What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day

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What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading

Pearl Cleage


In an interview in Black Issues Book Review, Pearl Cleage reveals that the idea for What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day came from her desire to write about a character whose doctor informs her that she is HIV positive. Cleage was amazed at how many people she saw in denial about HIV and AIDS, so she created a character who has no choice but to deal with it. This character, Ava, not only comes to terms with her HIV-positive status, but she also finds a way to recreate and reclaim her life.

What Looks Like Crazy is Cleage's first novel. Known for her plays and essays, Cleage felt that this particular story required the novel form to explore the culture of Idlewild and the psychological workings of her characters. Idlewild is an actual city in Michigan that was established after the Civil War as an African-American community. The city was a thriving resort during the 1950s and 1960s, but then it began to decline in popularity.

Although Cleage began writing What Looks Like Crazy in the third person, she realized that her skills as a playwright would make a first-person point of view a natural choice. She told Black Issues Book Review, "As a playwright, I'm used to writing in dialogue."

When Oprah Winfrey chose the novel as one of her book club selections, sales sharply increased, and Cleage quickly reached a wider audience. In 1998, What Looks Like Crazy stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for almost ten weeks. In 2001, Cleage saw publication of a follow-up novel titled I Wish I Had a Red Dress.

Author Biography

Pearl Cleage (pronounced "cleg") was born on December 7, 1948, in Springfield, Massachusetts, to Doris and Reverend Albert B. Cleage, Jr. She was reared in Detroit, where her father's ministry allowed her to hear speakers such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Cleage graduated from high school and then went to Howard University in Washington, D.C., during the turbulent 1960s. After three years, she transferred to Spelman College in Atlanta, where she graduated in 1971 with a degree in drama.

In 1969, Cleage married Michael Lomax, a politician. The marriage lasted ten years and produced a daughter named Deignan. Cleage remarried in 1994. Her second husband, Zaron Burnett, Jr., is a writer and producing director of Just Us Theatre Company in Atlanta, Georgia, where the couple met. Cleage was the theater's first playwright-in-residence, and she and Burnett collaborated on several works after she became the artistic director in 1992. Another Atlanta theater, The Alliance Theater, is responsible for debuting some of Cleage's most notable plays. Among these is Flyin' West (1992), the play credited with gaining Cleage a widespread theatrical audience.

In her first novel, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day (1997), Cleage depicts the life of Ava Johnson, a modern African-American woman struggling with her HIV-positive status. When this novel was selected for talk-show host Oprah Winfrey's book club, Cleage reached a wide and diverse audience. The book stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for almost ten weeks in 1998, and Cleage's writing in general attracted a great deal of interest. The success of this novel led to the follow-up, I Wish I Had a Red Dress (2001), which takes up the story of Joyce, a character in What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day.

Academics, theatergoers, and readers regard Cleage as an important contemporary African-American writer and feminist. In addition to plays and novels, Cleage has written poetry and essays. She has contributed to magazines such as Ms. and Essence, and she is a cofounder and editor of the literary magazine Catalyst. Today, Cleage continues to write from her home in Atlanta. She is considering another follow-up to What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day that would continue the story of Aretha, one of the young girls in the support group Joyce leads.

Plot Summary


Ava Johnson arrives in Idlewild, her childhood hometown, for a summer-long visit with her older sister. Ava is a successful, single, African-American woman who is HIV positive. She left Atlanta because the news of her virus destroyed her social and professional lives. She plans to go to San Francisco at the end of the summer to start a new life. Her sister, Joyce, became a widow two years ago, when her husband drowned.

Eddie Jefferson, one of Joyce's close friends who also grew up in Idlewild, meets Ava at the airport. He explains that Joyce is with a girl who is having a baby, but she will be back as soon as she can. On the way home, Ava wants to stop at a liquor store. There, she and Eddie see a violent scene between a young man, Frank, and his girlfriend, who is trying to get out of the car in which she and her baby have been riding with Frank. Eddie intervenes, and they take the girl safely home.

Joyce is thrilled to see her younger sister. She tells her all about the girl who just had the baby. She is a crack addict, so Joyce is concerned about the baby but hopes that things will work out for mother and child.

The next day, Joyce learns that the baby is not HIV positive, but the mother has left the hospital. Joyce wants to take care of the baby, so she and Ava go to see the baby's aunt, Mattie, for permission. Mattie lives in a crack house with her brother Frank—the same Frank that Eddie and Ava encountered the day before. They do not want the baby, so Joyce arranges to give her a temporary home.

Joyce tells Ava about the Sewing Circus, a group she formed for the unmarried teenage mothers in her church. The group's name is a twist on "sewing circle," because it meets at the same time the church's sewing circle used to meet. Originally formed to plan a nursery care rotation for Sunday mornings, the group now discusses anything relevant to the girls' lives. Joyce sees this as an opportunity to educate, empower, and guide the girls.

One morning Gerry Anderson, the reverend's wife, arrives at Joyce's house. She tells Ava that she and her husband are unhappy about some of the Sewing Circus's discussion content. Tensions come to a head later, however, when Joyce brings hot dogs and condoms to a meeting to show the girls how to use birth control.

The baby comes to live with Joyce and Ava, and they are surprised at how quiet she is. Joyce names her "Imani," which means "faith" in Swahili.

Ava and Eddie spend time together, sharing meals and talking. Although Ava is attracted to him, she decides that romance is out of the question.


Gerry tells Joyce that she can no longer have Sewing Circus meetings on church property. Joyce is disappointed but not altogether surprised.

Aretha, the only member of the Sewing Circus who does not have a baby, stops by to see Joyce one day but finds Ava instead. They talk about Aretha's hopes to attend Interlochen, a private arts school, on a scholarship.

Ava has her prescriptions filled at the Idlewild pharmacy. By the time she picks them up, the pharmacist has already told people, including Gerry, that Ava is HIV positive. Immediately, people start making ignorant and mean-spirited remarks. That night, Ava visits Eddie, and he tells her about his experiences in Vietnam.

Joyce has the Sewing Circus meet at her house. Despite the change in location, turnout is high. She realizes that she needs to find a larger place for their meetings.

The next night, Ava and Eddie watch the violent film Menace II Society together. Eddie can only watch a little bit of it, and then he tells Ava about his violent background. After Vietnam, he became part of the violent drug culture and ended up in jail for murder.

A few nights later, Ava goes to Eddie's house for dinner and tells him that she is HIV positive. He is understanding, and they acknowledge their mutual attraction. They begin their physical relationship that night, taking all the precautions necessary.


One of the old men in town is selling his house for only ten thousand dollars to a cash buyer, and Eddie thinks the house would be perfect for the Sewing Circus. Ava volunteers to pay the ten thousand dollars, and Joyce is thrilled. Eddie begins renovating the house, and progress is going well until Joyce receives a letter from the state discontinuing funding for her program. Gerry has sent state officials a letter with misleading information about the Sewing Circus, so Joyce must go tell her side of the story.

While Joyce is away, Ava takes care of Imani. One night, Frank and Tyrone (the Andersons' grandson who lives with them) come to the house. They park out front and have sex with Frank's girl-friend in and on their car. When Frank throws his empty beer bottle through one of Joyce's windows, they drive away. Eddie wants to "take care of" Frank and Tyrone, but Ava tells him not to do anything so drastic.

Ava and Joyce file a complaint and meet with Tyrone and Gerry at the sheriff's office. Gerry tells the sheriff that Ava lured the boys to the house to try to seduce them. The sheriff does not believe her story, and the meeting accomplishes nothing.

