Alexandra Geller, a secular teenager growing up in suburban Connecticut, finds sanctuary at her fictional Jewish camp in the Poconos, a place where she feels nurtured, where she isn’t the girl whose mother died when she was nine, where the mildly abusive relationship she has with a female teacher recedes from her life.
Jewish institutions and milestones set a familiar tone for Alexandra and other fictional characters in “Now I Know It’s Not My Fault,” a young adult novel by Laurie B. Levine of Maplewood.
There’s the JCC where Alex and her boyfriend share a kiss while ostensibly playing basketball; the Hebrew school Alex didn’t attend and the bat mitzvah she didn’t have because her mother died; and the prayer she recites on her mother’s yahrtzeit.
The novel opens as Alex starts ninth grade. She is attracted to the “cool” teacher, Paula Hanover, who dresses fashionably and wears high heels, and takes on a maternal role. Hanover’s behavior borders on, but stops just short of, abuse. There is smoothing hair and face touching, hand holding, along with some slapping and hitting; there are also inappropriate discussions of the teacher’s relationships and birth control. But if Alex’s father were to ask — and he does — “Is anything going on?” the answer is “no.”
While Judaism provides some essential details that help Alex’s identity resonate, it is subsidiary to the dysfunctional relationship she develops with her teacher. Levine, a psychologist whose practice in Maplewood, uses the novel to present and explore a particular kind of destructive relationship that teens form with adults. These often fly under the radar because they’re not overtly sexual or sufficiently abusive to sound alarm bells.
Speaking with NJJN on a recent morning at Village Coffee in Maplewood, Levine explained, “Sometimes there are people with signs and symptoms of trauma, but no identifiable event. When you explore their early relationships, more often than not they had a weird relationship with an adult. It was not sexual; but there was too much touching or hugging, or too much talking about sex or in other ways inappropriate,” she said. “This is a thing that does not get talked about.”
Levine wanted to raise the issue, but she had to figure out how. “It was percolating in my head for a long time,” she said. While she considered traditional avenues — a case study or a “think piece” for a journal — she decided to write a novel, in part just “to challenge myself.” Though she has a doctorate in marriage and family therapy from Syracuse University, is a clinical fellow in the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, and has written for journals, writing a novel was a new experience and she wrote several drafts. “Novelists show rather than tell. Academics tell, they don’t show. That was the hardest piece.”
While she was working on the book a female teacher, Nicole Dufault, at Columbia High School in Maplewood — where the eldest of her three children was a student, — was indicted and convicted of sexually assaulting six male students.
“When the story came out about Nicole Dufault, I realized that we don’t often see women in that way —not that people weren’t outraged; they were, but it was different. It’s another kind of abuse that falls under the radar. Boys are much less likely to report abuse, especially by women.” That’s what motivated her to finish the book, she said.
Her goal is to help people understand these kinds of relationships. “Parents sometimes suspect something is going on, and they often ask, ‘Did something happen?’ but ‘something’ is usually interpreted as sex, and the kid would and as Alex did, say, ‘No.’ But something did happen,” she said. “I’m trying to bring broader awareness to what things to look out for. Charming adults are charming. Some do terrible things. Some do less terrible things.”
She also wanted Alex to be recognizable. “I know a lot of people like that,” Levine said of Alex’s relationship with Judaism. “They live a secular life, but they have a strong Jewish identity. For Alex, it’s about belonging to something bigger than herself, and something that was important to her mother.”
Levine herself identifies with Alex in that way. She grew up in Fort Lee, and although her brother attended Hebrew school and celebrated becoming a bar mitzvah, she and her sister did not have bat mitzvahs. Nonetheless, she said, she developed a “pretty strong” Jewish identity, in part by attending Camp Starlight in Pennsylvania when she was a child. Camp Starlight offered kosher food and services on Friday night, and while most campers are Jewish it is not a requirement. The camp was such a positive experience that all three of Levine’s children have also attended.
And like Alex, Levine does not currently belong to a synagogue, although she has been a member of Congregation Beth El in South Orange and Congregation Beth Ephraim-Maplewood Jewish Center.
The novel, published in January, includes discussion questions as well as national resources and hotline information for any parent or guardian who suspects abuse.
Although she says her Jewish identity is not challenged in Maplewood, Levine recalled the years she lived in Georgia, where there was a strong born-again Christian community, and a constant flow of explicit and implicit anti-Semitism. Similarly, in the novel Hanover becomes a born-again Christian and wants to bring Alex into the fold to control her. It sets up a layer of conflict for Alex, who has an awkward experience in church that will be familiar to anyone Jewish who has squirmed through a church service as a teenager. For Levine, it was an opportunity to explore some of the tension she felt at the time and, as she acknowledged, it was a useful plot device to move the novel forward. “If the teacher took responsibility for her actions at that point, the story would have ended.”