I recently re-read a childhood favorite, A Wrinkle In Time, and didn’t feel it aged well at all. So, on a whim, I decided to re-read another favorite, this time from my middle school years, Judy Blume’s Forever. **Spoilers ahead.**
As Blume says,
This book was first published in 1975. My daughter Randy asked for a story about two nice kids who have sex without either of them having to die. She had read several novels about teenagers in love. If they had sex the girl was always punished—an unplanned pregnancy, a hasty trip to a relative in another state, a grisly abortion (illegal in the U.S. until the 1970’s), sometimes even death. Lies. Secrets. At least one life ruined. Girls in these books had no sexual feelings and boys had no feelings other than sexual. Neither took responsibility for their actions. I wanted to present another kind of story—one in which two seniors in high school fall in love, decide together to have sex, and act responsibly.
This was the cover I had:
That’s Katherine Danziger, a New Jersey suburb high school senior. Look at that blond hair! That pert nose! And that locket? That’s from her boyfriend Michael, a high school senior in the next town. In the book, the necklace was a silver disk that was engraved with “Katherine” on the front, and “Michael … Forever” on the back. *swoon*
Here’s the first page or so:
Sybil Davison has a genius I.Q. and has been laid by at least six different guys. She told me herself, the last time she was visiting her cousin, Erica, who is my good friend. Erica says this is because of Sybil’s fat problem and her need to feel loved — the getting laid part, that is. The genius I.Q. is just luck or genes or something. I’m not sure that either explanation is 100 percent right but generally Erica is very good at analyzing people.
I don’t know Sybil that well since she lives in Summit and we live in Westfield. Erica and I decided to go to her Ne w Year’s party at the last minute for two reasons — one, because that’s when she invited us, and, two, we had noth¬ing better to do.
It turned out to be a fondue party. There were maybe twenty of us sitting on the floor around a low table in Sybil’s family room. On the table were a couple of big pots of steaming liquid Swiss cheese and baskets of bread chunks. Each of us had a long two-pronged fork, to spear the bread, then dip it into the cheese. It tasted pretty good. I had gotten about two bites when this guy said, “You’ve got some on your chin.”
He was on Erica’s other side, sort of leaning across her. “You want me to wipe it off?” He held out his napkin.
I couldn’t tell if he was putting me on or what. So I told him, “I can wipe my own chin,” and I tried to swallow the bread that was still in my mouth.
“I’m Michael Wagner,” he said.
“So?” I answered, as Erica shot me a look.
She introduced herself to Michael, then tapped me on the head and said, “This idiot is my friend, Katherine. Don’t mind her . . . she’s a little strange.”
“I noticed,” Michael said. He wore glasses, had a lot of reddish-blond hair and a small mole on his left cheek. For some crazy reason I thought about touching it.
Forever, which deals frankly sexual intercourse, birth control, pregnancy, and STDs, was met with controversy when it was published, and continues to face censorship threats (as recently as 2010 in Florida). It is a relatively short, simple story, with a tight focus on Kath and Michael’s romance, beginning New Year’s Eve their senior year of high school, and ending that summer. Forever is written in the first person, from Kath’s point of view. Back then, she functioned, for me (like her, a white heterosexual suburban girl), as a bit of a placeholder. Rereading it, I can see that Kath is sensible, cautious, caring, and average in intelligence and ability. She’s a tennis player, a modern dancer, and a candy striper. Rereading it, a line stood out that I had not remembered. When Michael’s father asks her what she wants to do, she answers:
“I want to be happy,” I told him. “And make other people happy too.”
Kath has a loving, intact nuclear family: mom is a children’s librarian, dad is a pharmacist, and little sis Jamie is an artistic prodigy. Her grandmother and grandfather are lawyers, but “Grandma is too busy with politics and Planned Parenthood and NOW to see many clients.” When Michael first meets her family, they are hooking a rug together. The walls are painted white (this was unusual in the US in the 70s, when wallpaper was the thing), and Jamie’s art hangs everywhere.
I read Forever in seventh grade, when I was struggling with my own family issues. I envied, really envied with a force I could practically taste, Kath and her perfect family. On a reread, I thought the Danzigers might come off as too perfect, and I guess to some they will. But I think the close relationship worked for the story. The tension when Katherine disagreed with her parents over her relationship with Michael was real, and I loved it that it was hearing her mother making love that led Kath to expect and work for her own sexual pleasure:
and I moved with him, again and again and again—and at last, I came. I came right before Michael and as I did I made noises, just like my mother. Michael did too.
