I was watching Jersey Shore with a friend when a man came to my door trying to deliver foreclosure papers. “No,” I said, “I don’t want them.” He gave them to me anyway, because it was his job and said, “I just want to help you.” My mother was in bed. She was always in bed. As far as I know she still is. I asked her if there was anything I needed to worry about. “No,” she said. “I’m taking care of it.” My friend had invited a man over to watch the show with us. She had met him on an online dating website and he was trying very hard to impress her. We drank Heinekens. Three weeks later I flew to Austria and my house disappeared.
No one told me my house disappeared. I suggested to various family members that they download Skype so that we could talk during my nine-month stint of teaching English in Austria. None of them did. I had an old cell phone that was given to me by one of the teachers that I worked with in the high school. My dad bought me a first-generation Kindle for Christmas, and I spent my time reading or watching music videos on my tiny television because it was one of the few channels where I could hear English. Other than that, I slept. I slept in the afternoons when I got home from school, woke up to eat dinner, and then slept again until morning. In my dreams, my house was still there, still mine, though I knew from brief conversations with my brother that the foreclosure had gone through and my mother had moved into a duplex in Midway.
My mother, like most of the cast of Jersey Shore, is Italian-American and grew up on the East Coast. Due to a troubled relationship with her parents, my mother graduated from high school a year early and went to college in Denver because Denver seemed like a place far enough away from her family. By the time I was born, my parents were settled in St. Paul, Minnesota and thus I had little connection with my Italian-American heritage outside of my curly dark hair and olive skin. My heritage felt both like a missing part of my identity and a genetic curse that continued to manifest itself on my mother’s body and psyche.
My grandmother and my mother are both carriers of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a disorder that affected—and killed—my mother’s older brother. My mother was eleven when her brother died and the event caused a cataclysmic shift in her family. My grandparents had been unable to get health insurance for my uncle because muscular dystrophy was a pre-existing condition and the disorder bankrupted my family. As a teenager, my mother suffered from severe depression and had multiple suicide attempts. Once, in an argument, she expressed to me that she had been depressed her “entire life.” It took my mother five years to become pregnant with me and when she became pregnant a second time with my younger brother, my grandmother called and told her she was selfish for wanting another child when she already had one that was healthy. Because genetics continue to unfold over a lifetime, a new cruelty revealed itself when I was a teenager. My mother, who had struggled to get out of bed for quite some time, was diagnosed with narcolepsy, a disorder that her grandfather purportedly suffered from as well. I tested negative as a carrier of muscular dystrophy, but still I feel suspicious of my body and the secrets that it hides.
While in Austria, I became paranoid about my sleeping habits. I experienced nightmares where I imagined that my Austrian landlady had walked into my apartment and was lecturing me in a German dialect that I didn’t understand. When I returned to the United States, I begged my doctor to give me a referral for a sleep test. My doctor was skeptical—in my experience, doctors are always skeptical—but she wrote the referral anyway and several weeks later I checked in to a sleep lab. The sleep lab had two components, a full night of sleep followed by a day of controlled, intermittent napping. When my mother had gone in for her test, her body had so deeply wanted to succumb to sleep that the lab assistants held her awake as she cried. Conversely, I struggled to fall asleep with the electrodes attached to my head in a foreign space. Sleep continued to allude me the following day and whenever I was instructed to attempt to fall asleep, I lay in the bed in a pseudo-state of rest.
Instead of sleeping, I watched episodes of True Life on MTV’s website. MTV devotees like myself know that the idea for Jersey Shore originally stemmed from an episode of True Life titled “I have a summer share.” The episode featured Tommy “Cheeseballs” Perna, a bald construction worker who was looking for love on the shore. Anyone who has seen Jersey Shore has heard Ronnie Magro-Ortiz’s warning to never look for love at the shore and he’s right. All of Tommy’s sincere attempts to woo women end in disappointment and at the conclusion of summer, he returns to his regular job and his regular loveless life. Still, Tommy Cheeseballs was memorable enough to inspire a multi-season reality television show as well as sporadic fake announcements of his death. The episodes of True Life that I watched that day in the hospital weren’t nearly so compelling and I got the sense that MTV had run out of true lives to tell. At the end of the sleep study, I was informed that my REM sleep patterns were within a normal range and that there was no sign of narcolepsy or other sleep disorders. No one said that my excessive sleeping was probably symptomatic of depression instead, but in retrospect it was easy to self-diagnose.
