As a kid, I often felt different. I had good friends, a loving family, and a Jewish community in Allentown, Pennsylvania. But back in 1968, having parents with gray hair was enough to make a ten-year-old feel very “other.” Then, too, I had half-siblings, and there was divorce in my mother’s background. (I was always afraid somebody would make a comment about my “grandparents” or about divorce. They usually did.)
When I reached my teens, I had other reasons to feel alien. I was a budding feminist and a strong girl. I thought about things I didn’t think anyone else did. I read Ayn Rand and Our Bodies, Ourselves. And I loved novels about outsiders. I wanted those novels to have happy endings—not that the heroine should change; but that someone would love her for who she was.
As I moved out into the world, in college and beyond, I surrounded myself with like-minded people. I went through a wonderful period of time—my twenties—when I didn’t feel like a stranger in a strange land. And, smart girl that I am, I married someone who loved me for who I was. But in our 30s, tired of lugging a baby stroller up four flights of stairs, and having the freedom of independent writers, my husband and I moved out of New York City to Bucks County, PA. I thought we were moving to an artistic area. An area of like-minded liberals and feminists. Imagine my shock when, at my first neighborhood party, I made a derogatory comment about Oliver North, and the entire crowd went silent Not only were we the only Jews in the neighborhood, it seemed we were the only Democrats as well. Not since I was a teenager had I felt so much like an outsider. I still often feel like a stranger here, especially around political issues. I try to channel those uncomfortable feelings into my writing.
In my short story “Ritual Purity,” I examine what it would be like to be a troubled teenager, raised without religion, living in an Orthodox Jewish community. Whether in a book for young kids about being afraid to swim when everyone else can, or in a scary story about “perfect children,” my feeling different informs my fiction. When I write biographies, I am drawn to people who have had the courage to be different as I, mostly, have not.
Deborah Heiligman’s most recent book is High Hopes: A Photo-biography of John F. Kennedy (National Geographic). “Ritual Purity,” in the collection Don’t Cramp My Style: Stories About That Time of the Month (Simon & Schuster, 2004), is her first fiction for teenagers.