It’s true that there are many references in Forever that date it. I’ve already mentioned hooking rugs. On their first date, Katherine dresses carefully, 1970s style:
Jamie had embroidered my jeans with tiny mushrooms and I’d bought a light blue sweater to go with them.
Michael and Katherine are “going together”, not “dating.” They “make out.” They play “records” at a “fondue party.” The big fear is pregnancy, not so much STDs, and instead of “STD” or “STI”, we have “the clap.” No HIV, of course. The funniest bit is that Mr. Danziger has to restrict the girls to 15 minutes each on the phone, to give everybody a turn! I doubt teens today can fathom having to wait for someone to get off the phone.
One very depressing element of reading Forever is the sense you get reading it that the characters believe that battles over abortion, birth control and the sexual double standard have been won. Kath and her friend speak bluntly and unselfconsciously of getting an abortion if they need one, and there is no sense of shame, worry about parental consent laws, discussion of how to find clinics, or concerns about get around clinic protesters. When Katherine needs birth control, a Planned Parenthood is easy to find. When one of their friends becomes pregnant and decides to continue with the pregnancy, it’s about “wanting to have the experience”, not an objection to abortion. As Kath says,
In the old days girls were divided into two groups—those who did and those who didn’t. My mother told me that. Nice girls didn’t, naturally. They were the ones boys wanted to marry. I’m glad those days are over but I still get angry when older people assume that everyone in my generation screws around.
One thing that everyone remembers about Forever is that Michael calls his penis “Ralph.” From a 2005 interview:
But for those of us who grew up with it, its significance can perhaps best be measured by one odd and lasting side-effect of its popularity: the consigning of the name Ralph – which is what Michael memorably decides to name his penis – to the dustbin of history. “I’ve heard from several young men who say: ‘Judy, how could you do this to me?'” Blume admits. “I apologise to all of them. It’s nothing personal.”
Honestly, it is silly, but Kath and Michael know it’s silly. And, as a romance reader, I have seen much, much worse when it comes to the personification of a penis. Michael is more insistent and motivated to have sex than Kath, but it comes off as less of a gender thing than a reflection of their different personalities. Michael is a little wilder, a little more experienced, an occasional pot smoker with a messy room. Katherine is the classic older child — organized, responsible, thoughtful — but her sexual desire is just as strong.
The sex itself is not particularly titillating. Michael has age-appropriate trouble with patience, and there’s a lot of fumbling for both of them. It’s a fairly conservative book in that sex is viewed by pretty much everyone as something to do with someone you care about, never just for pleasure.
The portrayal of their relationship is absolutely sweet, genuine, and heartbreaking, from the moment Michael wipes the fondue off Kath’s chin at the New Years party, to their angry breakup in a motel that summer. It took me right back to that blind intensity of first love. It’s a spare book in many ways — mostly dialogue, action statements, and stylistically it sometimes reads almost like a newspaper article — but Blume manages to work in some, erm, motifs that work really well to add emotional resonance. The title “Forever” is put to wonderful use. Kath notices a question on a pamphlet, “Have you thought about how this relationship will end?” that comes back to haunt her. And, reading it as an adult, I noticed the way death – the death of Kath’s grandparents — serves as a counterpoint to any dreams of “forever” for mere mortals.
There is also a friend of Michael’s, Artie, who suffers from depression and attempts suicide. I had completely forgotten about Artie. While his plight adds some tragic depth to the story, his character is not really fleshed out. There are no non-white, non-middle class, or non-heterosexual characters, and although most of the characters are Jewish, this is never mentioned explicitly in the text. Sybil’s “fat problem” is pretty callously described a few times in the text, another reminder of how things have changed. I would not expect that with a YA novel today (but could be way off base on that). It’s interesting that when this was published there was no YA category. I wonder where it got shelved? Next to Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret?
Katherine, Michael and pretty much everyone in the novel is a model of good behavior. Even the guy Katherine meets (a senior at Northwestern with a mustache!!) at summer camp refuses to kiss her until she breaks it off with Michael. And there’s a good amount of sex ed in the book. So, yes, there is more than a bit of the After School Special here. I could see that annoying some readers, but I honestly felt it worked with the story. Then again, I re-read this book with a lot of nostalgia, so you may not be able to trust anything I write here.
Rereading Forever was a fantastic treat. Unfortunately, there is no digital version of this book. I found my old copy, with sexy pages folded over, in with my junior high yearbooks. Lots of wear and mildew. But what a great evening resulted from that dusty sojourn.