A few days later, Joyce insists on visiting the Andersons to try to resolve their differences. Reluctantly, Ava goes with her. Gerry is not home, so they talk to the reverend. He is very drunk and difficult to talk to, as he wavers between incoherence and praise of his wife.

Ava goes to help paint the new house, and Eddie proposes to her. Ava retreats for a few days while she processes this possible new future.

Mattie arrives at Joyce's house with a social worker, demanding that they give Imani to her. Mattie admits that Gerry put her up to this. After weighing her options, Joyce agrees to let Imani go with Mattie for the weekend. On Monday, a hearing will determine where the baby should live, and everyone but Mattie expects that the result will be for Imani to be returned to Joyce.


While Imani is with Mattie, Joyce and Ava sit outside the house and listen for signs that Imani needs them. Everything is relatively calm until Sunday, when they hear Imani crying. They rush to the door, but Mattie and Frank tell them to go away. Joyce waits out of sight while Ava goes to get Eddie. While Ava is gone, Joyce goes in after Imani. She hears her screaming frantically, so she enters through the back of the house. She goes in and calls the police and the hospital, and Frank threatens to shoot her in the head. Mattie convinces him that she and Frank should leave before the police arrive. Joyce then discovers that Frank has broken Imani's legs by twisting them. At the hospital, the doctors operate, put Imani in casts, and say she will be fine.

Eddie wants to find Frank and kill him because there is no way to know how far he will go next time. Ava does not try to discourage him this time.

Ava meets a woman who was a member of the Andersons' previous church in Chicago. She reveals that Reverend Anderson left Chicago amidst allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior with some of the boys in the parish. Ava also learns that Tyrone's mother died of AIDS.

Ava confronts Gerry with this information, threatens to make it public, and succeeds in running the Andersons out of town.


Ava calls this chapter an epilogue. She says that Imani is healing fine and the casts are off her legs. Police captured Frank and Mattie after they committed a number of robberies to support their drug habits. The church members have embraced the new pastor, Sister Judith, and her husband. Sister Judith married Ava and Eddie in a joyous celebration.


Geraldine Anderson

See Gerry Anderson

Gerry Anderson

Gerry Anderson is the pastor's wife. She is very involved in the church and in the lives of its members. In fact, the reverend is rarely seen, but Gerry is quite vocal and visible. Gerry is in her late fifties and is usually dressed up more than anyone else is. She wears an elaborately curled hairstyle. She sings in the choir, and her voice is impressive.

Gerry has clear ideas about what is proper and what is not, and she is unwilling to depart from these ideas. Ava characterizes Gerry as condescending, self-righteous, out of touch, and judg-mental. When Gerry learns that Joyce is teaching the girls in the Sewing Circus about condom use, she forbids Joyce to meet at the church. She also treats Ava like a leper when she learns that Ava is HIV positive. Her attacks on Joyce and the Sewing Circus become increasingly cruel; she even arranges for Imani, the baby for whom Joyce is caring, to be taken away from Joyce and put into the home of crack-addicted family members. Gerry is also willing to lie to the sheriff and other public officials to get what she wants, and she sends letters to the state to try to have Joyce's funding for the Sewing Circus discontinued.

Ava learns important information about the Andersons' past. Parents of young boys in the reverend's Chicago parish accused him of inappropriate sexual behavior with their sons. The church board sent him away and warned him to avoid all contact with youth. Gerry's attempts to destroy the Sewing Circus are, at least in part, an attempt to keep young people, and the temptation they present, away from her husband. Ava also learns that Gerry and her husband are Tyrone's guardians because their daughter died of AIDS. This explains Gerry's drive to distance herself from Ava, who reminds Gerry of the pain of losing her daughter. In the end, Gerry agrees to move her family away from Idlewild.

Eddie Jefferson

Eddie Jefferson, known in his youth as "Wild Eddie," has returned to Idlewild after serving ten years in prison. When he was young, he went to Vietnam, an experience that left him angry and confused. Once he was back in the United States, he became part of the violent drug culture. As a result, he was sent to prison for murder. In prison, he learned to be introspective and spiritual. He began to meditate and to look for life lessons in his painful experiences. These practices have matured him and given him a peaceful disposition. Ava finds him extremely content and in control. Still, Eddie is protective of those he loves. He is quick to offer to kill anyone who threatens Ava, Joyce, or Imani. He believes that loving someone means being willing to protect her at any cost.

Eddie wears his hair in dreadlocks and wears simple clothes such as sandals and Eastern-inspired shirts. He is a physical person who works as a carpenter and practices martial arts. He is also a spiritual person who enjoys music, tea, and incense. He is thoughtful, sincere, and intense, and he takes time to nurture himself as well as others. Eddie was a close friend of Mitch, Joyce's deceased husband, and Eddie checks on Joyce to be sure she has everything she needs.

Perhaps because of the extreme circumstances of his past, Eddie seems fearless. He is unafraid of the violent, drug-using youth, and he is unafraid of Ava's HIV-positive status. He is never foolish or rash, but he does not allow fear to dictate his decisions in any way. His willingness to fall in love with and marry Ava is evidence that he prioritizes feelings and people over convenience and pleasantness.

Ava Johnson

The main character and narrator of the story, Ava is a single, African-American woman who is HIV positive. She has left Atlanta after ten years because her social life and business (she owned a salon) fell apart when everyone found out about her illness. She has decided to visit her older sister, Joyce, in their hometown of Idlewild, Michigan, on her way to start a new life in San Francisco.

Ava and Joyce share a special bond, and they are able to say things to one another that nobody else can say. Having helped each other through the devastating suicide of their mother, they look to each other for female companionship and guidance.

Ava is direct, sarcastic, sensitive, intelligent, open-minded, and lonely. She accepts responsibility for her disease, but she has trouble dealing with the finality of it. She is often impatient with what the game-playing people do, and she deeply resents the harsh judgments of others. She is also hesitant to get involved with Eddie because she is aware of how her illness would affect him and their relationship, as well as her emotional limitations. A basically selfless person, Ava finds herself torn between surrendering to the romance with Eddie, which she desperately wants, and stopping it before it goes far enough to hurt either one of them. Ultimately, she is able to trust him and believe in his vision for their future. This is the turning point for Ava; she shifts from pessimism to optimism.

Joyce Mitchell

Joyce is Ava's older sister. She lives in Idlewild, where she has lived her entire life. Joyce is a widow whose husband, Mitch, drowned two years prior to the events of the novel. She has had a hard time coping with her loss but, at the time of the novel, she is beginning to reconnect with her community in meaningful ways. Joyce also lost both of her children, one in infancy and one in childhood. A churchgoer, Joyce identifies a need among the teenage mothers there and begins a weekly meeting with them. The Sewing Circus, as it comes to be called, is a forum for open discussion. It gives the girls a chance to support each other, and it gives Joyce an opportunity to provide guidance and education.

Joyce's drive to make a difference stems from her family environment as a child. She and Ava grew up in a house where their parents cultivated the spirit of the 1960s by planning rallies and drafting handbills with their friends. In addition, Joyce's professional background was as a state caseworker for fifteen years, working with families in the Idlewild area.

Joyce is very nurturing and maternal. The reader's first clue to her character comes when Eddie picks Ava up at the airport because Joyce has driven a woman in labor to the hospital and is staying until she delivers her baby. Joyce's decision to take care of an unwanted baby who is born addicted to crack is not surprising, given her background and her personality. Joyce names the baby Imani, which means "faith" in Swahili. She is also motherly toward Ava and the members of the Sewing Circus. An important part of Joyce's maternal nature is her fierce protectiveness of those she loves. This is evident in her reaction to having Imani taken from her for a weekend and in her fearless confrontation of an armed man high on crack who has hurt Imani.