While in Austria, I continuously had the sense of never being fully comfortable, never totally at home, and this feeling didn’t leave, not entirely, once I was back on US soil. I moved in with my friend Danny who had coordinated with my mother to move all my furniture into the apartment before I arrived. This is how I can tell that someone really loves me: they’re willing to deal with my mother despite having no blood relation. This is also how I can tell that things with my mother are painfully bad, because all of these people have told me it’s okay for me to never speak to her again. A few nights into my return, I sat on the couch crying and I said, “I might cry a lot for a little while,” and Danny said, “I know, I’ve met you before.” Danny had a cable package installed before my arrival, because, as he’d said, he had met me before. Jersey Shore had gained a new cast member in my absence, Deena Nicole Cortese. Deena came in as a replacement for Angelina Pivarnick, also known as the “Staten Island Dump” due to bringing her belongings in trash bags on the first episode of the show (as well as her sexual promiscuity). Deena and Snooki were friends before Deena’s entrance on the show and they referred to each other as “meatball,” a nickname that Danny and I adopted as our own. Implied in the term meatball is a commitment to friendship as well as a willingness to shake one’s meatball body on the dance floor.
I have a fantasy of myself as a different type of person, harbored long before Jersey Shore ever appeared on the air. In this fantasy, my mother never moved away from the East Coast or estranged herself from her family. My father is my father or maybe my father is an Italian-American man. I’m myself, except an incredibly beautiful version of myself. I go to the gym and the tanning salon and get my nails done on the regular rather than biting them until my fingers bleed. I have a nickname that refers to my beauty and endearing personality like “Jwoww” or “Sammi Sweetheart.” Instead of longing for blonde hair and blue eyes, my dark hair is an asset to be appreciated. In the fantasy, I like to go to clubs and I’m good at dancing or I’m confident enough that I don’t care that I’m bad. I take men home with me and I’m not bothered when I never see them again because I’m not looking for love. Eventually, I know, I will settle down with a man who self-identifies as a “guido” and we will have Italian-American children and it will be my job to ensure that they’re never hungry. I know that I never would’ve been this person. My mother rebelled against this very life. She declared herself an atheist in the face of Catholicism. She dressed me in gender neutral clothing to spite the patriarchy. She left home and got a degree and then another and another and another until she had a bachelor’s, two master’s, a Juris Doctorate, and no job. These genes are inescapable and that feels damning.
To watch Jersey Shore is to watch my fantasy, only it’s an imperfect recreation. Not all of the cast members are Italian-American but have claimed the label of “guido” anyway, a label that has critiqued as being offensive by various Italian-American organizations. The women are beautiful, though not infallibly so. Snooki cries and threatens to go home during the first season and again during Jersey Shore Family Vacation when she loses her wedding ring in the grass. During one season, she has a multi-episode run in with a UTI and she screams, “I’m going to pee! I’m going to pee!” while in the club. Sammi Sweetheart falls in love with Ronni during the first season and she stays in love with him despite Ronni’s complete inability to be monogamous. They eventually break up for good once the original show ends. Jwoww marries a meathead guido and her relationship issues are broadcast on a spinoff show called Snooki and Jwoww. Deena, the late addition, is the most human of them all. She live-tweets television shows and has settled in a townhouse with her husband, Chris. It’s these flaws that endear these characters to me because it feels like I could almost be them. I imitate their behavior. I wear a “shirt before the shirt” when I go out. I get too drunk. I yell “the cab’s here!” when it’s time to go.
I understand the criticisms of the show. It flooded the actual Jersey Shore with drunk tourists and it relies upon cultural stereotypes, particularly the season when the cast actually goes to Italy and gets yelled at for wearing revealing clothing in a church. Awareness of these criticisms isn’t enough to make me stop watching the show. For me, the most comforting moments are when Vinny’s mom visits. Vinny, at least in the original show, is the least stereotypical guido of them all. He doesn’t gym, he doesn’t tan, and his mom does his laundry. His mom, however, is exactly what one would expect of an Italian-American mom. She wants to feed Vinny, she wants to feed his friends, and this feeding lacks the suffocation that comes with my own mother. When Vinny’s mom visits the shore, she brings dish after dish and the entire cast sits around a table eating together despite any past conflicts. I can’t eat with my own mother. She sleeps too long and then I show up to piles of ingredients with nothing finished. She wants to feed me like Vinny’s mother feeds him, but she can’t help herself from commenting on my body and my consumption. It feels like there are two Italian-American cultures: the one featured in the show and my own fractured family plagued by mental illness and disease.
