As a kid, I avoided having friends over, inviting myself to their houses instead. My friends were all white, meaning they were generally less supervised than me, so we were free to wander around the neighborhood in the summer or dick around in a basement watching movies that were wildly unsuitable for 8-year-olds. When my mother dropped me off, she’d thank my friend’s mom for looking after me for the afternoon. And as she made her way back to her car, she’d turn around one more time to say to me, “Be nice.”
Not “be good.” Not “behave.” Be nice. My mom knew niceness was a problem for me, that I wasn’t equipped with the politeness and basic decency our society expected. I was surly, and when I didn’t like a thing, I made sure people knew it. I was always anticipating the worst, and it seemed foolish to me that no one else was secretly developing plans for an underground bunker. My anxieties weren't limited to total annihilation; they seeped into every aspect of my life. Once, when a friend’s mom made me a hamburger for dinner one night, I spent 15 minutes listing off the dangers of bovine spongiform encephalopathy and asked if I could have a grilled cheese instead.
I am still a little mean, and deeply pessimistic. I trust things will end poorly, because they often do. Skepticism needs to be earned, but optimism always seems like a fool’s errand. It’s hard enough as an adult to find people and things and voices that speak your own anxiety back to you in a way that’s validating and not diminishing; as a kid, it’s even harder. When I was 8, in 1999, one of the very few things that did that for me was a book my friend Jess had loaned me — a book that suggested that maybe it wasn’t so bad, or wrong, or unusual that I lived my life in a constant state of dread.
Jess was the lightness where I was the darkness. While my body was changing into something round, short, and brown, with little black hairs covering most of my surface area, Jess seemed like she was 8 feet tall, effortlessly thin in the way I and all the other little girls I knew were desperate to be, and blue-eyed, with a scattering of freckles on her face.
At the beginning of our friendship, I hung out with Jess because I liked her, but also because she felt like the antidote to what was wrong with me. People liked Jess; she was charming and kind and quiet. She was happy to lend someone her gel pens. There was no reason to be mean to her, and conversely, no reason for her to be mean to anyone else. (What a comfortable loop!) Nothing about her screamed “DIFFERENT” or “MISERABLE,” in the way that felt inherent to me. She lived a few blocks from me, and I was eager to set up playdates to spend time at her house. The kitchen was full of the kind of cutesy knickknacks I connected with Nice White People: a placard that said “Live Laugh Love,” photos of grandparents and nieces in frames with “Family” written on them in cursive font. (The photos framed in my home were, predictably, old black-and-white shots of family from India whom I didn’t recognize. No one smiled.)
At one of those playdates, Jess introduced me to a new series she was reading: A Series of Unfortunate Events. The books had suddenly made her erudite, tossing fancy words into our casual conversation, followed by the definition. (“Perished...means ‘killed.’”) “You’d probably like them,” she told me, passing the first book of the series to me. “They’re really depressing.”
Jess read the books and liked them fine, but she was far more interested in Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging. I hated that book; the title was so brutally embarrassing that I hid it when a friend forced it on me later that year. The writing felt like a diary entry I myself could have written (which was the last thing I wanted to read), and there was too much hope at the end of each installment. On television, at least, I saw despair and humor that I liked. I would watch Seinfeld with my brother, who is 12 years older than me, and he’d explain the jokes I didn’t get. I liked how nothing got better, how everyone sucked and was open about it. But Unfortunate Events was something just for me — digestible enough for my little mind and bleak enough that I felt like someone, finally, was listening.
The Bad Beginning, the first in Lemony Snicket’s tridecalogy, is about three siblings. Violet, the eldest at 14 years old, is an inventor who ties her long hair back with a ribbon when she’s trying to think of how to create something. Klaus, 12, is very well-read, with an encyclopedic knowledge of almost everything. Sunny, only a few months old, likes to bite things. One morning, the children learn that their parents “have perished in a terrible fire.” Their belongings gone, they are sent to be raised by a distant relative on the other side of town: Count Olaf.
Olaf, it becomes clear, is only interested in caring for the orphans to get access to the massive fortune their parents left them. In the first book, Count Olaf tries to marry Violet and locks Sunny in a cage dangling from the top of his tower. The children do eventually escape, but the rest of the series is filled with different attempts by Count Olaf to capture and kill them. The rotating roster of adult characters are either too inept to recognize Count Olaf in his terrible disguises, or are happy to abuse the orphans themselves.
