"‘We Can Indulge Our Darkest Fears’: New Novel Explores Our Strange, Singular Obsession With Teenage Girls"
CREDIT: Graphic by Adam Peck
It begins with a tic. Then her eyes roll back in her head, almost in slow motion, until practically all you can see are the whites. The seizure hits. It looks like she’s trying to break her own bones. Her legs and arms thrash around, her toes and fingers jerk. Her neck bends to its snapping point. Her mouth is wide open.
That’s how the titular illness in Megan Abbott’s new novel, The Fever, takes its victims: viciously, violently, publicly. A mysterious sickness spreads like gossip through a small town. It’s a physical, inexplicable hysteria that only strikes down girls. Abbott, author of the excellent Dare Me, was inspired by the real life case of Le Roy, New York, from 2011, when more than a dozen girls and one boy, seemingly out of nowhere, started to report the strangest symptoms: verbal outbursts, uncontrollable tics, sudden seizures. Girls are the only victims in The Fever, and what starts with one bizarre, violent case in the middle of class metastasizes through the whole community. The rumors spread faster than the disease: that the girls are faking it, that the fever is caused by the HPV vaccine, that sex—wanting it, having it, thinking about it, regretting it—is somehow wrapped up in all of this. I spoke with Abbott about the backstory of her book and why people just can’t stop obsessing over the behavior of teenage girls.
The inspiration for The Fever was this real life case in Le Roy, New York. Do you remember your initial reaction to it?
It was weird: a case of mass psychogenetic illness, or mass hysteria. It was visually watching the girls on The Today Show that really inspired the book. There were two of them on The Today Show with their parents, and they were experiencing the tics and the vocal outbursts, and they looked so upset, understandably, and angry, and one of the girls kept saying, “Nothing was wrong with me, my life was perfect, and now this, and I don’t know why.” And the terror in their faces, it really affected me. And I started, I don’t know if that day but literally that week, started writing the book.
How much did you deviate from the real disease? In the book, it’s this really violent, physical illness.
Yes – in the real life case, it was more of a, almost like Tourettes and in The Fever, it morphs into the seizures, almost inspired by how possession works. I wanted to have this really frightening quality where it would just feel really out of control. And since the book is not a visual medium, I felt it had to be really striking and terrifying in that way. So I increased the drama of it.
What is it about diseases like this—the whole idea of “hysteria”—that is so female-centric? In real life and in your book, the illness only affects girls and women.
I talked to the neurologist who treated most of the girls in the real life case, and she had thoughts on it too. One of the theories about conversion disorder, which is the individual cases, that women and girls experience it more because they keep their feelings inside, they’re not supposed to complain, they hold it inside, so it takes this physical form. Instead of them speaking their pain or sorrow or trauma, they’re holding it in. Which felt very convincing to me. And in the case of it spreading, the mass hysteria element, the neurologist I spoke to said that one of the theories is girls are more empathetic or sympathetic, that if they see someone they know in crisis, that might be the way it spreads. It’s a very dramatic version of sympathy. And there’s more of a tendency [in girls] to want to help, so “I will become like you.”
I want to talk about “hysteria” as this word that gets thrown at women to discredit them, or to kind of make light of a serious issue. Even when it’s for a good thing: like people said girls who loved the Beatles were “hysterical,” but those girls were right! The Beatles were worth screaming over.
It’s such a diminishing word to use. It’s one of the reasons, in the field of psychology, they try never to use the word hysteria because of those connotations. I don’t think the word will ever leave us. It’s a gender coded word from the start. It’s almost a way of making it safe for ourselves. What you’re saying about the Beatles, I think people were afraid of that: the girls having these lusty, rapacious feelings. [It was safer] to call it hysteria and pat them on the head.
CREDIT: Associated Press
It scares me how the disease seems practically designed to be not credible. It’s so easy to say “oh, she’s just being dramatic” or “she’s just faking it,” which is the kind of undercutting that gets thrown at young girls all the time.
