SPOTLIGHT WEDNESDAY - Suburban life: Is it all that Perfect? Guest Post: MARGIE GELBWASSER

I'm very excited to welcome Margie Gelbwasser to The Contemps today. Her debut novel,INCONVENIENT, was named a 2011 Notable Book for Teens by the Association of Jewish Libraries.

In fifteen-year-old Alyssa Bondar’s Russian-Jewish culture, having a few drinks is as traditional as blinchiki and piroshki. So when her mom’s midday cocktails turn into an all-day happy hour, it seems like Alyssa’s the only one who notices—or cares. Her dad is steeped in the nightly news—and denial—and her best friend Lana is too busy trashing their shared Russian heritage so she can be popular.

Alyssa would rather focus on cross-country meets and her first kiss with her running partner, Keith, but someone has to clean up her mom’s mess. But who will be there to catch Alyssa when her mom’s next fall off the wagon threatens to drag her down, too?

Today Margie takes the lid off the tranquil perfection of suburban life.

While I was writing INCONVENIENT, my dad said, “Your story takes place in America? And the family is Jewish? That would never happen. There are no Jewish alcoholics, especially not here.” And you're probably laughing at that, but his thinking that families with opportunities don't produce dysfunction, is not isolated to our Russian-Jewish culture.

I have recently seen a lot of backlash in the Twitter universe about the NBC drama Parenthood. Apparently, all the characters are whiners. Let's look at what they're “whining” about.

1. One couple's son has autism—Yes, I've been told, but he gets to go to a special school, and they have a big house.
2. One couple's marriage was falling apart—Yes, but they have a big house and money.
3. A mom is raising her two kids alone because she left an alcoholic spouse—Yes, but she has her family and gets to live in their big house
4. Another couple is deeply saddened because they can't have another child—Yes, but they have one and the three of them get to live in their big mansion

So, the way I'm understanding this, is if you have a big house and money you have to shut the hell up. I'm not going to say money doesn't help, that it doesn't make things easier, but this idea that having a nice home and money for fancy clothes (or even just regular clothes), is license to keep silent is not only ludicrous but damaging to many teens today. If we perpetuate this line of thinking that kids living in suburbia need to be happy with what they have and just stop complaining, we're contributing to the pressure many of them already feel about keeping silent. Sexual abuse, eating disorders, bullying are all suburban problems. The kids are told not to air their dirty laundry, not to talk to guidance counselors. The fact that families have money to keep up their facades only feeds into the misconception that all is right behind closed doors.

But here's the thing—all isn't.

I have lived in Jersey suburbia since I was eight years old. I never thought I was poor, but I definitely did not think I was rich. Many kids in my town had brand name clothes. My parents, coming from communist Russia and having to work extra hard to get us to the States, never wanted my sister or me to take anything for granted. If we wanted brand name clothes, we had to work and buy it ourselves. I respected them for that and prided myself on all the jobs I had. We didn't go to fancy salons to get our hair cut and the first and only time I tried fake nails was Lee Press Ons for my senior prom. I hated them.

And that's typical for suburban kids, right? Biggest problem is that their Lee Press Ons fall off? Oh, I had also developed an eating disorder while in high school and had my first bout with depression too. Gosh, those fake nails are like a gateway to psychological problems, aren't they?

I don't blame my parents. At all. Teens are good at hiding things. And I didn't really know anything was wrong, so how could they? And it's suburbia. You're supposed to appreciate everything you have. Especially if your parents came from a land of persecution, a land where your grandparents fled from the Germans, where many family members died in the Holocaust, where your parents left a nice two bedroom apartment and brought you and your sister to a mice-infested apartment in Brooklyn where boxes served as bed, table, and chair. So, see...they worked really hard to get me to the suburbs and went through so much so what the hell was I upset about? I didn't know. The kids I went to school with, whose parents didn't go through all that, sure as heck had no right to be upset about anything either, right? Not when people live in poverty. Not when people have “real” problems.

