“Her body, their body, one body”: Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me & Gymnastics

Megan Abbott’s latest book, You Will Know Me (2016), may be set within the world of competitive gymnastics, but it is concerned with parents and children, adolescence and aging, sex and love, and goals and desires. In addition, it’s a compelling portrait of what life—particularly, life during a crisis—might be like for a family with a young, elite female athlete.

“And so gymnastics became the center, the mighty spine of everything for them.”

(Preface, Kindle Location 189)

Perhaps due to its recent positive reception, and all of the reviews and press I saw, I approached it with heightened expectations and it took awhile to grow on me; though, in this case, I can’t tell if it was due to my state of mind (wary of the hype) or the rhythm of the novel itself. Despite my initial sense of skepticism, I grew more engrossed—not just in the story, but in Abbott’s prose itself. Then, after finishing, my feelings toward it seemed to expand, as though the seeds Abbott planted throughout the pages took extra time to grow. As I looked back at it, I noted so many passages and quotes that seemed remarkable in their observations—lean and invasive—and much of this is due to Abbott’s writing style.
I thought it would be primarily about young women—the gymnasts—and it is; but it’s about them in the sense that we, along with the narrator (Katie, the mother to a teenaged gymnast) and most of the characters we meet, are interested in these young women. The young girls’ and adolescents’ interiority remain just that, interior, and largely out of our reach. Our narrator is Katie, a married mother of two—Devon, an aspiring elite gymnast, and Drew, the younger brother in Devon’s shadow. Toward the end we get a few glimpses into Devon’s thoughts, but we primarily remain with Katie.  Thus, while I was expecting more access to the gymnasts themselves, having Katie as our access point adds a welcome dimension. You might have gymnast-fatigue after the Olympics, or maybe you’re newly invested in gymnastics drama, but either way, I think you’ll enjoy this domestic suspense.

All Happy Families Are Alike; Each Gymnastics Family is Unhappy in its Own Way

You Will Know Me‘s familial themes are wrapped around the idea of the unknown: first, regardless of the level of intimacy or physical closeness, you’ll never really know another family member, be it child, parent, or spouse; second, nobody knows how far he or she will go, or what they will do, for their family.

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“We never know,” one of the adult characters says to another, “none of us, what love’ll do to us” (Chapter 13, Kindle Location 2024). Another ponders, “isn’t it something…the things we do for our family?” (Chapter 19, Kindle Locations 3313-3314). One mother discusses the opaqueness of children that develops as they age:
“Isn’t it a strange day,” she said, “when you realize you have no idea what’s going on in your kid’s head? One morning, you wake up and there’s this alien in your house. They look like your kid, sound a little like them, but they are not your kid. They’re something else that you don’t know. And they keep changing. They never stop changing on you.”
(Chapter 13, Kindle Locations 2345-2347)
Our primary narrator reflects on this development much earlier in the novel, as well:  “That’s what parenthood was about, wasn’t it? Slowly understanding your child less and less until she wasn’t yours anymore but herself.” (Chapter 2, Kindle Locations 300-301)
Many of my favorite lines concern aspects of family life; Abbott’s ability to capture feelings and sensations is wonderful.

One passage, in which Katie feels pressure from all sides but finds solace in her youngest child, stayed with me long after I moved on. Despite the fact that much of the story is concerning the daily frustrations of parenthood, particularly parent to an elite gymnast, and adult responsibilities and work and marriage, etc., Abbott seems to perfectly capture the occasional escapism a child can offer a parent, however fleeting:

Looking into those nearly lidded eyes, the gleam of his pupil trying to stay awake, to not miss anything, she found herself locked in something deep with him.
Like he held something she needed.
     