Aretha Simmons

Aretha is the only member of the Sewing Circus who does not have a baby. She is sixteen years old, intelligent, personable, pretty, and more ambitious than the other girls are. Joyce tells Ava that she believes that Aretha has a chance of making something of her life. Aretha's parents, like Joyce and Ava's parents, were activists hoping to join a community of like-minded African Americans committed to making a difference. When Aretha was twelve, however, they both died in an automobile accident. One of her mother's friends agreed to take her in so she would not have to move to Detroit to live with her grandmother.

Aretha has a vision for her life that includes pursuing a better education than she can receive in Idlewild. She is thrilled at her acceptance to a summer session at Interlochen, a private arts school nearby that hosts a special all-expense-paid program during the summer. Her hard work and talent eventually earn her a scholarship.



All of the novel's main characters have endured adversity prior to the events of the story. Ava learned that she was HIV positive. Joyce suffered the loss of two children and her beloved husband. Eddie was in the military and went to Vietnam, from which he returned angry and confused. As a result, he embarked on a life of crime that ended with a ten-year prison sentence. The younger members of the Sewing Circus also have experienced adversity.

The juxtaposition of these two groups—the adults and the adolescents—reveals Cleage's message that wisdom comes from surviving adversity. At the beginning of the novel, Ava intends to visit her sister for the summer and then go on to San Francisco. What she learns about herself during her visit, however, teaches her that she cannot outrun her HIV-positive status. San Francisco may be more accepting of her, but it will not be an escape. Because of this realization, Ava stops running. Eddie was on a path of destruction and self-destruction until he went to prison, where he met an older, wiser man who told him, "You know what your problem is? You ain't slowed down long enough to see the lessons, youngblood." After serving his sentence, Eddie left prison a wiser, calmer, more focused man who felt peace. The loss of her beloved husband, Mitch, devastated Joyce. This loss came after her two children died, one in infancy from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and the other by a drunk driver. After Mitch drowned, Joyce lost herself in her grief, gaining weight and detaching from society, until she felt compelled to help the young unwed mothers in her church and her community. She discovered that the surest way to help herself was to help others.

The stories of the three main adult characters illustrate what can come out of adversity. Their stories are very different, but each person has gained wisdom and self-knowledge. This central message is a hopeful one, and it suggests that at least some of the members of the Sewing Circus will endure their hard lot in life and mature into wiser women. Cleage takes this idea a step further with Imani, the baby Joyce takes in after her mother abandons her at the hospital. Holding Imani, Ava explains:

I ran my hand over her little head again and she snuggled against me in a way that made me feel a surge of what I guess was maternal protectiveness. Imani had already kicked a drug habit cold turkey and outrun the HIV her mama was sending special delivery. She was stronger than she looked, and somehow that made me feel stronger, too.


What Looks Like Crazy depicts the unfortunate results of ignorance. Ava was ignorant and careless in her promiscuous youth, and she contracted a deadly disease. Once people learn that she is HIV positive, Ava finds that not only can her own ignorance hurt her but that the ignorance of others can hurt her. The fear and judgment felt and expressed by others makes her feel rejected, worthless, and alone. The same ignorance that brought about Ava's illness brings about unplanned pregnancies for the teenagers in the Sewing Circus. They, too, are careless and promiscuous, and the result for them is early motherhood. When Joyce teaches them about condoms and how to use them, they are interested because this is mostly new information. Nobody had ever taught them how to protect themselves from pregnancy. They also have no idea that they are at risk for contracting diseases such as AIDS. Ava relates that Joyce "asked them what they thought was the number one killer of young black folks all over America. They guessed homicide, drug overdose, cancer, and car accidents, in that order. When Joyce said AIDS, they thought she was kidding."

The story also shows how ignorance can easily breed intolerance and harsh judgment. Ava endures the judgment of people in Atlanta and people in Idlewild when they learn that she is HIV positive. They treat their wrong ideas as facts and feel justified in treating Ava coldly. She tells that when she first learned of her status, she wrote to everyone she might have exposed to the virus. A furious woman stormed into Ava's salon, demanding that she take back the letter she sent to the woman's husband. She made a scene and slapped Ava. While the woman would have been justified to be angry that her husband had been unfaithful, instead she was angry about the letter. Ava recalls: "'All right then,' I said, 'what do you want?' 'I want you to take it back,' she said. 'Take it back?' I was really confused now. What good was that going to do?" The woman wanted to remain ignorant of the risk to her husband's health—and her own. She slapped Ava, not for sleeping with her husband but for sending a letter to inform him that he needed to see his doctor for an HIV screening. Recalling the incident, Ava remarks, "That's when I really started to understand how afraid people can be when they don't have any information."

New Beginnings

Set against the uninspiring backdrop of Idlewild is the theme of new beginnings. Ava visits her sister on her way to make a new beginning for herself in San Francisco. After losing her social status in Atlanta, she is desperate to start over in a new place. What she fails to realize until late in the book is that she can make her fresh start in Idlewild. Her relationship with Eddie and her decision to marry him are very optimistic, an attitude that was foreign to her at the beginning of the book.

Joyce also makes a new beginning when she commits to the Sewing Circus. Delighted at the progress she makes with the girls, she refuses to let the group dissolve just because they can no longer meet at the church. She shifts her focus from her grief at the loss of her husband to figuring out how to continue filling a need in the community. By dedicating herself to the Sewing Circus, she redefines herself. She is no longer just Mitch's widow; she is also a leader and mentor to a group of teenage girls who need a role model. She now has a present and a future as well as a past.


First-Person Narrator

The entire story is told from Ava's perspective in her own voice. Ava is direct, stubborn, and sometimes crass. The reader understands that she is not an objective narrator. For example, she immediately accepts the members of the Sewing Circus and their situations without considering that they bear responsibility for their behavior. As a promiscuous woman herself, Ava does not see the girls as examples of the dangers of promiscuity. Another narrator might perceive them as young women who lack virtue or character. Ava relates her experiences, past and present, and she is open about her feelings and attitudes. The reader really gets to know Ava because Cleage's focus is on maintaining her voice consistently throughout the novel.

Topics for Further Study

  • Research the current status of treatment for AIDS. What treatments are most effective, and how expensive are they? What is the prognosis for a person diagnosed with AIDS in the United States today? How long, on average, will that person live, and what will his or her life be like?
  • Read Cleage's play Flyin' West. Write an essay in which you explore some similarities and differences in the two works.
  • Discuss the various religious views of the characters and how these views shape each character's attitudes and actions.
  • The resort town of Idlewild is an actual place in Michigan. Do some research to learn about its history. How did it get started as a resort town, what kinds of people lived there and visited there, and why did the town decline? Then discuss why you think Cleage chose to set her story there.
  • Write an additional epilogue to the story, telling what Ava, Joyce, Eddie, and Imani are doing ten years after the novel ends. Keep in mind everything that you have learned about the characters and what their approximate ages will be in ten years.

As a narrator, Ava is cynical, sarcastic, sensitive, and self-assured. Her sarcasm is established early in the novel. Describing women on television who tell their stories of contracting AIDS, Ava remarks, "There they were, weeping and wailing and wringing their hands, wearing their prissy little Laura Ashley dresses and telling their edited-for-TV life stories."