I was so alarmed watching some of the, not necessarily the way the media handled, but they always tell you to never read the comments on articles. They were so accusatory of these things: that girls were faking it, that they were being drama queens. And oftentimes it would be really harsh, someone referred to them as having this herd mentality, being heifers. And it’s really awful, because it’s completely involuntary, and they have no control over their symptoms, and they are real. They’re just psychological in origin. It goes with this idea that teen girls are not to be taken seriously, that they do this for show, all this stuff.
I’m always amazed when the assumption, usually by men, is that teenage girls are doing something “for the attention,” when in fact teenage girls typically do not want attention in that way. If they want attention, they want in on their own terms. And they really want adults to leave them alone.
Teenage girls in particular are so used to being the spectacle, the object of the gaze. They’re forced to be looked at so much, but in this very specific way. They’re supposed to be pretty and perfect and happy. They’re not supposed to be doing these tics and barks, these things one might call ugly. They’re supposed to be attractive.
How did you decide to include the perspectives of [protagonist] Deenie’s brother and her dad? What was the thinking behind making two out of three of the narrators male?
I didn’t want it to be a kind of simplistic version of how this could operate… When something happens that we don’t understand, we project our own anxieties on to it. So if someone is worried that their daughter might be having sex, then it becomes about the HPV vaccine. Or if we believe we’re responsible for polluting the environment, we think it’s that. So it’s not just about gender or social expectations of girls, but it’s about all these anxieties we hold ourselves that we project.
Can you tell me more about the inclusion of HPV in the story?
In the real life case, it came up a bit but not that much. I’d become fascinated by it because I saw so much of it online, when I was looking at some videos of the seizing girls that linked to other videos of girls who believed, or their parents believed, that they were experiencing a bad reaction to the HPV vaccine. That led me down a wormhole of very upset parents who believed this vaccine was designed to encourage promiscuity or cause harm, part of a pharmacological conspiracy. It was fascinating how to see how the on internet, which in some ways is responsible for spreading this disease, we can indulge our darkest fears.
What I remember about the release of the HPV vaccine was how the buzz on it was: it’s useless unless you’re a virgin. And it became this huge source of anxiety among my peers; like, do you pretend to need it even if you don’t, so your parents don’t know you’ve had sex? It became this inadvertent way of forcing girls to out themselves as virgins, or not.
I never even thought of that! I’m considerably older, and we were lost already. We were already fallen women! There was no hope for us. But I did realize a lot online, they’re giving it to girls as young as elementary school. And the idea [is] that they’re protected, but for parents to have to think about their elementary school daughters in this context…they hope she won’t be at risk for it for several years, but it’s a hard thing as a parent.
And it requires three doses, so you get to have that awkward conversation with your parents about your sex life over and over again.
And who knows what could go on between the shots! And it gets at that induction into the dark corners of womanhood, the things that could happen to you, as if girls don’t think about that enough already.
All the sex in the book is pretty dark and twisted. Did you ever think about including a “control” couple, like, here, sex can be consensual and fun and happy!
I guess that was part of the contagion for me – that it would affect everyone’s sense of what could be healthy in relationships. That… you’d look at your own relationships differently, that it would transform them. In the way that an academic can do that, it can make everything darker and more hopeless. And for teenage girls, so many warnings are thrown at them, and now with social media, the dangers of lasting public humiliation are so great, this Scarlett Letter syndrome almost, it made me hyperconscious of that. It’s always been hard to be a teenage girl. It seems like it’s getting harder.
Can you talk a bit about small town setting? Is it based on anyplace you know?
