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September 24, 2009

Gossip Girl, Interrupted

Precocious memoirist and prep school malcontent Hannah Friedman assures Gelf self-loathing is hardly unique to public education.

Max Lakin

As W.H. Auden wrote, "Our sufferings and weaknesses, in so far as they are personal, are only interesting in so far as we can see them as typical of the human condition." And as Mac said in a recent episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, "Personal memoirs are huge right now, but you don't want to end up like that Million Little Pieces guy—Oprah made him look like a total dick."

Hannah Friedman is 22, is from New York, and published her memoir this summer. To that end, she is already the scourge of all nonfiction authors not still in their early 20's. To heave salt in this wound, Friedman's book—Everything Sucks: Losing My Mind and Finding Myself in a High School Quest for Cool, an account of her experience at a private prep school that included bulimia, a cocaine habit, and cutting herself with a razor blade (basically a beach read)—is not her earliest credit. She is one of the youngest people to have been published in Newsweek for her 2004 article "When Your Friends Become the Enemy," about the college application process, after which she promptly attended Yale University, graduating in 2008. So it wasn't all terrible.

Hannah Friedman with non-backstabbing friend.
"I wouldn't say our drama is categorically different than public school drama, it's just coated in tacky crystals and floating in an overpriced martini."

Hannah Friedman with non-backstabbing friend.

Friedman also is the daughter of singer/songwriter Dean Friedman, spent her formative years as an itinerant van-child, and grew up with an Insulin-taking capuchin monkey named Amelia for a sister. In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity, Gelf spoke with the young author over e-mail about the compound terror of private education, the deficits in modern American schooling, and the root of our country's newfound obsession with all things preparatory.

Gelf Magazine: High school in general is probably remembered by most as a special ring of Hell. Logic dictates that the relative privilege of prep school makes the experience a bit smoother, but that's not the case according to your book. Why is what happens behind closed gates even worse?

Hannah Friedman: When you're stuck in high school, it's easy to bemoan your fate, yet difficult to see just how uniquely sucky the high school period is on the wider spectrum of institutional obligations. Sure, as an adult you have to pay taxes, stand in line at the DMV, and navigate the health insurance quagmires, but not many adults are forced into an enclosed space for four solid years listening to mostly kooky cranks with a bunch of people they loath, and then required to memorize thousands of often inane facts, to marinate in the pimply heights of hormonal awkwardness, and to be reminded of their utter inadequacy as they are outranked by peers in brains, athletics, looks, or all three, on an hourly basis. Which is to say—high school seems to be a weird and trying time for most of us. However, adding Prada purses, personal Pilates instructors, and private yachts to the list of traits which are deemed "cool" certainly forced a scholarship kid like me to go to extreme lengths to fit in. I wouldn't say our drama is categorically different than public school drama, it's just coated in tacky crystals and floating in an overpriced martini.

Gelf Magazine: People usually wait a while before writing their memoirs, like after they've completed their term in the White House. Yet you've busted one out inside two years of graduating college. Besides making us all look bad, why write now?

Hannah Friedman: Well, firstly, I didn't have a job. And I didn't think living in my parents' basement would be very cool unless I had some sort of fabulous secret artistic project that I would mysteriously allude to in dinner conversation. So after a few months of mysterious alluding, all my friends got into medical and law school, or were wooed with six figure hedge fund jobs with lobster dinners, and I decided I had better get my ass in gear. I have always been interested in the history of education, and I put together a proposal on the subject, which was received almost unanimously thusly:
"You're kinda funny sometimes, I guess. Also, nobody knows who the hell you are. Who the hell are you?"
Who the hell, indeed. When I heard back from one company saying that although they didn't know who the hell I was in the way of educational history, they were looking for something more along the lines of a memoir, I jumped at the chance to infuse some of my personal anecdotes into the research. And Everything Sucks was born! Throughout the process of writing, I was struck by the niche I hoped to fill—that of a truly candid, funny, and frank account of growing up today. Most of the things that come to mind when you hear the word "memoir" are reflections on a long and productive life. Teenagers haven't lived very long, and they're generally not very productive, but that doesn't mean they don't deserve a piece of nonfiction that really speaks their language and feels relevant to their situation as much as adults do. If I had waited to write this book until I was 60, my experiences, advice, and voice would be less potent, the memories less fresh. I don't think this will be my best or last memoir—simply the first.

Gelf Magazine: You dig into a lot of hairy stuff, not the least of which includes enough hard drugs and eating disorders to give Pete Doherty a go for it. Without giving too much of the book away…what happened?

