Reconstructing Amelia, Kimberly McCreight's debut novel about a mother's love for her deceased daughter, struck a cord with many of you and got lots of praise from publications. It is a well written and researched book and I thought my Mom, a NYC high school guidance counselor, would particularly like it. She did, so we asked her to come up with some questions from her perspective as an adult who is exposed to and must navigate the world of bullying, teen behavior and relationships between children and parents on a daily basis.
Mama Mazes: How did you learn all the latest internet “buzz” words/abbreviations used by teens and what would you recommend to adults who want to stay current with computer-speak?
Kimberly: I interviewed local teens and did extensive research online. But much of the lingo I was already using myself. Perhaps I should be more embarrassed about that.
For parents not so well versed in text acronyms, a simple Google search—“popular text abbreviations teens”—goes a long way. Be aware that there are micro-local variations, so this research might not explain the entire alphabet soup in your child’s texts, but it will be a good start.
If a Google search is beyond your skill-set, consider investing in a basic Internet how-to guide or a class like those offered by major retailers. Libraries have computers with Internet access, too, along with generous librarians. There’s also your child. If necessary, you could always condition their Internet use on showing you the ropes.
But it’s critical that we all get—and stay—“virtually” up to speed. With 95% of teens on the Internet and 70% with access via a mobile device, it’s where our children are. If we don’t understand the language they’re speaking or can’t find where they’re “hanging out” online, we can’t hope to lend a hand if, or when, things take a turn for the worse.
MM: Reading Reconstructing Amelia can be a lesson/learning experience for many parents. The ideas of accepting your child’s sexual orientation and life choices echo throughout the book. However, how would you answer any parent reading this who is upset with how you have drawn your characters?
K: Regardless of our beliefs, we are united by the hope that our children will grow into happy, secure adults. To do that, children must have the unconditional love and support of their parents. That includes celebrating who and how they love, even if it’s different from our own choices or the life we might have imagined for them.
MM: So many, many secrets – Amelia’s, Kate’s, Jeremy’s, Celeste’s, Liv’s, Adele’s and Sylvia’s. Secrets are part of many relationships but when do they become a burden; when do they become a horrible catalyst to an event? When is it necessary to reveal one in life and which secret was the most devastating one of all in this story?
K: All secrets are a burden. Even the simplest and most innocuous take energy to protect. I teach my own girls to be very suspicious of secrets. When someone asks them not to tell something, I want their first thought to be: should I tell?
At the same time, some of my dearest friendships have been grounded in the secrets we’ve shared. Sharing a confidence with someone is a way of establishing trust. How do you tell the difference between a bad secret and a good one? Ask yourself: do you feel at all worse—anxious, nervous, worried—keeping the information to yourself? If you do, then that’s definitely one secret you shouldn’t keep.
And that’s true, even if you’re also flattered that someone asked you to keep the secret. If you’re flattered and worried, it’s the worried part you should listen to more.
In Reconstructing Amelia, the most destructive secrets were those Amelia kept from her mother. Kate could and would have helped Amelia had she known what was going on. Tragically, Amelia didn’t speak up, in part because she felt ashamed of the things she herself had done wrong—joining the Maggies, cutting school, the harassment she herself had participated in.
That’s the complicated thing about secrets; they rarely occur in isolation. I hope Reconstructing Amelia reminds parents that situations—for teens especially—often have many moving parts. And I hope it reminds teens that it’s never too late to admit your own mistakes. Because the people who love you want you to be safe, way more than they need you to be perfect.
MM: If Amelia didn’t die, would she have gone back to Dr. Lipton? The counselor said the right things, passed Amelia’s “test”, and was accessible - but she seemed reactive about the existence of the Magpies. Most school counselors today are proactive about bullying and harassment. Could adults who acted more and talked less have made a difference in Amelia’s world?
K: Most school counselors are wonderfully committed people who have an incredibly difficult job, particularly in the complex area of cyber-bullying. Law enforcement, school administrators and parents can’t seem to decide who’s really in charge, much less what we can do as community to help. Collectively, we must come up with more effective, consistent policies and procedures so that we can help well-intentioned school counselors better protect our children.
But Dr. Lipton’s efforts, in particular, fell far short. She was too concerned with protecting the school and the letter of the law. In the end, I think Amelia would have eventually decided to tell her mother everything. Unfortunately, she never had the chance.
MM: What lessons about teen bullying (especially girl-on-girl) in general do you want your readers to really “get”? What lessons specifically about internet bullying do you want them to take away?
K: It’s easier to bully now than at any other time. You do not have to look your victim in the face. You can hide under a cloak of anonymity. You aren’t forced to pause, to consider, to sleep on whatever it is you were about to do. Instead, with one click of a mouse the insults fly into cyberspace. Where they stay, forever.
It’s also much harder to be a victim. No longer are you safe at night in your home. Attacks can reach you at any hour, and if you have a phone, at any location. The tormenting can be round-the-clock and often plays out on a very public, social media stage—sometimes in front of the entire school.
And while it might seem like an easy thing for victims to turn to a parent, or teacher or other trusted adult, it isn’t. Victims often feel implicated in their own harassment—because they went to that forbidden party or had sex or got drunk.
On top of that, how can they be sure that complaining won’t just make matters worse? If we, as parents, can’t be sure that our complaints to school administrators will be heeded, how can we possibly expect our children to trust that we can help them?
Thank you Mom and Kimberly for the insightful questions and excellent responses. FYI: Reconstructing Amelia comes out in paperback in December.