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The Abstinence Teacher



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About The Author

Tom PerrottaTom Perrotta

Tom Perrotta is the author of five previous works of fiction: Bad Haircut, The Wishbones, Election, and the New York Times bestsellers Joe College and Little Children.  Election was made into the acclaimed movie directed by Alexander Payne and starring Reese Witherspoon and... More

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Reading Group Gold

“Perrotta is that rare combination: a satirist with heart….Those who haven’t curled up on the couch with this writer’s books are missing a very great pleasure.”—Seattle Times

Stonewood Heights is the perfect place to raise children: it’s got good schools, solid values and a healthy real estate market.  Parents in the town are involved in their children’s lives, and often in other children’s lives, too—coaching sports, driving carpool, focusing on enriching experiences.  Ruth Ramsey is the high school human sexuality teacher whose openness is not appreciated by all her students—or their parents.  Her daughter’s soccer coach is Tim Mason, a former stoner and rocker whose response to hitting rock bottom was to reach out and be saved.  Tim’s introduction of Christianity on the playing field horrifies Ruth, while his evangelical church sees a useful target in the loose-lipped sex ed teacher.  But when these two adversaries in a small-town culture war actually talk to each other, a surprising friendship begins to develop.

“Nobody renders the world of soccer moms and sprinklers and SUVs like Perrotta. He’s the Steinbeck of suburbia.”—Time

“Tom Perrotta is a truth-telling, unshowy chronicler of modern-day America.”—The New York Times Book Review (in a front-page review)

The Abstinence Teacher illuminates the powerful emotions that run beneath the placid surface of modern American family life, and explores the complicated spiritual and sexual lives of ordinary people. It is elegantly and simply written, characterized by the distinctive mix of satire and compassion that has become Perrotta’s trademark.



Official Tom Perrotta Chronology

1961—Tom born August 13th; shares birthday with luminaries such as Alfred Hitchcock, Fidel Castro, and, most importantly, Danny Bonaduce, with whom he shares an uncanny resemblance throughout childhood, or so he likes to think. Berlin Wall goes up same day.

1966—Tom celebrates First Holy Communion at St. Ann’s Church; in iconic scene, later repeated throughout adolescence, he watches with mixed feelings as more adventurous friends steal jelly donuts meant for reception. The Troggs release “Wild Thing.”

1968—Busy year; Tom plays shortstop for Diamond Expansion in the Garwood Minor League, begins short-lived scouting career. Defending little sister, Tom threatens to throw syringe-wielding pediatrician “out the window,” much to the amusement of his mother and the pediatrician. Summer of Love in San Francisco.

1972—Precociously political, Tom campaigns for George McGovern in Pop Warner football uniform, along with teammate and teammate’s hippie brother; trio is verbally abused by neighbors, many of whom belong to misleadingly-named Silent Majority. “Horse With No Name” tops the pop charts.

1974—In a stab at Easy Rider cool, Tom ventures out in a long-sleeved tee-shirt emblazoned with the American flag, but his closed-minded peers react with scorn. His Seals & Crofts tee-shirt and blue sheepskin jacket don’t fare much better with the critics. Monty Python’s Flying Circus makes first appearance on American TV.

1977—A sophomore, Tom publishes “The Freak Show” in Pariah, a high-school literary magazine, initiating a productive three-year relationship with the publication. “One Tiny Plant”—an environmental cri du coeur heavily influenced by Rod Serling—and “The Standing Ovation”—a bittersweet expose of the fleeting nature of athletic glory, also heavily influenced by Serling—follow in junior and senior years. Country suffers from a bad case of Saturday Night Fever.

1978—Tom passes up tickets for a Bruce Springsteen show at the Capitol Theater to spend time with a girlfriend. Tom and girl break up that night; Bruce plays legendary five-hour show. John Irving publishes The World According to Garp.

1980—Tom gets summer job collecting garbage for the Garwood Department of Public Works. Doesn’t throw up once, not even during heat wave. Ronald Reagan elected president.

1981—Tom publishes “A Safe Place for Dogs” in The Spider’s Web, a college literary magazine. Feels life would be more meaningful if he were an Eastern European dissident, or a beatnik driving cross-country. Raymond Carver publishes What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

1983—Tom graduates college with a B.A. in English (with distinction in the major). Gets job proofreading World Tennis and Tobacco Retailer on the night shift. Quits and goes to work for Division of Consumer Affairs, protecting homeowners from fraud and abuse by sending polite form letters to unscrupulous contractors. Martin Scorsese makes King of Comedy.