While the series is written for children, certain flourishes make it feel more adult. The illustrations are austere, the terminology is mature, and the audience is never spared the truth: Snicket (aka Daniel Handler) begins The Bad Beginning with, “If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.” (Little has changed; in the previews for its upcoming Netflix series, Snicket also begs that you go and stream something else because this story in particular is too dreadful.) “I’m sorry to tell you this,” Snicket continues, “but that is how the story goes.”
I read the first book in a day or two and memorized the new words I encountered, along with their definitions (“standoffish,” “incurring,” “Puttanesca”). I waited eagerly for the next book in the series (and the one after, and the one after), hoping that Jess would lend them to me, or that I could convince my mother that a series about orphaned children was educational reading. And if I couldn’t quite articulate why they appealed to me so much at the time, I’m closer to the answer now. The books are funny and wry, but above all, they provided my first exposure to art that confirmed what I was seemingly born knowing: Some things just do not work out.
Around the time I found Unfortunate Events, I also started to suspect that my sense of impending doom would never be rewarded, and my unspoken anxiety might go undefined for years. At a park with another friend that summer, I grew sullen and frustrated, unable to articulate why I was feeling waves of panic about being outside, or why I didn’t want to play anymore. My friend sat next to me and said, “My mom has a book called Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff. Maybe you should read it.” (We don’t talk much anymore.)
Unfortunate Events validated my certainty that some things were, indeed, very terrible. None of the adults in the series believe Violet, Klaus, or Sunny when they try to tell them that Count Olaf is coming after them. In The Wide Window, Aunt Josephine is charmed by Count Olaf’s disguise, and ends up getting kidnapped herself. In The Austere Academy, Vice Principal Nero makes the children live in the “Orphans’ Shack” because they don’t have a permission slip signed by a parent to let them stay in the dormitory. In The Ersatz Elevator, their newest guardian, Jerome, returns the orphans to Mr. Poe, the executor of their parents’ estate, because he’s too much of a coward to help them. Their circumstances are unfortunate, and the people around them aren’t much help, either.
In 1999, the craze over the Harry Potter books was in full swing. That series feels like the polar opposite of Unfortunate Events, despite its own series of unfortunate events, also befalling an orphan. Harry Potter is almost entirely about hope, about how fighting long and hard enough will get you a better life, or peace, or at least, an answer. Terror and sadness and tragedy all feel like they happen with purpose. Those books were about sacrifice for future generations, for a greater good. Unfortunate Events, on the other hand, was often about senseless loss, and fighting to find the answer to a still ill-defined question.
When you’re a kid, optimism is overvalued; I often felt as if I were required to see the bright side even when there just wasn’t one. Girls, in particular, are conditioned above all to be sweet and gentle, to carry the weight of optimism when the world or the people (often men) around us can’t or won’t.
When my mother took me to the library and asked me to pick out a few armfuls of books, she always seemed a little troubled by my selections. I wanted to read books about girls who went missing, about trauma, loss, mysteries that might go unsolved. Full Frontal Snogging referred to one character as a “Sex-God,” which felt so unbearably silly to me that I thought my genitals were going to turn inside out. Instead, I read Go Ask Alice, a book I was sure was real, which I was mostly interested in because Alice seemed like a real pill and I was sort of happy she died.
My mom used to ask me — continues to ask me — why I’m always fantasizing about the worst-case scenario when, for the most part, my life has turned out okay. When I was eight, I didn’t yet have the words to articulate that maybe, lady, this is about you. Instead, I read.
I’ve always believed my mother carries the burden of contentment for the rest of the family, sometimes at her own risk. My dad has taken on the anxiety, the open fretting, the outrageous misery that has marked me and my brother and might, eventually, mark later generations. My mother, then, has to be the public face of reminding everyone that it’s all going to be fine.
And for the most part, everything has been fine. But as my mother’s only daughter, there is often little room for voicing unhappiness, consistent unhappiness, which is treated as if it were viral and fatal. The women in our family rarely express it when they’re upset, instead just letting it build until it breaks through their protective walls in a flood of tears or an outburst at the grocery store. My mother had a hysterectomy a few years ago. She didn’t tell me she was getting one until a week before her surgery. “Why worry you?” she said.