Time Shifts

As the novel's narrator, Ava reveals her past alongside her present. These time shifts seem natural, as they occur when something in Ava's present reminds her of something in her past. This gives the reader two benefits: first, the reader is able to understand Ava's background and why she came to Idlewild to see her sister; and, second, the reader is able to see how Ava's past relates to what is happening to her at certain moments. When Eartha (Imani's crack-addicted, HIV-positive, teenage mother) leaves the hospital and abandons the baby, Joyce is dumbfounded. Ava, however, remarks, "Homegirl's trying to walk away from that HIV. She's trying to decide if she's going to tell anyone or just keep living her life and see what happens. I used to wish I hadn't taken the test so I still wouldn't know." The result of this kind of merging of the past with the present is intimacy with the main character because the reader knows many of Ava's private memories.

Ava's recollections sometimes shift abruptly from one time period to another. In some cases, Ava breaks off her recollection to return to the present moment. This usually signifies either that the memory is becoming too painful or that the present holds something more promising than the memory. An example of this is when Ava tells the reader about a jazz musician with whom she had a serious relationship. They were involved when she found out she was HIV positive, and her expectations were terribly disappointed. As Ava tells this story, she breaks off suddenly to return to telling about the present:

When I got the results and told him, he sat there and listened to me tell it all and then he picked up his coat and his horn case and walked out the door. No good-bye. No damn, baby, what we gonna do? Nothing. One minute he was there, then he was gone. That was it.

Ava abruptly switches from this memory to telling the reader that she went with Joyce to see Eartha's sister, Mattie, about the baby. Her switch from a painful memory to an incident in the present shows that she is eager to stop thinking about the profound disappointments in her past and focus instead on what is happening in the present.

At other times, Ava embraces the present because it offers her something better than her memories offer. Realizing that she will not be around for much of Imani's life, Ava determines to be as focused on the present as possible. She writes:

So I took a deep breath like they keep saying in this meditation tape and tried to focus on being right in this room, right in this moment, and I actually felt better! It was amazing. I dragged that scared part of myself kicking and screaming into the present moment and it was so good to be there. I started grinning like an idiot.

Historical Context

HIV and AIDS in America

The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) made its first official announcement regarding Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in 1981. This brought awareness of AIDS and its precursor, Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), to the mainstream. Because the first clusters of cases were among homosexuals, the disease was strongly characterized as a gay disease for many years. In fact, HIV/AIDS was initially known by the acronym GRID, which stood for "gay-related immune deficiency," until heterosexuals began contracting it too. During the early 1980s, the number of AIDS cases rose dramatically every year. By 1988, the CDC was aware of 86,000 cases, compared to only 225 cases reported in 1981.

Although there was a small number of victims who were considered blameless by the general public (such as recipients of blood transfusions and babies of mother with AIDS), the disease retained its social stigma for many years. Ignorance about the disease was also widespread and ingrained. In 1985, for example, a New York Times/CBS poll found that about half of Americans thought that AIDS was easily transmitted through casual contact. This attitude is revealed in What Looks Like Crazy when Ava picks up her prescriptions from the pharmacy, and the pharmacist handles her bag and her money with great care. In the same scene, Gerry Anderson tells Ava that she does not want her grandson, Tyrone, making pharmacy deliveries to Ava because he is their only grandchild. Headlines around the United States, however, often told more severe stories than Ava's story. In Queens, New York, a girl with AIDS was allowed to attend school, and parents kept twelve thousand children home in protest. Ryan White, a boy in Indiana, became a household name when he was an outcast at school and in town after contracting AIDS from a blood transfusion. In Florida, three boys in one family received tainted blood transfusions and, when they contracted the virus, someone burned their home to the ground.

While some people were hostile toward those with HIV and AIDS, others were simply indifferent to the suffering it caused. Many believed that people with AIDS had brought the disease on themselves and "deserved" it. Some religious fundamentalists claimed that the disease was divine punishment for amoral living. The government was slow to respond to the growing AIDS epidemic in terms of research and education.

In the 1990s, education improved the public's understanding of the disease and helped qualm fears. Announcements by respected athletes with HIV positive status (such as Magic Johnson and Greg Louganis) helped remove the stigma to a certain extent. The generous and vocal support of celebrities brought a sense of urgency to the search for better treatments and a cure. In 1993, Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington starred in Philadelphia, a film about a gay attorney who loses his job when his firm learns that he has AIDS. Hanks won an Academy Award for his portrayal of the main character. As the 1990s progressed, AIDS became a part of American culture. Awareness and prevention education expanded, and research continued to improve treatments. Still, perceptions of and reactions to the disease are mixed, and many people with HIV-positive status endure social discrimination.

While HIV and AIDS are a challenge to all of American society, they affect African Americans disproportionately. African Americans make up approximately 14 percent of the American population but comprise 41 percent of all AIDS cases. Of all the women who die of AIDS, fully half of them are African American. Among newly diagnosed women, 64 percent are black, 18 percent are white, and 18 percent are Hispanic. Incidence among black women, especially in the South, rose throughout the 1990s. While some women contract the disease from intravenous drug use, another major factor is heterosexual sex.

Teen Pregnancy and Other Problems

In 1997, when What Looks Like Crazy was published, American teenagers faced problems that had been much less common in the generations before them. These issues included teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, violence, and living in single-parent homes. During the 1990s, about one million teenage girls (10 percent of the total U.S. population of girls between the ages of fifteen and nineteen) became pregnant every year. In 1998, almost 13 percent of all births in the United States were to teenage mothers. Teenage pregnancy rates are higher than those in many other developed countries, and the problem cost the United States seven billion dollars in 1999. Some social commentators assert that teen pregnancy creates a cycle: many girls who become pregnant come from single-parent homes, and then they become single parents. In 1994, almost ten million single mothers were heading households; twenty-five million children were being reared without fathers; and 42 percent of those children had never seen their fathers' houses. In 1998, 26 percent of families with children were headed by single parents, and 42 percent of those single parents had never been married.

Drug abuse was another major issue among teenagers in the 1990s. Nearly 10 percent of adolescents between the ages of twelve and seventeen used illegal drugs in 1998. Most of these teenagers used marijuana, but close to two million admitted to using cocaine and/or inhalants. Although use of drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, and heroin declined through the 1990s, use of "designer" drugs such as ecstasy rose dramatically. Not surprisingly, teenagers who are under the influence of drugs may become violent or sexually uninhibited, both of which often lead to long-term consequences.

Critical Overview

Although Cleage already enjoyed success as a playwright and essayist, in 1997 she ventured into novel writing with What Looks Like Crazy. Critics generally deemed her work in fiction as accomplished as her previous work in other forms. What Looks Like Crazy earned the acclaim of reviewers for its irreverent tone, relevant social issues, and well-developed characters.

A Publishers Weekly reviewer notes that "first-time novelist Cleage, without succumbing to didacticism, delivers a work of intelligence and integrity." The reviewer applauds Cleage for skillfully addressing so many issues that young African-American men and women face, including teenage motherhood, AIDS, drug abuse, unemployment, and inadequate sex education. Vanessa Bush of Booklist describes the novel as "riveting," adding that this "funny, irreverent, and hopeful novel is stunningly real and evocative." In People Weekly, Laura Jamison writes that the plot developments surrounding the quarrels with the local church can be "a little contrived and overblown." Still, the reviewer finds the book "uplifting" for its central message that a person's fallibility makes him or her

lovable, a message Jamison claims is "delivered with a deft and joyful touch."