Don’t fall asleep, Drew. Please.
She caught herself thinking it, maybe saying it out loud, her fingers to her own lips. Embarrassed, she shook it off, rising from his bedside and nearly bounding to the bedroom door. Leaving him alone.
(Chapter 15, Kindle Locations 2650-2655)
200-10Katie’s slight, maternal neediness for her child depicted so nicely here before she catches herself strikes an honest chord. It feels bittersweet and profound, despite its brevity. Like he held something she needed. Innocence? Trust? Intimacy? Whatever it may be, Katie nonetheless realizes that it shouldn’t be about her in that moment; her sick, young child needs his rest, however he might try to fight it, trying to stay awake, to not miss anything.
At another point, Katie and her husband Eric are fighting, and Abbott’s prose seems to slice through it all with only a handful of words. More powerful embedded in the book, but, still, what individual, locked in a fight with a partner or spouse, hasn’t had that kind of fight that is different than the others? Separate from the routinized bickering, Abbott describes Katie mid-row: “She just kept going… A way of talking she barely remembered, hadn’t used since she was a teenager and that teenager way of playing with words like flung rubber bands… The weight, the bigness of the words excited her” (Chapter 15, Kindle Locations 2679-2689). So short, so simple, but surprisingly, it seems to skewer straight to the meat of the fight. In some ways, it’s not about the specific issues (which I won’t mention here), but the emotional propulsion behind it all. And that secret albeit fleeting sense of the thrilling nature of a fight like that, particularly if it is out of the norm for the couple.
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Among her wry observations and turns of phrase, I’ll add this gem, too: “Every conversation, she dropped in a half dozen tiny bombs. You only realized after, when the ticking grew louder” (Chapter Five, Kindle Location 881). You Will Know Me felt like this, too. After I thought about it, or looked back at any page, I realized that there were half a dozen tiny bombs that somehow blew me away.

All for One and One for All

More than ever, watching Devon had become a profound experience for them. Taking in each routine with their whole bodies, every nerve on high, their hearts jammering against each other. Because she was theirs, but now she was also so much bigger than they were.

(Chapter 2, Kindle Locations 342-343)

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Though Abbott’s fiction has often focused on the lives of young women (Dare Me featured young women on a competitive cheer squad while The End of Everything‘s young female protagonists played field hockey), her inspiration for this book sprung from a specific instance, as she told Entertainment Weekly in an interview:

“I was watching footage of the parents of gymnast Aly Raisman as they watched her compete in Olympic qualifiers. It became a brief viral video phenomenon because in part it was funny how invested they were. But their intensity and nervousness, the way they would mimic the moves in the bar routine, you could feel your heart in your throat just watching. I began thinking about what it must be like to be the parent of a prodigy, to be in the family of a prodigy. How power must operate in those kinds of families. The books sprang from that…” 

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It’s apt that this was Abbott’s inspiration after Aly Raisman (and her parents) competed at the London Olympics in 2012; now, in 2016, Raisman (and her parents) took to the mats again in Rio.

The Knoxes—they were four, but they were one. Seated in the risers, backs arched in their matching BelStars tees, Katie, Eric, and Drew watched Devon…

(Chapter 23, Kindle Location 4082)

Thus, this issue of the family unit competing—not just the gymnast herself—and struggling is frequently addressed. The family members have all sacrificed on behalf the elite gymnast—moving near elite gyms, going into debt, working irregular hours to be available to the gymnast, hours spent at the gym, homeschooling or creative schooling schedules, helping the gymnast when she is injured or merely sore, the focus on the intricacies of gymnastics, etc.—and the gymnast herself sacrifices in a different manner and feels responsible to perform at a certain caliber to meet familial (and coach) expectations.

 

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A scene from “Make It or Break It”

The tensions of adolescence are still present, but are seen through the prism of elite athleticism and single-mindedness.

“It’s all over. My life’s over,” Devon said, looking up at Katie, her hand shaking slightly as she pushed back a stray strand from her ponytail. “You know it is.”
Words every adolescent says—grounded, a humiliation at school, first crush.
But Katie secretly felt its partial truth.
(Chapter 2, Kindle Locations 353-354)

Thus, a simple “my life’s over” is still hyperbole, but after years of life revolving around a single mission or idea—like, making an elite gymnastics squad that funnels into the Olympic trials—a sidelining injury or development (like, say, bodily changes around puberty) can derail an entire family.

 Thus, it makes a certain kind of sense that while it’s her body, it’s also their body. 

 There she stood, Devon—her body, their body, one body—and all the exceptional talent contained within it.

Her body, a machine. A marvel. Her body was everything.

Her body was their heart.

(Chapter 23, Kindle Locations 4093-4096)

And that’s not even counting the way that the coaches—or even dedicated fans—might feel about her body. Her body, their body, one body.
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Screaming now, all of them crowding her, their hands white, their bodies too. Surrounding her, crushing her. Swallowing her whole.

