Skip to main content


May 17, 2011


Posted by Stephen

In this personal essay, author Rachel Simon discusses the events in her life that inspired her new novel The Story of Beautiful Girl, the latest Bets On pick.

booty girl.jpgPeople keep asking where I got the idea for The Story of Beautiful Girl. The answer consists of a series of several small moments I can describe, but also an element of something mysterious. So here is what I know with certainty --- and what I can only guess.

My sister Beth, who is 11 months younger than I, has an intellectual disability. When
she was born in 1960, it wasn’t uncommon for doctors to recommend to parents that they place children like my sister in institutions, but my parents never considered that option. They did mention to us kids that some people who had my sister’s disability were “put away,” but until a young reporter named Geraldo Rivera came on our television one night in 1972 and showed images he’d secretly taken in an institution, I had little idea about the way people who lived there were treated.
Many years later, after I’d written books about other topics and had become a part-time
creative writing teacher at a small college, I wrote a memoir about my relationship with Beth, Riding the Bus with My Sister. Of course I had been a sibling all my life, but until I began writing that book, I was fairly unaware of many civil rights issues that related to my sister. So the book is both the chronicle of our lives together and the story of my coming to a new level of awareness. After it was published in 2002 and eventually adapted for a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie in 2005, I was invited to do public speaking around the country at disability-related conferences. In the course of traveling from Annapolis to Anchorage, Seattle to Orlando, Nashua to San Diego, I met people whose personal or professional experience involved institutions, and who were eager, sometimes tearfully so, to share their stories with me.
Over and over, I returned home to my husband, house, and students, reeling. The reality of institutions had obviously been widespread and affected millions of people --- yet no one outside of these conferences spoke about such things. Maybe they didn’t even know. I began thinking I should write a novel that dealt with the material, but the subject seemed so massive, and perhaps my life was so full of love, comfort, and the delights and demands of teaching, that I just put the idea to the side.
The material, however, didn’t stop coming my way. One day, as I was wrapping up a talk in Itasca, Illinois, for The Arc of Illinois, I came across a book at a vendor’s table, God Knows
His Name: The True Story of John Doe No. 24, by Dave Bakke. Immediately intrigued, I bought the book and read it within hours. In 1945, I learned, a deaf African-American teenager was found wandering the streets of Illinois. No one understood his sign language, so no one knew who he was. A judge declared him “feebleminded” and he was put away in an institution. And there he remained, despite the suspicion of many staff that he had no mental disability at all, until he died fifty years later. The tragedy of John Doe No. 24 haunted me—and all the more so because I’d come to understand that countless other people had endured similar fates.
Yet I still didn’t, or couldn’t, pause long enough in my busy, happy life to consider how I might present such an emotionally fraught topic. I collected books that I planned to use for research, and I read many of them, but I didn’t take notes. Someday I’d write about this, but that day seemed many calendars off.
Then in 2007, the creative writing department where I’d taught for over a decade decided to restructure the department and I was let go. Grieving the loss of a job and students I had loved, I set about trying to figure out what to do with my life. I was sure of only one thing: I simply wanted to keep writing. Though what I wanted to write about, I didn’t know.
So, in this vulnerable state, I sat down with a blank pad of paper, waiting to see what would emerge. Instantly, there it was: the novel I’d been vaguely thinking about all this time.
It is 1968. Night. A rain storm. An elderly widow is reading a book. Who is she?, I asked myself, and without hesitation, I knew: She was a retired schoolteacher, in a state of grief. Unlike me, her grief was for a child and a bad marriage; like me, she had stayed in touch with her former students. A knock comes to her door. Who is it?, I asked myself. And again, I knew. Standing before her is someone who has my sister’s disability --- and someone who is like John Doe No. 24. She is the love of his life. And, although I don’t know it for another fifty pages, he calls her Beautiful Girl. They have just escaped from an institution—and Beautiful Girl has just borne a baby girl. I continued writing, and the whole first chapter spilled out. When I reached its ending, I was as shocked as my readers have been. I had no idea she would say to the widow:
“Hide her.”
Then I just followed the story, and, even though I’d already published several books, it flowed from me in a way that nothing had before. Indeed, as I wrote, I came to feel it was being delivered and I was simply the messenger. I understood immediately that Beautiful Girl’s story line would trace the historic trajectory of institutionalization, exposé, moving into the community, and becoming a self-advocate. I also understood immediately that the story line for No. 24 --- or, as I renamed him, No. 42 --- would touch on some of the key details in the Odyssey. And Martha would raise the baby I’d never had myself, and would do so with the affection and devotion of her students.
That’s what I know about where The Story of Beautiful Girl came from.
But there’s more to this story than I know. That’s clear to me because, even though I worked consistently and hard, the book simply came too easily, from start to finish --- including the ending. I could chalk this up to the mysterious powers of the writing process, and perhaps that’s all there is to it. However, while I was working on the book, I went to visit a friend, a woman with a disability who’s told me she’s had many psychic experiences. My goal was to talk through a few scenes in the middle of the book, but while we were sitting in her bedroom, talking for hours, she told me she was having a vision. The book, she said, came from the real John Doe himself. “He handed it to you so he could live the life he’d been denied.” “What makes you so sure,” I asked her. She said, “He’s here right now.”
I’m not so sure about that. But if it takes a little writerly mystery to give love, happiness, and freedom to people like my sister, and my characters --- and so many who never got to live the life every single one of us deserves --- then I’m fine with that explanation.
-Buy from Amazon.
-Buy from IndieBound.