TITLE: Symptoms of Being Human
AUTHOR: Jeff Garvin
PUBLISHER: Balzer + Bray
RELEASE DATE: February 2, 2016
GENRE: Young Adult Fiction, LGBTQI+
PAGE COUNT: 352
For the purpose of this review, I will use the gender neutral pronoun “they” when referring to protagonist Riley, to acknowledge the non-binary nature of Riley’s gender identity.
Symptoms of Being Human is a timely novel for young adults. Our protagonist, Riley, is gender fluid, meaning their gender identity moves along a spectrum between male and female. This book explores Riley’s identity on multiple platforms, and how they learn to express themselves authentically despite fear of violent backlash. While far from perfect, this book should inspire important discussions.
Girl. Or. Boy … The world isn’t binary. Everything isn’t black or white, yes or no. Sometimes it’s not a switch, it’s a dial. And it’s not even a dial you can get your hands on; it turns without your permission or approval – page 28
After breaking down under the pressure of their dad’s political career and constant bullying, Riley is starting afresh at a new high school. In secret, Riley starts an online blog to share the struggles of not being “out” to friends and family while experiencing gender dysphoria. However, Riley’s overnight celebrity status soon becomes dangerous.
While it’s unlikely that any of us will ever experience Riley’s blogging success, the online aspect of this book is important. Current-day society isn’t restricted to one plane – it travels across multiple platforms. The freedom to anonymously connect to likeminded people around the globe makes online society vital to young adults – especially considering that sometimes being honest about one’s identity in real life puts one’s safety at risk. I know from personal experience that online communities are sometimes the safest and most accessible support network. However, the Internet can also be a place of hate. I love that Symptoms of Being Human acknowledges both the pros and cons of online communities, and the impact these have on young people’s lives.
I can’t blame you for trying to categorise me. It’s a human instinct. It’s why scientists are, to this day, completely flabbergasted by the duck-billed platypus: it’s furry like a mammal, but lays eggs like a bird. It defies conventional classification. I AM THE PLATYPUS – page 28
Mental Health Experiences
Since I’m cisgender (my gender identity corresponds with my biological sex), I can’t relate to Riley’s struggle with gender dysphoria. However, I hope that any readers who share this experience will find Jeff Garvin’s representation validating. That said, Symptoms of Being Human addresses a plethora of other symptoms of being human (ha ha), such as bullying, parental pressure, creating identity, starting at a new school, as well as anxiety and depression.
Personally, Riley’s mental health narrative is the closest to home. However, I constantly changed my mind about Doctor Ann, Riley’s psychiatrist. Doctor Ann controls Riley’s psychotropic drugs and teaches them techniques for managing anxiety and depression, including suggesting they start a blog. I felt Doctor Ann’s character conformed to the psychiatrist archetype – she avoids giving a straight answer but instead chronically nods and raises her eyebrows, and constantly resorts to upping Riley’s meds. Not to mention, the stress management meditation she recommends Riley doesn’t work (I feel this is a case of Riley not taking the time to find a meditation technique that they “click” with). I would have liked to see the therapy aspect developed more, instead of drugs always appearing to be the answer (which is only true in some cases, and has dangers that aren’t addressed).
Writing and Representation
We’re all taught from a young age that there are only two choices: pink or blue, Bratz or Power Rangers, cheer-leading or football – page 59
I love that Riley’s biological sex is never revealed. At first, I wondered if I’d mistakenly skipped over the gender pronouns. But they actually don’t exist! This makes a powerful point that an individual’s gender identity is final and nobody’s business.
Unfortunately, I didn’t find any of the characters likeable. Most of them are high school archetypes or unconvincingly perfect. Did anyone else get a Mean Girls vibe?
The plot is also predictable and cliched. The slow pace almost put me off. Overall however, I felt the ideas expressed were still worth engaging with. That said, the themes of Symptoms of Being Human need further discussion and better researched, more nuanced representation in the future. If you’re looking for your first LGBTQI+ narrative, I recommend George by Alex Gino (for junior readers) or For Today I Am A Boy by Kim Fu (for adult readers). Can anyone recommend me a good book with excellent gender fluid representation?
In reflection, the focus on online communities is by far my favourite aspect of Symptoms of Being Human. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the mental health narrative helpful or accurate. Considering that I didn’t find the characters likeable, believable, or memorable (what were their names again?), there are plenty of better LGBTQI+ books to hunt down and read.