Megan Abbott doesn’t watch gymnastics like she used to. Her latest four novels — The End of Everything (2011), Dare Me (2012), The Fever (2014), and You Will Know Me, out today — all get at the emotional violence of teenage girlhood. Adolescent girls are among our culture’s most maligned demographics; everything they like is mocked, every technology or mode of communication they embrace is scrutinized, every emotion is dismissed as juvenile, hormonal frivolity. But Abbott knows what most adults, maybe, would prefer not to reckon with: That there’s a hunger and even darkness underneath the bouncy ponytails and still-developing bodies. And her latest book zeroes in on an arena in which those conflicting qualities aren’t just visible but are intentionally on display: Women’s gymnastics.
Abbott, like millions of people around the world, watched the Olympics in London in 2012. She saw one of the Games’ most viral moments: When the cameras spotted U.S. gymnast Aly Raisman’s parents watching Raisman’s bar routine. Their engagement in their daughter’s every twist and flip is so intense, so exposed, you almost feel like you’ve intruded on a private moment, like you maybe should observe them indirectly, through a hole in a paper plate, the way you’d view an eclipse. It got Abbott thinking about not just the elite athletes but the family apparatus around them: What does it to do a parent, to a sibling, to a community, to be in the presence of greatness?
So Abbott did her research, fixating on how gymnastics “is so competitive, it’s so treacherous, and it requires such a hardening of oneself to get through it. So I found myself looking [at] some of the changes in the field now that the scoring system has changed and risk is even more rewarded, and how dangerous some of the routines are, and how nail-baiting.”
The result is You Will Know Me, which centers on Katie, the mother of Devon, a teenage gymnast with Olympic aspirations and, quite possibly, the talent and drive to live out a fantasy most girls can’t touch. Katie is only so self-aware about the way Devon, the sun around which the universe of her family revolves, shapes every aspect of Katie’s life. Everything, from the state of her marriage to her social status to how she and her husband spend their limited time and increasingly limited money, all comes back to their daughter. As you can imagine, this has the unintended effect of limiting Katie’s ability to parent Devon’s younger brother, Drew, who is enduring a childhood of being benignly neglected on the bleachers. And, as regular readers of Abbott’s work expect, there is more to it than that — namely, a violent and mysterious death of Ryan, the coach’s daughter’s boyfriend, someone right on the border between insider and outsider. He’s close enough that the community is rattled by his death, distant enough that they can keep training like it never happened. Well, they can try to keep training like it never happened.
Abbott is plenty busy: She’s writing the pilot for a Dare Me series, which is in development at HBO, and The Fever, in development at TNT, and is in the writers’ room of David Simon’s — yes, that David Simon — new show. She took some time to speak with ThinkProgress about what it does to a person to be in the proximity of excellence, how female gymnasts are supposed to walk a line/balance beam between childhood and adulthood, and our changing perceptions of race in the sport and what gymnasts “should” look like.
Were you ever an athlete? Because this is your second time writing about this kind of physically demanding activity; Dare Me was about cheerleaders.
No, nothing! I could not do a cartwheel. Freud would say [I write about it because] this is the thing I always wished I could do. I was so nonathletic as a child. I was the one up in the bleachers. I never had the body confidence at all that i could do those things. I did track in gym class in high school and I could not do the hurdle. So having this mastery over one’s body and such control, that was one of the things about gymnasts that fascinated me.
I know that body development is a huge factor here, but I wonder if one of the reasons gymnasts are so young is that, essentially, these skills are so risky and borderline-absurd that you have to be a kid to think it’s worth the risk, that it’s okay. You can’t be a gymnast with fully developed frontal lobe function.
This really adds to it. I also wonder if, there’s so much gaming it: You have adults telling you that you can do this, so what do you do then? You have coaches and parents, a bleacher full of parents, saying you can do this. So that has to be a pretty big piece of it. A girl is not going to become an elite gymnast without the full financial support of her parents, so her parents are obviously involved. They must be telling her she can. And I’m not criticizing those parents at all, because I think they believe it, too. These girls, it does feel miraculous when you watch them.
