The Satanic How-To Guide to Exalted Girldom

by Fiona Helmsley

In Double Trouble, book one of Francine Pascal’s seminal 1980’s Young Adult series, Sweet Valley High, series protagonist Elizabeth Wakefield is slut-shamed by proxy.

Here is how it happens: Jessica Wakefield, Elizabeth’s twin sister and the series antagonist, is having it out with Bruce Patman, the son of one of the richest, most corrupt families in town. Patman’s father plans to turn the Sweet Valley High football field into a public garden, and the good-looking scion tells Jessica, “Hey, when it comes to having a disgrace in the family, just consider your sister, Elizabeth, the pub-crawler.”

“Pub-crawler.” If we were to translate this term away from its Sweet Valley white-bread code, I’d go with “bar-slut.”

But Patman’s slut-shaming of Elizabeth is based on erroneous information, and a case of mistaken identity. Studious, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, Aryan Elizabeth would never go to a bar. It was Jessica, Elizabeth’s doppelganger (down to the pea-sized dimple in her left cheek), who was groped and degraded at Kelly’s Roadhouse Saloon. She’d been absconded there by the tattooed, Camaro-driving Rick Andover; he of the “ice cool handsomeness of Clint Eastwood, and a hint of dangerousness lurking in his dark sultry eyes.”

When the police are called to intervene — taking the sleazy Rick away in handcuffs — the notoriously machinating Jessica gives them Elizabeth’s name instead of her own. Rumors fly, first-world problems ensue.

I hadn’t read Double Trouble or any of the 150-plus titles in the Sweet Valley High series in close to 25 years before I picked it up not too long ago. When Double Trouble was first published in 1983, I was seven years old. I had a weakness for books in a series format. Before Sweet Valley, my favorite books were The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The two series couldn’t have been more different, but they had one major similarity. Both series focused heavily on the relationship between sisters.

My own sister was two years older than me. We shared the same bedroom, and she used to take out my journal from under my mattress, correct the spelling errors, and put it back. She also introduced me to the Sweet Valley High books. (In what would become a major motif of our relationship as young girls, my sister would start out with an interest, then I would run with that interest, and eventually take it over.) I kept track of the estimated release dates of new books in the series and would run down to our local bookstore, dizzy with anticipation. Sometimes I would pay for the new book with a Ziploc baggie full of change. I was a total addict for these books.

I had an incredible amount of gumption as a young girl, while my sister was much more reticent. I remember her saying two words to me constantly: “Stop spazzing.” I craved drama, and was way too susceptible to what I read in the Sweet Valley High books, eating up every superficial morsel and internalizing what those details said about me, and my value as a young girl. It was as if I took the attitudes and ideals espoused in the books as marching orders. The Sweet Valley High series was like my Satanic How-To Guide to Exalted Girldom.

Some of what I took from the books was, believe it or not, in conflict with the reality of my middle school existence. For example, in the books, beautiful, popular Jessica is the captain of the Sweet Valley High cheerleading team, but at my school, the sports teams were nothing to rah-rah-rah about, and the cheerleading squad didn’t resemble anything close to the Battalion of Babes described in the series. Still, being a cheerleader was clearly on the checklist to exaltedness, so I tried out. I didn’t make the team. Undeterred, I discovered that our local Parks & Rec had an all- volunteer squad, and got my hands on a pair of pom-poms.

Because pretty, popular girls were almost always depicted as being wealthy or upper-middle-class, I also began to lie about my family’s finances. Undermining my fib was our modest, slightly run-down home next to a gas station on a major thoroughfare in town, where my sister and I could often be seen doing gymnastics in the front yard. I incorporated the gas station into my lie. My family owned it, I said. We were reluctantly slumming in the house next door so my parents could keep a closer eye on their business.

There were other girls like me who had obviously internalized the same kind of socio-economic insecurity. One day I had a fight with a friend who came from a family of even lesser financial means than my own. The insult that we lobbed back and forth at each other like a hot piece of coal was whose family was poorer, hers or mine.

Her: “Your family’s poorer!”

Me: “Yours is!”

Her: “Yours is!”

(Then she claimed it was actually her family that owned the gas station next door to my house. The nerve.)

But the crowning mark of ultimate exalted girldom was having your looks deemed powerful and persuasive enough to move product — or, as it was phrased in Barbizon ad that ran in the back of YM Magazine at the time: to be a model, or just look like one. Though Jessica and Elizabeth weren’t models per se, it was intimated in the books that modeling was an option that always remained open to them. Maybe it was an option that was also open to me? I was optimistic, as I was still young enough where I had yet to be told that I was “ugly” by anyone. (It would come very, very soon.) Until I could find out for sure, I figured if I picked some fringe magazine, and said I had a spread in it, no one would be able to investigate. The cooking magazine Bon Appetit fit the bill.

All these years later, I have an artifact from this time period that illustrates just how important all this superficiality was to me.