1985—Brief stint in Bay Area. Tom resides in makeshift loft in Oakland Industrial Center with college friend, artist Byron Kim, works as clerk in Excess & Surplus Property storage facility; enjoys answering phone with the words, “ESP Warehouse, may I help you?” Gabriel Garcia Marquez publishes Love in the Time of Cholera.

1987—A graduate student at Syracuse University’s Creative Writing Program, Tom takes a part-time job writing ad copy. Responsible for many notable radio spots, including “Superstars in the World of Cars” campaign for local dealership. Congressional hearings into Iran-Contra affair.

1988—Tom takes job as writing tutor and part-time instructor at Yale University, at one point receiving paycheck for grand total of 0 dollars and 0/100 cents. First published stories—“The Weiner Man” in Columbia Magazine and “Wild Kingdom” in The Gettysburg Review. Sonny Bono elected mayor of Palm Springs.

1991—Tom marries Mary, moves to Brooklyn. Writes still-unpublished novel, Lucky Winners, about a working-class family that wins the lottery and lives to regret it. Nirvana releases Nevermind.

1992—Temporarily unemployed, Tom becomes obsessed with presidential election, which features three-way race between Bush, Clinton, and the always entertaining Ross Perot. Also takes up roller-blading. Dan Quayle spells “potatoe.”

1993—Unwilling to abandon his obsession with the recent election, Tom begins his own novel about a three-way race for high-school president. At the same time, he ghost-writes teen horror novel for bestselling series (don’t ask which one; he’s taken an oath of non-disclosure). Toni Morrison wins Nobel Prize for Literature.

1994—Tom’s story collection, You Start to Live, is accepted for publication by a small press called Bridge Works. At publisher’s insistence, he changes title to Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies, which turns out to be a much better idea. Daughter Nina is born. Very cute kid. Tonya Harding takes a whack at Nancy Kerrigan.

1996—Tom’s still-unpublished novel, Election, is optioned by Bona Fide Productions and MTV Films. When he tells his Harvard students that the novel recounts a cut-throat race for the “meaningless post” of high-school president, the audience of ex-high-school-chief-executives reacts with visible shock and dismay. Richard Ford wins Pulitzer for Independence Day.

1997—Tom publishes The Wishbones, a comic novel about a New Jersey wedding band that has absolutely nothing to do with Adam Sandler movie The Wedding Singer. Son Luke is born. Handsome devil. Tobias Wolff publishes The Night in Question.

1999—Tom’s six-year-old novel Election is finally published, beating Alexander Payne’s excellent movie version (starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon) by only a few months. First season of The Sopranos.

2000—Tom publishes Joe College, a novel about a working class kid from New Jersey who goes to Yale during the same years Tom went. Only a couple of passages are autobiographical—the one about Tom’s myriad food aversions, and the one about that other thing he prefers not to talk about. George Bush “wins” the presidential election, with the Supreme Court playing the role of Mr. M.

2004—Tom publishes Little Children, the hardcover version of which sports a memorable cover showing two goldfish crackers floating on a field of astroturf. Pepperidge Farm is not amused. Gay marriage legal in Massachusetts.

2006—Todd Field’s powerful movie version of Little Children (starring Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson and co-written by Tom) is released by New Line. Tom has a small role near the end. Dig the blue robe and shorty pajamas. George W. Bush reads Camus’s The Stranger during summer vacation.

2007—Tom publishes The Abstinence Teacher, a novel about sex education, religion, soccer, and the Great American Culture War; has hours of fun Googling the phrase “Hot Christian Sex.” Reverend Ted Haggard pronounced “completely heterosexual” by fellow minister.

2008—Tom writes screenplay for The Abstinence Teacher, collaborating with Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Gas prices reach record highs; Journey has a new lead singer. It’s 1978 all over again.



“Tom Perrotta’s Culture Wars”

 

Excerpted from an interview with Chris Bolton for Powells.com © 2007 Powell’s Books 

 

Interview conducted (by telephone) three weeks before book’s publication.

Bolton: Are you anticipating The Abstinence Teacher will be a grenade tossed into the culture wars?

Perrotta: That’s the kind of thing I don’t know. I mean, on the one hand you think, “Uh-oh, maybe this is going to cause a lot of trouble.” That would be the better scenario. [Laughter] I don’t expect any kind of “ho-hum” reaction, but you really want people to react and read it and be enthusiastic. That’s the part where you just cross your fingers and hope it’s gonna happen.

