I am not the first to say that the later years of middle school and early high school were hell. Nor will I be the last. That must be one of the few universal truths of childhood. And as someone who has struggled with mental illness, especially so in those oh-so-cringeworthy years, those pains of adolescence were only amplified. Mental illness is by no means uncommon — my experiences aren’t unique — but there are still a few emotions and sensations that I have never been able to translate fully into words, nor have I seen others have much luck with the feat. So, when I read Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel “The Virgin Suicides,” I was caught off guard. Narrated by a group of now-grown neighborhood boys several decades after the events of the main story, the novel is about the successive suicides of the five Lisbon sisters and the boys’ desperate attempts to uncover why these girls of American suburbia killed themselves. The novel explores themes of sex and sexuality, femininity and misogyny, mental illness and emotional isolation, taboos and all the weird, gross and sticky feelings that accompany the early teen years.
What was so interesting about this novel is that, somehow, both the narrators and the sisters articulated some aspect of my own experiences with mental illness in middle and high school. The experiences of these characters obviously don’t perfectly align with my own: I can’t speak to the experiences of those who are objectified, sexualized and repressed, nor can I say I’ve ever shared the misogynistic views of the narrators. However, the community and characters portrayed ring familiar nonetheless. From the obsessive and insulting way the community sensationalizes and elevates the five young girls following their deaths, to the deep social anxiety and desperate loneliness that both the neighborhood boys and the five sisters exhibit, this book was an emotional echo of what I experienced and saw in the early days of my struggle with mental illness.
Most reflective of my adolescent years was the novel’s depiction of the Lisbon sisters. In particular, the physical and emotional isolation the remaining four sisters endured in the wake of Cecilia’s death captured my own persistent, pre-teen feeling of estrangement.
After about a year of the community’s collective obsession over Cecilia’s suicide, the other four Lisbon girls fall into a passive acceptance of their grim reality and grow cynical of the world around them. They seem disillusioned by the superficiality and hypocrisy of the community, their feeling of disconnect only amplified further by their entrapment in the echo chamber of suicidality. I felt trapped in a similar mindset for years, but the similarities run even deeper. Towards the end of middle school, I began to notice that when tragedies and deaths occurred, people who never associated themselves with the individuals in question began to reflect on how well they knew them. And while this is not something that is exclusive to youth, going through such a difficult time myself made me see these fairweather mourners in a different light.
The narrators note that a bench donated in honor of the girls’ memory labelled them as the “daughters of this community, despite how secluded the Lisbon sisters were from the rest of the community,” Moving beyond the clear irony of the bench, the most frustrating phenomenon the book depicts is the narrators’ reductionary idealization of and projection onto five girls who they, in reality, seldom talked to. “They were too beautiful for this world, they were perfect, they were so kind…” As I mentioned earlier, performative claims of personal connection in the aftermath of a death are a very common phenomenon. One could chalk it up to any number of reasons: selfishness, illusions of importance or even blatant hypocrisy. Regardless, “The Virgin Suicides” highlights the superficiality inherent in this reaction to tragedy.
In contrast to the clear parallels I saw between my experiences and those of the Lisbon sisters, the similarities I found between the experiences of the neighborhood boys and my own are a bit more indirect. The neighborhood boys are problematic to say the least, but they do embody the agony of being an emotional and distraught pre-pubescent middle schooler. As someone who has always been shy and, consequently, never great at making new friends, I recognized the longing for friendship born out of their emotional isolation. Though my own experiences with this were more akin to what my friend terms “friend crushes,” (or, meeting someone who you think seems really cool, but you are too nervous to actually try to be their friend) the underlying social anxiety, over-analyzation and daydreaming that the narrators experience rings familiar.
It’s been years since middle school, and I’m guessing that for most people reading this, looking back on those times isn’t at the top of your to-do list. But, with a book as entrenched in the nuanced horrors of middle school as “The Virgin Suicides,” it’s difficult not to remember that time period. As opposed to the community depicted in “The Virgin Suicides,” we, as readers, don’t need to remain stagnant, obsessing over the past. From those terrible adolescent years emerges (hopefully) an individual who can look back on that time and appreciate how much growth has occurred and how much growth there is to come. From stories such as these, of those who can never hope to understand why suicides occur, of others who are disillusioned and objectified by the world around them, we can recognize why growth beyond our adolescence is so important, and how much clinging to narrow and reductionist views can warp our realities. As we move into the future, the problems we face will change, and we will as well.