The Book of Essie is a novel about a teen girl in crisis.
Her family is large, religious, and conservative. While pious and kind in front of others, the linchpin mother is cold and calculating behind the scenes. The father, minister of a popular mega-church, is emotionally absent to the family. Her sister, the one person she can turn to, left the home years ago and cut off contact, using college as her escape.
They’re also reality TV stars.
And 17-year-old Essie has just discovered she’s pregnant.
The Book of Essie is a clever and moving book about the discrepancy between our private and public selves. But it also looks at our obsession with reality TV and the false personas its stars are willing to portray.
In Essie’s case, the family is so accustomed to acting for the cameras that they use themselves up playing these characters. There’s nothing left for real life. