ARC Review: Brave Face by Shaun David Hutchinson

  • Genre: YA memoir (nonfiction)
  • Publisher: Simon Pulse
  • Publication date: May 20, 2019

Critically acclaimed author of We Are the Ants—described as having “hints of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five” (School Library Journal)—opens up about what led to an attempted suicide in his teens, and his path back from the experience.

“I wasn’t depressed because I was gay. I was depressed and gay.”

Shaun David Hutchinson was nineteen. Confused. Struggling to find the vocabulary to understand and accept who he was and how he fit into a community in which he couldn’t see himself. The voice of depression told him that he would never be loved or wanted, while powerful and hurtful messages from society told him that being gay meant love and happiness weren’t for him.

A million moments large and small over the years all came together to convince Shaun that he couldn’t keep going, that he had no future. And so he followed through on trying to make that a reality.

Thankfully Shaun survived, and over time, came to embrace how grateful he is and how to find self-acceptance. In this courageous and deeply honest memoir, Shaun takes readers through the journey of what brought him to the edge, and what has helped him truly believe that it does get better.

Disclaimer: I received an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to Netgalley.

I’ve really enjoyed Shaun David Hutchinson’s books We are the Ants and The Past and Other Things That Should Stay Buried, and hope to read more in the future. After I read We Are the Ants a couple of years ago, I watched his keynote speech where he touches on his past with depression and suicide. So even though the subject matter is tough (and he tells you this upfront, and then warns you again right before his suicide attempt in the book), I had to read the full story.

But Brave Face is actually so much more than the early life of a particular YA author. It’s about growing up gay during the 90s when the only media representation of gay men was the effeminate, funny sidekick or the promiscuous and drug-addicted man dying from AIDS (and how, as the Internet grows, it allows for more connection). The former he personally couldn’t relate to, and the latter he was afraid of becoming. He could not imagine a happy future, and this all conspires with his depression to give him more “reason” to feel worthless and unlovable. He also is on the asexuality spectrum (which he doesn’t name but describes in detail in the book, and has named on Twitter), and that affects his relationships and outlook, too. He never claims to represent all or any of those things, but at the same time, he analyzes his own situation with a key eye to the larger context. This is all intentional–present-day Shaun comments on it throughout, contextualizing because this is written for young adults who were not even born yet during this time. And I honestly think it’s a dark time in queer history–in between the AIDS crisis and marriage equality–that is rarely talked or written about.

I really admired overall how present-day Shaun came through in the book. While teenage Shaun is in a dark place, adult Shaun reminds us the facts of the situation. He replicates his warped and suicidal thoughts, but he also comments on his internalized homophobia throughout the text, not just in the note at the beginning (which I loved because he notes how people change and that’s something I needed to hear as a teen). And yeah, maybe he’s harder on himself than most of us would be…of course we’d all call our younger selves assholes and point out stupid things we did for the sake of a crush (including starting to smoke). He was also great at inserting facts he might not have known at the time to be informative, like the purpose of ECT treatment and how effective it can be for some (which I particularly appreciated because I’ve researched that recently). Also, he warns you again right before his suicide attempt and provides you a page number to skip to, which I really appreciated. I’m not often triggered by these things, but I knew it was coming, and so much of the book I felt a creeping sense of dread, wondering if this was the moment. And so that note allowed me to relax.

Despite all these struggles, there are still bright spots: a found family of drama clubs, an encouraging creative writing student teacher (literally the position I will have in less than a year??), his lifelong friendship with a girl named Maddie, and smaller anecdotes. For instance, I was delighted that other college campuses are visited by homophobic and generally radical preachers that students go out of their way to bother. His interest in writing is also a brighter spot, and the story of how he wrote a play (that he says is terrible overall, but gives you a key excerpt) that was basically how he came out to himself is amazing and something I connected to as a writer.

Not gonna lie, I cried at the sheer honesty and true emotions from friends and family and even the nurse after his suicide attempt. But then I was smiling at the ending, how he essentially fast-forwarded through all the ups and downs in his life and points out how “it gets better” is broadly true, but ignores some of the complications along the way. And this is nonfiction, so I don’t need to point out that this is true, but…it is. And that’s part of why this book is so important for young people to read and why this isn’t a traditional adult-marketed memoir. I know I needed that as a teen.

I’m really looking forward to hopefully more YA memoirs in the future (and will I write one myself? …maybe), and in the meantime, I’m going to go back and read Shaun’s other books that I haven’t read yet.

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