When a college friend first suggested to Jenny Laden ’92 that she write a young adult novel, she was skeptical. After all, Laden was a painter and illustrator, not an author. But the friend, Kevin O’Connor CC ’92, persisted.
“He kind of planted the seed,” she said. “He just kept sending me books about writing. I’d always written for myself, as part of my art practice; I’d always been obsessed with words as part of my painting.”
Six years later, those seeds have borne fruit with This Terrible True Thing. Released in early September, the YA visual novel — which contains words, diary entries, poems, and drawings, all by Laden — tells the story of a 17-year-old high school senior, Danielle Silver, who learns that her father is HIV-positive as she grapples with the uncertainty of impending adulthood. It’s a work that, through Danielle’s first-person voice, fully captures the idealistic ferocity that characterizes teen responses to injustice — in this case, the U.S. government’s systematic neglect of the AIDS crisis in the early 1990s as the virus decimated the gay community.
@barnard.college Today, we honor World AIDS Day. Artist and Barnard alum @jennyladen_art ’92 recently published her debut novel This Terrible True Thing, a semi-autobiographical work inspired by the loss of her father during the AIDS epidemic. Visit barnard.edu to learn more about Laden and the personal experiences that lead to the book's creation. #barnard #barnardcollege #worldaidsday #jennyladen #thisterribletruething #thisterribletruethingbook #ya #yanovel #littok #youngadult #youngadultnovel #barnardalum #barnardalumna #barnardalumnae ♬ original sound - Barnard College
Danielle’s reactions and emotions come through with such heartbreaking authenticity because Laden lived them. The book, though an accomplished debut work of fiction, is a sort of emotional memoir. Laden’s own father, Richard B. Laden, learned he was HIV-positive in 1990, when she was a Barnard sophomore. Laden gave Danielle her own youthful artistic aspirations, as well as parents, like hers, who divorced after her father came out as gay.
“The feelings are very real,” Laden said. “Writing the book was revisiting a lot of very specific moments of my own life that are hard places to go but also kind of beautiful.”
The events depicted in the novel are also based on Laden’s life, but she condensed the timeline to build narrative tension and used a younger protagonist to appeal to YA audiences. Laden did not attend a boarding school in her high school years, but Danielle does echo Laden’s experience of learning about her father’s illness while living apart from him.
To bolster the authenticity of the school-based scenes, Laden, a lifelong journaler, reread her college entries.
“I went back and read my journal during the period after I knew he had told me,” she said. “It was about guys I had crushes on, and art I wanted to make.” There was no mention there of her father’s bombshell divulgence.
“That was a very interesting, telling moment for me, and I think it helped me inform some of how I fleshed out the character,” said Laden.
Though she narrates with some degree of typical adolescent self-absorption, Danielle’s journey through This Terrible True Thing leaves readers feeling, like the character, impacted by the mass tragedy of the AIDS epidemic — a potent reminder, as this era’s pandemic tapers, of how larger disasters map onto our individual experiences.
The sense of personal connection was far from accidental.
“I really wanted to write a story about the AIDS epidemic to widen the narrative about who that
epidemic really impacted,” Laden said. “It’s an important piece of history for a young generation to know, and it’s important to memorialize, in a way, the people that were parents — all the different types of people that were impacted by this epidemic.”