An interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about what I’ll call ‘stage parents.’ These are parents who push their children to excel, far beyond the usual rules about getting schoolwork done, or the usual supports, such as going to games or paying for music lessons. Some parents do this because they honestly believe it’s a good way of ensuring that their child succeeds. They see it as their way of providing for their child. Others arguably do it because it allows them to succeed vicariously. There are other reasons, too.
You see such parents at sporting events, recitals and music competitions, and beauty pageants. They’re also in crime fiction. That makes sense, too, if you think about it. That sort of pressure adds a dimension of conflict and tension to a fictional relationship. It can also make an effective motive for murder.
In Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory, we are introduced to Gideon Davies. He’s got rare musical talent, and at twenty-eight, has become a world-class violinist. One day, he discovers to his horror that he can’t play. Desperate to find out what’s blocking his playing, he visits a psychotherapist. In the meantime, Davies’ mother, Eugenie, goes out to dinner one night. She leaves the restaurant and is struck in what looks like a tragic hit-and-run accident. Inspector Thomas Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers investigate, and find that this was no accident. Both this death and Davies’ struggles are related to a twenty-year-old tragedy. And woven through the story is Davies’ own history as a child who was raised by ‘stage parents,’ who saw his musical talent and pushed him.
James Ellroy’s historical novel, L.A. Confidential, introduces readers to Preston Exley, who is a revered member of the LAPD. His fondest dream is for his son Edmund ‘Ed’ to rise to the top of the ranks, and he pushes, prods, and does whatever he can to make sure that Ed moves on in his career. This pressure is very difficult for Ed, as you can imagine. Still, he wants to please his father. On Christmas Day, 1951, seven civilians are brutally attacked by members of the police force. At first, nothing’s done about it. Then, a groundswell of protests forces the department to do an internal investigation. Ed Exley is caught up in that event, and in another event two years later. This time, it’s a shooting at an all-night diner called the Nite Owl. The two incidents are related, and we gradually learn what links them as the investigation plays out. Throughout the novel, we see how profoundly Ed Exley has been affected by his father’s ‘stage parenting.’
Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Hickory Smoked Homicide introduces readers to Tristan Pembroke. She’s a wealthy and successful beauty pageant coach and judge who’s helped more than one young girl to win. When she’s murdered at a charity art auction, there are several possible suspects, since she’s made quite a number of enemies. One of those suspects is Sara Taylor, a local artist. Sara’s mother-in-law, restaurant owner Lulu Taylor, knows that Sara’s innocent, and decides to clear her name. As the novel goes on, we learn some things about the beauty pageant circuit, what it takes to win, and how many beauty pageant ‘stage mothers’ there are. Here’s what one of them, Colleen Bannister, says about pageants:
‘‘…you know that Pansy [Colleen’s daughter] and I are not competing for fun, we’re competing to win. Nothing makes that girl happier than having one of those ten-story crowns on her head, all glitzy and shiny, and everyone standing up and cheering themselves hoarse.’’
It’s very interesting to see how quick Colleen is to say that the pageant circuit is what Pansy wants. The reality is, of course, that Colleen wants it at least as much.
Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me takes readers into the world of competitive gymnastics. Katie and Erick Knox are the proud parents of fifteen-year-old Devon, a truly gifted gymnast. When Coach Teddy Belfour sees her in action, he makes her parents an offer:
‘‘Bring her to BelStars [a program he’s started up] and she’ll find the extent of her power.’’
He means it, too, and Devon’s parents are more than willing to do that. Before long, Devon’s well on the way to national, even Olympic, fame. Then, a tragic hit-and-run accident (or was it an accident?) changes everything. Besides the mystery surrounding the death, Abbott also takes a close look at the families behind competitive athletes. It’s a stark case of ‘stage parents’ who will do whatever it takes to make sure their children are winners.
Of course, not all parents of gifted children are ‘stage parents.’ Take Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, for instance. She’s a retired academic and political scientist. She and her attorney husband, Zack, are also the parents of Taylor, a gifted artist. The Shreves have always known about Taylor’s very special and unusual talent. But they’re determined that she’ll have as normal a childhood as possible. In several story arcs that run through this series (and, actually, in a major plot thread of The Gifted), they’re careful about what they allow her to do. For them, it’s a question of balancing support for her talent with support for the rest of her development.
But not all parents do that. And when parents push their children too hard, the result can be tragedy. These are only a few examples. Over to you.
Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Folks, may I suggest your next blog stop be Clothes in Books? You’ll find it a rich resource of fine reviews and discussion about clothes, popular culture, fiction, and what it all means about us.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jule Shyne and Stephen Sondheim’s May We Entertain You?