Critically acclaimed author of We Are the Ants—described as having “hints of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five” (School Library Journal)—opens up about what led to an attempted suicide in his teens, and his path back from the experience.
“I wasn’t depressed because I was gay. I was depressed and gay.”
Shaun David Hutchinson was nineteen. Confused. Struggling to find the vocabulary to understand and accept who he was and how he fit into a community in which he couldn’t see himself. The voice of depression told him that he would never be loved or wanted, while powerful and hurtful messages from society told him that being gay meant love and happiness weren’t for him.
A million moments large and small over the years all came together to convince Shaun that he couldn’t keep going, that he had no future. And so he followed through on trying to make that a reality.
Thankfully Shaun survived, and over time, came to embrace how grateful he is and how to find self-acceptance. In this courageous and deeply honest memoir, Shaun takes readers through the journey of what brought him to the edge, and what has helped him truly believe that it does get better.
Brave Face THE TRUTH THANKFULLY, I WAS ABLE TO piece together time lines and events from old e-mails and journals that I managed to hold on to. I’ve changed the names of all schoolmates and friends as well as many identifying details. Some of the people portrayed are composites. When it came to re-creating conversations, I’ve done my best to recall the flavor of the conversation, because it’s not always possible to recall something from twenty years ago word-for-word.
One thing I do want to point out is that memory isn’t always accurate. I gave a speech for the 2016 School Library Journal Leadership Summit, where I discussed some of my personal history with suicide and depression. In it, I mentioned how my mom had been tested in the hospital as a potential match for liver donation. Later, after my mom watched the speech, she told me that I’d gotten it wrong. She’d never been tested; she’d only talked to the doctor about being tested.
That’s not how I remembered it, though. So as I started writing this memoir, I wondered what was more important: what actually happened or what I remembered happening.
I think the answer depends on who’s doing the telling. How I remember events is more important to this memoir than how someone else remembers them, and someone else’s recollection isn’t necessarily the objective truth either. For example, I don’t remember my mom crying when she came to the emergency room after my suicide attempt. Her strength and stoicism set an example for me later in my life. If I found out that she had actually cried in the ER, it wouldn’t change the effect my original belief ultimately had on me.
Therefore, while I’ve done my best to verify dates and other objective truths, the majority of this memoir is how I remember events. Anything I’ve gotten wrong is on me.
Finally, this memoir contains e-mails, journal entries, and some of my early writing. Even though it’s incredibly embarrassing, I’ve left all my awful grammar and spelling errors intact except where doing so rendered the passage too confusing to read. Please don’t judge me.
Author Shaun David Hutchinson is known for writing fiction about teens facing difficult situations. In Brave Face, he writes a different kind of story. He tells of his coming of age, his coming out, and his coming to terms with his depression. He shares his story of survival to help those who may be struggling with the same feelings, showing that there is hope for a better future if you can just find your way through the pain.
1. Shaun dedicates the book to “anyone who’s ever felt a little queer.” What are different meanings for the word queer? What meaning does Shaun attach to the word? Why do you think he dedicates the book in this way?
2. Why do you think Shaun includes two content warnings in the book? What does he warn his readers about? How does this set the tone for the book?
3. Shaun writes in his journal, “Being gay involves choices and fears. The choice is how to go about finding love. The fear is that I never will.” Picture yourself there with Shaun, having a conversation around this statement. How would you respond to this idea of choices and fears? Is it similar to or different from the way you feel about love? Do these particular choices and fears lead to any others for Shaun or for you?
4. Why does Shaun lie to Alex about being a virgin? How does it affect their relationship? Does this lie foreshadow any patterns in Shaun’s future relationships? What does Shaun lose by having told this lie? Have you ever lied to someone you care about or been lied to? How did it make you feel? What did you learn from the experience?
5. How do Alan’s views about women affect his friendship with Shaun? What information does Shaun keep from Alan because of these views? How does Alan react to Shaun’s coming out? How do you think this affects Shaun?
6. Describe representations of homosexuality that Shaun has seen both in his experiences and in the movies. How does this affect his feelings about his own homosexuality? Do these representations change throughout the course of the book? How might a different interpretation of gay life have changed Shaun’s experience? How can you help to make a safe and welcoming community for all in your school or neighborhood?
7. Describe the future Shaun envisions for a gay man. How does his perceived lack of options affect the choices he makes? When do his ideas about the future begin to change, and what does this new future look like?
8. Why does Shaun confess to stealing the Playgirl magazine from Waldenbooks? Do you think Oscar, the investigator, handles the situation well? If not, how could he have handled it differently? Do you see any similarities between this situation and Shaun’s coming-out moments?
9. Discuss the cave and its use as an allegory. Why do you think Shaun brings this up? Do you think it’s a fair assessment of his situation? Could you apply the allegory to any other situations in Shaun’s life? Does it remind you of any situations in your own life?
10. Throughout the book, Shaun talks about his determination to solve his problems on his own and the fact that he doesn’t need help from anyone. How do you feel about this mentality? Is Shaun able to solve his problems on his own? Does he ever learn to ask for help? Why do you think there can be a stigma around asking for and accepting help? Do you think it’s more of an internal or external dilemma?
