Princess and the Pea ~ A Writer’s Take on Being an HSP

If there’s one thing I can’t live without, it’s earplugs.

            Everyone knows the story of The Princess and the Pea, right? A prince searches the land for a princess to marry, and to make sure the candidates are the real deal he makes them sleep on top of a stack of 30 mattresses underneath which he has placed a single pea. If she sleeps fine, she’s not a real princess, but if she tosses and turns all night because the pea disturbs her, hurrah! She’s real! And he will marry her right away.

            If you think about it, why would the prince want to marry someone that easily disturbed? If she can’t sleep on a pea, how’s she ever going to be able to sleep with him? But those are the rules. Marry at your socioeconomic level or the power structures will collapse, and we can’t have that.

            There’s another meaning in this story though. Of all the fairy tales, this is the one with a secret message for a certain small subset of people, the neurologically “highly sensitive person” (HSP). According to some who study this subsetinevitably individuals who belong to it, desperate to understand themselvesabout 10 percent of the population is highly sensitive, while the other approximate 90 percent are not. There’s not much in between the two groups, they say, neurological sensitivity is not evenly distributed on a spectrum, so what’s left is a gulf of misunderstanding. Regular people totally don’t get the HSP, and vice versa. What happens though is that the regular people, because of their sheer majority, always win. The culture is designed for the majority, and if that makes you suffer, you’re told you are weak, defective, and a loser.


            If you are a highly sensitive person, you know what I’m talking about. The world is full of peas of every sensory, energetic and emotional kind. For a regular person, imagine someone stuck a pea in your eye. You’d suddenly be in a very compromised situation. So just imagine your whole body was covered with eyes, and the whole world was full of flying peas. Gross, I know, but it illustrates a point.

            Just like the princess, a pea can ruin your night. Ruin enough nights and there goes your life. That’s why, among some other things, I prize earplugs so highly. HSPs are bothered by things the rest of the population doesn’t even notice, so if part of the message to the HSP ends up being that you’re a loser, the other part is that you’re crazy. Put enough peas in your eyes and you will certainly feel crazy. But wait, before going off the deep end, realize that this fairy tale is for you. The secret message is that you are not crazy and/or a loser: what you are is special.

            As with all neurological subsets, an HSP comes with particular gifts. We tend to be extra perceptive, good at empathy, attuned to the inner world, and very creativemaybe because we have to find stuff to do while we’re busy hiding away from the rest of world. There’s a lot of overlap between HSPs and introverts, but don’t get the two confused, introverts are a much larger group. Possibly all HSPs are introverts, but not all introverts are HSPs.

       So look, we’re special. We might be hard to live with, but isn’t everyone? The important thing is that we take care of our needs in appropriate ways. Years ago I heard an interview on This American Life with the beloved Fred Rogers, a.k.a. Mr. Rogers. In a discussion about noise and neighbors, Mr. Rogers recounted how once, in a hotel with loud traffic outside, he slept in the closet. That’s an HSP brother right there, and that was a smart, innovative solution to the problem. It’s also a compassionate thing to be out about in a public forum, because it supports other people when they have to do that kind of thing. And it’s also funny. Let’s all have a good laugh at the ridiculous things we have to do to get by.

            HSP or not, I’m guessing we all have some weird needs. For all our commonalities and differences, neurologically speaking every person is a subset of one. That’s how diverse we are. It’s mind-boggling and mysterious. Maybe we can just celebrate that.

Jenny Jaeckel (bio) is the author of four books, including the forthcoming House of Rougeaux, a highly anticipated historical and literary novel for 2018.

Foreword Reviews says, “Perhaps the greatest achievement of the book is that in spite of the inescapable presence of slavery and prejudice, it isn’t really about either of these things. Jenny Jaeckel’s House of Rougeaux is about people–varied and fully realized individuals who make the flawed world their own.

Available for preorder now.

Add to you Goodreads list now.

Me Too and My Characters Too

Where to start? Well, why not start with pussy-grabbing?

When I was seven years old I had a school friend my age named Zach. We totally hit it off, and bonded over things like singing along to Beatles songs on the class record player. We called ourselves “The Junior Beatles” and our favorite song was “Run For Your Life”, which is all about how the man will kill the “little girl” if he “catches her with another man”. Ironic, yes. Somehow I didn’t realize what the song was saying at the time, I just loved the music. I still do, except for the lyrics.

