Mia Siegert’s debut YA novel, Jerkbait, is an intensely personal work. On the surface, this might seem strange to say: the novel’s main characters are male teenagers, while Siegert is a bigender adult. But throughout a book that centers on two brothers in the high school hockey world, Siegert has woven in their own experiences with mental illness, online strangers, and homophobia.
Jerkbait opens with a suicide attempt. Robbie, a star hockey player who is expected to be drafted into the NHL, tries to overdose on leftover Percocet. Tristan, Robbie’s brother and Jerkbait’s narrator, is shocked. In fact, he initially dismisses Robbie’s near overdose as a failed attempt to get high. After all, to Tristan, it doesn’t make sense that Robbie would kill himself—Robbie has the perfect life. He’s popular in a way Tristan will never be. He has the adoration of their parents, and though both boys are on the hockey team, Robbie is the star. Robbie, Tristan thinks, has everything he doesn’t.
This is perhaps the most prominent tension point throughout the novel—as Jerkbait progresses, what was once Tristan’s jealousy of Robbie’s life quickly turns into horror at the daily oppression Robbie faces. That shift is particularly obvious in how the brothers’ parents react to Robbie’s suicide attempt. Instead of trying to get him help, either in the form of medication or therapy, they thrust him right back into hockey. They don’t ask why he tried to die. They even force Tristan to lie and tell the hockey team the reason Robbie was in the ER is food poisoning. The NHL draft is coming up, they reason, and Robbie needs to remain on the ice if he wants a shot at playing professionally. The fact that their son’s mental state continues to deteriorate does not, to Tristan’s dismay, matter to them. They’re far more terrified that if Robbie were to disclose his mental illness, he would be overlooked by professional teams.
This fear, unfortunately, is not unfounded: today, mental illness continues to be heavily stigmatized in sports (and in much of society), perhaps because the emphasis on “toughness” papers over the reality of depression and anxiety. In a 2012 New York Times article, former NBA player Luther Wright said of professional sports teams, “I don’t think they would even recruit you if they knew you had some illness or some mental health issues.” Through Robbie’s struggles with depression and anxiety, Jerkbait doesn’t let its readers forget this reality.
Portraying this form of ableism was important to Siegert. Though Siegert’s experiences don’t mirror Robbie’s, their own struggles with depression, anxiety, and PTSD informed how they wrote his character. Much of Robbie’s anxiety comes from his fear of a future as a gay hockey player—“the anxiety he feels with thinking ten steps ahead, not just about the now but the future is something I feel all the time,” Siegert says. After they sold Jerkbait to a publisher, for instance, they didn’t sleep for weeks.
But Jerkbait doesn’t only examine ableism in sports and in the world at large: it also takes on homophobia.
Underlying each page is a question Tristan asks about Robbie in the beginning of the novel: “How could someone who had our parents’ undivided attention, the hockey team’s most promising prospect, hate himself enough to want to die?”
The answer, of course, is that Robbie is secretly gay.
Robbie feels he has every reason to dislike himself for his sexuality: his parents are homophobic; he doesn’t think his teammates will ever accept him; he and his dad both believe that coming out as gay would affect his value as a draft pick and as a future NHL player. Essentially, he has nowhere to turn.
Jerkbait doesn’t skirt this issue. Multiple scenes depict, in vivid detail, the bullying Robbie faces. Though they’re difficult to read, these scenes are not without a point. In Tristan’s narration and in the acknowledgements, Siegert discusses You Can Play, a nonprofit organization designed to provide resources for LGBTQ athletes and promote acceptance in hockey and in the sports world at large.
Though Siegert hadn’t heard of this organization until after writing the draft of Jerkbait, You Can Play has since become an important part of the book’s publication. Brian Kitts, one of You Can Play’s cofounders, blurbed the book, as have other allies of the organization, including former NHL player Patrick O’Sullivan and former NFL punter Chris Kluwe.
The connection makes sense: Siegert, a longtime fan of New Jersey’s professional hockey team, the Devils, is also queer. In fact, Siegert is bigender, a gender that falls under the nonbinary umbrella. Basically, some days they are a boy and other days they are a girl. They are quick to distinguish this from gender fluidity. Though acknowledging labels are sometimes difficult to define, to them being bigender involves less of an overlap than gender fluidity. Siegert never transitions between genders—each morning, when they wake up, they immediately know what gender (boy or girl) they feel like that day. It is always one or the other, like a light switch. “I don’t ever feel like both [genders] at the same time, or none of the above.”
Still, Siegert often simplifies their label to “nonbinary” because it’s better known and more widely used. That community aspect is important to them—“classifying as something much larger makes me feel like I’m not as isolated.”
Though they haven’t faced homophobia to the extent that Robbie has in Jerkbait, they were bullied as a kid, and are often called slurs when publicly presenting as a man. Undoubtedly, some of that experience inspired Robbie’s trials as a gay person.
But there’s another aspect of Jerkbait that is borrowed from Siegert’s own life. At points throughout the novel, Robbie is shown flirting with an online stranger. At age 16, feeling deeply isolated, Siegert did something similar, signing up for an online dating site and dating a young-looking man who lived nearby. Siegert was uncomfortable around him, however—and ten years later, discovered he was a convicted sex offender. “After seeing Chris Hansen’s To Catch a Predator series on Dateline NBC, I realized I needed to write about this to try and warn teens and parents,” Siegert says.
Siegert wrote Jerkbait to grapple with issues of homophobia and ableism—and in doing so, explored their own experiences as a queer person suffering from mental illness.