11. Why does Shaun write The Round Table? How does it help him come to terms with who he is? What is it about writing that appeals to Shaun? How does it help him throughout his life? Do you have an activity or outlet that’s a source of comfort to you? Why might it be important to find something or someone that you can connect with?
12. What is the theme of Shaun’s baccalaureate speech? Do you think he effectively conveys his message? Do you think it’s fair of him to hold his classmates responsible for his pain? What could Shaun or his classmates have done throughout the school year to project their feelings or become more aware or sensitive to one another’s needs?
13. In his journal entry from September 25, 1996, Shaun talks about suicide but eventually says, “How could anyone choose nonexistence when there’s always a chance, however small, that something good might happen. I guess it’s good that I still hold on to some bit of hope, but there have been brief seconds when it wouldn’t have taken much to convince me otherwise.” Name some of the good things that do happen to Shaun. How important is this bit of hope to him? What happens to take away this hope? Why do you think it can be difficult to maintain hope, especially after a setback? Where do you look to find hope and inspiration when you’re down?
14. Does Shaun’s “queer” shirt have the intended effect? Why does he decide to wear it? What are the unintended consequences? Do you think Aimee is right when she says it’s “better to whisper than to scream”? Explain your answer.
15. In what ways is the coming-out process more about the person you’re coming out to and less about the person coming out? Were all of Shaun’s coming out experiences like this? What other situation does he find himself in where the experience is as much about the other people in his life as it is about him? How does Shaun feel about this?
16. How do acting and role-playing fit into Shaun’s life? What do these activities tell us about him?
17. Shaun tells Carlos that he’s gay, that he doesn’t like the derogatory “f” term for gay men, and that he attempted suicide. Why is Shaun able to tell Carlos things that he isn’t able to tell others? How does verbalizing these things make Shaun feel? Why can being a good listener be as important as being willing to discuss your own feelings? What kind of person makes for a good confidant?
18. How do Shaun’s feelings about himself affect his relationships? Why does he break up with Dante? How does Brother Jim’s sermon affect him?
19. Why is self-harm such an important part of Shaun’s story? What does cutting and burning himself do for his mental state? What takes away his last bit of hope and causes him to attempt suicide? Why does this seem like the best option for him in that moment? How do his feelings change after the fact? What makes him decide to ask for help?
20. Describe Shaun’s support network. How do they support him? What are his excuses for pushing them away? Why is it sometimes difficult for Maddie to be Shaun’s friend?
21. How does the realization that he is both gay and depressed change Shaun’s life? Does your perception of his story change upon viewing the depression as its own entity rather than a side effect of being gay?
22. What did Shaun mean when he said, “Being queer wasn’t the nucleus of who I was, it was simply a modifier”? Why was this an important lesson for him to learn? What other modifiers can he use to describe himself? What modifiers would you use to describe yourself?
1. Growing up, Shaun sees a lack of positive portrayals of gay men in movies and television shows. How is queer life currently depicted in the media? Compare and contrast the number and quality of gay characters featured now versus in the late nineties. Discuss whether you think the representation has improved, and ways it could continue to improve.
2. Shaun finds great release in acting and debating because the roles allow him to try on different personas. Try taking an evocative personal memory and rewriting it from the point of view of someone else who was there, or use a scene from a favorite book or movie and rewrite it from a different character’s point of view. What changes? What stays the same? How do you feel writing as someone else?
3. Read the section with the cave and its use as an allegory, focusing on the idea of “seeing only the shadows.” Think about how this relates to your life, or craft a different allegorical image that’s more relevant to your experiences. Then write a brief essay about a related moment, including how you acted, how it made you feel, and how you feel now that you’ve gained some distance and perspective.
4. Have you or anyone you know ever suffered from depression? What can you do to help those who are depressed or contemplating suicide? Is there a suicide hotline in your community or a support group at your school that you can give some time to? Research resources in your community and also on the national level, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/. Think about Shaun’s behaviors or conversations that might have indicated to others that he was struggling. How might you go about approaching someone who may not be willing to ask for help? When might you alert an adult to your concerns?
5. When Shaun cannot find depictions of the life he wants to lead, he writes his own. Write a short story or a one-act play that represents who you are and the life you want to lead. Read the story out loud to your classmates, or recruit them to perform your play.
6. A number of musicians and songs play important roles in Shaun’s life, helping him to define himself as a gay man and work through his depression. Create a playlist of songs that have meaning to you, songs that help define you or speak to your emotional self. Share these songs with others and explain their meaning in your life.
Guide written by Cory Grimminck, Director of the Portland District Library in Michigan.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
Shaun David Hutchinson is the author of numerous books for young adults, including The Past and Other Things That Should Stay Buried, The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza, At the Edge of the Universe, and We Are the Ants. He also edited the anthologies Violent Ends and Feral Youth and wrote the memoir Brave Face, which chronicles his struggles with depression and coming out during his teenage years. He lives in Seattle, where he enjoys drinking coffee, yelling at the TV, and eating cake. Visit him at ShaunDavidHutchinson.com or on Twitter @ShaunieDarko.