Anyway, Zach and I were great friends until the day came when we played a game outside with another boy, where we straddled the slide and took turns going through each other’s legs, like bridges. I went under the boys’ legs, then it was my turn to be the bridge. As Zach went under my legs he reached up and swatted me on the crotch. We were seven years old, and one could look at this as a harmless action, but there was harm done in that moment, and after it we weren’t friends anymore. The Junior Beatles disbanded.

In the realm of sexual harassment, if you put this moment in that category, and I do because of it’s impact on me, this was very minor. It was not the first, nor the last, nor the worst, of the harassment that I’ve experienced, but it communicated something very essential to me: that Zach did not view me as “Jenny” but as “a girl”, not a unique person but a person with a vagina, which was something he wanted to grab. I knew he wouldn’t have gone for my crotch if I was a boy. I didn’t tell him not to grab me there, I had no words to articulate what I felt, but I couldn’t be friends with him anymore after that, because in the context of the friendship I felt erased as a person.

The most misogynous joke I ever heard was this: What do you call the skin around a vagina? Answer: A girl. It’s a sick joke, right? But it does boil down the psychology to its bare essence, the one that underpins all acts of sexual violence.

My Characters Too – Sexual Assault/Harassment in Fiction

Some famous writer once said that as a writer you have to love your characters, and then you have to do terrible things to them. This was definitely the case for me in writing House of Rougeaux, where three of my seven protagonists survive sexual assault, harassment or misconduct. I included incidents of this kind of violence in the lives of these characters because women in their circumstances were much more likely than not to encounter it. These events were painful to write, one of them especially, and while I attempted to avoid anything gratuitous in their description, I had to try to make them seem real. Sexual violence is not a principal theme in the book, but the incidents do drive the plot and have an impact on all the characters.

Historically, and I think we can include the present era in history, all females living under patriarchy have been subject to sexual violence, and the less power we have in society, due to race, class and/or other factors, the more subject we are. Currently, as we know, there’s a lot of media attention on celebrities and powerful men in Hollywood that are known to be sexual predators, with women bravely coming forward to speak out, and some of these men are finally facing some consequences. It seems like a step in the right direction. Why sexual predators are routinely granted impunity and protection, by both men and women who surround them, is a big fucking mystery to me, and I think is, frankly, the worst part of all.

Case in point, as if anyone needs another one: Jian Ghomeshi, the former host of a popular radio show on CBC (Canada’s equivalent to NPR), a supposedly progressive organization. For years, Ghomeshi aggressively harassed and assaulted numerous women, coworkers included, and the CBC management did nothing. Finally, when he faced criminal charges –again, after some brave women spoke out and took action– he was fired. As a radio listener I myself was duped. I liked the show and actually thought the guy was a feminist. But apparently he had a reputation all over Toronto, and women who had gone to the police, or to their supervisors at CBC, were routinely ignored.

Let’s imagine one of these exchanges:

Employee: “My boss just grabbed me from behind and said he wanted to ‘hate-fuck’ me.” (This really happened BTW).

“Yeah, well, he’s a celebrity, so… I will just ignore you now.”

Wait, what?

Like Cosby, Ghomeshi was found not-guilty in the end and faced no penalty, but personally I take comfort in the fact that his life and reputation are trashed. He may not serve any jail time, but I can’t imagine he hasn’t finally had some real consequences.

As we all know, it’s not just rich and powerful, and/or celebrity men who carry out this kind of behavior, it’s anyone who exploits whatever power differential is at hand. Most of us never deal personally with the rich and powerful, but all females deal with males, and there are a lot of misguided and predatory males. It is true that there are female perpetrators and male victims, I would never discount the truth and suffering there, but the numbers are drastically different. So, being female: Me too, and my characters too. Of course I’ve been harassed. Is there a woman out there who has not been harassed for being female? I myself am not a survivor of sexual assault or abuse, but many women close to me are. For some reason I got lucky.

I’ve been lucky in all kinds of ways, including having parents who defied patriarchal norms: my mom was strong and independent, my dad was gentle and kind, and I spent my childhood in the Free-to-be-You-and-me 1970’s San Francisco Bay Area. Even so, the messages that sexual violence was normal (like the Beatles song, uncritically played in the classroom) were all around, starting early with Saturday morning cartoons. Was it entertaining when Bluto carried off the yelping Olive Oil? Was it funny when Pepe Le Pew forced himself on the cat? No, it was repulsive. And I don’t mean that intellectually, I felt repulsed as a child. In the pantheon of male superheroes there was only Wonder Woman to look up to, and she, unlike the guys, had to parade around virtually naked. By the time I was four years old I had internalized so many messages about the weakness and objectification of women that I refused to wear dresses. I didn’t want to be a weak victim, I wanted autonomy, so I responded in the only way I could at the time.

