AUGUST 21, 2016
The summer I was 17, I moved into a cheap old apartment in downtown Tacoma with my high school best friend. We were an attraction of opposites. She was an honor student; I was a two-time dropout who had finally finished high school on the third try. She had a scholarship to a Christian college in California in the fall; I was convinced I was done with formal education forever. She shampooed with Herbal Essences and washed her face with Noxzema; I dipped my hair in undiluted Clorox and covered my arm with self-inflicted third-degree cigarette burns. She was the good girl and I was the bad girl, or so it seemed. And we needed each other: I provided the impetus for our experiment in independence, and she provided the even-keeled good-kid cred that made our parents feel like they could let us go.
I suspect we always secretly scorned each other for our differences, at least a little. I was proud of being a pariah, and I assumed she was simply too afraid to be one too. It never occurred to me that she might genuinely prefer to be liked. But we were united by our loyalty to Sub Pop Records and Pendleton shirts, and by our desire for an apartment of our own where we could finally live the way we wanted after being raised in a patriarchal puritanical evangelical subculture. We’d first bonded during our sophomore and junior years at a tiny Christian high school located in a church basement. We’d roll our eyes and pass notes during the compulsory chapel sermons on the importance of sexual purity and the evils of masturbation. After graduation we got five-dollar-an-hour jobs working at espresso stands in seedy locations — the downtown bus station and YMCA — and we found a one-bedroom apartment we could just about afford if we lived on potatoes and free coffee. What I wanted more than anything that summer was a quiet place to read and write, free from the chaos of my five noisy siblings and the suffocating pressure of my anxious, God-obsessed parents. I didn’t know what she wanted, but I soon found out.
Our very first night in the apartment, she brought home a man she met at the bus stop, a homeless gang member and IV drug user (former gang member and IV drug user, she assured me) whose hobbies included tagging, petty theft, and misogynistic fury. It soon became clear he was never going to leave, and she didn’t seem to want him to. They fell into a rhythm: he would get paranoid and jealous, destroy things, shout, sulk. She would apologize and explain until he let his anger subside to a simmer, and the next day they would do it all again.
Sometimes he would search her belongings while she was at work, looking for a reason for rage. Once he found her male co-worker’s phone number on a scrap of paper, and she came home to find he had written BITCH on every book she owned, every CD, every page of her calendar, with his fat tagging marker. Once he asked me what her favorite possession was; thinking he was having a rare sentimental moment, I told him it was the tea set she’d inherited from her grandmother. A few minutes later he was outside, smashing it to smithereens on the sidewalk. Once he stormed out of the building early in the morning after one of their fights, and she chased him down the street wearing nothing but a T-shirt, calling his name and begging him to come back. Once he got into a fistfight with her ex-boyfriend in our living room, and afterward I found a bloody tooth and a packet of powder on the floor. Once I opened the closet door to find him crouched in the dark, holding a knife, waiting. I don’t know if he ever physically hurt her, but I know I was terrified all the time.
Before my friend and I moved in together I’d suggested some house rules (no live-in boyfriends, no hard drugs), and she’d agreed to them with the same easy insincerity with which she’d signed the Christian college’s behavioral code (no drinking, no dancing, no gambling, no porn). When she broke our rules I felt betrayed. Now that I’m older and I know more about the psychology of abusive relationships, I’ve had some time to cultivate empathy, but at the time I didn’t feel a particle of pity for her. All I felt was fear and resentment that she’d brought this terror into our home. I resented her even more intensely because I could feel that on some level the terror thrilled her. The threat of violence infused our otherwise ordinary summer with the racing pace and pulse of melodrama. She felt heat, but I felt dread.
We both resorted to terrible measures to placate him. Holding a knife, he once asked me to become his blood sister by slicing our fingers and pressing them together, and with my adolescent’s futureless brain and my immediate drive to survive, I agreed. I thought about AIDS the whole time our fingers were pressed together and for years afterward, but I was scared of what he would do if I said no. I don’t know all she did to appease him, but I’m sure it was much worse. Then he began talking obsessively about guns.
