I am (also) Charlotte Simmons

I’ve been reading Tom Wolfe’s newest novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons for the past few days. I bought it when it first came out, but it got mixed reviews, and that kept me from reading it right away. I was sort of meh about it, until about four or five chapters in when Charlotte gets dropped off at college by her parents, at which point, I flashed back to my own first semester of college, and I’ve been sucked in ever since.

I had a pretty weird experience of entering college. About three weeks before I was supposed to go to school, my dad and I had a big fight. A fight that ended with (depending on who you ask) him kicking me out of the house, or me running away from home. Since you’re asking me, not him, my version is that he kicked me out of the house. As evidence, I submit the following: 1) he also called my brother and told him not to come home; 2) he changed the locks on our apartment and 3) he bought bars to lock all the windows with. For the most part, this fight had to do with a guy I was seeing at the time, a guy who did turn out to be a major creep, but that’s not really the point of this story.

The point of this story is that my brother and I lived on the street for about a month and a half, when I was supposed to be a freshman in college, and he was supposed to be entering his senior year of high school. It was only through the grace of my paternal grandmother (who we were both in touch with) that my life got back on track. At one point, during one of our many collect calls to her, she told me that my university had told my dad that if I wasn’t in school by the end of the following week, I would lose my slot that semester. She had convinced my dad that he should take me to college, and not let whatever was going on between us to fuck up my life further.

I left my brother, and got on Greyhound with a ticket that my grandmother had bought and sent to me. It was hard to leave him, and I had to promise him that I wouldn’t tell our parents where he was, which of course made them furious. But all the shit that my brothers and I went through with our parents’ divorce and remarriages forged a bond that was infinitely stronger than our loyalty to either of our parents, at that point.

My dad resentfully drove me to college, helped me open a bank account with the little amount of money that I still had left, and dropped me off in my dorm room. Because I hadn’t shown up for school on time, they had given my housing assignment away to someone else, and I somehow ended up with a single room–a room that was intended for a grad student who had also failed to show up for school. For a while, people thought I was a grad student, which made dealing with the football players who lived down the hall much easier.

Before my dad and I got into this fight, we had not yet gone on the big pre-college shopping trip that everyone else I knew had done. That meant that the only things that I had with me were the things that I’d left the house with–no sheets, no winter clothes, nothing. I wasn’t scheduled to go home until Thanksgiving. I bought towels, because I knew that I couldn’t survive that long with out showering, and for two months, I slept under towels, with clothes folded up for a pillow. I couldn’t afford a phone, so I had to use the public phones in the dorm lobby. Which meant that I was talking to my brother, who was still hiding from my parents, in a public place where everyone could overhear what we were talking about. (And yes, I’m dating myself by admitting that not only were cell phones not in vogue on campus, but phone cards hadn’t even been invented yet.) He ended up going home about three weeks after I went to school, once he realized that he couldn’t join the army without one of my parents signing off on it because he was a minor.

I felt, at almost every moment of my day, like a total freak. I was supremely happy that I had been lucky enough to get that single room, so that no one knew the complete extent of my freakishness, but it was incredibly draining, hiding the real truth of my existence from the people that I was trying to make friends with.

And that’s the thing that I find so true about Wolfe’s book. The constant way that Charlotte is covering–for her background, for her poverty, for her lack of sophistication–is the way that I lived for my whole semester of college. And like Charlotte, I never felt as if I could ask for help from my family–I’m sure if I had called my mother, she would have sent me some sheets–my parents were upset, but not that upset. But I felt that I had reached a point where they just couldn’t help me with anything. There was a brief moment a few years later when I thought that I could ask my dad for help, but that too ended badly (like with us not speaking to each other for eight years), and since then, I’ve never relied on my parents for anything.

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February 13, 2006. books for grown-ups.

15 Comments

  1. MetroDad replied:

    That which does not kill us certainly makes us stronger, right LM? Good for you for not letting anything stop you from going to college and getting on with your life. It seems like there were quite a few times when you could have diverged from the path.

    And, for the record, I enjoyed reading Charlotte Simmons. I’m not normally a Tom Wolfe fan at all but I thought this was actually one of his better books. Have you finished it yet? What did you think of it?

  2. emma goldman replied:

    Wow. I haven’t read (and likely won’t read) Wolfe’s book (he gets on my nerves in so, so many ways), but I see why you’d connect. My situation wasn’t nearly as dire as yours–shit, it wasn’t dire at all–but I do understand about the feeling completely clueless part. I came from a working-class family and a small working-class town, and that wasn’t really where many of the people I was in college with were from. for better or worse, I was also clueless about the things I didn’t know, at least for awhile, so I didn’t feel like I had to hide anything–that must have been terribly difficult for you.

  3. Jennifer replied:

    I find it interesting that you felt like you couldn’t reach out to your parents for help even if they would have, even if you really needed it. I felt that way, too. My situation was nothing like yours; my parents paid for my college & a whole lot else; but while I felt free to accept things from them, I never felt free to ask for more. Even if that something more was just sheets, like you say… My dad told me a few years ago that he was always so proud of my sisters & me for never asking for things. Huh. Funny.

