16 April 2019

How the College-Admissions Scandal, Gilmore Girls, and My Newest Short Story All Tie Together

I grew up in an upper-middle-class suburb in Long Island in the 1970s and '80s. I attended school in a (then) top-rated public school system. At age 15, my mother informed me my career choices were doctor (which she knew was a no-go as I can't even talk about blood) or lawyer. Before I graduated from high school, my three siblings were all practicing attorneys. My path was clear, even if I didn't want to take it. (The fact that I ultimately didn't take it for a few years is a little miracle in itself. But I digress.)
When I was a teen, if I needed a tutor or an SAT prep class to ensure my future, I got it. If I had to participate in a gazillion extra-curricular activities to round out my college applications, I did it. If taking a bunch of Advanced Placement (AP) classes would help me stand out, I took them. I wasn't atypical. This is how it was for many kids where I grew up, and likely many kids in similar neighborhoods nationwide. If you didn't get all A's you must not have tried hard enough. Failure was not an option. Success was expected, even though perfection is a pretty hard standard to meet--one I rarely did. (If you think I'm exaggerating, then feel blessed that you never brought home a test with a score of 97, the highest grade in the class, but instead of receiving praise, you were asked why you didn't get 100.)

So when the college-admissions scandal broke a few weeks ago, I wasn't surprised. Three decades have passed, but people haven't changed. The parents involved appear to be just as goal-oriented as many of the ones I knew growing up, doing whatever they think is necessary to ensure their kids succeed. Except they have a lot more money than the families in my old neighborhood, and perhaps fewer ethical qualms, so instead of (or perhaps in addition to) pushing their kids to obtain success through legal methods, these parents paid people off to ensure admissions or to raise key test scores. They took competitive parenting to the extreme.

What drives parents to do these types of things? I'm no psychologist, but I've given this mindset a lot thought over the years, and I think it's at least partially a combination of vanity and fear. Parents who want others to think they are successful use their kids' "achievements" as bragging rights. That's the vanity at work. As for the fear, that's where the old idea of keeping up with the Joneses comes into play. When it seems everyone you know does something to give their kids a leg up, you feel you have to do it too, or else your children will fall behind, and maybe they won't live in as nice a house as you have when they grow up; maybe they won't have as nice a life as you do. And that just won't do. It's a failure on your part. (And vanity raises its ugly head once again.)

It was with competitive parents like these in mind that I created the main character in my newest short story, "The Power Behind the Throne." It appears in the anthology Deadly Southern Charm, which is officially published today by Wildside Press. (How timely, right?) The book includes 18 crime stories about strong southern women written by members of the Central Virginia Chapter of Sisters in Crime.

When friends read early drafts of this story, they thought my main character, Emily Forester, was crazy. Her priorities seemed so skewed. But Emily is just a competitive parent who focused her energies on her husband (as well as her children). She needed him to achieve. She feared what would happen if he didn't. And she wouldn't let his desires divert them from the path to success that they were on.

Maybe Emily didn't seem so crazy to me because of my own past. And maybe it's because she resembled another fictional Emily whom I love: Emily from Gilmore Girls.
Kelly Bishop played
Emily Gilmore

Think about it. Emily Gilmore had her standards. She knew how things were supposed to be. She was a corporate wife, and her job was to help her husband succeed. She was the ultimate power behind the throne. Granted she never paid off someone to promote her husband, but she certainly did everything she could behind the scenes to help him move up the corporate ladder, including throwing the right parties, doing charity work with the right people, and having him accompany her to all the right events. In the end, Emily Gilmore isn't that different from the parents I knew growing up and those 1% parents in the news now. She knew the path to take to success, and she and her family were going to take it come hell or high water. (At least until Lorelai had a baby and ran away. But that's another story.)

My character Emily Forester is the modern-day equivalent of Emily Gilmore. The only difference is Emily Gilmore's husband appreciated her efforts (mostly). Emily Forester's husband ... not so much. And that's why their marriage took a deadly turn.

To find out what happened to Emily Forester, and to truly understand her mindset--it's so much more fun, I think, to be in her head than have me try to explain it--you'll have to pick up the anthology. I hope you will. It's available in trade paperback at Amazon and in trade paperback and e-book form directly through the publisher. It should show up in e-book form on Amazon any time now, and you should be able to order it from any bookstore.

