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.