The Negative Impact of Boarding Schools


Edward Gorey, Illustrator

In my new horror novel, which came out on October 2nd, 2019. under the title Wax Works, a boarding school has gone irretrievably, elementally wrong, even after closing its business doors to the world. When it reopens with a new commercial face, that ‘wrongness’ has plummeted down to a spiritual level, by which I mean the establishment exerts a psychological and physical power over people it wants to control, manipulate and, in some cases, punish.

The boarding school in my novel is named Château Mont Rose. A lot of pride went into this school–so much, that when disgrace followed, the school nursed a vendetta. While many people have great memories of boarding school, the flip side are those who don’t, or those who remember the true prickly reasons why they were sent to one.

Those reasons are often negative. I hate to be a real downer, yet for the purposes of my “horror” novel, I have to insist that many children are sent away for negative reasons starting with the most simple: parents want them gone. How do I know?

I went to to a boarding school.

My brother went to a boarding school.

My mother went to a boarding school.

Some of my best friends at boarding school went to a . . . . you get the idea.

Parents often regret having children and decide to get rid of children, for various reasons. Since the parents may want to see the children again someday, like at Christmas, a boarding school is a good option. Parents may pay a lot of money for this option, or they may take the money for the experience from the child’s trust fund (oh, incredibly lucky child, to have money others can spend on him or her to get him away from the homestead!).

Who pays for the boarding school is practically another subject. Show me a trust fund child now grown adult and struggling economically, and I will show you a person who wishes to God that the money was spent on buying a condominium in southern, northern, even a central part of his or her state, country, canton or district.

Boarding school girlsI went to Swiss boarding school as a teen. As it happened, I badly wanted to learn French. My brother, Steven, had been sent to a military academy in California, from which the poor soul could only come home on holidays. He was desperately unhappy there. I have to ask him the name of the school, fearful I will get it wrong.  When he came back, I went away.

By amazing circumstance, my mother remarried right before either one of us left. Today we both have the uncomfortable feeling that she believed the chances for happiness in her new marriage would be better if we were out of her hair.

She would know, of course. Her parents sent her off to Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, a convent school—the same place that Joan Crawford’s daughter, Christina (author of Mommie Dearest), was sent. I loved my mother to bits, but older people in her life felt she needed straightening out.

No matter how many friends the boarding school child retains from boarding school, the experience leaves an interesting, and often painful, mark.1635082

In Wax Works, the mark is on both the students and the school. (Buildings are not supposed to be alive, but many of us know one that they are. Just like graveyards, buildings absorb the feelings of those interred–and feelings always leak out again in some form. How they leak out in Wax Works is worth investigating.)

Literary Agents can be seen in terms of the Gold Rush

ImageAn author seeking a literary agent will be best prepared, psychologically, for the inevitable slew of rejects, if he or she understands the motivations of the literary agent. It is always better to stand back when appraising, look at the herd and not the lone animal. What is the herd doing? How did it get there?

Before literary agents were considered compulsory, J.R.Tolkien sold The Hobbit straight to a publisher. However,  he did not knock on his door with the manuscript. It went through a string of friends (whom you know counts). Although Tolkien was friends of C.S. Lewis, it was Tolkien’s student, Elaine Griffiths, who knew Susan Dagnalls, a staff member of the publisher George Allen & Unwin; Elaine showed it to Susan when the latter came a-calling. Susan thought it a great story and asked Stanley Unwin to consider publishing it. Unwin gave it to his ten-year-old son to read, and got a thumbs up. Consider for a split second how this might have turned on a dime: if Unwin wanted his son to read it because he, the publisher, was very, very busy . . . what might have happened if Unwin had no son? Or a son who preferred building blocks to books?

The Hobbit came out in 1937 and did exceptionally well. No literary agents those days. Let’s move to Harper Lee, who showed To Kill a Mockingbird to Tay Hohoff, an editor at J.B. Lippincott & Co. He liked it but worked with Lee on it for two and a half more years because the form that he read it in was still not the novel we know but a string of stories. (Story collections don’t sell well.) To Kill a Mockingbird was finally published in 1960 and was an immediate best seller. Both The Hobbit and To Kill a Mockingbird won literary prizes.

When books make so much money, people who like and want to write will try to write something wonderful.  Money attracts people because we all need money to live. The growth in the number of writers worldwide reflects population and the lure of gold–represented in the publishing world by book (series) like Twilight, Harry Potter,Gone Girl, and Fifty Shades of Grey–that have made a fortune. However,  in the last couple of decades of the 20th century, publishers could no longer cope with the number of writers applying for notice. When there is a need, humans will be yanked in to fill the gap. I presume the first literary agents were lawyers with a liking for literature–or at least for money.

We writers are the gold nuggets, but we could also be termed miners who are mining their own souls and skills. Literary agents metaphorically make better gold miners if we think of them as mining writers. That said, how many gold miners in Deadwood or California or any other mining camp saw or caught every nugget? How many let some slip because the current was too fast or they were tired out in their tunnel? How many were dazzled by fake golImaged?

(Harper Lee eventually acquired a literary agent: their lugubrious story was recently featured in Vanity Fair magazine.)