Jennifer Bussey

Bussey holds a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies and a bachelor's degree in English literature. She is an independent writer specializing in literature. In the following essay, Bussey explores the significance of Ava's revisiting her childhood hometown of Idlewild.

In What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, Cleage introduces the reader to Ava, a woman whose HIV-positive status ruined her social and professional life in Atlanta. Deciding to start a new life, she chooses San Francisco as her new home but first wants to visit her older sister, Ava, in Idlewild, Michigan, for the summer. Ava and Joyce grew up in Idlewild, and Ava's reaction to the declining resort town is similar to that of most people who revisit their childhood hometowns. She is struck by the changes, but she is also surprised at the things that have not changed and the people who still live there or who have returned to live there again after some time away. What Ava does not know when she first arrives is that she too is returning for more than just a visit.

Ava comments that in the early days of Idlewild, the town was full of idle men and wild women. Once a popular resort town, Idlewild is now declining and no longer draws tourists. Ava's impression is that the town is stagnating, and there is little evidence of its exciting past. Still, the town's name is fitting; the youth in the town are both idle and wild. With the exception of Aretha, they seem to lack ambition or vision; they do not even have the attitude shared by so many teenagers of being eager to get out of their hometown and see other parts of the world. They expect to stay right where they are and do not even consider other possibilities. The youth are also wild; their lives revolve around sex, drugs, alcohol, and violence.

From Ava's perspective, the frequency of teenage pregnancy and crack use in Idlewild is unexpected. She is stunned because she thought that these problems would be out of her life once she left the big city of Atlanta. Instead, she finds them as commonplace in Idlewild as they are in Atlanta and, probably, San Francisco. Although she may have expected to enjoy a break from urban ills, she learns that these ills are universal. Because she has seen the problems of the urban youth in Atlanta, she quickly recognizes the same defiant attitudes in some of the young men in Idlewild. Commenting on Tyrone, Reverend Anderson's grandson, and his friend Frank, Ava observes:

I felt sorry for them. I'd seen boys in my Atlanta neighborhood grow into swaggering young men who were suddenly scary until you looked into their still baby faces and realized who they used to be, but I also knew how dangerous they were. I'd seen Frank hit that girl like he didn't care if he broke every bone in her face. I'd seen Tyrone smoking dope right behind his grandmother's back. It was tempting but foolhardy to focus on their vulnerability instead of your own.

Realizing that social ills are everywhere is an important part of Ava's learning that she cannot outrun her HIV-positive status. The same devastation and discrimination she experienced in Atlanta, where she contracted it, will follow her to Idlewild and to San Francisco, where she expects to start a new life. At one point, Ava remarks, "I felt like I was back in Atlanta listening to people talking in tongues, trying not say HIV."

Idlewild was once a resort town, a place where people went to escape temporarily the demands of their everyday lives. Tourists came to Idlewild for respite, just as Ava does. She expects to take a break from worrying about her life and its new demands, but she finds that she must still confront her uncertain future and the regrets of her past. In this light, it is appropriate that Idlewild is no longer the haven from the city that it once was; it cannot offer Ava a place to leave her problems behind. Late in the story, she confides that the problem with knowing the truth deep down is that it makes it hard to pretend. She adds that, ever since she arrived in Idlewild, she has been trying to pretend that "this place is so far away from the scene of the crime that the consequences can't catch me."

Ava and Idlewild have three important similarities. The first is that they are seemingly on the decline yet still have much to offer. The second is that their histories demonstrate what is temporary and what is permanent. And the third is that they reflect major social issues of the 1990s. Anyone visiting Idlewild can see that it is a town in decline. Its exciting past contrasts sharply with its troubled present. Although it is no longer a resort town and social problems are a growing issue, it is still rich in history and potential. While some of its residents represent the worst of society, there are also people who represent the best of human nature. In these ways, Idlewild mirrors Ava. She is in decline, waiting for the inevitable destruction of her health and quality of life, but she is still engaged in life and working to improve herself and her community. She has the wisdom and perspective she lacked in her younger years, so she too is rich in history and potential. As a woman who is HIV positive, she embodies a major social problem, but through her loyalty, generosity, and humor she also embodies the resilience and strength of the human spirit. Idlewild is not all good and not all bad, so Ava is not in a position either to give up on it or to declare it perfect. Instead, she is compelled to participate in it, attaching herself to what is good and promising about it and working to repair what is destructive and frightening about it. The more she learns to deal with her HIV-positive status, the more she responds to herself the same way she responds to the town.

The second similarity between Idlewild and Ava is that they illustrate the passing fun of temporary excitement and the stability of lasting character. Idlewild was once a thriving resort town for African Americans. It was rich with entertainment, nightlife, and interesting visitors. Now these elements are gone, but they were never really a fundamental part of the town. Touring entertainers came and went, the nightlife came alive only when the sun went down, and the interesting visitors finished their stays and returned to their homes. What was always constant about Idlewild was its population of permanent residents. Families like the one in which Joyce and Ava were reared, and notable people like "Wild Eddie" Jefferson, stayed in Idlewild throughout every season. For Ava, the things in her life that were fleeting, such as parties, one-night stands, and alcohol, are now gone. But the permanent fixtures, like her intelligence, wit, perseverance, and family, are still available to her. Idlewild and Ava illustrate the temporary nature of flashy, exciting chapters in the lives of towns and people, and they also show the lasting value of stable, caring people and strong character.

Third, Idlewild and Ava represent important social ills of the 1990s. Ava is surprised to see the same problems in Idlewild that she saw in the urban landscape of Atlanta: teenage pregnancy, domestic abuse, crack addiction, alcoholism, illiteracy, and sexual abuse. Throughout the story, she comments on the blurring line between urban and rural communities' problems. Just as Idlewild represents various social problems of the 1990s, Ava represents one of the most frightening new realities of the time. As a woman who is HIV positive, she serves as a constant reminder to those around her that AIDS is not a disease that attacks only male homosexuals and intravenous drug users. Cleage creates a character who reminds readers that everyone is potentially vulnerable.

Despite Ava's intention to pass through Idlewild and then move on to San Francisco, she finds the new life she desires in Idlewild. The town she was so eager to leave when she was a young woman becomes the perfect place to marry and live out the rest of her life. It is to Ava's credit that although Idlewild is not where she thought she would find happiness, she is open enough to recognize the opportunity for happiness when it presents itself in the forms of Joyce, Eddie, Imani, and the Sewing Circus. When Eddie and Joyce decide that they can buy an old house and renovate it for the Sewing Circus, Ava shares their excitement. She wants to be a part of it, and she says, "San Francisco seemed more and more like somebody else's dream." She adds:

I felt more alive here than I had for years. I had my sister, the lover of my dreams, a role as part of a long-term project that excited me, and a big-eyed, bald-headed baby girl to take on my morning walks. I was meditating morning and evening, walking three miles a day, and I hadn't had anything stronger than a glass of wine with dinner in a month. It was my choice that had brought me back here, and for the first time, it really felt like home.

As if affirming Ava's decision to stay in Idlewild and forget her dreams of San Francisco, the new pastor (a woman named Sister Judith) and her husband come to Idlewild from San Francisco. Ava asks her, "Why would anybody leave a city like San Francisco to come to Idlewild?" Sister Judith reminds Ava that she herself left Atlanta to come to Idlewild and asks her, "Then what are you doing here?" Ava tells the reader, "Watching the sun rise, I wanted to say. Walking in the woods. Falling in love. Raising a child. Helping my sister. Protecting my family. Living my life. 'Planning my wedding,' is what I said." To Ava's surprise, she finds a kinship with Idlewild, and she finds her future within its community. She has no need to see what awaits her in San Francisco or anywhere else. Idlewild mirrors her, suits her, embraces her. It is home, after all.

Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Joyce Hart

Hart has degrees in English literature and creative writing and focuses her writing on literary themes. In this essay, Hart compares the three main characters' various uses of religion and spirituality and the specific goals they hope to attain through their beliefs and practices.

In What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, Pearl Cleage creates three main characters who share a common reliance on a religious, or a spiritual, practice. They each use their own individualized philosophy and ritual to help them overcome tragedies. Despite the fact that the characters' beliefs vary as widely as their motives for observing such practices, Cleage implies that it is through such spiritual practices that the characters confront their challenges and realize an inner peace. Upon discovering this sense of tranquility, the characters are then able to step out of the blindness of their personal suffering and feel compassion for the suffering of others.

The protagonist of this novel, Ava, has many challenges to face, and most of them center around her bout with AIDS. Ava also suffers from alcoholism. In the beginning of the story, she has sold her beauty shop and is leaving Atlanta in search of a new home in a new city, which she hopes will accept her as she is. As the story opens, she has little thought of changing her lifestyle and has resigned herself to an early death. Thoughts about the spiritual side of life, such as praying, would almost be an insult to God, since she has ignored everything religious throughout most of her adulthood. She quit trying to pray because she had figured out that she was just "hedging" her bets. If she was smart enough to come to that conclusion, she believes that "God must know it, too" and probably would not grant her wishes and might even decide that she "needed to be taught a lesson for trying to [bullsh——] him in the first place." With these beliefs in mind, Ava focuses on the physical elements of life and consumes large quantities of alcohol in an attempt to forget that she is dying.

The only remnants of a religious belief that Ava retains are based on her childhood memories of Christianity in the Baptist Church. Her view of religion is that of a powerful figurehead, or god, who exists outside of her and is in control of her life. This spiritual being judges her actions and sends rewards or punishments her way, depending on the decisions she makes on how to live her life. Since she has denied her early Baptist upbringing and has not acquired any spiritual practice to replace it, she is left with only a physical approach to life. In other words, Ava identifies herself only through her body. She says that the reason she is heading for San Francisco is that she believes that that city is progressive enough to accept her on her physical terms: "I wanted to be someplace where I could be my black, female, sexual, HIV-positive self." Because of her inability to see beyond the physical definitions of herself, Ava finds her only sense of relief in dulling her thoughts with large quantities of alcohol. When she is drunk, her thoughts cloud over, removing her, somewhat, from her fears. The most that she gains in her inebriated state is enough distance to temporarily become sarcastic about her condition. However, as soon as the alcohol wears off, she is right back where she started. Only now, she also has a hangover to deal with.

Not until Ava renews her friendship with Eddie, a Vietnam veteran and ex-con who has found solace in a more Eastern approach to spirituality, does Ava find some peace of mind. Through Eddie, Ava learns to meditate and to focus on the present moment through the practice of Tai Chi. In general, this Eastern form of spirituality appeals to the psychology of an individual. Through an understanding of how one's own thoughts influence one's actions, people who practice some Eastern spiritual rituals, such as Tai Chi, believe that the godhead dwells within oneself. By stilling one's thoughts, a person can cultivate an inner peace, which allows a more direct communication with the spiritual aspects of life.

It is through Tai Chi that Ava learns to live in the present moment and to face her fears of death. She does not embrace the Eastern philosophy fully, but rather she mixes the Eastern beliefs with her own Western understanding of religion. She uses Tai Chi to reawaken her sense of spirituality, thus giving her a reason to stop numbing herself with alcohol. Once she begins to cleanse herself of her destructive nature, she becomes more compassionate with the people around her. She takes an interest in her sister's community actions. She opens up her heart to the baby that her sister is trying to adopt. She also allows herself to imagine the possibilities of falling in love with Eddie, rather than simply enjoying the thrills of their sexual relationship. Through the characterization of Ava, Cleage states that it is impossible to run away, or hide, from life's challenges. The best path, Cleage implies, is to confront one's fears. For Ava, this confrontation requires that she use a mixture of beliefs that combine a trust in oneself as well as a faith in a god-figure, whom she describes as a man who reminds her of her grandfather: "tall and tan and like he's been working too hard."

Eddie's story is in many ways similar to Ava's, although the circumstances differ. During his involvement in the Vietnam War, Eddie was taught to kill and was forced to exist in a world of horrid atrocities. "I saw the worst things you can see human beings do to each other," Eddie tells Ava. Upon returning home, he felt lost. He says: "By the time I got back to the world, I was a bad man." For Eddie, like Ava, the spiritual dimension in life had disappeared. He had faced death—both his as well as his victims—and he did not like what he had seen. In an attempt to rid himself of those memories, he too had turned to drugs and sex. He thought that these things would numb him. Instead, they put him in such a desensitized state that he thought nothing of murdering again.

Not until Eddie spends time in jail does he allow all the memories of Vietnam to flood back into his consciousness. When they do, he says they first made him angry. He was angry about having gone to Vietnam, angry about what he was taught to do while he was there, and angry that his subsequent actions, once he returned home, landed him in jail. Fortunately, while in prison, Eddie meets a man who reminds him to slow down and think, not just about what has happened to him but also about the lessons he has learned from all his experiences. It is at this point that Eddie turns to Tai Chi to help him process all the emotions that are stirred by his memories. The ritual of Tai Chi enhances the concept of slowing down, as those who practice it learn to move in very small, concentrated patterns with a full awareness of every muscle that is involved in every little step. With a well-sustained practice, the slow, ritualistic movements become a form of meditation, which helps Eddie to slow down his thoughts, to better understand and accept them, and then to comprehend the lessons behind them.

It is through meditation that Eddie begins to realize his self-destructive nature. His reawakening to the spiritual aspects of life allows him to understand that the fast-paced city life he had been living was counterproductive to his need to be reflective, to learn the lessons of his previous experiences. So, he moves away from Detroit and reestablishes himself in his hometown of Idlewild. He gives up alcohol and replaces it with herbal teas. He changes his diet to one that is more nurturing and continues his Tai Chi practice.

Eddie knows better than to believe that all his problems are behind him, however. When Ava asks if he has learned all his lessons, he replies: "I'm working on it." He understands that his anger will always be there, just as Ava's HIV-positive status will never go away. Reawakening to spirituality, Cleage states through Eddie, is not some magical pill that one can take to relieve all the pain and rid oneself of all misery. Rather, it is a process. It is a way of coming to terms with life's problems and challenges. Eddie implies that he was not raised in a Christian belief system, so his belief in the Eastern philosophy is more concentrated than Ava's. By focusing on the concept of intentional living—eating the most nutritional foods, meditating to be aware of his thoughts, staying conscious of the present moment—Eddie is able to control his anger and forgive himself for the deaths he has caused. In learning to accept his flaws, to forgive himself, and to learn the lessons of his experiences, Eddie, too, opens up to the community. He is sympathetic to the older folks who are having trouble adjusting to the changing culture that surrounds them, and he is extremely protective of the women around him, willing to risk his own life to protect them.

