Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin


“The first thing you’re going to want to know about me is: Am I a boy, or am I a girl?”

After spending six weeks in a teen psych ward as the result of a severe panic attack, Riley is hoping to start over at a new school. But after a first day spent dodging the questions and stares of both curious and outright cruel classmates, Riley feels completely discouraged. It seems as though it’s going to be just as hard being in the closet as gender fluid in public school as it was in private school. So Riley sits down and starts an anonymous blog as a place to put all their feelings of sadness, anger and confusion about identifying as a girl one day and a boy the next. The blog helps, as does Riley’s blossoming friendship with geek-turned-football-player Solo and a shy flirtation with the enigmatic, blue-eyed Bec. But then an internet troll starts stalking Riley’s blog, hinting that he or she knows who Riley is and where they go to school. Riley is terrified because if anyone discovers that their father is conservative Congressman Cavanaugh who is currently running for re-leection, the entire campaign could be compromised. But when Riley is forced to speak out about after being assaulted, Riley realizes that nothing is going to feel right until they finally confess to both their new friends and family about being gender fluid. Because it shouldn’t matter if Riley identifies as a boy or a girl when the most important thing Riley identifies as is human. This ground breaking debut shines a bright light on gender fluidity that is bound to educate and illuminate anyone who reads it. Riley’s biological gender is never revealed, and while that annoyed me at first, I quickly realized that my binary thinking only narrowed my imagination and the options of who and what Riley could be as a person. The more I read, the less it mattered and by the end I truly didn’t care. Riley had emerged as a fully formed character with quirks and desires and emotions, and their biological gender was the least of their multifaceted personality.  For more information on transgender and gender fluidity issues, check out these resources recommended by author Jeff Garvin: Trans Lifeline, National Center for Transgender Equality and Transgender Law Center.

4 thoughts on “Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

  1. I loved this novel! This is my first draft for my book report I have to do for school:

    “The first thing you’re going to want to know about me is: Am I a boy, or am I a girl?” (27) “The truth is, some days I wake up feeling more “boy” and some days I wake up feeling more “girl”. And some days, I wake up feeling somewhere in between.” (29)

    This is how Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin begins, and this introduction immediately draws you in as you wonder “who is this person in actual fact”. Riley Cavanaugh is the main character in this realistic fiction, gender classification book. He/she is gender fluid which means that some days Riley identifies as a boy, others as a girl, and some in between. I chose this quote because throughout Symptoms of Being Human, Riley’s biological gender is never revealed. This, at first, irritated me, but I realize now that my binary thinking narrowed down the options of who and what I thought Riley should be as an individual. The more I read, the less important the gender factor became. Riley’s story has made an impact on me. I love this novel for its depiction of what it means to be different, but the same all at once. Good for me, but how about everyone else that Riley interacts with? How about Riley’s mom and dad, classmates and teachers, even people who see him/her on the street and immediately wonder whether Riley is a girl or a boy.

    The only problem is that Riley is not exactly out yet about him/her being gender fluid. And on top of that, starting a new school, and having a father running for re-election for congress is building up in Riley’s life. Attempting suicide and constant anxiety panic attacks leads Riley to therapy where Riley’s therapist suggests to write about his/her feelings with identifying as a girl one morning, and a boy the next. Riley starts an anonymous blog, which helps his/her blossoming friendship with shy football player Solo, and emotions for transgender student Bec.

    However, as Riley begins to adapt to school and grows closer to Bec, the blog goes viral, and an unknown commentator reveals Riley’s true identity, threatening exposure. Riley must make a choice: give up with the blog (a lifeline, friends, a cause to believe in), or come out, stand up, and risk everything. Riley learns that who he/she is should be the real Riley, not what other people think “Riley” should be.

    One of the main themes that Jeff Garvin is trying to convey through Symptoms of Being Human is that the outside appearance of someone does not always reflect on what is on their inside nor their feelings. In other words, do not judge a book by it’s cover. Harper Lee used a similar concept in To Kill A Mockingbird, but her point was about how people group others by their race. Jeff Garvin is making the same argument but with reference to gender.

    In our world today, more and more rights for people have been established. In particular, we have been more tolerant (especially in Western countries) towards gender types. In conclusion, I think that this story is relevant to the youth of today. It is also drawing people’s attention to the fact that there are many variations out there, the world is not so easily split black and white, male and female. This book in particular focuses on the concept of being gender fluid, one that is rarely been discussed or that is even known. It is important for people to be tolerant, but may also help those who may be in Riley’s situation. If you like reading about what other teenagers your age are going through, who are in the same years of high school as you trying to discover who they are, Symptoms of Being Human is the next book you should read.

  2. I just finished & loved this book and other librarians will be discussing it June 5 at 9PM EST with #yabookchat
    can’t wait! I think everyone (all teens,counselors, teachers, parents, etc.) must read this book!

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