Dear Teen Me:
When the crystal says you will get into Yale you don’t believe it, don’t believe her, think she’s only trying to make you feel better because she can see—anyone can see—your frantic need not to be rejected.
Your mother’s flower-child brother has come to visit and has brought his girlfriend, Abby. Her armpits are fuzzy and when she speaks she sculpts the air with her fingers. The two of them offer to do a “healing” on you. You are skeptical, to say the least.
Religion, you learned, is the opiate of the people. Your father’s brand of Judaism is to be on guard against anti-Semitism. He will not buy German products, at least until he finds a good deal on a VW bug. You learn to be embarrassedly ethnic. You long for a Christmas tree, an Easter basket.
Worse than mainstream religion is the woo-woo spirituality these hippies bring. We don’t tolerate that kind of thing. But you like Abby, this girl-woman a half-generation older, who confides in you like a peer and doesn’t cower in the presence of your father. You let her and your uncle do the healing, their hands hovering above you. You don’t feel anything, except maybe love.
When Abby pulls out a crystal and asks if you want to know what which colleges will admit you, you think, Nut-job! You surprise yourself by agreeing. She seems to know things. She is calm. The weather in your house is squally, unpredictable.
The crystal says Yale will say yes and you feel a little less feverish. But you don’t believe it, not for a minute. You also don’t believe Abby when she tries to make you hear that it’s not you. Your father is an angry and hurt man and it’s not you. It’s not you. It’s not you.
Your teenage rage and frustration manifests in a refusal to conform. When it comes to offering forceful opinions and harsh judgments, you are generous, relentless. You attract the attention of boys, even though you are clearly unattractive. You work too hard on being interesting.
A handsome black-haired senior who drives a car the same blue as his eyes becomes devoted to you freshman year. You kiss him for hours in the front seat. He writes earnest ungrammatical love letters that make you cringe. When he doesn’t go to college you dump him. You have learned to demand much of yourself and others.
You join a few random clubs for the sake of your college application. You show up for track practice but decline to run; you pretend to throw a shot put and pass time lying on the high jump mat. You refuse to wear a uniform. If you allowed yourself to run, fury would make you fast.
Your father quotes, “No ideas but in things.” You earn material markers of his regard: books in exchange for high grades, a coveted dress for mastering a piano piece. He edits your poetry and when he pays attention to you, even though the work is never praised, you are grateful as a beaten dog.
He will never love you in a way that feels right. His affection will always be conditional, dependent on whether you bend to his will, say what he wants to hear. You will always be afraid of him.
Junior year you and your mother drive four hours to Greenwich Village to visit her gentle goofy father, a photographer who dances every morning in his boxer shorts and takes you to museums and galleries.
Before you enter the apartment, standing in the long hallway of doors and strange food smells, you tell your mother you don’t understand why she stays married.
She says, For you kids.
You say, How can I respect you?
This is the most terrible thing you will ever say to anyone and you will regret it forever. She will forgive you, but maybe not herself.
She stays until your younger brother goes to college, two years after you’ve left for Yale.
When she falls in love with an artist who wears pink sweatpants to fancy restaurants you dub him Hon Fat, Honorary Father. He calls you his Hon Dot.
You will love many men and with a few mistaken exceptions, they will be nothing like your father. They will be affectionate and confiding and will prize your fierceness, your independence. You will have to work on your critical nature, a project no more difficult than clearing a rainforest with a spoon.
Your father will become King Lear, a foolish old man who believes himself more sinned against than sinning who rejected a loving daughter because she would not diminish herself to feed his vanity. He will disinherit you.
You will be fine. You will be better than fine.
Rachel’s ambition, on graduating from Yale University, was to work on a dude ranch in Wyoming (never having been to a dude ranch—or to Wyoming). Moving to Missoula, Montana, for an MFA in creative writing is the closest she’s come. After a dozen years as an editor of scholarly books, at Oxford and Duke University Presses, she slid down the ladder of social mobility and did a stint in college admissions, quitting to write ADMISSIONS CONFIDENTIAL: AN INSIDER’S ACCOUNT OF THE ELITE COLLEGE SELECTION PROCESS in an attempt to demystify an arcane and brutalizing rite of passage. Since then she has published a memoir, THE PIG AND I and PERSONAL RECORD: A LOVE AFFAIR WITH RUNNING. Rachel writes a monthly column in The Chronicle of Higher Education and a bi-monthly one in Running Times magazine, where she is a senior writer. Her work has appeared in various and diverse places, including The LA Times, Ploughshares, Glamour, Inside Higher Ed, Reader’s Digest, Runner’s World, Ascent, JAMA (The Journal of the American Medical Association) and a variety of other more academically-oriented publications. Her work also appears on the Athleta blog, where she was a sponsored athlete for 2012.
In June, 2014, Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish her first novel, ON THE ROAD TO FIND OUT.