Ava's sister, Joyce, has a very different list of problems. She also has slightly different ways of dealing with them than Ava and Eddie. Joyce's problems are those of tragedies that have been sent her way without her being an active participant in them. There was nothing that she did other than love her children and her husband and later have to witness their deaths. Her challenge is to accept the losses she has had to suffer through and move on. However, Joyce, too, at first tries to numb herself. Her agent of choice is not drugs or sex. Rather, Joyce turns to food to find solace. When Ava confronts her sister's weight problem, Joyce responds: "I had a couple of months when all that stood between me and taking a tumble was a bowl of Jamoca Almond fudge and some homemade Toll House cookies." Joyce's reference to "tumble" suggests the way that her mother dealt with her father's death. Joyce's mother had committed suicide. To keep herself from falling into that depressive state, Joyce appeases her mourning with sweets. On a psychological level, she might also have seen the extra weight that she gained as a padding that might help to protect her from any more emotional tragedies. Although Joyce's choice of food, on a social scale, might be more easily approved of, it nonetheless falls into the same category as Ava's and Eddie's addictions. Joyce used food to hide behind because she had lost a sense of the spiritual.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Jeannie Brewer's A Crack in Forever (1996) is the story of how a new romance between a medical student, Eric Moro, and a textbook illustrator, Alexandra Taylor, is put to the test when Eric learns that he has AIDS. Together, they tackle issues of mortality, regret, and family relationships.
  • Cleage's I Wish I Had a Red Dress (2001) is a follow-up to What Looks Like Crazy. The novel features Joyce as she continues her work with the Sewing Circus, finds a love prospect, and explores the conflicting views of men as threatening and protective.
  • Cleage's Flyin' West (1992) is one of her best-known plays. Set in 1898, it is the story of a group of black women forging new lives for themselves in the American West. Readers will find striking similarities between these turn-of-the-century women and the 1990s women portrayed in What Looks Like Crazy.
  • Edited by Laura K. Egendorf and Jennifer Hurley, Teens at Risk (1998) provides opposing viewpoints in its exploration of various issues related to at-risk teenagers. Topics include violence, divorce, and peer pressure.
  • In Street Soldier: One Man's Struggle to Save a Generation, One Life at a Time (2000), Joseph Marshall and Lonnie Wheeler tell how Marshall and a man named Jack Jacqua started the Omega Boys Club in San Francisco as a means to save troubled boys from the harsh life of inner-city streets. Critics applaud this book for its exaltation of activism, mentoring, and optimism.

It did not take her very long, however, to reunite herself with the church of her childhood. After her husband's death, Joyce started attending services on Sundays, and as Ava explained it, "I think she wanted to pray and she was too self-conscious to do it at home." Whether that was the reason for her return, Joyce admits that her purpose was twofold. Her reacquaintance with the Baptist church was more than a spiritual quest. Joyce, like her sister, believed in a mixture of various philosophies. She was the product of several 1960s concepts, such as those purported by New Age and feminist movements. She was also familiar with many Eastern philosophies and practices. When she had a need to make contact with spirituality, she sought out books on Buddhism, yoga, and meditation. She was also comfortable with creating a godhead figure who might just as well be feminine as masculine. Although she had been struck with tragedies and had temporarily lost sight of the spiritual dimension, she knew, as she later tells her sister, that life was "not just the physical stuff."

Once Joyce regains her equilibrium, her first movement toward recreating her life is to seek out the members in her community who most need her help. She finds them through her church and uses the church as a meeting place until she can find a more liberating one. It is through Joyce's character that Cleage demonstrates the power of helping others in order to heal oneself.

There are many different ways, Cleage seems to imply, to find misery in this life, whether or not one is looking for it. However, there are just as many ways to find one's way through it. In developing these particular characters, Cleage demonstrates that it is not the religious, or spiritual, practice that is important but rather that one finds some way to keep the spiritual and physical balanced.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, Aubrey argues that, although the novel is full of love and compassion and offers a positive approach to solving social problems, the author's didactic purpose makes her characters less effective and real than they might otherwise be.

What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day was selected in 1998 for the Oprah Winfrey Book Club, which boosted its sales enormously and brought it attention that might otherwise have been placed elsewhere. There is a certain kind of book that catches Winfrey's eye. Such books often feature women, usually minorities, facing up to difficult, dangerous lives, courageously overcoming obstacles through a sense of solidarity with other women and establishing their independence. A dose of New Age spirituality about taking control of one's life and finding the core of truth within oneself does not go amiss either. Given the talk show host's persona, Cleage's first novel and Oprah's Book Club were a perfect fit. What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, for all its literary qualities, is a self-help book. It points the way to how to live a productive, useful, happy life, especially for women. It is also a book with a social conscience. It highlights social problems such as AIDS, domestic violence, and the devastation caused by cocaine addiction. In that grim context, it shows women empowering themselves, making better choices about life, and tackling problems themselves when institutional structures (in this case, the local Baptist church) fail them. In fact, when Joyce, the social activist who thinks there is a solution for every problem, writes her statement of purpose for the Sewing Circus, it comes close to the message of the book as a whole: "To create and nurture women who are strong, mentally, physically; free of shackles, both internal and external … women who … choose their lovers based on mutual respect, emotional honesty and sexual responsibility."

So it is that Ava Johnson, although carrying the weight of being HIV positive, succeeds in making a complete turnaround in her life, both physically and mentally. She is the perfect New Age heroine, the ideal example for everyone who writes or reads those ubiquitous articles in women's magazines that outline a seven- (or eight- or nine- or ten-) point program for physical/mental/spiritual well-being. She begins an exercise program, regularly walking three miles a day; she starts to learn Tai Chi from Eddie; she meditates twice a day; she and Joyce begin referring, in fashionable New Age feminist style, to "Mother/Father God"; she eats better and virtually eliminates her consumption of alcohol (giving up caffeine, however, proves too big a hurdle). Ava also learns to value what she has and to appreciate the present moment rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. Going back to her roots in Idlewood, she finds that home can be more than simply the place you come from.

Ava is undoubtedly an attractive heroine. Her informal, chatty, confessional, diary-like narration has considerable verve and panache. She is resilient and able to learn. She has an innate decency and a sense of humor that carries her through the most difficult situations—and it is hard to imagine a more difficult situation than being diagnosed HIV positive, which, despite the recent advances in drug therapy, remains a slow death sentence for almost all of its victims.

However, there is an odd paradox about Ava's narration of her story. It is considerably wittier, earthy, irreverent, and entertaining in the early part of the novel, when she is at the height of her alienation from herself and her situation, than it is by the end. At the beginning, when she travels to Michigan and has to get used to living again in Idlewood, there is a gritty edge to her personality, as seen in her frequent use of street-slang, her self-confessions, her defiance, and her refusal to sugarcoat her situation or to lie to herself. All this sounds completely authentic; Ava has a genuine voice of her own. But, as her relationships with Joyce and Eddie deepen and she comes to terms with her situation, valuing the good that is in her life, she softens. She loses that street-smart edge to her language and becomes more bland and predictable. No doubt Cleage softened Ava on purpose, but the result is unfortunate. Instead of the heroine becoming progressively more interesting as the novel unfolds, she becomes considerably less so as she learns to do and say all the "politically correct" and "spiritually correct" things that her creator, who understandably wants to use her to convey a positive social message, requires her to say and do. The result is that Ava loses a quality that few people in real life ever do: the capacity to surprise or startle us.

Just to give one example: when early in the novel Ava describes her inability to adopt the kind of self-help program to reduce stress she sees described in magazine articles, she is humorous and engaging:

I read those articles all the time and I look at the things they recommend and I usually am not doing a single thing on the list. I consider doing them all the time, but I rationalize not starting to work on them immediately by thinking how they'd be so easy to do if I ever really wanted to do them. This is bulls——, of course, since every one of them would require a major redirecting of energy and since I'm already so guilt-ridden about not having done this stuff a long time ago, I could never just take one at a time. I'd have to tackle the whole righteous group simultaneously, or not at all.

