Philly Books We Love: Jenny Laden’s This Terrible True Thing

A new visual novel set in the Philly area turns the author’s own tragedy into a tale of redemption.

Jenny Laden and the cover of her book this terrible true thing

Jenny Laden and her book, This Terrible True Thing / Jenny Laden photograph by Marcus Maddox

Jenny Laden had a premonition of her funeral, and drag queens were there. This was about 10 years ago, just after the Philadelphia native returned home from two decades navigating the professional art world in New York City. “A funeral is this reflection of the life you led and the people that loved you,” says the painter, who lives in Grad Hospital now. “The life I want to lead, there would definitely be some drag queens that would come and show love.”

Balancing the demands of being a single parent to one girl and working for a nonprofit, Laden hungered for community beyond the ad hoc socializations of playdates. The only hang-up? She didn’t know any local queens. Yet.

Laden, though straight, comes by her connections to the LGBTQ+ community naturally. She’d spent years working as an HIV educator, and she’d organized the curriculum for a gay and lesbian family week in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Though her primary vocation was as a visual artist (she’s currently the director of development at Penn’s Institute of Contemporary Art), much of her adult life had been devoted to activism, spurred by the coming out and, later, the AIDS-related death of her father, Richard, one of the founders of the prestigious Philadelphia School, in 1996.

My own personal history is deeply shaped by the AIDS epidemic, but I’m not a gay man. And so there was always this question: ‘Can I tell that story?’”

“I felt I could turn this awful experience into something that might help somebody else,” she says. “My own personal history is deeply shaped by the AIDS epidemic, but I’m not a gay man. And so there was always this question: ‘Can I tell that story?’ And then I thought, ‘Well, it’s my story. This is what happened to me.’”

With last month’s publication of her debut young-adult novel, This Terrible True Thing, Laden’s story becomes that of Danielle, a teen from Philadelphia attending boarding school in New Jersey in the early 1990s and navigating the uncharted territory of having a newly out-of-the-closet parent. When Danielle finds out that her father is HIV-positive, her world is upended, sending her on a coming-of-age journey. (Laden is doing a book signing at Spiral Bookcase in Manayunk on October 7th; she has another book event at Main Point Books in Wayne on October 12th.)

The novel includes images from Danielle’s sketchbook, drawn by Laden, alongside the prose. Laden describes the result, which she’s been working on for the past seven years, as a “marriage of the birth of an artist, Danielle’s political awakening, and this cultural education.” Relying on her memories plus research, including in the archives of the Gayborhood’s William Way LGBT Community Center, Laden has crafted an emotionally rich portrait of grief against a backdrop of change.

For the author, writing about a time that may seem remote to today’s teens serves as a bridge. “You go through these extraordinary experiences, and you think you’re alone, but somewhere out there, somebody may be experiencing something similar to you,” she says. “It’s a book about someone trying to find her community.”

There’s only one drag queen in This Terrible True Thing, and she shows up at Danielle’s father’s funeral, driving home the novel’s core idea. Danielle finds her people amid grief and confusion — in a world full of homophobic policies — and through her people, she finds her voice.

Years after her initial flash of longing, Laden has also found her people, in an artistic Philadelphia community. And with the publication of her first novel, she’s poised to reach even more. “Feeling productive is a way out of grief,” she says. “If you feel like you’re useful and you’re productive on the planet, that can pull you out.”

Published as “There Will Be Drag Queens” in the October 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.