What I Didn’t Find Funny About “It’s Kind of a Funny Story”

Funny_Story_frontThere’s nothing like reading a book about depression to bring you down. It’s a shame, though, when that wasn’t the author’s point. Warning: this post contains vague spoilers about the book It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini, so if you’re planning to read it, you can skip this for now. Just be warned that the book kind of spoils itself on the last page. If you’re still reading, I’ll explain…

It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a very good book and a sensitive, illuminating portrayal of mental illness. The main character, a 15-year-old high school student under a ton of adolescent pressure, checks himself into a psychiatric ward after having suicidal thoughts. Over five days there, he meets some other troubled people, learns a lot about himself and finds the inspiration to go on with life. It’s even more emotionally involving when you know that it was based on the author’s own time spent in a similar institution and that he himself struggled with depression for many years. It’s been a bestseller, was adapted into a movie and has become a favorite of YA readers everywhere.

So what’s my problem? Well, on the very last page of the book, the main character, Craig, is running through a mental checklist of how to go on with his life after leaving the institution. It’s a beautiful monologue, until near the end, when he says this:

“Travel. Fly. Swim. Meet. Love. Dance. Win. Smile. Laugh. Hold. Walk. Skip. Okay, it’s gay, whatever, skip.”

Wait… what? “It’s gay”? Really? I’ve been emotionally involved in your struggle for 317 e-pages and you reward me with a crude sucker punch in the fourth-to-last paragraph? There’s no homophobia in the book until then. Other than a few fleeting moments involving a transgender resident, there are no LGBTQ characters at all. Just a lot of sensitively-portrayed, troubled individuals who were probably loosely based on the real residents Vizzini encountered in his hospital stay.

I love a good cry when I’m reading a book, and I’ll bet a lot of people cried at the ending to this one, but not me. I wanted to throw it across the room. I might’ve done it, too, if it wasn’t an ebook. No way I’m wrecking my iPhone over something like that. What infuriated me was that, while reading this character’s mental pep talk, I suddenly felt transported back to being a depressed 15-year-old myself, and this book that was written to inspire depressed 15-year-olds was actually mocking me.

Here’s a passage from my memoir “Mommy Man” in which I talk about what it was like growing up in a world rife with casual homophobia:

“As a gay kid, all I could do was suck it up, play straight, and play along. I never knew when my homophobia might be tested. I would go to see a perfectly fun movie like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, only to find out one of the running jokes was the two loveable protagonists calling each other “fag.” No one warned the public about it, no critics condemned it as hateful, no one even thought it was worth commenting on. It was just a joke, and judging by the reaction of the audience around me, a hilarious one. So I was forced to bust a gut, too — unless I wanted someone to think I was some kind of fag myself.

Everyone raved about the movie Lucas, in which Corey Haim played a sad, scrawny outcast who tried to win over the girl of his dreams by joining the high school football team. Sad, scrawny outcast? Sign me up! The reviews said it was sweet and heartwarming — and it was — but smack in the middle is a scene where Lucas accuses the bad guy of being a ‘fag’ in the locker room showers, supposedly a moment of stand-up-and-cheer comeuppance for a character we despise. Watching that scene with my friends, I died a little inside. (On the plus side, though, there were naked jocks.)”

Sure, the 80’s were full of casual awfulness. Casual racism, casual sexism, casual date rape, all wrapped up in a quirky New Wave neon package. As a 43-year-old man in 2015, I’m happy that those kinds of things are no longer acceptable and can no longer go unquestioned. (Read Dave Holmes’ excellent open letter to Kid Rock for more on this subject.) But It’s Kind of a Funny Story came out in 2007. Long after the message was out about how using “gay” as a pejorative is bad for gay kids, a writer wrote it, an editor declined to edit it out, a publisher published it and tons of gay kids undoubtedly read it, just like I did.

That’s what really upsets me. The book worked so hard to describe and sympathize with the suicidal impulses of its characters. We know that gay kids attempt suicide four times as much as straight kids. So why the gratuitous gay slur amid an otherwise uplifting monologue? As I read it, all I could picture was how it would feel to be a depressed gay teen who might be totally engrossed in the book and inspired by the ending… only to unexpectedly get the message, right in the final sentences, “Hold on, this isn’t about you. You’re weird.”

Tragically, Ned Vizzini lost his own battle with depression when he committed suicide in 2013 at the age of 32.  I’m not trying to tarnish his legacy or accuse him of homophobia. It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a wonderful book that has undoubtedly brought comfort to a lot of unhappy adolescents (and grownups for that matter). Its author was probably a great guy who thought he was making a harmless joke and just capturing the way teenagers really talk. I wish he were still here to respond — and to write more books.

For any depressed LGBTQ kids who might be reading this one, though, I hope they know that the message still applies to them, that they can overcome their thoughts of suicide, and most of all, I hope they bought the book in paperback, so if the mood strikes them, when they’re done, they can throw it across the room.

