It's a scenario to terrify any parent of a teenager. 15-year-old Jake opens an email to find a younger girl has sent him a sexually explicit video of herself. Shocked and a bit "freaked out", he forwards it to a friend. Who forwards it to a friend ...
Within hours, perhaps even minutes, the video has gone viral. The girl is humiliated, the boy demonised. Their private school takes disciplinary action, Jake's academic future is in jeopardy and the family's new and apparently "beautiful life" in New York city comes crashing down.
This Beautiful Life is the fifth novel from New York writer Helen Schulman and traverses some weighty topics, from the sexual precocity of young girls to the materialism of New York in the early 2000s. Here, Schulman talks about privacy in an internet age, gender roles at home and in the workplace, and letting kids own their mistakes.
Why did you choose to set the book in 2003?
I set my novel in 2003 once I realised (rather quickly while writing) that I was having trouble staying on top of the zeitgeist-cultural norms; which were changing so rapidly via the internet I couldn't keep up. It was 2003 when I woke up to the realisation that privacy was being tested in new and surprising ways.
I received in my inbox an email with a photo of a bridesmaid - in a strapless gown - joyously reaching to catch a bouquet, but, when she lifted her arms her breasts had popped out of her dress. I did not know this woman, but suddenly I was one of countless witnesses to this humiliating moment in her life. I felt shame at seeing it and I felt mortified for her. 2003 was also an eventful year - George Bush declared "Mission Accomplished" regarding the war in Iraq; and the relentless greedy march of acquisition that would lead to the banking crises of 2008 was in full flower. I was also very interested in the effects of 9/11 on the American culture, and in 2003 we were already ankle deep into policies that would prove disastrous to our country and to the world.
Jake's mother Liz is an educated but frustrated housewife, who traded in her career for motherhood and a supposedly beautiful life in New York. Why did you choose that role for Liz and what interests you about her situation?
I was very interested in Liz's predicament- she is an intelligent, highly educated woman, a super-achiever who had been quite passionate about her work before having children (she's an art historian) and torn about her work ever since. I was a teenager in the 1970s and a lot of my ideas about sex roles in the home and in the workplace were formed at that time. The importance of economic independence was drummed into me by my own working mother and my friends' mothers and when I saw the realities for divorced and widowed women who had not put a premium on their own educations and careers, I took their advice to heart. I also learned early the value of work that I found meaningful. It then surprised me to grow up and meet many educated women from my generation who had all the choices in the world, and who chose not to work and to stay home. Obviously most women don't have the luxury of a decision like that, but many of the women I met who had that choice, chose not to get caught in the intense juggle of work and home. They did this often for good, loving, parental reasons. But what happens when smart, highly trained women leave the work force? What happens to all that talent and know-how and ambition? What happens to the workplace itself? (A bit of a brain drain, no?) And for all I heard regarding the debate about work vs. home for women, I almost never heard it debated for straight men. They seemed have the opposite problem- to be stuck in a rigid set of rules that didn't allow for internal struggle, questioning, choice.
Liz wonders whether she loves her son too much and when the crisis comes, she continually defends Jake. Do modern parents love their kids too much and what impact does this have?
You can't love your kids too much, I think, but you can hover too much, over-protect, and over-indulge. One of the major mistakes the parents and the school make in this case is not letting the kids work some of this out on their own. They don't teach them to own their mistakes, apologise and ask for forgiveness, they don't teach them to learn to live with what they've done and simultaneously move on. Once the lawyers and the media are brought in, the children are sunk.
The book highlights the materialism and excess of wealthy New Yorkers in the early 2000s. What interests you about this subject?
Ways, over the past decade or so, it has become such a changed city that I, like Liz, often feel like a fish out of water. Although most artists I know have left Manhattan, we still live here and it has become so expensive it is hard for people not in finance to continue to thrive. The city is shinier, safer and until 2008 the subways mostly ran on time, but it is also less exciting in a lot of ways and certainly far less democratic and diverse. And as it has always been, New York is composed of tiny towns. In the world of private schools, like the one in my novel, there are a lot of powerful parents with big guns-access to the media for example, to high-powered attorneys etc. Similar situations to the one I invented for my book have been played out in communities all over the economic spectrum in the States, but I think New York allowed it to be played out at the highest octane level.
As a creative writing teacher, what advice would you offer an aspiring writer?
There is a quote from a note Martha Graham wrote to Agnes DeMille on the opening night of Carousel. I give it to my students every semester. Here it is:
There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening
That is translated through you into action
And because there is only one of you in all time
This expression is unique. If you block it
It will never exist through any other medium
and be lost.
The world will not hear it.
It is not your business to determine how good it is;
Nor how valuable it is;
Nor how it compares with other expressions.
It is your business to keep it yours,
clearly and directly,
To keep the channel open.
You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.
You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges
that motivate you.
Keep the channel open.
No artist is pleased.
There is no satisfaction whatever at any time.
There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction,
A blessed unrest that keeps us marching
And makes us more alive than the others.