My rating: 5 of 5 stars
JERKBAIT is a gripping and beautifully written story that starts off strong and doesn’t let go until the final epilogue. Even then, you’ll be in tears, wishing it didn’t end. Mia Siegert granted me a copy of the Audible audiobook, which I highly recommend everyone check out. I loved it so much that I immediately downloaded the Kindle e-book from Amazon.
I’m a huge fan of LGBTQ+ books that aren’t strictly “issue books.” Mia Siegert takes LGBTQ+ themes, brings them to light, but makes the novel about so much more than the issues of homophobia and coming out. JERKBAIT deals with racism, predators, first loves, gay stereotypes, homophobia in sports, targeted bullying, fake friends, parental pressure to succeed, sibling rivalry, and so much more.
I’d been walking unnoticed in Robbie’s flattened path ever since. Those fourteen minutes stayed between us like a wall. Me on the side with the shadow. I didn’t have to think about him except when the debris of his destruction lobbed over and caught me in the face. We were two countries; no shared thoughts, languages, customs. We weren’t at all alike; we just happened to have been alive in this vast world for almost exactly the same amount of time.
I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to the author about her novel, and she told me certain parts were Tristan’s story and certain parts were Robbie’s. I read JERKBAIT as someone who has experienced life from Robbie’s point of view: a person living with mental illness and constantly seeking help through whatever (destructive) means possible only to be ignored. I was the kid in the family asking for help, admitting that I didn’t have control, and being told I’ll be fine. But it won’t. Unless something is done and people talk, it’ll only get worse. We see the progression of Robbie’s mental state decline and that no matter how many shallow precautions his parents take to prevent another suicide attempt, they’re no replacement for therapy.
I saw Robbie glance at me from the corner of his eye, like he was waiting, hoping, praying, that I’d say something, but I was still mute. I couldn’t give him what he wanted. I didn’t know how. Robbie needed help. Robbie was alone, and was pleading for help. And maybe he was pleading for help from me. Or maybe that was me just hoping he was. Wishing that maybe, somehow, through this mess, someone would think I was important, or worth getting to know. That maybe the favorite son would realize the forgotten son was a decent guy. That someone was actually grateful for me. But that wouldn’t ever happen. Not when I couldn’t defend myself against a bully and had nothing to offer my brother in exchange for his sacrifice. He wouldn’t be grateful because there was nothing to be grateful for. I would continue to live in his shadow, a disgrace.
It was fascinating to take a step back and think about what other people in these situations are going through and how they cope. Tristan explains, “I wanted to argue with Dad, to yell at him, but I couldn’t. He wouldn’t listen to me.” The parents don’t want to admit that their child is flawed. The siblings can only do so much without risking their parents’ wrath. While one person in pain is crying out, those around them can feel as if their hands are tied because of outside pressures. Several factors go into the Betterby’s decision not to seek professional help: needing to put on a front for family and sports’ scouts and wanting to avoid the stigma a mental health diagnosis can bring. They decide to pretend like everything’s fine, and that’s never a solution to a long-term problem.
“Can we just go home and pretend you didn’t see that?”
“Sure,” I said. Because if there was one thing I could do and do well, it was pretend. If only pretending meant forgetting as well.
Robbie is constantly telling his identical twin brother Tristan that “I can’t do it. You’re not listening! No one fucking listens!” Tristan sees Robbie putting on the classic show and pretending like nothing has ever happened. Robbie acts like didn’t try to commit suicide or that he’s not miserable away from school. Around their teammates, he’s perfectly fine. That’s what he’s expected to be, fine. As the reader, you may or may not have picked up on the subtle hints as to what’s really going on with Robbie—I was practically screaming as Tristan to get a clue—but Tristan is slow to piece the parts together.
I caught my brother’s eyes. They didn’t look right. He didn’t look like some crazed madman, or some psychopath. He looked . . . scared.
The characters of Robbie and Tristan’s parents really hit home. Siegert tackles issues teenagers are dealing with that many adults don’t want to see, including domestic abuse which doesn’t just come from the parents but from his brother as well.
Robbie took after Dad, sometimes beating the crap out of me if I made a mistake that cost us a game. But eventually, his fists stopped. Eventually, he realized I just couldn’t do what he could. That was almost worse.
This is something I’ve also personally experienced. It happens. People don’t talk about it because there’s this siblings-are-going-to-fight mentality. Again, it’s not okay. It’s not okay to ignore one child for another or to allow one child’s temper to rage and beat up on the other one because they’re special or they have a problem containing themselves. I hope adults and teens alike will read JERKBAIT and see these actions for what they are, abuse.
“Stop being a baby. You’ll be fine.”
My ribs felt cracked in two. “But—”
“Knock it off.” She led me to the couch.
But JERKBAIT is about the evolution of character. Siegert provides a beautiful dynamic between the two passions of the Betterby twins. Tristan loves musicals and performing on stage while Robbie is devoted to hockey. They are both very talented in their fields, but only one (Robbie) is supported by their parents. In an ironic twist of fate, Tristan is the one who is bullied by his teammates and called queer when they discover he likes musical theater.
That was the one crappy thing about a team; there were never secrets.
In JERKBAIT get a sneak peek into the boy’s locker room, which has this strange homoerotic tension that goes unspoken between the players. It’s okay to flaunt yourself and make crude gestures or jokes—as long as you’re not really gay. The moment a person is, well, that’s crossing the line. Then, everyone has to jump into ultra-masculine mode and prove their heterosexuality or risk being called out. High school locker rooms are terrible for everyone. Let’s all admit it: no one really felt comfortable in changing rooms as a teenager. As Tristan puts it, “locker room homophobia could make anyone’s life miserable.” But it’s about more than homophobia. Certain hockey players cite religion and others blame sexuality as reasons to ostracize and torment a gay teammate, as if it’s perfectly fine because they have their reasons.
“I don’t want to play with some homo,” Henry said, nose wrinkling. “He’s an abomination of God.”
“Fuck you,” I snapped. “You think anyone would voluntarily choose to be gay with the way you assholes treat them?”
What really drives the novel is the progression of Robbie and Tristan’s relationship. They start out as strangers who have been hiding secrets from one another, sides of their personalities that they haven’t dared to share with anyone in their family. Tristan is tasked with watching over Robbie while the hockey season plays out so he can be drafted. It’s all about rankings and draft picks for their parents. There is an enormous amount of pressure on Robbie’s shoulders to be perfect, be the star athlete—the golden child. Meanwhile, Tristan is forced to sacrifice his health and happiness to further his brother’s career. At the same time, this isn’t what’s best for Robbie. When you see the two brothers come together and sharing truths, that’s when the most progress is made.
As much as I wanted to be my brother’s anchor, I knew I couldn’t be the only one helping him. He needed a whole support system.
You have two imperfect characters living imperfect lives in a dysfunctional family. Through this comes a story that’s believable and highly relatable for anyone who is has struggled with issues at least once in their life. These can be issues of homophobia, mental illness, domestic abuse, neglect, pressure, or bullying. JERKBAIT also provides an excellent opportunity to stand back and look through the lens as an outsider. Think about how others are feeling in similar situations and how you can help. What can we all do to be better?
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