catharsis, or why i read A.S. King

I was in eighth grade when I first heard the word catharsis. 8th grade was my first year at a new school, the third one I’d been to, and my first at public school—a place assured to be a den of sin and lies by my father and torturous bullying by mother. I wouldn’t have called myself a reading before the summer just months before I first heard the word.

For me, reading had been a struggle. I didn’t learn to read proficiently until 2nd grade, lagging behind my peers. And I did not like reading. Not in any concrete way. During reading time, I would always find this one book that I’m sure was supposed to be a Where’s Waldo style thing, but I remember it for the vivid art, the autumn scenery held within it’s pages. I remember creating stories to go with each page every day without fail. It would be 3rd or 4th grade when reading became something I did but only the Puppy Place series, taking home every book and reading them in a night. In the tail end of 6th grade and throughout 7th grade, I read Percy Jackson and the Olympians and Heroes of Olympus—the fifth and final book coming out a few months into my 8th grade year. But really, it was not reading itself I liked, it was those particular series and the years long obsession that came with them.

But in the summer before 8th grade, the summer where I knew that my parents would no longer be able to afford the private school I went to (my second one, which I went to for only one year after my previous one closed it doors.), and I, always a shy kid, always just a little off, knew I would have to leave my friends behind. Even the kids that went to the same private school I spent kindergarten through 6th at and followed me to the new private school would be left behind—only two of us in the same school district. Take into account that this was the year I also started to question my gender and sexuality, I had no real solid ground to stand on.

I turned to reading, hours hidden in the air-conditioned library rooms drinking coffee bought with quarters from my local Sheetz after walking half an hour in the summer heat to get there. I read. And I read. And I read. I found in it a solace, an escapism, that nothing else offered me at the time. This is what lead to me to the day in 8th grade English class, a class I enjoyed for the first time in my academic career, when the teacher defined catharsis for us.

Catharsis is the release of strong emotions to put it plainly. But I am a poet so you have to forgive me for this: Catharsis is the silence of night spent alone in the woods right before a tree comes tumbling down. Catharsis is the building of a wave for 300 pages before it crashes. Catharsis is the way I started sobbing during the last few sentences of Switch by A.S. King and kept sobbing until I opened a document and started typing this.

From the moment I heard the word, I knew it was what I wanted in books, that it was what I wanted to chase rather than escapism. Now not long after 8th grade—the very next year in fact—I stopped reading for a few years. High school was not good for me. (College isn’t good for me, either, but we can talk about that another day.) There were a million things happening outside of high school but the easiest way for me to explain why I stopped reading is that, is the simple phrase “high school was not good for me.”

When I got back into reading, early in my senior year, I read books that were focused on grief, on abuse, on the grittiness of life. But the first time I really found the catharsis I sought was when I picked up Dig by A.S. King. I stayed up all night to finish it. And after? I sobbed myself to sleep.

It was a book I saw myself in. I saw myself in the characters that were all dealing with the trauma their parents passed down to them, dealing with the legacy of white supremacy passed down to them, dealing with neglect and poverty and abuse. The characters are from a wide ranges of backgrounds, all with their own troubles and struggles. Yet, it all culminated in a feeling of been seen that fiction had never offered me in the past.

I saw myself in their trauma, in the ways their parents treated them, in the ways their parents treated the world, in the harm they had to unlearn, in the apologies they had to back, in the ways they survived, in the ways they remembered those who didn’t. It was such a visceral feeling, it was something I wanted to feel again and again and again, no matter how ugly it was. There was such an immense relief that came with reading Dig.

I haven’t read all of A.S. King’s books yet. But I have read most of them and while not all have given me that same feeling, the ones that do still stick out so much to me. Still Life with Tornado, Dig, Switch, Me and Marvin Gardens, these have all destroyed me, have left me snotty and sobbing messes and have shown me a part of myself reflected that I haven’t really seen in many other places.

When I read Dig, I was still in the target age range for A.S. King novels. Now, two years later, I’m twenty years old and have just finished my sophomore year of college. I am no longer that high schooler, drowning, but they are still apart me. The trauma is still a part of me, will always be something that I am working through. And I want to thank A.S. King for all she has written, for finally offering catharsis to some stranger she’s never even heard of, let alone spoken to.

Thank you. Thank you so much.

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