I almost didn’t watch the 2018 reboot of Jersey Shore. I thought I had grown up. I’m married with a house of my own. I go to bed early and get up early in defiance of my mother’s habits and I work out daily. I turned on Jersey Shore Family Reunion while eating breakfast on a Saturday morning after a run. The cast assured the audience that they are different people from the original series. They too have houses and partners and some of them have children. Vinny started working out and was on a keto diet despite his Italian heritage (“We’re Italian!” Deena proclaims at one point, “We’re supposed to eat carbs!”). What the reboot revealed is that no one ever escapes who they truly are. Separated from their children and partners, the cast proceeds to get very drunk, to yell and fight and flirt. The only one that seems changed in some inherent way is Mike “The Situation” who is under investigation for tax fraud and might go to prison. I love that they are the same because after all these years, I still love them. It scares me, though, because in my happiness I feel as though I have escaped from a fate that was dictated by my genetics. I’m happy and productive now, but that doesn’t mean I will be happy and productive forever. I have a husband and a house, but that doesn’t mean these things won’t somehow escape me. It’s still possible, I know, that I will fall into the forever slumber that has claimed my mother. I understand Snooki’s fear when she yells, “You’re ruining my marriage!” when Vinny tries to sit next to her because she recognizes that success is tenuous. There is always that moment when someone on the cast goes from being happy-drunk to too-drunk, that moment when depression goes from something casual to something dire, that moment when “Mom” appears on the caller ID and I have to decide whether it’s worth sacrificing my happiness for familial bonds.
During her introduction on the new season, Snooki says, “I always said I want to meet a tan guido and I want to have tan babies and it literally happened just like that.” I too feel a deep longing to have a baby, a longing that my mother experienced before me. It took her five years to get pregnant with me. She had fibroids in her uterus and has mentioned having numerous miscarriages, though she had never given a number. When I was hospitalized at the age of fourteen for depression, my mother gave me the journals she kept when I was an infant. Her handwriting is nearly illegible and it pained me then, as it does now, to read them. All I remember is the line, “I can’t believe you’re mine.” In the right context, the sentiment is sweet. When she calls me and tells me that she cannot live without me, that my brother and I are the only thing keeping her from death, it feels like a claim over my autonomy. My mother eventually repaired her relationship with her parents enough that she went to visit them every several years until they passed away, but the stress of it caused her to break out in hives all over her body. I too have started breaking out in hives in times of stress. Red bumps blossom on my cheekbones, my belly, my chest, and they would be innocuous without this genetic element. If I’ve inherited stress-hives, what else might crop up during moments of trauma? What scares me more than the physical ailments, are the intangibles that are passed down from generation to generation. Along with depression, anxiety, agoraphobia, muscular dystrophy, and narcolepsy, in my family there is a tradition of children estranging themselves from their parents. My mother was estranged from her parents for much of her life, my brother and I estranged from her. What if, like Snooki, I’m able to become pregnant and deliver a healthy baby, only to pass down the gene that causes the emotional rift between mother and child?
I would never go on Jersey Shore, I tell my husband. Not even if I was given the chance. During one episode, a visitor to the house gets too drunk and stumbles through the living room as Snooki helps her to the couch. Snooki comforts her and says, “Girl, I’ve been there. I’m Snooki.” When I was younger, I watched Jersey Shore because it showed a type of person that I longed to be. I would drink during my viewings and do a poor mimicry of their dances when I went out with friends. I no longer have an urge to go to the club, to wear tiny dresses, to dance with strangers or to get so drunk I’m hardly standing. Watching these aspects has become voyeurism and voyeurism alone. It’s the tiny peeks of their real lives that make me envious. I want the Italian mother that lives around the corner and I want tiny dark-haired children and I want to love myself and my identity so much that I get an Italian flag painted on my chest like Vinny even though being Italian-American is so different from being Italian as to be a separate culture entirely. I know Jersey Shore is trashy and I know that it relies upon bad stereotypes and I love it regardless of these things because a part of me wants to live inside of these stereotypes. A life in which I have small Italian-American children. A life in which I still speak to my mother.
Rumpus original art by Richelle the King.