A panic in Devon’s eyes, Katie was sure she saw it before the swarm of arms and ponytails blocked her view.

Devon, Devon, Devon.

Devon, do it for us. Devon, we’re counting on you. Devon, do it.

(Chapter 20, Kindle Locations 3790-3792)

A Female Gymnast: Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman

That was what gymnastics did, though. It aged girls and kept them young forever at the same time.
(Chapter 1, Kindle Location 301)
Abbott takes a sort of birds-eye view of adolescence as Katie observes her daughter, and other young women, deal with growing up. Except, for Devon and the other elite gymnasts, the process of maturation is fraught in different ways due to the expectations and insulation of their lives.
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A scene from “Make It or Break It”
 And yet, again proving that it is much more than a gymnastics-focused drama, Abbott’s Katie also reflects on female adolescence in general terms, too. I love the simple statement, like below.
Being a girl is so hard, Katie thought. And it only gets harder.
(Chapter 5, Kindle Location 817)
And much of the difficulty of being a girl has to do with the burgeoning interest in sex.

And crushes. Had there ever been a more perfect word for a feeling? The way the girls looked at Ryan—sometimes it had made Katie’s heart hurt. She wished she could spare all of them the pain of those infatuations. The ones doomed from the start.

(Chapter 5, Kindle Locations 882-885)

If you’re familiar with Abbott, and as mentioned earlier, she often focuses on young women in her thrillers. In an interview, she said:
“I still feel like teenage girls are not taken seriously by the culture at large, especially not their darker or more complicated feelings—of aggression, desire, ambition. To me, these feelings and drives are so fundamental to girlhood and to womanhood, and I love exploring them. And trying to give voice to them as best I can. I think women are always trying to figure out their own adolescence. We never stop.”
One of her characters—a twenty-something young woman—echoes these sentiments in one conversation with Katie:
“I was so mad when I was younger… and then you grow up and you think you’re not that girl anymore. The girl you were at fifteen, sixteen… But the thing is, you’re always that girl… She never goes away. She’s inside you all the time. That girl is forever.”
(Chapter 19, Kindle Locations 3318-3325)
I’ve seen this quote pulled a few times in various reviews, and I think it will be one of the more well-known of the book. While I don’t know about the first part, I do think the idea that the notion your former self—that girl—is forever is apt and I’d guess many of us feel it, and perhaps fight it.
At the end, when we finally get a glimpse into Devon’s mind, she reflects on another side of this issue of aging. She, however, is perplexed and almost angry about what she sees (and imagines) about the girl—or thing—inside other girls and women. She observes her own mother acting vivaciously at a party and flirting with a young man and is shocked by her demeanor, which is not simply tipsy or drunk (which she had seen) but almost alien with its sexual power:

Was it the thing she saw in the girls at school?

How come no one told me?
Your mom, secretly, at night, turns into this. And so do other women, other girls. Just not you. All of them except you.
How come everyone hid it from me? How come mom did?

(Chapter 22, Kindle Locations 3983-3993)

Not only is Devon experiencing that shift in a child’s life when they realize their parents were not simply parents, but also had other identities, but she is also grappling with the normal teenager (and adult) experience of isolation and wondering if everyone knew something that you didn’t know. This can feel like a betrayal.
And this betrayal, this burgeoning preoccupation with sex, is, for Devon, a feeling that dents her interiority but doesn’t seem to spring from within. She observes that “thing” in others, feels left out, and wants to try it, though this is complicated by the fact that her life revolves around the gym. For Devon, as she explains to her mom Katie, boys, sex, and love, were a passing interest—a curiosity.
“I thought maybe I’d be in love… Liked the girls at school. But it wasn’t ever like that. It was just a thing I was trying.”
(Chapter 21, Kindle Location 3850)
It was just a thing I was trying is such a great way to describe a young person experimenting with sex and love and thinking that it was a one-size-fits-all experience.
Abbott’s teenager Devon inverts the more recent pop cultural sexualization of vampires and fantasy—for Devon, “this thing [she] was trying” was finite and could be easily shed. Upon realizing she wanted it to be over, and the guy didn’t, she started worrying that she’d “ruined” her life, which she equates to her gymnastics career. Preoccupied with the sense that she was stuck with a relationship she didn’t want, she began to project her fears onto him:

She had nightmares he was chasing her through thick woods. She could hear him breathing behind her, panting after her. He had long teeth like a vampire and wanted to drain her of all her blood.