In a lot of the memoirs I read, gymnasts would talk about tricking yourself. They’d have routines, five minutes before they’d compete. They pause a long time before the vault, just standing there, literally trying to trick themselves into thinking they can do it.
In your book, Devon’s parents are so adamant about the fact that they didn’t “push” Devon into this sport, that she was a natural. And that’s a really strong thread, I think, in the narrative Americans tell ourselves about our athletes: Undeniable gifts force their way into view, and you can’t train someone to become something they aren’t.
In every gymnast memoir and parent memoir, a feature of it is that their kids were doing this stuff at six months old. And all kids roll over at six months! But it is a big myth — not as in, it’s not real, but it’s a foundational belief that we have. There’s something deeply American about it, too — it’s Greek, I suppose — that “my child was born this way.” And of course, I’m not a parent, but I have so much respect for so many of them because it seems so tricky to tell where your ambitions end and your child’s begins and how you navigate that. My parents were incessant readers and book people, and what would they have done if I didn’t like books? And do I like books? Which comes first?
How did you decide to stay with the mother’s point of view? We don’t get a ton of time inside Devon’s mind, to learn how she sees herself as a person or as an athlete.
There’s two points where you see her diary, and originally I had a lot more of that. But I guess I became fascinated with the notion of how, always, there’s a point in which the parent has to realize that they don’t know their child at all. That the child has become their own person fully, and you don’t have access to them that you did. And the notion of, how intense that must be if you are this kind of parent: so close to your child, so in touch with their physicality, you spend so much time with your child, and that must be even more striking and potentially catastrophic.
And I felt that we needed to sympathize with Katie — one of the inspirations was this great obituary of Brooke Shields’ mom, Teri. There’d be a version of the book where the mom is like Teri Shields. I knew that the way to help her not be that mom is that we are in her head, and that we have to like her a lot. And that, on some level, she’s fooling herself about her own kid.
I’m curious what your thoughts are about the fact that these gymnasts are so young — they’re girls — and yet they compete and are judged in a way that is very adult. The idea that you can compete at an adult level but are supposed to forestall everything physical that will make you an adult is such a compelling and uncomfortable thing. There’s a line early on in the book about that: “That was what gymnastics did, though. It aged girls and kept them young forever at the same time.”
I think it’s getting even trickier now. There is this notion of the genesis of girl. She’s a girl and then she’s a woman. We have this idea going back to the early ’70s with Nadia [Comaneci], when they became smaller and younger. They’re girls, and they have to perform as girls. For elite gymnasts and certainly for Olympic gymnasts, the development doesn’t go the way it does for any other girl. They’re traveling around, they have an enormous amount of power in their household and gym world, so they’re very adult. But they’re not. A lot of them have not gotten their periods, they have not been in school with their peers. So it just seems so ripe for going in there. You can postpone that stuff, but for how long? And what does it mean to a parent to prevent your daughter from getting breasts? To act like breasts are a tragedy!
It’s also very odd as an audience member, to feel like you “appreciate” the body of an elite athlete when that elite athlete is an underage girl.
I was just at a gym last week watching the coaches. A lot of them are men and they’re touching little girls, and because they’re so tiny and being touched in all parts of their bodies, it makes them feel even younger and smaller and more vulnerable. And Aly Raisman, the other girls call her grandma, because she’s 21! They’re making fun of her for not understanding some texting abbreviations.
In some of the floor routines, it’s really weird and interesting to watch, the girls do these crazy tumbling passes and then, in between, these sort of sexy dance moves. And for the girls who are 16, I watch and think: What is this?
It’s an unusual develpoment, recently, the past ten years or so. When I was researching, I was lurking around these parent chat rooms, and some of them would call it stripper moves that they’re doing. And some of it, because it’s infused with a little hip hop, there’s a sexy swagger to it. It’s great that they’re taking it contemporary, and there’s some wonderful college gymnasts doing great routines like that. But they’re in college! It’s really something to watch. There’s this space between adult and child, between a sort of Audrey Hepburn kind of thing, and something much closer to Beyoncé. It’s just weird that they have to do that. And because some of them are so short, like Simone Biles, when you see her with a grown man putting his arm around her, it sends off all these conflicting signals.