I’m from a pretty substantial suburb, so it wasn’t my own experience exactly. But the real life case was in upstate New York, and I lived in a different place in upstate New York, with all that weird effect weather that I used in the book. And this last year, I spent another year in a small town in Mississippi. It’s a very insular experience, in positive and negative ways… If something big happens in a small town, it can become the only thing. It can sort of dominate all interactions. There’s sort of no hiding, in a Hawthorne way. It just feels like it’s everywhere. There’s no escape from it. There’s not the anonymity of a city, or even a suburb. So [I used a small town setting] to make it realistic that [the fever] could dominate.
CREDIT: AP Photo/Levittown Public Library
I’m from a small town, and I got the sense that whenever something bad happened, adults didn’t just feel hurt or scared but they also felt this sense of betrayal. This idea of, we made a deal: we left an exciting place to live in a boring place, and in return, this place was supposed to be safe. And any bad thing that happens in a small town feels like a violation of that contract.
Right! “We came here for this reason that we would be protected from these things, insulated from it.” And in this case, it comes from within. And that’s often been, historically, the case with these instances. It’s been a small town. I think of the rule of line of sight, line of sound. If you can see something, that’s how it can spread. But I talked to a couple specialists in this area, [and] with social media, that won’t be the case anymore, because you can see anything anywhere. It won’t just be a small town. I do think it’s quite true, the idea—and we still have this American ideal, that the small town is the place where we’re protected from this kind of stuff, the ugliness and hazard from a bigger place. That everyone knows each other, and how bad can it be if everyone knows each other?
Tell me about the way you use violence in the book. Some of the most horrific acts actually take place off the page, like the mom who was injured with a claw hammer to the face. How did you decide when and in what way to dole out the violence in the narrative?
It’s a strategic choice to make. I wasn’t going to dramatize the claw hammer, but the reason I picked the word claw hammer is, it’s a terrifying word. And it was important to me that we have a sense that that character had gone through something dark, and she had that within her. And I remember when I was in high school, there was someone we knew who had had a really bad thing happen to them, and it was weird how, it seemed almost [like] they were carrying it around with them. And it was really sad, but also had this strange glamour to it. This kid whose mom had been killed in a terrible drunk driving accident, and it was so public, because this guy had crashed through a pizza restaurant and his mom was in the restaurant. And we never forgot it, and everyone felt this intense sympathy for him, but he had this grandeur to him. I wanted to use that explicit violence as more of a character note.
The nature of female friendship, and how it’s explored in the book, rang really true to me: this imbalance between friends, and how you can be “friends” with someone who you don’t know that well but you just worship them.
Someone’s always had a little more experience than you, and that gives them currency, in some way. And we want that. At that age, that’s the thing you want the most, is more experience. You don’t know the risk that’s involved or what it means, but you want more, so much. And I do think there is that idealization and idolization of the girl who knows more, and who has a sense of mystery, because one is never mysterious to oneself.
CREDIT: Jordin Althaus/AMC
Dare Me and The Fever both go deep on these female friendships. People seem to worry a lot about teenage girls and the trouble they get up to with teenage boys but, in your books, it’s not that boys are a non-factor but all the decisions about them are really made without their knowledge.
It always felt true to me, because the girls aren’t actually in relationships, they’re circling relationships. Their truest relationships are with each other. And if they’re straight, even if they’re not, they’re rehearsing adult relationships in some way. They’re trying it out with each other, and learning lessons from doing it wrong. But it’s also more intense than it will be at any other time, because of that. It feels like an underexplored area in books, somewhat, especially in movies and TV: female friendships directed at each other, and what it means and what that level of intimacy is about, and how it prepares or doesn’t prepare one for what’s to come.
Why do you think that is?
I’m so puzzled by it. I think it’s commonly explored in YA, as YA has gotten much edgier and bolder. In terms of the industry reasons, perhaps the business reasons that conceal the thing behind it, which might be the main reason: I think we’re really uncomfortable with it. I think it’s a taboo territory to imagine. Because it’s sort of a place that girls at that age get to be angry, get to be ambitious, get to have bad thoughts, within the circuit of these close relationships. All these things they’re not allowed to have facing outward. I think we don’t want to believe that teen girls have bad thoughts, unkind thoughts, aggressive thoughts, or even just feeling really sad about something and being able to express it. In the LeRoy interview, what really struck me was the interviewer asking if they were angry, and the girls were saying “Yes, we are,” but they were smiling. And it was involuntary, because they were so conditioned to having to smile at an authority figure. How ingrained that is.
