Author Interviews
1:36 am
Fri June 20, 2014

In 'Fever,' Town's Teen Tic Epidemic Gets A Chilling Novelization

Originally published on Fri June 20, 2014 7:50 am

Sometimes real life is stranger than fiction, so it makes sense that novelists get some of their best stories from the headlines. That's what happened with mystery writer Megan Abbott. A few years ago, she was one of the millions of people captivated by news stories about a strange illness that seemed to consume a town in upstate New York. Now, Abbott has taken pieces of that true story and turned it into a chilling new novel.

The Fever is Abbott's third mystery set in the emotional world of teenagers, a place she admits she's a little stuck in herself. She says, "I've always heard that Freud said that we're all kind of arrested at a certain age, and I'm embarrassed to say I think for me it's about 14 to 15 years old. I feel like that's sort of the time when our emotions are at their peak. We're still figuring everything out and there's this intensity to it."

Abbott — who's in her early 40s — was riveted by the TV news stories about a group of teenagers in Le Roy, N.Y. More than a dozen students at the same high school — most of them girls — started having uncontrollable spasms and Tourette's-like tics. The accounts gave Abbott all kinds of ideas about what it might be like for those teenagers.

In her novel, the girls' spasms often begin with seizure-like attacks in front of their peers. In real life, doctors diagnosed it as conversion disorder, believed to be psychological stress that is converted into physical problems. Since it spread to other students, it was also considered mass hysteria. Abbott says she was fascinated to find out that some of the girls were cheerleaders together.

The Fever revolves around three close friends. "And girls in threes, I think, are always dangerous," she says. "There's a lot of wrestling for power and attention. Teenage boys, if they have arguments with their friends, you know, can push each other in the locker room or shout things at each other, and girls aren't supposed to do that. So it can often take these more sinister forms, or it can become internalized and turn into something else."

As more and more girls are afflicted, Abbott's fictional town of Dryden is whipped into a frenzy. Health officials are cagey, which infuriates parents. The girls fear the illness is a result of a swim they took in a forbidden lake that's believed to be toxic. In one scene, there's a tense community meeting at the high school:

The minute Tom walked inside the school, he felt it.

It was loud, louder than any school event he could remember.

The pitchy clamor of nervous parents finding other nervous parents to be even more nervous together.

A flurry of shouts at the door as the sole security guard tried to keep another reporter or producer from entering through the loading dock.

Susan Dominus, a staff writer for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, says that anxiety was palpable in Le Roy. Dominus visited the community and wrote an extensive article about what happened there. She says that while there are some parallels between Abbott's novel and the real story, there is one very significant difference: The girls in New York were victims of serious hardships. "One girl had really been all but abandoned by her parents; another girl, you know, had been violently abused," Dominus says. "Another girl witnessed domestic violence between her parents. One of them had a restraining order against the other. She was all but homeless, having left her father's trailer."

The girls in The Fever suffer from a different kind of stress. "The girls in Le Roy were all, to me, for the most part, really victims of trauma at the hands of adults," Dominus says. "And the girls in Megan Abbott's book were just powerfully experiencing garden variety hardships of adolescent life."

Those hardships include ambivalence about sex, insecurities about their appearance and navigating the intensity of female friendships. In many ways, the message of The Fever is about how these things affect the girls and their families, and how a traumatized community stumbles through a crisis.

In one scene, the mother of one of the girls says she thinks she knows what's happening:

"It's what we put in the ground," she said. "And in the walls. The lake, the air. And the vaccines we give them. The food, the water, the things we say, the things we do. All of it, straight into their sturdy little bodies. Because even if it isn't any of these things, it could be. Because all we do from the minute they're born is put them at risk."

In Megan Abbott's The Fever, the mystery of adolescence is nearly impossible to solve.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Sometimes real life is stranger than fiction. So it makes sense that novelists take some of their best stories from the headlines. That happened with mystery writer Megan Abbott. A few years ago, she was one of the millions of people captivated by new stories about a strange illness that seemed to consume a town in upstate New York. Now Megan Abbott has taken pieces of that true story and turned it into her chilling new novel, "The Fever," as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: "The Fever" is Megan Abbott's third mystery, set in the emotional world of teenagers. A place, she admits, she's a little stuck herself.