Are we going to get to a point where the only way our teens' problems will be taken seriously is if their families go bankrupt? How about those teens getting suicidal because of the pressures of getting into a good college? Should they just suck it up and deal because at least they get to go to college? These are not cases of guys and girls complaining because their diamond shoes are too tight.

I had a variety of objectives when I wrote INCONVENIENT, but the more I hear this line of thinking, the more I want teens who live in troubled fancy homes to read it. Yeah, teens walking across marble-floored foyers who've had to clean their parents' vomit before putting on their own Juicy pants. Teens staring at Rembrandt originals while their parents snort cocaine off glass tables. Teens who've had their Hollister jeans ripped off them by their boyfriends. Teens who use their nifty new Blackberries to text they're going to kill themselves.

Sure sound like a bunch of whiners to me.


Micol Ostow said...

I heard Margie read from INCONVENIENT at the Teen Author Fest and was blown away!

Rachel said...

Great post. You are absolutey correct and I much prefer YA Contemporary books that explore issues like the ones you bring up here. Thanks for the food for thought this morning :-)

Sarah Darer Littman said...

When I was in outpatient treatment for bulimia here in Greenwich, the overwhelming percentage of teenagers in treatment with me were from the exclusive private schools.

And I know I felt a lot of that same guilt myself - I was married to a guy with money so what right did I have to complain about anything, when so many other people had so much less? There is a sense that your own feelings are invalidated and you have no "right" to them because other people are suffering more than you are. But the thing is, life's not a "suffering competition." As a very wise person once said to me, we can only tend to the weeds (and the flowers) in our own emotional garden.

Sara said...

Wow - I love this post. I don't have much to add, except... right on.

/going off to tweet this/

Natasha said...

Wow, Margie - what a beautiful post. You have put into words exactly what I've been feeling lately and am trying to capture in my WIP. Thank you.

Natasha (we were in YA Addicts together, students of KK!)

Debra Driza said...

Fabulous post, and your book sounds amazing!

All kids should feel like they have a voice and that their problems are taken seriously, whether or not they live in a "big" house.

kerrygans said...

Yes, it is very tempting to scorn people's pain when they "should" be happy. But what people forget is that pain and suffering is relative. Someone wealthy may not have to suffer hunger like someone poor, but that doesn't mean they don't have a different problem that is causing them pain.

A person suffers pain WITHIN THEIR OWN UNIVERSE. One person's insurmountable, un-copable, suicide-inducing problem is another person's normal Saturday.

People would do well to remember that pain is pain, and mansion doors can hide realities as dark as those found in the slums.

tammara said...

Great post! Funny, isn't it, how it's whining until you do it? Pain and depression (and alcoholism and domestic abuse etc) can happen anywhere, and all you feel when you're in it is that you're in it. There's no such thing as being so privileged that problems disappear. Financial excess can sometimes produce the biggest messes! (INCONVENIENT was a fantastic slice of reality. LOVED it. For anyone who enjoyed it and wants more of the same, please take a look at SPLIT by Swati Avasthi -- it's from a boy's POV and includes exactly what Margie is talking about here -- what big money and big houses can hide.)

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

My next book has a protagonist who is outwardly privileged but suffers a lot, and I've wondered if I will hear the same criticism. I asked myself that question about First-World Problems--heck, my character asks himself that question. But all I had to do was look around me at the real world. The fact is that rich people destroy themselves, and beautiful people destroy themselves, and it isn't from an excess of joy. Beauty and fortune and physical health are no guarantee of happiness.

Ginny said...

True... not only people from poor families have problems. Everybody has some problems. But just because you're not poor doesn't mean that your problmes are less important...
Your grandparents are originally from Germany... Ah, that explains your last name. I was wondering.

writerchick6 said...

@Ginny My grandparents and my husband's grandparents were both from Russia (but they took people to death camps from there too). BUT, maybe his great-grandparents or further may have been from Germany, hence the name. Before I got married, I had a long last name too and I hoped I'd have a short, cute last name after I got married, like Cohen or something. Nope. :-)

Thanks so much for everyone's comments and for letting me post on the site!

Adeeva Afsheen said...

Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. No matter ga life, not a problem not learn, so enjoy it :)

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