At 8, and throughout my childhood thereafter, most of my concerns were about my mother. Her health had started to become a noticeable problem, the worsening arthritis in her elbow making it difficult to cook or play. Sometimes she’d have fainting spells or disorientation. A car accident seemed to loosen something in her neck for a few months. Her parents in India were getting sick at the same time, and she made more and more frequent trips overseas. And if my mother got sick, or worse, I knew it meant that there would be no one left in the family to carry the weight of being happy; no one else equipped to be optimistic, or gentle; no one else who could help me ignore my own anxiety.
The orphans in Unfortunate Events, though they had each other, had lost both of their parents and were largely left on their own. There was never a reason for them to be hopeful, or to expect anything good, because nothing good came. It wasn’t a cheerful way to live, but at least they were prepared. And I wanted to be prepared for what is, still, inevitable: that people die, and that you will, at some point, be left to fend for yourself; that no one is responsible for you, and people will fail you at every turn. Everyone becomes an orphan at some point. At least by reading, I could find a way to feel less alone in my fears.
1999 was a fat year for most of us, my family in particular. My parents were immigrants, but 1999 marked my dad’s second decade in Canada. Sept. 11 hadn’t happened yet, so we weren’t aware of the suspicion that would later be cast on a brown family living in a white suburb. Bill Clinton was president, and I was blissfully unaware of his sexual proclivities and just thought he seemed like a nice guy. The economy was thriving and we owned two cars and no one talked about gas prices or the earth’s overheating. Donald Trump was just a New York weirdo who owned a lot of buildings and dipped all his furniture in gold.
In other words, we had reason to be optimistic. My sense of inevitable disaster wasn’t rewarded by much in terms of current events; I had only my own malaise to make me suspicious when the generation ahead of us told me and other kids my age that everything would work out. But the older we got, the more we noticed that it wouldn’t be. We started to notice racism, or how we’d never own a house, or how people can and will die, or how lonely the world actually is. And last year, the US election was but another reminder of how unfortunate things can be. It was, at least, validation of what many of us already knew: Our circumstances have never been good. Racism and xenophobia and sexism didn’t crop up overnight. It was always bad, and now we have proof.
I felt, oddly, like I’d been ready for this moment ever since I first picked up The Bad Beginning. The Unfortunate Events books weren’t exactly predictive (unless your parents died and you were sent to work in the Lucky Smells Lumbermill) but they did prepare me for the inevitable little (and big) disappointments that make up a long life. The first book ends with the very sentiment I had been struggling to articulate at such a young age: “Like so many unfortunate events, just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean it isn’t so.”
By the series’ end in 2006, I was too old for the writing. I was 15, in my junior year of high school, and far too busy fighting with my mother to read much. I had started writing myself that year, first with dramatic and devastating diary entries (a lot of CAPS) and later, with WordPress and GeoCities blogs that I am terrified still exist. Strangers would message me on MSN to talk about my posts and we’d commiserate and find a little light in the dark. Misery loves company, so I made my own.
Eighteen years after I first read The Bad Beginning, I’m about to publish my own first book, which is called One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter. A lot of people, unsurprisingly, do not respond well to the title. When I told my mom, she rolled the words around in her mouth like they were weird candy. “Why do you always have to talk about death?” she asked me. I find that people either like the title because it makes sense to them — that impending dread has been in their bones too — or they hate it because it’s too much. Too dark, too unnecessary, too dramatic.
I found the full box set of the Unfortunate Events series at a used bookstore four years ago and reread all 13 books in a week. I had largely forgotten what happened by the end of the series, but they still felt the same, a resonance that I appreciate more as an adult than as a kid, but still one that people resist. It’s hard to admit when everything is going to hell, even when it is.
Unfortunate Events ends with The End: The orphans bury an enemy and a friend on an abandoned island, and then set off together by boat to (hopefully) rejoin the world. You don’t know where they’re going, or where they end up. In fact, you get almost no closure at all. All you got was a miserable journey, which, I’ve learned, is usually how things work out in real life. You just have to sail off into the unknown anyway and hope (even if you don’t entirely believe) that, sooner or later, you’ll find dry land again.
Scaachi Koul is a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in Toronto.
Contact Scaachi Koul at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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