Bolton: Have you gotten any negative reactions yet?

Perrotta: No—but, of course, when you’re the writer, people don’t often come up to you. The people who have read it in advance and who want to talk to me seem very positive about it. I think the negative reactions are going to be down the road, if there are going to be any. I’ve spoken to some Christians who have read it and have been very reassuring, in terms of implying that I got it right and they felt like the character (Tim) was familiar to them and that his spiritual troubles rang true. So that was heartening to me. I’m always extremely eager for people who know more about a subject than I do to approve of my work—that musicians like The Wishbones, or that people who went to Yale like Joe College, or whatever.

Bolton: And have you heard from sex ed teachers?

Perrotta: No—that will be interesting, actually. [Laughter] Though I did a fair amount of research on that subject before I started writing the book, and I feel very confident on that front.

Bolton: What kind of research did you do?

Perrotta: I mostly read up on all sorts of controversial sex-ed classes. I think the fault lines in that particular debate, once you do even a cursory amount of research, become clear very quickly. And I had a friend who works as a sex educator—not in public schools, but in the nonprofit world. I spoke to her about the subject matter and she said there were numerous cases where teachers had been persecuted for remarks that seemed innocuous to them but were inflammatory to a different audience. That’s part of what’s interesting in the book. Ruth doesn’t see talking about oral sex as particularly controversial, just a fact of life, and Tim doesn’t see praying as this incredibly awful thing. They both do what they do, I think, with a kind of innocence, and end up finding themselves in the center of a storm. Certainly the first time Tim prays, I think he does it innocently.

Bolton: In the very beginning of the novel, I was absolutely on Ruth’s side. She was my favorite character, I instantly connected with her—whereas Tim, I was a little distant from and a little suspicious of. Somewhere around the midsection, my loyalties flipped. I wasn’t suspicious of Ruth, but suddenly Tim’s story started to really compel me. I wonder how much of that was because he was born again instead of being, say, a lifelong evangelical.

Perrotta: That may be part of it. For me, as a fiction writer, it was the realization that Tim was much more in process than Ruth. He was really dynamic and changing over the course of the book. Ruth is really likeable—I mean, I like her at the beginning. But I felt that, in a sense, the fight she’s in doesn’t shake her to her roots. She becomes wiser and takes some hits and thinks about her life and is tested, but I don’t feel like she’s a wildly different person at the end than she was in the beginning.

But I think that Tim is making life-and-death decisions, for him. He’s a guy who’s really trying to hang on and trying to make something of his life and is put to the test in a really serious way. I think, for the reader—and at least for me, writing it—watching somebody deal with those circumstances, and getting the sense that he’s a decent person who’s trying to do his best and is conscious of his failures in the past—all those things led me to really care about him, and at times I’ve gone as far as to say that he kind of hijacked the book. So I’m glad to hear you say that, in the sense that I feel part of my experience was successfully translated to you as the reader.

Bolton: How difficult was it for you to get into Tim’s head?

Perrotta: That’s where the real fiction writing comes in. The book is really a record of that process, because I didn’t go back and change it much. I revised constantly as I wrote, and it took a couple of years to write the book. But in the very first section that I wrote from Tim’s point of view—he’s going back to his ex-wife’s house to drop off his daughter—right in that scene, where he’s looking at his ex-wife and feeling like he somehow got off the track of his real life and he’s still deeply attracted to her and jealous of her new husband and torn about his own life...

The book has an odd structure. You’re with Ruth for close to a hundred pages, you get a very clear sense of her struggle with these evangelical Christians, and I think you have a sense of the book. Suddenly it stops and there’s a whole chunk with me trying to figure out for myself how this guy Tim got in this place where he’s saying a prayer at a soccer game. It’s a lot of history—and for me, anyway, an in-depth character study in the next hundred pages, that really tells you how Tim got to where he is. I think whatever else happens, you really get to know him in those hundred pages. And I had a sense of that just from the first scene, with all the submerged unhappiness and the sense that he’s gonna soldier on through it, all the ways in which he’s trying to constantly tell himself that it’s all for the best, when his life is so full of sadness.

Bolton: It’s an incredible change. The first time the prayer happens, I’m booing and hissing at the book, and then we get the introduction to Tim and see his process, and suddenly there’s this relief when the prayer unfolds from his perspective. Did you feel like you wanted to go back and do the same for Ruth after that?

Perrotta: It’s funny, I tried with Ruth and I think I did it much more quickly in the second chapter. There’s a long chapter about the first time she had sex, which I think is important because one of the points of the book is that whatever it is that initiates your sexuality probably has very little to do with what’s being taught to you in school. I wanted to get a ground-level view of what happened to Ruth, since you do get a chunk of her past that way and you sometimes get it through her interaction with her ex-husband or with her friends.

By the time I finished that hundred-page chunk of Tim, where the story starts and then it stops for a long time, and I was ready to pick up Ruth again, I really felt the need to kick-start the narrative. Really push forward at that point, because I felt it was risky to stop a story for that long. I generally try to write brisk narratives and keep pushing forward all the time, and stop at strategic moments to give a glimpse into a character’s history and move around in time. But I felt like that chunk of Tim was crucial to the story because you had to have that sense of understanding his reality and possibly, as you did, really coming to care about him. But I did, after that, feel like it’s time to move forward. Did you feel like you wanted that kind of detail about Ruth?

Bolton: I didn’t feel it was missing. I was just curious if the pendulum would swing back the other way. It felt a little like you described: you set this up, announced the two opponents, and now the bell dings, and here they come into the ring.

Perrotta: Yeah, and I think for me, and it sounds like for you, and probably for most of the readers who are coming at it from a secular, liberal standpoint, Ruth is somewhat noble right away.

Tim is the more mysterious and troubling character. So I think that may explain why he needed to be treated with more of an in-depth examination.

Bolton: How hard was that for you? The more you wrote, did it seem easier to understand where he’s coming from?

Perrotta: This has been the great lesson for me about fiction writing. It sort of happened in Little Children with the Ronnie McGorvey character. In every book there’s an imaginative challenge, something that will force you to go beyond what you’re pretty sure you can do. In this book, the whole time, it really was a question of, is it going to be possible for me to write a believable version of contemporary American evangelical Christianity? Because it really is a little bit outside of my daily life. I mean, [ominous voice] they’re all around us. [Laughter]

But honestly, I live in Massachusetts right outside of Cambridge, I move in a liberal enclave, and I grew up among working-class Catholics who were religious but not in this totalistic way. They did their church and performed their rituals, but they had a kind of breezy attitude toward the whole thing, like you did your time and the rest of the week belonged to you. I didn’t know many people who really were thinking 24 hours a day, Can I live up to my faith? Can I live up to the challenge of this commitment I’ve made to God? That just hasn’t been a really familiar part of my life. So that was a challenge.

What was great, I think, was this sense I had of how accessible that culture is once you scratch the surface of contemporary America. I went to church, just to see what contemporary evangelical worship looked like, but I spent a lot of time on the Web. There’s a whole world of Christians talking to one another on the Web. I would do that every day and I’d read the Bible. It seemed like at a certain point it was pretty easy to feel connected to that world. Almost submerged in it without physically spending a whole lot of time in it.

Bolton: How much do you agonize over your prose?

Perrotta: Some people think maybe I should agonize a little more. [Laughter]

I go back and forth. I feel like I have a style but I’m not a stylist. I want it to be transparent, I want it to move, I want sentences to have some energy in them, and that doesn’t come easy to me. Dialogue comes easy to me, but writing descriptive prose is just hard. A lot of the agonizing in the writing is over that, just getting the sentences to work.

I think structure and dialogue are things that come fairly naturally to me, but descriptive prose is tough. In fact, I think it’s one of the reasons I was drawn to a kind of minimalistic prose early on in my career. I feel like I’m getting fuller now, but there are people who just write and write, like Thomas Wolfe, people who write a thousand pages and have to boil it down to four hundred. Whereas I’m constantly trying to bulk up the description because my natural mode, I think, is to be very sparing.

Bolton: So, for instance, the first paragraph of The Abstinence Teacher—I actually stopped after I read that and stared at the wall for a while, thinking about how I knew this character. I’m sitting here thinking this is incredible, this is one paragraph, and some writers will give you chapter upon chapter about the backstory, and luminous prose and what-not, and you nail it in one paragraph.

Perrotta: That is definitely the first paragraph that I wrote…I don’t know if you’re a football fan, but they always say if you complete that first pass the rest is easy. And I would never tell a student to do it that way. Very often you’d write a draft to get to know your characters, and then you’d be able to start in the right place. But for some reason by the time I start I feel like somehow I can know that character enough to get started.