    My husband comes from a big family and they all rely on each other for everything, even now. He is always getting frustrated with me for not asking his mom or sister to babysit occasionally, but it’s hard to break the habit.

    My kids are tiny right now, but I think sometimes about how I can raise them to be like my husband in this way, rather than like me.

    Thanks for writing this.

  4. Daydreams and Musings replied:

    Wow – interesting story. I think that children of divorce – even in situations that were better than yours – tend to develop a strong independence. I didn’t like to ask my family for anything either (but part of that has to do with my dad’s personality). In college I had what I needed but when I moved into my own apartment in New York, the tenant before me had taken his big tumbler lock with him, leaving a gaping hole in the door. The landlord said I could fill it with another lock but they wouldn’t buy one for me. I couldn’t afford one so I stuck a sock in it to fill the hole! I could have called my parents and asked them for the money to buy a damn lock but I didn’t feel right about it. When they came to visit they were horrified that I hadn’t asked for help for something so important security-wise!

  5. CT replied:

    Ever since “I Am Charlotte Simmons” won Wolfe the 2004 Bad Sex in Fiction Award, I’ve been meaning to pick it up. Haven’t yet, though.

    Hopefully, you won’t be able to relate to that part of the book. Slither, slither, slither! 😉

  6. patry replied:

    I think so many of us feel that way at that age and at that time of transition–like we’re not enough for different reasons. If there’s ever a reason to get older, it’s because you no longer CARE. At least, I don’t.

  7. Jessica replied:

    Wow.

    Wow!

    I, too, have had difficulty asking for help from my family (who weren’t really ever in a position to help me that much anyway). I know you ended up just fine – how about your brother?

  8. Suzanne replied:

    I know it’s not an original sentiment, but Wow! I feel so sad for your college freshman self, and for your brother. How did you survive for that month before college?

  9. landismom replied:

    Thanks everyone for commenting.

    Jess, my brother ended up fine too, he is married and has three kids and a good job now.

    Mostly what we did was first use up all the money that we had saved from our various teenage jobs to live in crappy motels, and then for a while, we panhandled and slept in various bus stations. Which sucked, there’s just no two ways about it.

    I had a lot of financial insecurity in college, nearly every semester I would get unregistered because all of my financial aid was late and stuff like that. It really wore on me, but not as much as sleeping in a bus station for a week. The thing about being poor is, there just isn’t as much leeway to make mistakes.

    One of the things that I felt less convinced by in the Wolfe book is that Charlotte never feels the impact of her bad financial decision-making. He sets up this scenario where she only has $500 for the semester, and then has her spend $80 on a pair of jeans so she can fit in–okay, fine, that’s convincing. But there’s never a point where she has to suffer the consequences of that action (besides letting a guy pay for a meal for her), and I found that unbelievable. I lived on a hell of a lot more than $500 a semester, and there were always times when I was paying for my own financial mismanagement. It’s just inevitable when you have that little lee-way that you will have to make impossible choices.

  10. Lena replied:

    Okay, I bought this book last year when it came out, read 2 chapters, then let it stare at me from my nightstand for a month, then sold it on Amazon. Now, I’m going BACK to the bookstore today. I should’ve given it more of a chance.

    I’m feeling major de’ ja vu reading about your college experience. But, towels? Really? I need to hear more about this! Post more about college, won’t cha?

    As for parents, try this from my dad: “What are you going to college for? None of the family has gone to college!” Okaaaay.

  11. Leggy replied:

    What a story. I had issues with my parents in college, but my God, nothing quite that dramatic. Thank God your grandmother at least talked a little sense into your dad and was able to get you up to school.

  12. Jim replied:

    Wolfe has made his career being increasingly out of touch with the society he assumes he satirizes. Everything after “Electric Kool-Aid” has sunk deeper and deeper into caricature to the point that I didn’t think anything could be worse than “Bonfire of the Vanities”. Ugh, I was wrong. “I Am..” illustated how a smug, elite, self-indulgent drunk could be so wrong about everything.

  13. Melissa replied:

    Damn. Like MetroDad, I am so impressed that you persevered. I dropped out of college for financial reasons a lot less dire than yours and am still working on finishing my degree nearly 20 years later.

    I know what you mean about feeling like a freak though. I went to high school in a pretty rich area and most of my friends grew up with plenty of money. I remember always trying to act like I had everything they had. It gets tiring after a while.

  14. Comfort Addict replied:

    That’s an amazing story, Landismom. What a strong person you are.

    I, too, felt as though I had to cover in the way that you describe Charlotte covering. Though I was from an affluent suburb of Detroit, I was from the wrong side of the tracks and not affluent. I had to take out large student loans and participate in work-study to go to school at the University of Michigan. My lack of success in the music school (“unfulfilled expectations” after being very successful in high school) made me feel like even more of a foreigner. I went to the football games, hung out with people and tried to fit in. Eventually, though, I drifted into a group of other outsiders and independent thinkers. In the end, this was a good thing.

    Thanks for the book recommendation (as always)!

  15. happy blogiversary to me « Bumblebee Sweet Potato replied:

    […] I am (also) Charlotte Simmons […]

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