As an adult, and as a writer, I continue to respond in the ways I think I can, and these themes show up in my books, because I am principally interested in the empowerment of women. In House of Rougeaux, for example, the young Martine Rougeaux, working as a domestic in the home of an upper-class white family, in Montreal in 1925, finds herself alone one day with her employer, who crosses a line and scares her to death, setting events in motion that alter her life.

On this altered course, Martine encounters and old school friend, Lucille Travis, a young woman who makes her living as a dancer in a nightclub. Having lost her older brother in The Great War, and her father before him to illness, Lucille becomes the sole breadwinner for the rest of her family –her ailing mother and her ten year old brother. Financially, being a dancer is the best of the few options available to Lucille, but she pays the price of being shunned by her church-going community—the community to which Martine and her family belong. Reconnecting with her friend, and in light of their respective situations, Martine is forced to reexamine her notions of morality, and must negotiate with her family when she and Lucille devise a plan together that is both small and radical.

So, me too, and my characters too. But I would also like to propose an alternate “Me too” here, because the women I know who are survivors of sexual violence are also incredible responders, who have spent years courageously speaking out, healing themselves, empowering other women, and raising compassionate, empowered, responsible kids. I can’t claim to have ever done anything heroic, not like many women I know, and not like my characters. But I do what I can to support other women, and do what I can to raise an empowered kid. I’m pretty proud of that.

Jenny Jaeckel is the author of forthcoming novel House of Rougeaux, to be published April 24th, 2018. House of Rougeaux is available for preorder here, or find out more at


Spot 12 ~ When and How


Spot_12_Cover_90This is the first in a series of posts I’m planning on the making of Spot 12.

I first started imagining making a book when Asa was around six months old and we were out of the hospital. The whole experience was so bizarre I thought it would be good comics material, but I also felt it as a big black cloud of grief and trauma that hung over me. Caring for Asa was still extremely complicated and stressful, and I had no space or ability to focus on writing, so the first thing I did was talk onto a cassette tape. I said everything I could remember about those five months, all out of order. I didn’t remember the order of half of the events, it was total chaos. The day I finished making that recording was winter solstice of 2005 and Asa was almost one. I felt lighter, as if that black cloud had a new container.


My friend Susan Steudel worked as a court reporter offered to transcribe the tapes for me and some months later I began to organize the text into a narrative and later still began to draw. The process of writing worked to detangle my thoughts and feelings, rinsing them out like masses of dirty wool. Once I had a solid enough story, I organized it into chapters and pages and began drawing. Drawing made me revisit each event in detail, which was sometimes awful, but it served to comb and plait the wool, in a sense, into a tidy and manageable package that eventually became the book. The drawing took about six months. It was a labor intensive process that I squeezed into the cracks (including hours of insomnia) of the overwhelming care Asa required. It was a full-speed sprint that I collapsed at the end of. I’m pretty sure my right hand went into a coma.


My friend and fellow artist Scott Malin told me about the Xeric Foundation and the grants they for years awarded to artists to self-publish graphic novels, and also introduced me to his friend and comics partner Josue Menjivar. Josue became my comics mentor and took the book project under his wing, designing the book, co-designing the first cover, advising me at many points and spending hours dealing with my rookie mistakes. I was lucky enough to win one of the Xeric Grants of 2008 and in 2009 the book went to the printer.

Teal background stars Asa3

Spot 12 ~ Description

Spot 12 delivers the gritty details of a new mother and her newborn daughter, Asa, during a five-month stay in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in this visually gripping graphic memoir by Jenny Jaeckel. A routine prenatal exam reveals a dangerous problem, and Jaeckel and her husband find themselves thrust into a world of close calls, sleepless nights, and psychological crises. Surrounded by disagreements and family tensions, death, and questions of faith, Jaeckel struggles to maintain a positive frame of mind.

Against the antiseptic, mechanical reality of the NICU, the dedicated doctors and nurses are drawn as sympathetic and wry animal characters. Doctor Eyes and Nurse Gentlehands are two of the caring individuals who do all they can to save Baby Asa. At times Jaeckel and her husband battle feelings of helplessness and despair, but their determination, hope, insight, bravery, and connection ultimately helps keep their little girl alive.