Bolton: Do you do any outlining beforehand?

Perrotta: No. I try to define the question I’m going to illuminate. In this case I don’t think I understood Tim’s role when I started with Ruth. I was really interested in evoking this clash between this woman and the church. I think I imagined that a lot of the tension was going to be with Ruth and her kids, that they were going to be drawn to the church. Tim at first seemed more like an instrumental figure, and that the prayer was somehow going to lead to Ruth feeling like her family’s under siege. Maybe because it helps to have a kind of sexual energy within a novel, he sort of took on that role—but I don’t think I started with that role in mind.

Bolton: I’ve reread the last chapter five or six times because it was such a left turn for me. Were you as surprised as I was?

Perrotta: I think I must have known a little ways before that, that I wasn’t going to get to the big game. Sometimes these things are more like a gut feeling, and I think for me it was that I described two soccer games during the course of the novel, and it was actually very hard writing those games. Also I described two scenes where Tim prayed—once when he prayed voluntarily, in the throes of this real religious feeling, and once where I think he was pressured into praying and did it reluctantly. I think the third version of that was he’s not going to pray. I felt like I didn’t know how to make that dramatic.

It was interesting to step away from that and figure out a way not to go there. Every time I contemplated the big game, I couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for describing it. [Laughter] Which made me realize, I think, that that wasn’t where the story was. Because if it was, I think I would have had a very clear sense of how to go about it.

When I first submitted this to my agent and editor, there was definitely this sense of, “I thought it was going to be a much longer book, because it seemed to be moving toward something and then sort of stops before that.” My hope is that it’s satisfying in terms of the arc of the characters and you don’t miss the game. That’s the hope, anyway.



1.) There are numerous references to Ruth and Tim’s past sexual experiences scattered throughout the novel. How do these anecdotes color the debate about sex education at the center of the narrative?

2.) Is Ruth the victim of a witch hunt, or a teacher who went too far and deserved to be reined in by her community?

3.) Is Tim Mason’s faith genuine? Or is it, as his mother suggests, a crutch, something temporary that he needed to fight his addictions? What remains of his faith at the end of the novel?

4.) Is Ruth right to be upset when Tim asks the girls to pray after the soccer game? How is this different from Ruth teaching sexuality in a way that some Christian parents might find offensive?

5.) In order to keep her job, Ruth is forced to teach a curriculum she does not believe in. Discuss a time when you felt you had to sacrifice your beliefs or principles.

6.) Ruth doesn’t challenge her daughter Eliza or hold back her permission when she wants to go to church with her friend from school. Can you think of other examples in The Abstinence Teacher when a character restrains him or herself from something they are very tempted to do?

7.) Can you think of something Ruth’s daughters might want to do that would horrify Ruth even more than organized church-going?

8.) What do you make of the Abstinence Refresher course taught by JoAnn? Do stories of sexual regret reinforce the idea that young people should refrain from sex until marriage? Or do they simply remind us that making mistakes—both sexual and otherwise—is an essential part of growing up?

9.) Both Ruth and Tim struggle with inner conflicts that make it difficult for them to fulfill their public roles. How does this influence their encounters? Do you think there’s any future for them as a couple?

10.) If Ruth, Tim and their families lived in a 1950’s version of Stonewood Heights, how would their stories play out differently? What about a 1970’s version?

11.) How do you think private beliefs can best be balanced with public interests like education? Who should have a say in how a community’s children are taught? What happens when the community is bitterly divided?

12.) Did you feel differently about Evangelical Christianity after reading The Abstinence Teacher? Why?

14.) Despite some studies questioning their effectiveness, abstinence programs continue to be implemented. Why do you think that is?

15.) Ruth Ramsey is both a parent and a teacher in the public school system of Stonewood Heights. Do you think her own experience as a parent makes her a better human sexuality teacher?
16.) In her review of The Abstinence Teacher, critic Liesl Schillinger praises the book’s objective stance toward evangelicals: “What does the author think of Pastor Dennis and his flock? Without explicitly taking sides, Perrotta does not spell it out. Instead, he gives space and speeches to proselytizers and scoffers alike, letting readers form their own conclusions.” But religious scholar Stephen Prothero detects a strong bias against the Tabernacle: “Most of the evangelical characters in this book do little to upend the stereotypes that New York City writers and readers harbor about them.” How do you account for this discrepancy in the views of the two critics? Which do you think is more persuasive?

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