The girl gymnast seems to occupy this particular space in the public imagination, which keeps her trapped in a space between model/actress and athlete. We don’t really ask that many other athletes to be cute and flirtatious — at least, not while they’re competing — the way we insist upon it with gymnasts.
I thought about it a lot. There’s this great book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, by Joan Ryan. I read it originally when I was writing Dare Me. It’s about gymnastics and ice skating, and they’re equally burdensome in terms of the feminine element, but ice skating is supposed to be elegant, like a fairy princess. The gymnast girl is supposed to be spunky and flirtatious, and in some of the floor routines, they exoticize it: They play this exotic music, [she acts like] this mysterious femme fatale, and it’s just all these icons of femininity just projected onto this young woman who should really just be able to show what she can do in these tiny outfits.
Now that you’ve done all this research and you’ve written this book, do you think, if you could, you would want to be an elite gymnast?
I would not! But if you had those talents — it’s hard to even imagine. Doesn’t it seem almost impossible, actually quite otherworldly? It’s hard to separate the fantasy out of it. But if I had a daughter, that’s the more telling thing, I think you would have to do a constant checking yourself. I don’t know how you would even parent, and how would you know where you end and your daughter begins? Obviously, I think we’re all glad some of them do it. Because to watch it is glorious. It’s like the way of child stars, you’re always glad one of them makes it to the other side.
This year’s U.S. team is the most diverse ever. For the first time, there are more athletes of color than white athletes in that top five. Gabby Douglas won the individual all-around gold in 2012; the favored to win this year, and the person many believe to be the greatest gymnast of all time, is Simone Biles. What made you decide, then, to make almost everyone in your book white? Devon’s family is white, as are the coach and his family, Ryan, other families at the gym.
Not all of them are white in my head. But definitely, Devon [and her family] are white, and Hailey [the Coach’s niece] and Ryan are. I can’t say I thought that much about it. One of the ways I did think about when I was researching is how much this is about economics. There was a lot of coverage [in 2012] about Gabby Douglas’ socioeconomic situation, which remains really challenging. So I thought probably more about class and economics than about race.
And in gymnastics — I think it’ll now be changed forever — but for me, growing up, it was this idea of the white girl. And what I love about last time and especially this time is how that’s changed forever. You look at the five this year and it’s all going out the window. It’s part of the larger moment.
It’s going to be interesting to see if judges care about race at all, or talk about it in a coded way, like, “We prefer the Russian look.” Which is obviously blonde, lithe, and white.
The system perpetuated that — the Russian look — you do see it. I remember reading some of the coverage of the figure skater Debi Thomas, when she rose to prominence, and it was so much talk about the way she looked in this coded way about her race, that she wasn’t elegant or refined, and it felt ridiculous. These ideas you have about how an ice skater looks which really means how white you should be, and now it’s going to be really interesting to see [if that happens in Rio].
[I remember] few years ago that Italian gymnast [Carlotta Ferlito] said, “’Maybe next time we’ll paint our skin black so we can win.”
You spend a lot of time in the book focusing on Devon’s brother, Drew. What was interesting to you about this person who isn’t the star of the family?
Drew was my favorite character! He was meant to be much smaller. But that sibling relationship, I really became fascinated by it. Just imaginging myself — my brother wasn’t a prodigy, but I did sit in the bleachers every day watching him play little league, and my dad was a coach, so I do know what that’s like to some degree. My parents couldn’t afford babysitters so I just had to sit there and watch. And I wanted Katie to have a kind of blindness about it. There are things she’ll never, ever see about that boy. She thinks that he’s such a good kid to do this, and if i give him brownies and put a stack of books next to him, he’ll be fine!
