found at www.drinkmywords.com www.drinkmywords.com. You can follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ameliasauter.