In the summer of 1987, when I was 11 years old, my best friend came back from camp with incredible stories about her experience there: the dances, the romances, the fireside feuds. It sounded like one big soap opera of canoes and canoodling. It sounded like a Sweet Valley High novel with an Outward Bound backdrop. A lot of her stories revolved around a camp stud named Geoff Scott, a 12-year-old soccer player who lived a few towns away from us. He was the boy all the girls at camp had pined for, and all the boys wanted on their team when playing Capture the Flag. My friend had his address in her camp yearbook, and I decided to write him a letter.

It’s hard for me to read my letter to Geoff now, because I know there were many more just like it, and the one I still have was most likely a rough draft of a letter I actually sent. In the letter, I list all the cars my parents supposedly own, along with the lesser models they supposedly traded in that year to get the newer ones. My letter to Geoff is like a MASH game, but one in which I decide that I can have it all: the mansion, the apartment, and the house. Why deny myself anything? My lies are also a time capsule of my interests at the time: at 11, I’m still playing with toys, because I say my father owns a toy shop. I’m still enamored of horses, because I say I own a horse (named Daisy, my favorite flower), too. And there it is, casually dropped in towards the end of my letter, in case Geoff has yet to be convinced of my virtue by way of my vast material riches: I’m a model — and an exhausted one, I wrote, from some local assignment.

I was so tired, in this lie I told, that I asked him to forgive my letter’s spelling errors. I couldn’t just leave the letter lying around — my sister might have corrected it for me, and that would have revealed to her the extent of my lies. She, though, was just as distracted at the time. While my head was floating in the clouds of superficial fantasy, my sister was devouring a book about a troubled young woman who’d sought refuge in drugs, and the burgeoning 1970s punk scene: Deborah Spungen’s memoir about her daughter Nancy Spungen, And I Don’t Want to Live This Life.

Reinforcing that a little lying could do a lot of good, Geoff wrote back immediately. We talked on the phone after school, covering so much ground in so little time, that we agreed on the names of our future children, which I drew on the petals of a flower and hung on my bedroom wall. (Renee, Gloria, Stacey, and Ryan. I was also a big Kids Incorporated fan.) I don’t remember being nervous about meeting Geoff, which he wanted to do ASAP, only excited. By today’s standards, I was an epistolary Catfish, but I didn’t hesitate to meet him at all. I may have written a bunch of lies in my letters, but I don’t remember feeling like I had anything to hide. It never occurred to me to fake a modeling portfolio, or to steal a horse. I thought that I could use such brash claims about myself and my family to grab a person’s attention; from there, I hoped, the real me would be good enough to hold it.

I remember exactly what I wore the day that Geoff and I met. It was also the outfit I planned to wear on the first day of sixth grade, which meant it was an ensemble that I gave high marks: a red acid-washed skirt and a red and white short-sleeved shirt that cropped at my waist. My hair at the time was very short, as evidenced by my school photo, which would be taken a few weeks later. We had made plans to meet at the shopping center downtown, and I was so excited that I got there over an hour early, and spent the extra time walking in circles, fussing with my hair in the reflection of store windows.

His mother’s Mercedes pulled up to the curb, and he stepped out.

He was preppy. He was extremely preppy. He was wearing a pink polo shirt, khaki shorts and boat shoes, and he had thick, wavy Ken doll hair. I don’t remember thinking for even a moment he might be let down by the real me. If he was, he was a good sport about it. We walked over to Dunkin Donuts, and I somehow felt bold. I grabbed his hand and announced that Walk like an Egyptian, playing on the store radio, was now our song. I had made plans to bring him by the house of one of the more popular girls in my class who lived close to downtown; she came outside and performed perfect gymnastics for us on the lawn. Sitting next to Geoff, I had my first doubt about all this: I wondered if he wished I were her.

Before he left, I think Geoff kissed me on the cheek, though it’s possible I invented this detail later for the benefit of the popular girl. If he did, our first kiss was also our last kiss, because a few days later, he broke up with me over the phone. He said he’d reconnected with an “old girlfriend.”

Strangely, considering I’d named imaginary babies with the boy, I don’t remember being all that devastated, (a testament to the resilience of my jeune coeur), but I was definitely hurt, and needed some kind of dramatic distraction to hold me over until school started. Not long after the phone call, I snuck over to my sister’s side of the room, and decided to examine her new book, And I Don’t Want To Live This Life. There was a blonde on the cover, but her look was 180 degrees different from that of the wholesome, sun-kissed Jessica and Elizabeth. She didn’t even look like a natural blonde, and with her purple-painted lips and pistol necklace, she looked mean. She was Nancy Spungen, and once I started reading her mother’s memoir about her life and murder, I couldn’t put it down.

Nancy Spungen, I was pretty sure, wouldn’t care much if someone called her a pub-crawler.

Thanks to the book, I discovered a whole new world to be intrigued by — and a poster boy to pine for, with his own “hint of dangerousness lurking in his dark sultry eyes.” Except my new poster boy’s eyes had been closed eternally, as he’d been dead for almost 10 years.

It didn’t matter. Sid Vicious saved my soul from Sweet Valley High.

Fiona Helmsley is a writer of creative non-fiction and poetry. Her writing can be found in various anthologies like How Dirty Girls Get Clean and Air in the Paragraph Line and online at websites like Jezebel, xoJane and The Rumpus. She can be reached through her blog Flee Flee This Sad Hotel.