Does the nostalgia of our Generation X childhood still qualify as nostalgia if it now seems all a lie?
We are unreliable narrators of our own pasts. I for one had a sentimentality for my childhood that has been overturned by reality. While our parents worked two jobs, we sat in front of our respective TVs consuming a firehose of nefarious images and plots well before there were movements like #MeToo and phrases like “toxic masculinity.” We didn’t have the words for any of it. We knew in our gut there was wrongdoing, but we had no one to help us identify the feeling.
In her essay collection Kids in America: A Gen X Reckoning, out tomorrow from Santa Fe Writers Project, Liz Prato examines her/our Gen X childhood with fresh adult eyes, and what she sees is terrifying. Just like all those ’80s John Hughes movies, our childhood didn’t stand the test of time. It feels like a big lie.
Prato and I share commonalities—we’re both Gen Xers, adopted, and love the essay form. So it was great to bond over her latest and important essay collection that examines Gen X pop culture. We chatted via email about being latchkey kids, gaslighting, racism, terrorism, the Reagan years, toxic masculinity, and more.
The Rumpus: Wow, literally none of the touchstones of our Gen X childhood hold up to the “fissures of memory and time,” as you write, do they? What compelled you to write this book? Was there a defining incident in the present that made you want to examine the past?
Liz Prato: I believe in the adage that we should write about what we’re obsessed with, and I’ve been obsessed with the idea of Gen X, and its particular/peculiar characteristics, since the early nineties. I originally thought there’d be more pop culture nostalgia in this book, since I’m the first person to love on New Wave and Fisher Price Little People, or discuss how completely fucking weird Land of the Lost was. I thought maybe there was a story there. Like, why are we so damn nostalgic about stuff? It’s partly because we had more branded media and branded toys and branded food than any generation before us. But when I really looked at that idea, I didn’t see a book. I didn’t even see a great essay. It was more like a Twitter thread.
Several of the essays in Kids in America were either already written or in-progress before I decided to call it a book. I’ve also long been obsessed with the question of how people survive great loss, so I was already writing about my friend’s brother who died in a massive police shootout, and the one whose friends died in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. And then there was a moment in exploring these stories when I realized those losses were intersecting with conversations we’re having today about race and terrorism and mental illness. And we weren’t having those conversations when I was growing up. So, I started asking my peers to tell me their experiences. I was so, so, so fortunate that people trusted me with their stories. It was a huge leap of faith for them, because I wasn’t sure where I was going with the project.
But a couple of turning points helped me clarify and coalesce: finding out that a serial sexual predator had been a teacher at my high school, and then hearing Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her was one. Another was the election of Donald Trump and how it empowered overtly racist behavior. There’s a line in the book where I talk about how people of color weren’t nearly as surprised by it as white liberals: “We assumed that kind of racism only existed in a small number of underground niches that could be easily contained, like an annoying game of Whack-a-Mole where the prize for winning was a false sense of security.” It wasn’t underground at all. We’d just been looking the other way.
Rumpus: In the early essays, you use “we” when you write about your experience writ large in your time at Kent Country Day school and beyond. It gives the reader a sense that we’re in this together. Can you talk a bit about how you decided which pronoun to use in that way and why?
Prato: Well, the top layer of that is just that I’m talking about an entire generation, so the plural chorus seemed natural. The book is about a lot of things, but ultimately it’s about intersections and divergences. So I was saying, “here are the places we overlapped,” but I really wanted to also explore the places where we diverged. Because a lot of that didn’t occur to me in high school. I had a relatively diverse social group (considering the makeup of our student body) and friends who didn’t have the economic advantages of many students. They were in this odd position of having the “privilege” of this rarified private education, but at the same time were marginalized (which is a word I don’t even think we knew back then). But I didn’t spend much time thinking about that, which is kind of shitty, but also pretty normal for an adolescent in that era.
Rumpus: We are unreliable narrators of our own nostalgia aren’t we? It’s pretty amazing what we bury and what we went through. I feel like we Gen Xers should be called the Gaslit Generation. Does it feel empowering writing against all the gaslighting?
Prato: Oof, it’s actually pretty scary. I’m not trying to throw my peers, or the adults who were setting parameters for us, under the bus. But when I was asking, “How did we get here?” in terms of #MeToo and Black people being targeted by law enforcement and the rise of white Nationalism, well, shit. That’s always been there. And the victims of it didn’t have a big voice. And if they did, most people I knew weren’t listening.
I feel a responsibility for my ignorance, and also recognize that there weren’t many systems encouraging young people to investigate issues of race, gender, sexuality, and privilege. I mean, my entire adolescence occurred in the Regan/Bush era. I was lucky, because my mom went to college in her mid-forties, which coincided with my adolescence. She was discovering feminism and activism, and taking me to anti-nuclear and pro-ERA [the Equal Rights Amendment] protests with her. She had a bumper sticker that read, “Question Authority.” But that was the exception. We weren’t supposed to question. We were supposed to consume.
