Lenore Zion's Wicked Smart Novel Stupid Children

J. Haley Campbell

Stupid Children CoverLenore Zion is wicked smart. She wrote the early drafts of her first book, My Dead Pets Are Interesting, a collection of personal essays, in her MFA program at the University of Southern California at the age of twenty-one. She then went on to become a clinical psychologist specializing in sexual pathology, which led her to write her debut novel Stupid Children in two months.

Stupid Children follows the adolescence of Jane, who is whisked into the foster care system in Central Florida after her father’s failed suicide attempt in their kitchen. Jane’s new foster parents, Connie and Martin—otherwise known as Madam Six and Sir Six—are members of a cult: the Second Day Believers. For the next several years, Jane undergoes ritualistic cleansing that involves naked children and animal parts. Jane’s closest companions are Virginia, who was whored out by her own parents, and Isaac, a little ginger whose mother was a meth addict. Virginia is obsessed with the sex-power dynamic, while Isaac draws spiderwebs across his face with black eyeliner and loves zombies. Compared to these two, Jane is normal. Realizing her advantage, Jane acknowledges her relatively vanilla life with her father prepared her to ward off complete indoctrination from the Second Day Believers. She is even able to outsmart Madam Six and Sir Six, bringing them to believe that she is special; although, it’s arguable whether being special is actually beneficial, since it involves being draped in animal hearts and wedding a diapered, two-spleened dinosaur.

Zion’s psychological expertise makes its way into the novel through a book that Virginia gives Jane on her sixteenth birthday, a psychological text "devoted to the different categories of crazy":

…as I read through it I silently diagnosed myself with every single one of the disorders listed. Did I have trouble getting out of bed? Well, yes—but did I enjoy sleeping more than the next person, or did I have a serious mental disease that caused me to become so effectively lazy that getting out of bed seemed an impossibility at times, thus causing me to develop bed sores and inner mouth rot from lack of dental hygiene? Did I have odd beliefs and magical thinking inconsistent with subcultural norm? What did that mean? Were they referring to my imagination? And to what subculture did I belong? The Jews, the Second Day Believers, or other?

The chapters are short essayistic breakdowns of an analytical mind. It’s a thin book at 149 pages, and it feels thin at times. Moments that would bear weight in scene are alluded to in short phrase after the fact. Transitions within the novel are sometimes abrupt in a still-nascent story, such as when a chapter opens with, “And then, just like that, it was my fifteenth birthday,” when the closing of the previous chapter ended with her at eleven. However, if the only complaint is that the reader wants more, that’s a good writerly problem to have.

I enjoy hearing the author’s voice in their work. Once familiar with the cadence and tone of a writer’s voice, I feel that much more in tune with the rhythm of the story and the personality of its creator. This is especially true with Lenore Zion and Stupid Children. After I soaked up an hour-and-half long Other People podcast interview with Brad Listi, I dove back into the book, finding even more pleasure in Zion’s monotone, confidence, and irony. Anyone interested in the strange workings of cult culture and the human brain will enjoy this book. Those who dig dark humor and zombies—and ever wonder if they have souls—are in for a real treat.


Stupid Children
By Lenore Zion
Emergency Press, 2013
ISBN-13: 978-0983693260

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