I lasted until late July — not even two months. I waited until they were out of the apartment and then I called my parents for help and they moved me back home. By the end of the summer, she was pregnant and keeping the baby and had lost her Christian college scholarship, and I’d decided to go to community college after all, to try to plot a new escape from home through the long slow route of school. Now, over half our lifetimes later, one of us is a grandmother and still living in our hometown (or so I’ve heard; we haven’t talked in 20 years), and one of us is still an aspiring writer, still living with roommates in a cheap old apartment in another gritty post-industrial city.
We both survived; we both grew up and made lives for ourselves. But I still can’t bear to think about that summer. We could have died so many times.
Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire is as intense as adolescence and as dark as a dream. Like a half-repressed memory, it altered the atmosphere of my days as I read it, causing the air around me to shimmer with menace like heat waves on a highway. It’s the closest I’ve come to feeling like a teenage girl since I actually was one, and it pushed me past my limits like my own adolescence did, setting me on an inexorable track beyond my control and then flooding me with feeling. When I was reading it I couldn’t put it down, and in between bouts of reading I was scared to pick it up. I’m apparently not the only reviewer who had to move it out of the bedroom in order to sleep at night. I’ve never made peace with the pleasures of terror.
Girls on Fire is a mystery and a tangled love triangle and a sharp, ruthless thriller, and it’s satisfying and troubling on all these levels. It’s also an evocative and non-nostalgic novel about the 1990s, a time before Beyoncé united us all, when certain genres of popular music demanded ritual practices of alienation, and stardom sometimes looked like Kurt Cobain. But its most unsettling aspect is the utter relatability and ubiquity of its characters: “Girls, everywhere,” in the words of the epilogue, “[i]mpossible not to see them, not to remember what it was like, when it was like that.”
Like all good gothic, Girls on Fire reveals the unknown horrors of the already known. Specifically, it dramatizes the unpredictable horror stories latent in predictable patterns of female friendship and enmity, in this case in the fraught alliance between good girl Dex and bad girl Lacey and their ongoing feud with popular girl Nikki. The plot takes these ordinary high school dynamics to forbidden places, tracing the girls’ various convergences and triangulations before and after the death of Nikki’s boyfriend, Craig, who was found in the woods shot through the head. His body is like a snake in the garden, foreshadowing their friendship’s entwinement with the specter of decay.
Girls on Fire is not this summer’s only haunting historical novel about the potentially lethal dangers of adolescent female friendship. It’s often been discussed in relation to Emma Cline’s The Girls, which is based on the Manson family romance. But unlike Cline’s novel, Wasserman’s is not made safe by its status as an aestheticization of a world-historical crime that has long since served as an allegory for the end of a distant and golden era. Despite its ’90s setting, it never feels like a period piece. Neither does it try to transcend time. Instead, the dangers it describes are as imminent and up-to-date as cyberbullying and the Stanford rapist Brock Turner. In occasionally anachronistic ways — at one point it uses the antiquated technology of a VHS tape to approximate the lethal effects of a viral video — Girls on Fire takes the classic and contemporary teen ingredients of peer pressure and rape culture and compulsive photo-documentation and still-legal-in-most-states conversion therapy, and turns them into a tale that will horrify even the most blasé adult. It plays on the familiar fears we already have about the young people we love and think we know. It’s a call coming from inside the house.
Recently I was at a dinner with an otherwise intelligent-seeming man who said he didn’t understand why dystopian novels about teenagers are so popular, because modern teens experience so little social and state repression. Teens’ real problem, he posited, is growing up in a world with too much tolerance. This seemed like a stunningly strange statement to make, especially by someone who lives in a stop-and-frisk city, and especially during a week when bathroom bills were all over the news, and conservative principals and parents were insisting that students live and piss according to their birth certificate.
