Skip to main content


August 25, 2011


Posted by Stephen

Helen Schulman is the author of This Beautiful Life, which is about one family handling a crisis at a high school. It is also the latest Bets On pick. In this essay, courtesy of, Helen discusses the process of writing her critically-acclaimed novel.

booty life.JPGI consider myself a private person and so when I first began to read and hear about incidents of “private” email exchanges going viral, I was fascinated and intrigued.  In or around 2002, a friend sent me a photo of a bridesmaid in a strapless gown reaching ecstatically to catch the bouquet, only to have both her breasts pop out of the dress.  I was mortified for this poor girl.  Not only did she have to live through this hideous moment, but then it was caught on camera and sent around the globe.  There was a story of a young woman in Britain who sent a guy a sexy email after a date, which he gallantly forwarded to all his friends.  By the end of the weekend, the email had been sent to a million people and she was afraid to leave her house.  Then there were all the sexting incidents with teenagers; my kids were littler then (barely in grade school), but I found it all kind of terrifying and I worried for them.  I worried about how to raise them and protect them with this new technology, this new world that I neither understood nor had any control over. 

There was a famous incident at a private school in our area, about a girl sending a boy a sexy video of herself, which I read about in The New York Times.  I thought about writing about that incident and actually contacted the school, hoping to gain access to their campus newspaper.  But I was stonewalled.  Parents all over the city were talking about it, and I heard tons of rumors, many conflicting, salacious; some sympathetic, some absolutely nasty and heartless.  I decided then to take what Henry James referred to as “the germ” --- a girl sends a boy a sexy email of herself and he passes it on and it goes viral --- and make up a story to go around it.  At the time, both of my children were in private school.  Because of this, I was closer to wealth and power than I had ever been before in my life.  I grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, my father was a doctor, so I was a lucky, upper-middle class kid, but I’d never seen or even known about the kind of money and muscle I encountered in this specific corner of the universe.  As we all now know, the decades pre-and-post 9/11 (another obsession of mine) were so materialistic and consumerist and frankly greedy, that they practically brought down the world economy.   Manhattan, my home, was once again ground zero.  So I was interested in the culture of these schools, of Manhattan, and of its small town atmosphere (the working title of my book was Manhattanville, because in some ways it is a little hot-house village). 
Growing up in the ‘70s, I spent countless hours sitting at countless kitchen tables with my friends’ mothers (many divorced) chain-smoking and hectoring us: “Go to school, get a profession, never be dependent on a man for money,” and I took all of that feminism to heart.  So I found it surprising, when I met my children’s friends’ mothers, that many of them (certainly not all, but many) did not work.  These women were extremely well-educated, they went to the best schools, and they had MBA’s and PhD’s and Law Degrees.  But for many reasons --- and many of these were good, loving parenting reasons --- they chose to stay home.  They had choices.  They had all the choices in the world.  This too interested me.  What happens when you take very smart, very driven women out of the workforce --- what happens to their lives? 
Conversely, the men I met as an adult, for the most part, lived in a very rigid paradigm.  There was no room for this same back and forth conversation for them --- work vs. home, home vs. work --- there was one choice and it was work, period.   The grand scale and high standards of achievement that this group set for themselves seemed to me a vise, a vise that I thought had been loosened by choices posed in the 1960’s and ‘70’s.    I thought the world had changed in terms of sex roles, and in some ways of course it has completely, but in other disturbing ways it hasn’t.  And this seemed to be played out in some of the families I observed, where attractiveness and sexuality (even early sexuality) for girls and their mothers seemed to be the vehicle to quality of life and lifestyle.
Finally, the world we live in has become both so relentlessly public and so litigious, that when incidents that could remain small or private break out in the various schools in our area and also around the country, they become big and public.  And that interested me a lot too. 
The more I read about these issues --- privacy, the internet, kids and the internet, parents and how they handle their kids’ mistakes and foibles --- the more I realized that these issues were not just the issues of the wealthy, not by a long shot.  They were issues that were arising all across the country.   Where there was a computer, there was access, to personal information, to pornography; and once an email was sent, it was impossible to take back.         
The arrival of the Internet and its concomitant technology has set off a cultural earthquake perhaps as large as the sexual revolution, and perhaps even the industrial revolution.   None of us truly understand yet the ways the technological revolution has and will continue to change our society, our values, our ideas about privacy and shame, and safety --- or even the way we think and concentrate, how our active and addictive practices and work on the internet can actually restructure the brain. 
With an impulse and one click on a keyboard, indelible information can be unleashed to almost anyone in the interested world.    While adults continually make similar errors of judgment regarding email and privacy --- you can read about their foibles daily on your favorite news website or publication --- no one is more vulnerable to its dangers than a teenager whose job almost by definition is to be impulsive and resistant to the concept of consequences. These are especially difficult problems and issues for parents to navigate. 
I think This Beautiful Life could generate a great deal of conversation about the internet, teenagers and the internet, privacy issues, sex roles, parenting and values.  I hope men, women, and teenagers alike will read the book and discuss it with one another, whether it’s in a parenting group, at the dinner table, or --- my fondest hope --- in a book club.