For any of you on Facebook, several authors with stories in the book will be on the Lethal Ladies Write page from 7-8:30 p.m. tonight ET to talk about the book. Please stop by. And for any of you going to the Malice Domestic mystery convention in two weeks, you'll be able to buy the anthology in the book room at the convention. Several authors with stories in the book will be participating in a group signing on Friday, May 4th, at 4 p.m. at Malice. We hope to see you there!


Speaking of Malice Domestic, all attendees will be able to vote for this year's winners of the Agatha Award. If you haven't read all five nominated short stories, this is the perfect time to do so. You can find links to them, including my "Bug App├ętit," on the Malice website. Happy reading!


  1. I remember my high school counselors telling us there was no way to study for the SAT, just arrive rested and do our best.
    Years later, my high school students were taking test prep. classes, because if everyone is prepping, it's a disadvantage not to.
    Now to find the book because I want to know what happens. ;-)

  2. Your story is very timely, Barb. The difference between your parents and the ones in the scandal are, though your parents pressured *you* they didn't bribe the schools. And I can relate to the pressure your parents put on you. Mine would have preferred I go to law school or something respectable. Instead I went to film school...

  3. The story sounds good- and best of luck with Deadly Southern Charm.

  4. And let's never forget the Texas cheerleader mom, who tried to put out a hit on the mom whose daughter had beaten out hers for the squad!
    Nothing modern about helicopter parents.

  5. Barb, congratulations on all your award nominations, to include two in the Long Story Derringer category.

  6. I'm looking forward to the book and to your contribution. I loved the Gilmore Girls. Do you remember the first time Luke goes to dinner with the parents and says in amazement about Emily: "She kept insulting me and I kept THANKING her."

    There was also the flashback where Lorelei is pregnant and Christopher's father says "Why should my son's future be ruined because some--"

    And Emily says: "Choose your next words carefully." He decides to shut up instead.

  7. Hope the new collection sells gilmorians of copies, Barb!

    Where on Long Island? I grew up in Levittown, where the houses are all made of ticky-tack, and they all look the same....


  8. Congrats on your story Barb! Looking forward to checking it out. Does bribing school officials with homemade brownies count? As a parent I want to pressure without committing any felonies...

  9. Meant to say: Last time I went to my home state, New Jersey, it seemed like every strip mall had a tutoring center. Like coffee shops here in Washington.

  10. Wow. I must have been a hippy mom. (I sure have the hips now.) I think things might have been a bit different here in the frozen north. I remember racing the kids to school before I had to moderate a hospital panel on nutrition, while throwing a box of Poptarts to them in the back. Probably, I should not tell that story. Oh well...

  11. Thanks, everybody, for stopping by and for your good wishes.

    Paul, before law school, I went to journalism school. Let's just say that wasn't following the expected path, so I get it.

    Thanks, R.T., about the Derringer noms. I'm still really surprised. Happily so, but surprised.

    Rob, I hope you enjoy the book. And I've seen every episode of Gilmore Girls so many times that, yes, no matter what scene it is, I remember it! Remember when Emily was sued by a fired maid and Lorelai gave a deposition in which she said things she shouldn't have and Emily started reading parts back to her and said in that oh-so-Emily tone, "It's fun."

    Hi, Josh. The Five Towns. And I know about houses all looking the same. I dated a guy in high school who could get lost in my neighborhood so easily because, as he complained, all the houses looked exactly alike.

    Lawrence, I think your brownies should be safe as long as they aren't special brownies. And even then, in some states, you'd be just fine.

    Mel, thanks for making me laugh, as always. My parents were actually pretty hands off. But their expectations were hands on.

  12. Congratulations on yet another story out! I love 'em.

    I'm slightly familiar with that overparenting mindset, the ranking of the schools… CUNY, Sunnybrook, NYU, Columbia, and why the hell weren't you accepted at Harvard? It almost seems a kind of child abuse. I never gave my parents much to worry about, but one thing would have crushed them– cheating.

    Isn't that the lesson parents of today seemed to have missed?

    I look forward to your story, Barb. Well done!

  13. Hi, Leigh. Yes, when the ends justify the means, cheating apparently is acceptable. Anyway, thanks for commenting. I hope you enjoy the story and the book.

  14. Maybe the male analog of the vanity and success-obsession drive is sports achievement? Little League dads, pushing young boys into football (though ice-skater moms are just as intense, as I know too well).


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