Rumpus: Part of me wants to say, “OMG thanks for ruining my Gen X childhood” but I remember Luke raping Laura on General Hospital—supposedly he couldn’t help himself, because he was madly in love with her—and how she fell in love with him, and they became a “super couple.”
I also found myself getting angry at my parents for working two jobs and not being home. At the time I remember feeling a sense of freedom. How did that reckoning happen for you? What surprised you most when you began to reexamine your Gen X childhood?
Prato: I’m certainly not the first person to notice that General Hospital and Sixteen Candles glossed over rape, but it got me thinking about where else my age group saw those depictions that made it seem normal, or funny, or even heroic to force sex on a woman. There were so many! The scene from Rocky, where he dates rapes Adrienne and then she falls in love with him, was the one that I had to unpack the most emotionally. I mean, my dad took me to see that movie when I was nine. I think he thought I’d enjoy the “love” story. Yikes.
But I still have tons of great memories of being a free-range kid and teen. It’s not an either/or. Like, it was awesome that in the summers (when I wasn’t at my weird camp that appropriated Native American culture), I could just get on my bike and ride to the mall and wander around, and then ride home and maybe read a book or watch TV or practice doing my hair. I don’t feel like I’m scarred for life because I wasn’t scheduled and supervised all the time. But the flip side of it is, “Oh yeah, our parents would leave town and we’d throw these giant ragers and people would get wasted! And sometimes assaulted.” It’s like, damn, that fun memory sure took a turn. But I think every generation has these realizations when they come of age. Baby Boomers can say “Woodstock was awesome!” and also “Man, I lost a lot of friends to drugs.” Both these things can be true.
Rumpus: I have GenX friends who remember our childhood with a fuzzy, nostalgic glow—like viewing the past through a Vaseline lens. Many view it as a simpler time when it was simply that we didn’t have the words or the social construct to understand what was happening to us. You deftly use the trauma of our sandwich generation to show how it has informed the movements of today. We’re not slackers, we’re survivors, aren’t we? What does it mean to have survived?
Prato: Simpler? Sure, we didn’t have the internet and online bullying. But ask anyone who was gay or trans or a person of color in the ’70s and ’80s if it was simple for them to not have a voice, or to risk violence if they used their voice.
But you asked what it means to have survived. I remember about ten years ago my friend Victor and I were talking about how we escaped serious injury or addiction or death, while some of our peers didn’t. Was it because we were smarter than them? No, it was dumb fucking luck. I live with chronic fatigue syndrome and depression, so it’s not like I skip around everyday shouting, “Life is a joy!” But I’ve lost a lot of friends and family, some to preventable causes and some to completely random ones, so when I find myself whining about aging and encroaching birthdays, I remind myself, “Hey, I get to have birthdays. That’s lucky.”
Rumpus: You’re right about us Gen Xers not having a voice in what happened to us back then. We were a generation that was commodified and sold to instead. In many ways we were voiceless. You said people trusted you with their stories; how did you navigate the final book with them? Did they get to see and approve what you’d written? This always seems to be a key aspect of writing nonfiction: If you show your finished work; how, and when?
Prato: First of all, I tell everyone up front that although anything they say is technically “on the record,” I’m not doing gotcha! journalism. If they realize they’re uncomfortable with something after they’ve said it, they can tell me and I won’t use it. I let them know that they won’t see a version of the essay until we’re in the copyediting phase, and we’ll only be looking to correct factual errors. I try to prepare them by acknowledging that it’s weird to see your own story told through someone else’s lens. Most of the people I’m interviewing aren’t used to being interviewed. They’re not celebrities or politicians. They’re peers talking to another peer. And ultimately, I care about them, and my relationship with them. So that’s a very sensitive line to navigate that’s generally not part of formal journalism. It’s an honor, but it’s also kind of stressful.
After finishing Kids in America, I started on what I thought would be my next book, which involved interviewing friends about being in cults, a gang, experiences with addiction, etc., and I realized I didn’t want that weight, that fear that I might accidentally cause harm to someone I care about. So now I’m writing a linked short story collection based on the lives of my first-and-second-generation Italian ancestors—especially the women—in a small town in Southern Colorado. Almost all of them were deceased before I came along, and my family didn’t preserve a lot of artifacts, so I actually know very little about them. I’m imagining parts of their lives, while giving the women certain joys and powers that they didn’t get to have. It’s really fun to combine research about that real world with imagination. There’s a way I get to heal my lineage.
Author photo by Michael Keefe