MEGAN ABBOTT: I've always heard that Freud said we're all kind of arrested at a certain age. And I'm embarrassed to say, I think for me it's about 14 or 15-years-old. I feel like that's sort of the time when our emotions are at the kind of peak. We're still figuring everything out. And there's this intensity to it.

BLAIR: So Abbott, who's in her early 40s, was riveted by the TV news stories about a group of teenagers in LeRoy, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER 1: For months, doctors in LeRoy, New York have been trying to figure out what caused 12 girls severe ticks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER 2: But once the stuttering ended, it soon gave way to uncontrollable twitching.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER 3: At the school tonight, they were hoping to learn why a dozen students have been suffering from Tourette-like symptoms.

BLAIR: The accounts gave Megan Abbott all kinds of ideas about what it might like for these teenagers. In her novel, the girls' spasms often begin with seizure-like attacks in front of their peers.

ABBOTT: (Reading) Her hands flying up, she grabbed her throat, her body jolting to one side. Then in one swoop, as if one of the football players had taken his meaty forearm and hurled it, her desk overturned and with it, Lise - her head twisting, slamming into the tiles. Her bright-red face turned up, mouth teeming with froth. Lise, sighed Mrs. Chalmers, too far in front to see, what is your problem?

BLAIR: And in the real case, doctors diagnosed it as conversion disorder, understood to be psychological stress that is converted into physical problems. And because it spread to other students, it was also considered mass hysteria. Megan Abbott says, she was fascinated to find out that some of the girls were cheerleaders together. And while Abbott says she only drew inspiration from the LeRoy case, her novel revolves around three friends.

ABBOTT: Girls in threes, I think, are always dangerous. There's a lot of wrestling for power and attention. And teenage boys, if they have arguments with their friends, you know, can push each other in a locker room or shout things at each other. And girls aren't supposed to do that, so it can often take these more sinister forms. Or it can become internalized and turn into something else.

BLAIR: As more and more girls are afflicted, Megan Abbott's fictional town of Dryden is whipped into a frenzy. Health officials are cagey, which infuriates parents. The girls fear it's because they went swimming in a lake that's believed to be toxic. In one scene, there's a tense community meeting at the high school.

ABBOTT: (Reading) The minute Tom walked inside the school, he felt it. It was loud, louder than any school event he could remember - the pitchy clamor of nervous parents finding other nervous parents to be even more nervous together. A flurry of shouts at the door as a sole security guard tried to keep another reporter or producer from entering, through the loading dock.

SUSAN DOMINUS: That was a similar to what happened there.

BLAIR: Susan Dominus is a staff writer for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. She visited LeRoy and wrote an extensive article about what happened there. She says there are some parallels and one very big difference. Dominus says the girls in New York were victims of serious hardships.

DOMINUS: One girl had really been all but abandoned by her parents. Another girl, you know, had been violently abused. And another girl witnessed domestic violence between her parents. One of them had a restraining order against the other. She was all but homeless, having left her father's trailer.

BLAIR: Circumstances that Dominus says were much more severe than the ones in "The Fever."

DOMINUS: The girls in LeRoy were all to me, for the most part, really victims of trauma at the hands of adults. And the girls in Megan Abbott's book were just powerfully experiencing garden-variety hardships of adolescent life.

BLAIR: Ambivalence about sex, insecurities about their appearance, navigating the intensity of female friendships. And that's the truth of Megan Abbott's novel. How these things affect the girls and their families and how a traumatized community stumbles through a crisis. In this scene, the mother of one of the girls says, she thinks she knows what's happening.

ABBOTT: (Reading) It's what we put in the ground, she said, and in the walls, the lake, the air and the vaccines we give them, the food, the water, the things we say, the things we do - all of it straight into their sturdy little bodies. Because even if it isn't any of these things, it could be because all we do for the minute they're born is put them at risk.

BLAIR: "The Fever" by Megan Abbott is a mystery that raises questions that are nearly impossible to solve. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.