This will surely be familiar to any woman who has been unpleasantly reminded by Glamour, Cosmopolitan, or any number of other women's magazines of the vast gap between what her life is and what it might be if she were not so lazy—and then decided to do nothing about it. And, how much more interesting, in style and sentiment, are Ava's comments here than her later dutiful remarks about how much better she feels when she finally musters the will to put some of the anti-stress practices into effect!

This is not an unfamiliar problem in literature, since vice, despair, unhappiness, and other negative states of mind are often easier to portray than their opposites. Darkness appears to make more of an impact than light, which is why Dante's Inferno is more widely read than his Paradiso and why William Blake's Songs of Experience are more complex and interesting than his Songs of Innocence. Virtue, although undoubtedly good for us, does not always make the most compelling reading.

This slide into virtue (if one may put it that outrageous way) is noticeable in other aspects of Ava's use of language. At first, she peppers her narrative with a commonly used vulgar term that even in these permissive times the New York Times refuses to print, referring to it instead as a "barnyard epithet." When, late in the novel, Ava has to find a word for a bodily function for which the barnyard epithet would be the literally correct, if vulgar, choice, she opts instead for the dainty euphemism "call of nature." One suspects that the Ava who waited at the airport in the first chapter of the novel would not be caught dead using such a mealy-mouthed phrase.

In spite of these observations, Ava remains for the most part a genuinely complex and believable character. Such cannot be said, however, of the principal male character, Eddie Jefferson. He may strike many readers as simply too good to be true. In spite of his wild past, he does not appear to have a single flaw. His lifestyle, for example, is beyond reproach. He does not drink or eat meat (he once raised rabbits with the intention of eating them but could not bring himself to kill them); he meditates twice a day; he practices Tai Chi; he grows much of his own food (organic, of course); and he has a habit of showing up on Joyce's doorstep with fresh bread and a smile. He is unfailingly sensitive, wise, tactful, understanding, and protective. He is at home with his emotions; he does not waste words and is often content with silence. Physically, he moves like a dancer, and in Ava's eyes there is a mystical quality about his presence: "There was something really quiet about Eddie. I don't mean just not talking. Something about him that was still." When Ava describes Eddie physically, she comes within a whisker of sounding like a character from a Harlequin romance novel. Watching him exercising while stripped to the waist, for example, she observes: "Eddie's body was more muscular than I had thought…. I was surprised at the power in his chest and back."

Given that there are no chinks in Eddie's perfection—even his pick-up truck is so clean and polished that Ava can see her reflection in the passenger door—it may come as no surprise to the reader to find a hint that this bearded, long-haired wise-man looks the way Jesus Christ himself might have looked. The hint is repeated when Joyce reports having seen a child in the hospital with a T-shirt bearing the slogan, "Jesus Was a Black Man." Wisely, Cleage refrains from pushing this allusion any further, which would have strained credulity beyond its proper limits.

It is not unusual for an author, in her eagerness to create a positive character who carries the special qualities and virtues that she wishes the story to convey, to fall into a trap such as this. Barbara Kingsolver, in Animal Dreams (1990), another book that often appears in the high school curriculum, cannot avoid it either. Animal Dreams has a certain amount in common with What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day. In both, the female protagonist (Codi in Animal Dreams; Ava in Cleage's novel) returns to the town in which she grew up, much changed from the person she was when she left it. In both novels, the protagonist meets up with a man whom she had known before and who chose to remain living in his hometown. (In Animal Dreams, this is Loyd Peregrina.) In both cases, too, the man concerned was a notorious womanizer known also for his anti-social behavior, but he has reformed and calmed down. It takes a while for the protagonists to realize that these men are now very different from what they might have been expected to become, given their wild youth. (This tactic also has the advantage of creating a surprise for the reader too.) Both men are also representatives of a certain kind of spiritual wisdom. Loyd embodies the wisdom of the Native-American tradition; Eddie has come to a not dissimilar perspective partly through his own introspection and partly through a knowledge of Buddhism. The problem in Animal Dreams is that Kingsolver strives to get her spiritual message across. Like Eddie, Loyd is far too perfect; the author's urge to instruct has won out over her instincts as a writer to create multi-dimensional, realistic characters.

Such criticism of What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day may seem harsh. In spite of its faults, this is a novel that is full of compassion and understanding. It makes a valiant attempt to chart a path beyond the depressing realities of many people's lives today: AIDS, domestic violence, drug addiction, and the breakdown of community. Cleage's promotion of AIDS awareness and "safe sex" is laudable, and she makes the emphatic point that a diagnosis of HIV positive does not of itself mean that a person must give up sex entirely. Some sex educators, however, might quarrel with the impression the novel gives that as long as condoms are used during sexual activity, there is no need to fear the transmission of disease. Most experts would agree that this is not a foolproof way to avoid contracting AIDS or any other sexual disease. That caveat aside, the humor with which Cleage deals with the matter is irresistible. The brief comic scene in which the entire Sewing Circus watches as Joyce uses a jumbo hot dog to demonstrate how to use a condom is worthy of John Irving, a master of this kind of irreverent humor.

For all these positives, Cleage deserves credit. Her novel says a large "yes" to life; it refuses to take refuge in fashionable pessimism or nihilism in the name of entertainment. This is shown vividly in the incident when Eddie reacts negatively to the movie that Ava, in a misguided attempt to keep him informed about popular culture, shows him. The movie shows violence as routine. Killing a human being is presented as of no more consequence than swatting a fly. As Eddie puts it, "They're training people to look at this for fun." In that swipe at contemporary Hollywood entertainment, and in many other respects, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day reaches into the darkness and brings in some badly needed light.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.


Bashir, Samiya A., "Pearl Cleage's Idlewild Idylls," in Black Issues Book Review, Vol. 3, No. 4, July 2001, p. 16.

Bush, Vanessa, Review of What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, in Booklist, Vol. 94, No. 7, December 1997, pp. 608–609.

Cleage, Pearl, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, Avon, 1997.

Jamison, Laura, Review of What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, in People Weekly, Vol. 49, No. 4, February 2, 1998, p. 30.

Kingsolver, Barbara, Animal Dreams, HarperCollins, 1990.

Review of What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 244, No. 46, November 10, 1997, pp. 56–57.

Further Reading

Royster, Jacqueline Jones, Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change among African-American Women, Pittsburgh Series in Composition, Literacy, and Culture, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.

Royster adopts an interdisciplinary view of rhetoric and social change in this study of the important role played by highly literate African-American women in the late twentieth century. She demonstrates that these women have been able to affect social and political change through speech, books, and periodicals.

Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Bearing Witness: Contemporary Works by African American Women Artists, Vol. 1, Rizzoli International, 1996.

This volume captures the art on display during the title exhibition. Various media were included in the exhibit, and twenty-five notable artists contributed work. The photos of the art are complemented by relevant essays written by such prominent African-American women as Cleage and Maya Angelou.

Stine, Gerald J., AIDS Update 2002, Prentice Hall, 2001.

Stine presents a comprehensive overview of AIDS in contemporary society. He addresses its history and its social importance along with the latest medical and biological information available.

Walker, Lewis, and Benjamin C. Wilson, Black Eden: The Idlewild Community, Michigan State University Press, 2002.

Walker and Wilson explore the history of Idlewild, including its origins, its status during the civil rights era, its history of entertainment, and efforts to revitalize it. The authors include a selection of primary documents to enhance the book's historical value.

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