(Chapter 21, Kindle Location 3845)
More than boys or sex, Devon’s desire was focused primarily on her gymnastics goals. Abbott also writes beautifully about dreams, desires, and ambition.

Requiem for a Dream

But then her thoughts snagged on that word, desire. That word that was all over Devon’s essay. Desire, desire. Now it is only desire that rules me. Whatever desire meant to Devon. Whatever it had done to her.

(Chapter 20, Kindle Location 3693-96)

There’s a tension between dreams and desires, and from whence they spring. Again, this is incredibly heightened by the context of this story of elite gymnastics. As Devon wrote in an essay for school:

… I learned that day that I must trample fear and I must own my desire. To be extraordinary. It has been hard. I had to learn how to go inside myself. Places no one could touch, or see.

… Now it is only desire that rules me. Desire to win, yes, but also to be the best. To be extraordinary.

(Chapter 19, Kindle Locations 3418-3422)

That’s the teenage view of desire, both honest in its assessment—it is only desire that rules me—but typically self-absorbed.

For the adults in this orbit, however, there are more complicated and fraught ideas about dreams. At one point, two parents discuss their almost prodigal children in a sort of chicken-or-egg style.

“Isn’t that what parents do?” Gwen said, smiling. “When we’re young, we don’t know what we want. We’re blobs. We need shaping.”

“She’s shaping herself,” Katie said. No one ever understood.

Gwen shook her head. “They think they want things. Tits, sexy boyfriends, McGriddles every weekend. But they don’t really know what these things mean. That’s why we’ve got to want things for them, Katie. The right things.”

“I’m not like you,” Katie said. “I’m nothing like you.”

(Chapter 20, Kindle Locations 3677-3681)

Are the parents shaping their children, encouraging them to devote their entire lives and sacrifice a different type of youth for the pipe dream of an olympic medal? Or is the desire that Devon wrote about the most important driver of their lives?

Another favorite and spare exchange depicts parental goals:

“Whose dream?”

“It doesn’t matter whose dream it is,” she said. “Just that it’s a dream.”

(Chapter 20, Kindle Location 3689)

There’s also the other side of an adult reflecting on goals or dreams; but here we have a more melancholy reflection on young dreams, slightly haunting in its (realistic) fatalism.

She hadn’t learned, no one had taught her— Katie and Eric hadn’t taught her— that the things you want, you never get them. And if you do, they’re not what you thought they’d be. But you’d still do anything to keep them. Because you’d wanted them for so long.
(Chapter 21, Kindle Locations 3915-3917)

Beauty and the Beastly Gymnast Bodies

 

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“Big smiles, no mistakes, Li’l Miss Weaver.”
“Come on, Jordan. Arms, arms, arms. Sell, girl, sell, perform.”
“Don’t let me see it hurt. Remember: everything’s beautiful, nothing hurts.”
Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt. Katie felt the words shiver through her, and it was that moment that she saw Devon taking the beam, Teddy on the floor, approaching her.
(Chapter 20, Kindle Locations 3739-3742)
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What’s interesting to me about this notion of presentation and gymnastics is that I love when the gymnasts let their full range of emotions show after competing. Watching Aly after she finished her flawless floor routine at Rio and then shed grateful and proud tears was profoundly moving. I’m not sure how prevalent it is, the sense that these young athletes should hide their pain and injuries, but McKayla Maloney, perhaps best known to casual gymnastics fans for her “unimpressed” face while receiving the silver medal for her amazing vault at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, discussed body and presentation issues with the podcast GymCastic; she spoke about being hesitant to eat in front of coaches and feeling pressured to ignore injuries, like when she broke her toe on balance beam when practicing in London. “Don’t limp; smile, make sure you just look like you’re fine,” she was urged by coaches, “because that’s the only way you’re going to stay on this team.” Again, this seems to echo the notion that Abbott puts forth that there’s this intense pressure on the gymnasts not only to do incredible things with their bodies, but also to act like it’s no big deal—just smiles and confidence.
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And that doesn’t even get into the double-standard that Gabby Douglas faced at Rio when some people gave her a hard time and over-scrutinized her facial expressions and actions, seemingly ready to jump on any accusation that she was mad, or jealous, or other negative attributes. Unfortunately, for Gabby, she had to deal with racial and gender bias. There’s a reason Resting Bitch Face is a thing now. Big smiles… Everything’s beautiful and nothing hurts. Even when nothing hurts, that doesn’t mean these fierce ladies need to smile. (Or any of us. Fuck you, stranger telling some woman to smile.)
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As an added pleasure, I read this in the run-up to the Olympics, where gymnastics reigns supreme in the minds of many—hardcore fans and casual fans (like me) alike. If you want the entire immersive gymnastics experience, I’d recommend reading the book, reading some of these articles, watching the routines from the Olympics if you haven’t been watching this past week, or even watching the short-lived and soap-opera-ish “Make It or Break It”:

Run-Up to Olympics

  • Megan Garber, “Their Bodies, Ourselves: What to make of the combination of bedazzled femininity and ferocious athleticism that defines women’s gymnastics?” The Atlantic (8/8/16).
  • Alyssa Rosenberg, “The Little Girls in Pretty Boxes Generation Takes Home Gymnastics Gold,” Slate (8/1/12).
  • Sarah Marshall, “The Last Perfect Gymnast: How Olympic gymnastics beat score inflation and became a sport,” New Republic (8/5/16).
  • Reeves Wiedeman, “A Full Revolution: In the run-up to the Olympics, Simone Biles is transforming gymnastics,” The New Yorker (5/30/16).
  • Dvora Meyers, “How Simone Biles Broke Gymnastics: An Excerpt from The End of the Perfect Ten,” Deadspin (8/12/16).

Rio 2016

  • Alex Abad-Santos, “Rio 2016: Gabby Douglas’s Olympics experience fits the pattern of how we treat black female athletes,” Vox (8/15/16).
  • Megan Garber, “The Olympic Quote (That Should Be) Heard ‘Round the World
    Simone Biles is not the next Michael Phelps. She is not the next Usain Bolt. She is ‘the first Simone Biles,'” The Atlantic (8/12/16).
  • Megan Garber, “The Olympic Guide to Ladybragging: The women athletes of Rio have been crushing it—not just in the arena, but on social media,” The Atlantic (8/15/16).
  • Rob Wile, “Why it’s a big deal that Simone Biles is the star of the 2016 Olympics,” Fusion (8/16/15).
  • Rebecca Schuman, “Why Isn’t Gabby Douglas Smiling? How a champion gymnast became the Olympics’ easiest target,” Slate (8/17/16).
  • Damon Young, “From Mike Brown to Simone Biles: How Yesterday Exemplified Black America’s Complicated Relationship with America,” Very Smart Brothas (8/10/16).

Gymnastics Dynamics

  • Interview with McKayla Maroney, GymCastic: The Gymnastics Podcast (2/24/16).
  • Dvora Meyers, “‘Athletic’ Shawn Johnson Retires: How Gymnastics Talks About Bodies In Code,” Deadspin (6/5/12).
  • Jessica Winter, “The Karolyis’ Tainted Glory: The celebrated coaches’ legacy includes the alleged physical and psychological torment of young gymnasts,” Slate (8/12/16).

Fans & Pop Culture

  • Meghan O’Rourke “Is Watching Gymnastics Worse Than Being an NFL Fan? The Ethics of Consuming ‘the most dramatically feminine sport'” NY Mag (7/25/16).
  • Megan Garber, “Make It or Break It is Pre-Olympics Gold,” The Atlantic (7/11/16).
  • Louise Radnofsky and Ben Cohen, “U.S. Male Gymnasts Want to Be Objectified,” WSJ (8/7/16).
  • Elspeth Reeve, “The Tumbler Tumblr: How hard-core gymnastics fans are revolutionizing the way the sport is covered,” New Republic (6/29/16).
  • Jia Tolentino, “The Bodily Terror of Women’s Gymnastics,” The New Yorker (8/11/16).

Happy reading! Bye now, going to go try and do some gymnastics a somersault.

 

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