Hannah Friedman: I wanted to be someone else. I found so many flaws with myself—I felt awkward and lazy, sometimes very alone. And so to cope I searched for quick fixes&$151;the perfect diet, the perfect high, the perfect guy…the pressure to get into a good college was so overwhelming that I thought my future was in peril every time I didn't measure up to these hugely unrealistic ideals teenagers have set for themselves and for each other.

Gelf Magazine: It's safe to assume you're doing better now, given your graduation from college and lack of 11 o'clock news reports. When did you feel like you needed to turn it around?

Hannah Friedman: It took a very long time to feel significantly happier and healthier, and of course it's always an ongoing process. I think the first step was deciding that I wanted things to be different, realizing that what I was doing wasn't working. And then another major hurdle was imagining that it was okay to really like myself. I had spent so much time wanting to change, improve, and rewind things, that it was a huge paradigm shift when I finally started to accept myself and my surroundings. I had been exposed to the idea that being a smart, savvy woman meant running 15 miles a week, counting out your portions of grapes, and occasionally stabbing more successful people in the back, and I think once I OD'd on that philosophy, things took a turn back to normal old Hannahville. Wherever that is.

Gelf Magazine: I went to a public school in Queens in which the heaviest things we had to worry about was some moderate fist fighting and a lend-lease program on European history textbooks. Private school concerns as you lay them out seem a bit weightier. As someone who attended both types of institutions, you're in that unique place to deal some relatively unbiased opinion. Do you think you're better off going to prep school?

Hannah Friedman: Depends on the kid and on the school. I think one of the main problems in modern education is reductive thinking—looking at state test scores instead of individual learning styles and shutting down schools based on letters rather than specific circumstances. I think moving forward, an important goal should be to emphasize how there are no objective "best" schools, only different schools that are better for different types of kids. I have friends who have loved public school, friends who have loathed it, and friends who have been on both sizes of the private school fence as well.

Gelf Magazine: So the Gossip Girl comparisons are inevitable, and for all the times you were made to endure the question, I apologize. As it is, where does GG get it wrong, and which character are you? (Just kidding about the second part).

Hannah Friedman: Firstly, I do love Gossip Girl, and admit I watch it when it's on. I don't want to knock a successful and well-written franchise. What I will say is that Gossip Girl presents all the glamor of adolescence and not so much of the grit. It's fun to play dress up with those characters, but I worry that young readers are sometimes seduced into thinking that those characters should be role models, when in fact the characters are not only insanely rich, but also insanely beautiful, witty, talented, well-connected, and well-hung. It's an impossible ideal!

Gelf Magazine: In that vein, your book is coming out in a popular culture climate rife with interest in prep school kids, for whatever reason. Part 1: What do you make of that? Is it just some kind of recession porn? Part 2: Were you conscious of this trend when starting the book, or had you resolved to put it out there even against the current?

Hannah Friedman: Totally recession porn. It's like people on diets who watch the Food Network. I think there's also an element of schadenfreude to it—we watch these people who have everything we've ever dreamed of, and we take some small pleasure in knowing that they're really just spoiled brats with no coping skills. Umm…or maybe that's just me. I knew that the young adult market was growing when I began this book, but NYC Prep had not yet premiered, and Gossip Girl wasn't really in full swing. I knew I wanted to write a completely candid account of growing up nowadays, something I had not read or encountered in my travels to the memoir section, and I happened to go to a boarding school.

Gelf Magazine: There is Internet chatter—chiefly within the bowels of the Cosmogirl.com comment section—that a sequel is imminent. What is to be expected?

Hannah Friedman: You should keep an eye out for an Ivy League sequel. Then I plan to revolutionize education. First I'll get some coffee though.

Gelf Magazine: In line with this week's theme, Back to School, we'd like you to channel your inner Socialist/President Obama and address the youth of this nation, who likely do not read this magazine (if they read at all), but will appreciate the sentiment, we're sure.

Hannah Friedman: Please. Please: Give a damn.

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.







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Comments

- Books
- posted on Sep 22, 09
Laura Wheeton

I was hugely impressed by this memoir debut and I'm excited to hear that Hannah will be speaking! My niece raved about it, but I assumed it was one of those dime a dozen YA books about boys and lipgloss. Boy was I wrong. Hannah is not afraid to tackle some seriously adult issues with humor grace- everything from hypocrisy in drug policy to teen sex, eating disorders and an assault on the uninspiring methods of traditional education. This lady clearly has a lot to say, and take it from me, she's got quite a way of saying it. I'm keeping my eye out for the followup. Or for her appearance on Oprah- whatever comes first. Ha!

~Laura

- Books
- posted on Sep 23, 09
H.P.

This gal hit the nail directly on the head. I know! I went through it. I wish that I had the talent to write like her. I haven't read the book, but I certainly will and look forward to it!!!


Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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