We’re kind of getting there in the movies, with this Frozen bump. But even that is this joyous celebration of female camaraderie, not so much a darker analysis of what goes on between girlfriends.
The movie I thought was most bold in that area was Spring Breakers! It really was about female friendship and the dark corners of it. It was very brave, where it went with that.
CREDIT: Associated Press
Do you find that either gender is more drawn to, or terrified by, your books?
My earlier books were straight-up noir, so I tended to have more of a male readership. And now it seems to be more split. I was really worried about Dare Me, actually, because I thought they might just not think it was for them. But it seems like I’ve gotten some of the best response from male readers, and some of them talk to me at book events that they’re glad they had license to go into this world. This an awful stereotype, but they were able to go into the locker room, to understand this stuff. And I had several men who’d been athletes in high school who identified with the relationships with the coach [in Dare Me]. And I think we often—and I’ve done this too—we really want to pigeonhole the way people read. But book cover issues aside, I think we read to cross over gender lies, and that’s one of the joys of it. It’s a place we get to explore this stuff. I think, once we get past the idea that it’s not supposed to be packaged for us, there’s a freer space.
I ask in part because you co-wrote that great essay about Flowers in the Attic for The Believer. I find that men I know have this really violent, disgusted reaction to Flowers, whereas women are all, “oh, I read that under the covers with a flashlight.” Guys have such a weak stomach for that book.
To me, with Flowers in the Attic, if you hear almost any woman talk about it, you’ll see this light come into her eyes … I guess because there still has to be a kind of fear about. The cultural ideal still weighs so heavily, especially, I think on the teenage girl, and what she’s supposed to want to read, like Sweet Valley High. And the fact that Flowers could be far more perverse than anything in a book meant for boys is probably a wakeup call that not everyone is ready for.
I think, too, there’s this lack of power that some men must not like addressing. In high school especially, I think guys like to believe that girls make choices because of male behavior, when in fact most girls’ choices—clothing, sex, you name it –is all about what girls decide when boys aren’t around. Once a girl and her friends decide that it’s time to have sex, the guy just has to be in the right place at the right time, or not.
Exactly. For some men or boys the most frightening thing is to see two women talking or laughing and looking at him… With something like Mean Girls hype, [it works] because it’s a way of addressing this but making it funny, which makes it safer, which in some ways can be a very successful satire and subversive in its own ways. But that’s a way of declawing [these female] power grabs and manipulation. Could that movie be made now?
The movie that, every time I watch it I think “You could never make that now,” is Heathers.
And it was a big box office failure! And now there’s a Broadway play. It loomed so large for all of us. You can’t imagine how it ever got made in theaters. [Today, you only get that violence in] something like the Hunger Games, where it’s taken out of our real world.
Did you ever get any pushback from your editor or publisher about how dark your girl characters are?
Certainly not from my publisher. Sometimes people do talk to me about it. I have heard that unlikable characters rap that gets thrown at a lot of female authors, and I’ve never really understood it exactly. But you know, I understand, not everyone wants to read everything, and not everyone wants to live in the world of these books. But in the end, I end up loving all of them, so I’m surprised whenever someone says they’re unlikable. [Even] the ones who start out as the villains. I don’t like to use that word, but the antagonist… I end up circling around on all of them and feeling sorry for them. I think that’s the only way… Because of the nature of writing a book, you end up giving them reasons for everything they do, or it just wouldn’t work as a book. And you just start to admire their energy and their willing to go places that you, probably, yourself wouldn’t go. That’s one of the reasons I read books, is to go places I wouldn’t dare go.