"Shaun David Hutchinson has been hammering out one brilliant book after another, and Brave Face is his most honest and courageous one yet. This profound memoir is a triumph--a full-throated howl to the moon to remind us why we choose to survive and thrive."
– Brendan Kiely, New York Times bestselling author of Tradition
"Shaun David Hutchinson has long been one of our brightest lights and best storytellers. In Brave Face, he shares all the sh*t he had to survive to get there - and how we can too. Brutal and essential.”
– Sam J. Miller, award-winning author of The Art of Starving
"As much a book about coming out as it is a book about simply coming to be, Brave Face is the bravest memoir I've read in years. Illuminating, brutally honest, poignant, and sometimes laugh out loud funny, this isn't a book just for queer kids, it's a book for any teen (or adult) who feels left out, rejected, confused, and scared about their place in the world.”
–Kathleen Glasgow, New York Times bestselling author of Girl in Pieces
"Fearless and resonant, Hutchinson’s memoir explores personal darkness with profound candor and earned wisdom. Courageous, devastating, and beautiful.”
–Caleb Roehrig, author of Death Prefers Blondes
"It takes talent to render personal truth with clear-eyed honesty, and deep empathy for the wounded, bewildered selves we’ve been. It takes greater bravery to share that truth. Hutchinson has talent and bravery in droves and BRAVE FACE is a triumph. This book is a balm and I’m grateful it exists."
–Alex London, bestselling author of Proxyand Black Wings Beating
YA author Hutchinson (The Past and Other Things That Should Stay Buried) explores the travails of coming into his sexuality in the early 1990s, when homophobia was deeply rampant in the U.S., the AIDS crisis was in devastating full force, and equal rights for anyone on the LGBTQ spectrum were still a distant dream. With the lack of positive representation of queerness, Hutchinson’s views of gay people were so negative that it took him years to recognize his own sexuality. In the meantime, trying to live an inauthentic life left him angry and depressed for reasons he couldn’t grasp. The author explores his teenage years with raw honesty, presenting the truth as he saw it and sharing passages from his diaries to illustrate the turmoil he experienced—which many queer teens will continue to empathize with. Though he describes himself at times in deep depression and engaging in self harm, the memoir ends on a positive note, sharing the ways in which he finds acceptance both within himself and within the queer community, and sending an important message to other queer teens: your life is a gift, and support is out there.
– Publishers Weekly *STARRED REVIEW, March 25, 2019
Hutchinson (The Past and Other Things That Should Stay Buried, 2019) lays bare his high-school and early college years—his coming out, the resulting family tension, friendship difficulties, depression, selfharm, failed relationships, a suicide attempt—in this razor-sharp, deeply revealing, and brutally honest exploration of growing up gay in the South amid an intolerant sociopolitical backdrop that seems hell bent on denying him a future. Emotionally raw and deeply insightful, Hutchinson's reminiscence of his earlier years is not tainted by the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, nor is his story so macabre as to avoid heartwarming moments and frequent instances of humor to break up the tension: "I was right! Kissing really was like an H. P. Lovecraft story, but with less xenophobia and racism." Although this is a straightforward coming-out narrative in some ways, the depth and complexity of each recounted moment serve to illustrate to readers the myriad ways in which society creates paradoxical and near-impossible expectations for queer young people to adhere to on a daily basis. Brave Face serves not just as a personal story but as a guide to help queer and questioning readers survive—better yet, to thrive—against all odds, in defiance of a world that so often appears to want them to fade away. — Rob Bittner
– Booklist *STARRED REVIEW*, April 15, 2019
Coming of age in the 1990s, Shaun David Hutchinson (At the Edge of the Universe) knew certain things about being gay from the messages society sent: "Gay people, especially gay men, were so often portrayed as promiscuous sexual deviants and drug abusers that, even in spite of my own limited personal experience, it's how I saw them too." Through pop culture, politics and news headlines, Shaun learned "there was no future to being gay," which presented a tremendous problem for the teen when he finally came to terms with the fact that he is gay.
In his powerful memoir, Brave Face, the young adult author bares his soul to the world about realizing his sexual orientation and suffering from a depression so profound he attempted suicide. Hutchinson's raw honesty pierces readers as he describes his fight to find an identity in a world that viewed homosexuals as "so worthless that they didn't even deserve to live." His fear and pain radiate off the pages, demanding others experience a small part of it, too. Audiences will be hard-pressed not to feel the emotional weight Hutchinson carries: "It was like every person I came into contact with was plugging themselves into me, and occasionally I'd overload and short." His journey to acceptance is one marred with struggle and loss, but also imbued with hope.
Hutchinson's gift for language makes this uncomfortable story beautiful and forceful. Courageous and commanding, Brave Face is a bold, banner announcement that there is a future for everyone. --Jen Forbus, freelancer
Discover: A young adult writer tells his personal story of coming to terms with his sexual orientation and his battle with life-threatening depression.