Topics Creative Writers Choose (or Discard) for Novels, Screenplays and so on

033A few days ago, I had an idea for a book. The characters would be troubled, not as victims are troubled, but as bad choice-makers who pay for their folly with crippled souls. They would be motivated to these choices by the messed-up society around them (a common excuse), a society with abundant pretense of self-righteousness and a great hunger for material purchases.

I wrote down the bare threads for the idea in a file and saved it. I know I could write this book: I have the background and the platform. The main protagonists would be a married couple who do each other and society more damage than good. Isn’t that what makes the pages turn in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn? Flynn’s two liars dupe the reader as a mystery is spread out for the reader to unravel.

As I unraveled Flynn’s mystery with rare speed (for myself), zooming through pages on an e-reader, I felt increasing disgust, especially as I came to an unexpected ending where crime does not pay and the bad get what they want. I know there must be a lot of people like these protagonists in the world. Think of all the news tidbits we have read and know not the endings to. Not every miscreant is  in prison or dead.

Having put all this down, I would like to add that I do care how I feel at the end of a book. I believe in the One God, Creator of all Things. I do not insist my characters all believe that, nor the characters I read about, but I like it if some character in a book has  a conscience. I like it if someone remembers the Hereafter, which in my view, as a Muslim, is more real than the Here Below. I have a detective in my new novel, Wax Works, who is a lapsed Catholic and who does not attend church. He does have thoughts about the Hereafter, at least once, because he is trying to make sense of where his daughter’s soul is.

A writer thinks of possible topics for new books not just because he or she feels capable, but because agents will probably like the topic. I have read a lot of comments on agent profiles and blogs about what agents would simply love to have represented. Quite a few have mentioned Gone Girl.

I personally do not like the lesson or feelings evoked by Gone Girl even if I admire the book for its creative audacity. I was a viewer of Breaking Bad, and I felt very satisfied with the ending for the two main protagonists in that series–crime paid, brains triumphed, and repentance won a new chance at a redeemed life. These are things I believe in, and my children believe in, and apparently, my society believes in (judging by the number of viewers).

Although I need miscreants and sinners in my books, I the writer have to decide how much they hurt everyone else, if they are caught, and if there is hope at the end. Writing about troubled souls is a troubling experience. My incredibly talented friend, Connie Kirchberg, just finished a novel about a truly troubled boy. I was witness to her suffering as she got into his head.

My most recent book, Wax Works, is a creep-fest that was fun to write. I built the tunnel and filled it with monsters, like a carnival designer.  Now I look at this new idea and wonder if I want to torture myself with two icky people.

Why I miss Walter White

My son Omar commented that the TV show Breaking Bad–which he and I have been watching together–has given currency to references to the meth waltertrade/usage by average, upright citizens, which of course includes us. As we watched the last episode together, we speculated, during the extremely frequent commercials on AMC, how many other Americans (or Californians, because of Pacific time), were watching with us. We also debated what elements drew people to the show. Breaking Bad has been recognized both in the industry and in commentary as one of the most fascinating shows of the decade. (Please stop reading if you haven’t seen the last season and intend to!)

I recall saying to Omar at the close of the last season, when Hank took that book off the back of the toilet, that I was no longer feeling terribly invested in Walter White. He had gotten so hard, so monster-ish, that I felt myself caring more about Hank than Walter. And like so many others, I did not feel terribly invested in Skyler although she has strength. (Poor Anna Gunn! As a side note, I had begun watching the masterpiece series Deadwood–quite the Shakespearean westernwhile waiting for the last season of Breaking Bad, and it struck me that despite the prairie costumes, she plays a similarly strong, unsympathetic character in that show.)

Despite Walt’s typical and passionately in-denial responses manifested throughout the last episodes of Breaking Bad, I felt myself re-investing in him. I know part of it has to do with feeling sympathy. I felt sorry for him being backed into a corner. Why? Because Walter always was a super intelligent man. Hank said so–Walt was the smartest man Hank ever knew, despite his emotional blindside. He thought he could negotiate everything.

Pity helped me re-invest, as did my admiration for his brains. I wanted Walt to come out victorious–not as a monster, but as a brilliant man who, sadly, did not find opportunity to become “great” until he went bad. (Whose fault is that? Is it anyone’s?) Like so many other viewers, I could relate from the beginning to his sense of being let down by society in general and individuals in particular, among those Gretchen and Elliott. (Anyone who has ever gotten a degree and failed to get a job in the field knows that feeling.)

The one young viewer who “got” Walter’s modus operandi may be the reason I re-invested in Walter. He is a young man named Kevin Cordasco, who has cancer of the brain. Follow the link to read the whole story of how this viewer, plagued by cancer like the dying Walter, has touched all of us:

Thanks to brilliant Kevin, the writers redid the ending of Breaking Bad so that the character “Walter” dies with some reparations made to society, confident that he is so good  at what he does he can bring the structure down with him and give Jessie another chance at redemption at the same time. The finale of BB demonstrates that brilliance yearns to make itself manifest.

I have read a great deal of how Walter is an example of what happens to people who make the wrong choice, but I feel he is also an example of what happens to society when it chooses to neglect or take for granted those brilliant, passed-over individuals who are not heads of billion-dollar companies. Thanks, Kevin, for your involvement. Without you, I don’t know if I would feel so good about Breaking Bad.