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)
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.
“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)
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)
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)
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…”
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.
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)
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)
Being a girl is so hard, Katie thought. And it only gets harder.(Chapter 5, Kindle Location 817)
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)
“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)
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)
“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)
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)
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:
“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
“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)
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).
- 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).
- 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.