But there’s only really room for one person in this family. There’s a chapter on prodigies in Andrew Solomon’s book, Far From the Tree. He writes about how, when there’s an exceptional child, everything in the family shifts in constant ways because of that, and the siblings in those cases, they tended to go one way or the other: give up and be supportive or they would act out eventually, be a discipline problem. But it always seemed so painful to me.
I was surprised by your decision to frame the book around these qualifiers, which I know are important in the world of gymnastics but aren’t the thing the average reader thinks about. Why not show Devon at the Olympics, or at least the Olympic trials?
I wanted there to be some question, at some point, in some readers’ heads, about whether Devon was really that good. Because it’d be really hard to skip Senior Elite. A few people have done it. But I thought it was fascinating that because we have Katie’s point of view only, and Katie absolutely believes it, except for a few moments. If you look from the outside, you could think, hmmm. But for the Olympics, you couldn’t wonder; you’d know she has to be a prodigy.
How did you pick your victim? What drew you to Ryan, who is the boyfriend of the coach’s niece, not exactly central to their community and not another gymnast?
I knew I wanted it to be an outsider, because it’s such an insular community, they only spend time with each other. And I think that’s true with a lot of competitive sports. So it needed to be someone from outside. In some ways, then, they’re a threat and they’re easily disposed. Like in any system. Like the mob! So it was built on that notion: The outsider is the one who can be eliminated. And I don’t like to kill ladies.
I hate that trope, too! I was just thinking about that watching The Night Of. It’s always a beautiful young woman who gets killed, and the camera lingers on her corpse.
The whole show being about the man’s reaction to the woman’s death. It’s endless! It’s been around as long as — before Poe! I’m pretty conscious of it, trying to do that to men and seeing how it works differently.
After Lois Duncan died last month, I saw this old Q&A; with her resurface. Someone asked her to write a two-sentence horror story, and she said: “The dogs were so ravenous they fell upon their meal with gusto. Within a matter of minutes there was nothing left but the bones and the ribbon she’d been wearing in her hair.” I devoured all her books in middle school, but I think about it now, and she was always killing off young girls!
Lois Duncan, I interviewed her once! And I was sort of projecting all this stuff about female agency, and how these books always have a good girl and a bad girl, and one is the id. And she’s like, “That’s nice that you think that!” She was very traditional. And she was not trying to subvert anything, though I think she did. I reread my favorite ones when I interviewed her and they really worked well, and I do think they’re quite subversive. Girls get to do all kinds of bad things in those books. The same is true in my books: Writers are the last ones to know what they’re books are about.
This might sound like a strange question because it’s a book, so it shouldn’t matter, but everyone in this novel is so attractive. They are all described as being, really, so good-looking that it’s distracting and makes the people around them behave in ways they shouldn’t. Did you do that intentionally or is it just a way to keep the writing fun when you’re alone with your computer?
It’s probably something I do anyway because i was raised on movies. But in this case, in part, Katie, as we eventually see, is someone who does not really understand herself. She’s filled with desire she can’t acknowledge. She doesn’t realize when she’s flirting with someone. She’s, in some ways, much like they’re trying to force Devon to do, telling herself that this isn’t happening when it is happening. She looks at men this way. I had a few points at which, from the outside, people describe Devon in ways that are a little uglier — her [injured] foot, her muscles, how the boys at school think she’s kind of disgusting-looking — so we wouldn’t even really know how Devon looks. The boys are threatened by muscles, and Katie only sees her beautiful daughter. And I always liked the idea with Hailey and Ryan, they’re the golden couple that we’re so entranced by. Katie is seeing what she imagines she and her husband were once like.
The distance between a character like Hailey, who is legal but still young, and Devon, who is underage, is so critical to the story. It colors everything they do with the men in their lives and with the power dynamic between them.
It’s funny how we see these turning points of a girl being a woman, or being capable of making decisions that we, from the outside, are able to sanction in some way. At what point does a girl become a woman, and does it change all the time? And these gymnasts: Are they girls or are they women? Maybe that’s always the question — with gymnasts, all this stuff gets thrown in high relief.