Losing Our Selves, But Never Getting Lost

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There’s a book both of my kids love for me to read to them, The Monster Who Lost His Mean (2012). The Monster loses his customary “M”, which is where his Mean comes from. Now, he’s just the “Onster.” Instantly, he becomes a social pariah. None of the other Monsters will eat with him at lunch. Boom boom! Crunch crunch! The Onster sits alone for lunch. They tease and abandon him. Boo hoo! Sigh sigh. The Onster’s sad and starts to cry. There’s only so much unkindness the Onster can take, so he leaves the Monster Wood. The book traces his frantic search for his Mean and his journey to finding a new and different place in the world. It is a book about transitions, identity, and feelings. I love the Onster more than they do, which is probably why they request that I read this book over and over again.

“Wead it again,” my toddler demands, and I do.

When my daughter was in pre-Kindergarten, she selected The Monster Who Lost His Mean from the Scholastic catalog. She and I would open it up to see what new books we could find, and we would circle in crayon the books we hoped to purchase. Like me, she loves books. She also knows that I have an enduring fascination with monsters, so I think that’s what drew her to this particular book.

We first read about the Onster in those early days of her brother’s life. When he was an infant, he would sleep as we read. I had two children instead of one, and I was grimly determined that my daughter not feel displaced by her brother. I would arrange her brother to rest on top of my chest and read books to her. Any book she wanted. I would nurse and read. And read and read and read. She would sit as close as she possibly could and her hand would gently touch her brother as if she were checking to make sure he was real. Both children snuggled close as I read a story about a Monster whose life was turned upside down.

The Onster was one type of creature, and then, he wasn’t. He was suddenly something else. What in the world was he supposed to do? He tried valiantly to reclaim that previous identity. If only he could find his Mean, then everything would return to normal. If only he could go back. His Mean remains missing. But, the Onster learns to be someone else. Someone kinder and more considerate. The thing that he lost was worth so much less than what he finds: friends, kindness, and community.

Yet, the Monsters aren’t impressed by his transition. (Mean people often aren’t.) They refuse to leave him alone, so the Onster decides to try and be mean. He fails spectacularly. He can’t bring himself to be mean just because those awful Monsters think he should be.

Disappointment slouches his shoulders. His head hangs low. The Onster is dejected. When he is at his lowest, his new friends (human children, of course) throw him a surprise party complete with cake and balloons. The last line of the book is “He’s happier in every way.”

The first time I read this book I was only a few months into my decision to take a break from academia. I was sleep-deprived because my son woke me up every two hours to nurse. I was tired and spent. I read The Monster Who Lost His Mean to my daughter and felt like maybe the book was as much for me as it was her. The Onster survived transitions, and so could I. He not only survived, but thrived. Just because he lost something didn’t mean he was lost. Losing his Mean provided the Onster with a different set of opportunities that he couldn’t have imagined before.

Anytime my oldest gave me a choice in what we read, I picked up this book. Reading it aloud to her gave me the excuse to read it again for myself. There were days when we read it multiple times. Boom boom! Crunch Crunch! Boo hoo! Sigh sigh. I always paused when he started to cry. When sleep deprivation and my own transitions became too much, I would shed a few tears with him. Even struggling fictional characters need solidarity.

The Onster lost his Monsters. I lost my place in academia (or gave it up, really). Neither of us lost ourselves.

As my daughter found other books that she liked better, we stopped reading The Monster Who Lost His Mean with our previous intensity. Instead, we picked up Olivia, Skippyjon Jones, Fancy Nancy, and Dr. Seuss. Then, we stopped reading it altogether.

Over a week ago, my son, now two years old, found this book crammed between other books on the shelves. “Wead it,” he said. He and I read it together, while his sister read a book on her own. She doesn’t need me to read aloud to her anymore, but she still likes me to. It feels like I’ve lost something important, but I gained something too. I tear up a bit when we get to the last line.

“Mama, wead it again,” he declares. And I do, all the way to the end. The Onster is still happier in every way, and I am too.

Neither of us was ever truly lost. We just had to find another way.

Kelly J. Baker writes about the apocalypse, zombies, mental illness, trauma, and higher education. She's the author of The Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930, Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces, Sexism Ed: Essays on Gender and Labor in Higher Education, and Final Girl: And Other Essays on Grief, Trauma, and Mental Illness, forthcoming Fall 2020. She's also the editor of Women in Higher Education, The National Teaching and Learning Forum, and Disability Acts. You can find her hanging around on Twitter @kelly_j_baker, tweeting about coffee, parenting, writing, and other shenanigans.