11 comments on “What I Didn’t Find Funny About “It’s Kind of a Funny Story”

  1. I had a similar reaction to “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” by Michael Chabon. Not that he used a gay slur, more that his gay characters characters [SPOILER] had horrible things happen to them which left them lonely and alone. The trope of gay characters coming to bad ends pissed me off so much, it inspired me to write books — with positive characters who don’t come to nasty ends.

    • I haven’t read Kavalier & Clay and hadn’t heard that criticism before. I’ve been meaning to read that book for the last 10 years or so. Now I guess it might be another 10 before I finally get to it. 😉

  2. For me, the finest book dealing with mental illness while being gay positive, is “Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky. The book is wonderful and the movie adaptation, directed by the book’s author, is also very good. Another good book dealing with mental illness and sexual orientation is “Oddly Normal,” written by the affected boy’s supportive father, John Schwartz, with input from both the boy’s mom and their son, now an out and proud young gay man. Both these books are available for Kindle and as audio books from Audible.

  3. I actually loved It’s Kind of a Funny Story. I’ve read it four or five times cover to cover, and whenever I regress into a really bad day I settle in with Craig and explore my mind all over again. I’m gay, and I did struggle with that for a long time. It does bother me when people use my identity as a joke or insult. But Craig and this book saved me many times over. It taught me to respect the chemical imbalances raging inside of me, and most of all it taught me that I could win, that I could find my way out of the maze and make my mind and my depression into something beautiful. When Ned Vizzini committed suicide it felt as though a dear friend of mine had lost his battle. It felt as though Craig had relapsed and jumped off the bridge. It immobilized me for days. More than anything I wish I could thank him, I wish I could have helped him the way he did me. But I can’t.
    It’s Kind of a Funny Story is far from perfect, and I do not deny the awfulness of slurs such as that found in the fourth last paragraph, but I think that with all of the good it has done, for me and for at least one other person I know, I can forgive Ned Vizzini for his language, no matter it’s origins. There are societal structures that enable these comments, and even if they were meant only to convey the speech patterns of teens, they are wrong. But I don’t begrudge him. He’s done too much good for me and other silenced, mentally ill youth to damn him for this comment. I wish he hadn’t made it, but that he did, and that it’s been pointed out, does not ruin my love and respect for Ned Vizzini, for Craig, and for this vastly comforting book.

    • Thanks so much for writing and sharing your perspective. I’m really glad that you found so much comfort in the book and that the single gay slur didn’t bother you. I agree the good that the book has done for many people far outweighs the negativity of the slur, and I hope other gay readers were able to gloss over it as you did. Actually, that’s not true. I hope they still liked the book but found its use of the word “gay” as a pejorative offensive, like I did, and that it made them angry. We should never be complacent with gay slurs.

      By no means do I mean to “damn” the author or his book over one word on the last page. That’s not what my post was about. I’m glad I read this book, and I’m glad it means so much to so many people, including you. But if I can send the message that I felt like I got punched in the gut on the last page, maybe it’ll make another writer think twice before using a hurtful word where plenty of other words would’ve worked just as well. Or at least it could reach some depressed gay kid somewhere and let them know that yes, dammit, they deserve better.

  4. That is sad on two levels. Sad that Vizzini succumbed to his demons. Sad that he was unenlightened. Personally, I think his editor is as much to the blame for that blunder as he was. There are things that pop out of our heads before we’ve really thought about them. Lordy, I know I’ve stuck my foot in my mouth, saying things that didn’t reflect my real feelings, but popped out because…well, they are easy, horrible cliches. His editor should have caught that and recognized it for what it was and the negative impact it would ultimately have on the entire message of his book.

    On the positive side, there are more and more well written books and essays now that, like yours, provide hope and perspective to people who are struggling. Keep writing. Keep shouting out to the world about the injustices that bedevil us.

  5. Skip it like forget about it? Just remember the parts of the book you did like and let the author rest in peace. I believe the author used the words “its kinda funny” for a reason – don’t you????

  6. Every time someone says “That’s gay” I respond with some variation of, “You think it’s fabulous?” I think half the time people don’t hear themselves, I like to point it out.

  7. I always have a similar reaction to the word ‘retard’ or ‘retarded’, so I can totally relate to your frustration. Even full grown adults say it… to each other about themselves or even their kids. People think it’s good and clever to use derogatory terms to elevate their own ego. Without thinking how that makes gay, disabled or other people feel. As if their misfortunes are somehow linked to part of someone else’s life?! Making it appear as their shortcoming. The English language is full of enough eloquent words without having to put someone else down. Your point is well made!!

  8. I love that I have just been changed by your writing. I never really thought saying “that’s gay” was in issue and I have said it to many a gay friend while chatting about something or other. I’m sure I’ve also heard them saying it too. I guess it can be hard to let go of things you have always said and never really given a second thought. I remember being horrified by words my grandad would use. When you pulled him up on it he would just say “but that’s not offensive”. To each generation a new ignorance is born!
    Thanks, I shall definitely be more careful with my words.

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