My own sense is that modern adolescence is a time of becoming repressed in both old and new ways. It’s a period in young people’s lives when, already under scrutiny from parents and teachers and one another, they enter a high-stakes new phase of being profiled and policed in public, catcalled and categorized by a world that often perceives them not just as objects but as a potential threat. As has been made abundantly clear, the burden of this surveillance falls disproportionately and heavily on people of color, but any teenage girl who has walked down a sidewalk or a school hallway has known what it’s like to bear the weight of a gaze. In much modern fiction, white girls’ experience of this heightened scrutiny is transformed into allegory (A vampire is watching you while you sleep! You are fighting for your life on reality TV!). In Girls on Fire, the problem of surveillance is more literal, even banal, but less absolute: everyone is watching, from cops and concerned parents to fellow teenagers with video cameras; but when it matters most, no one is watching closely enough.
Readers are forced to watch, too. Like my favorite 1940s noirs, Girls on Fire is narrated in a haunted voice-over of recrimination and regret — the kind of noir narration that helplessly, compulsively tells a tale of woe after the worst has occurred, to an audience that is sometimes a lost love or a co-conspirator, sometimes an imagined jury or confessor, and sometimes an unacknowledged audience of moviegoers or readers who in listening become accessories after the fact. The long sections marked “US,” narrated in breathless first-person by Dex and Lacey, are interspersed with short sections marked “THEM,” written in detached third-person from the perspective of their parents — sections that provide a brief reprieve from the hot and sometimes stifling adolescent perspective of the “US” chapters, and help explain why this is classified as a book for adults. (All the uncensored sex and violence are doubtless part of the adult marketing too.)
But unlike the multiple unreliable female narrators of last year’s thriller The Girl on the Train, an exhilarating exercise in wish-fulfillment in which the women’s separate stories ultimately merge to become a kind of righteous feminist truth united against the threat of male violence, the narrators of Girls on Fire remain unreliable and unsettled until the end, because the danger is not just outside them but within them. Even as the mystery is revealed and the plot rushes to a climax, these girls remain fundamentally inscrutable to themselves and to us, as adolescents often are. Their story is spun smoothly and skillfully at a fiendish speed, with suspenseful alternations between taut and slack, but the girls’ motives and feelings remain appropriately torn and tangled. No narrator, no matter how omniscient, could make order out of their roiling moods.
To me, the most horrifying parts of the book were not the many graphic accounts of vicious violence (though they saturate the pages) but the cringingly familiar depictions of youthful freedom and friendship attempted without knowledge or self-knowledge or empathy or limits. Living through a fraught, contingent time before their identities are fully fixed, these girls are utterly at the mercy of the destructiveness of intimacy. They’re vulnerable to all the ways closeness can hurt you when you don’t know its dangers, when you can’t get out of your own head enough to imagine another person’s perspective, when you can’t imagine a future for yourself or anyone else, and when you haven’t yet formed a strong enough sense of self to know when to stay and when to run. By the time they learn, it’s too late.
It is this ragged edge, this blurriness of the teenage self, that makes Girls on Fire a more reliable guide to the lived dystopia of adolescence than the melting masochism of Twilight or the righteous fight of The Hunger Games. Because in my experience there is really no clarity or meaning to be made of a misspent youth. Girlhood is there, and then it is gone. This for me is the poignancy and problem of the It Gets Better campaign, with its well-meaning adult attempts to send a message in a bottle to a painful adolescent past — because even if it gets better, it will get better not for the self who is suffering but for the adult stranger they may eventually become. So much of adolescence is spent without a sense of consequences or hope because the future is so distant it may as well not exist.
“Remember how good it felt to burn,” Wasserman writes. Twenty years ago I spent hours and afternoons burning melting messages in fire on my skin, making scar after scar, because I wanted to write my misspent youth on my body in a way it could never forget. I didn’t want my future self to ever disavow how much I hurt in that moment. I didn’t want to lose myself to happiness. But scars fade, and I consider it one of the great accomplishments of my life that I eventually broke faith with the girl I was and decided I owe her nothing. I traded in my Soundgarden CDs for NPR and my unfiltered Lucky Strikes for tea and therapy, and I can teach and care for teenagers today because there are so many things I do not allow myself to remember. It’s a purposeful forgetting: a necessary loss. But for a few days this summer, Girls on Fire helped me feel how thin the membrane might be that separates our present from our past, our adulthood from our girlhood, our selves from our selves.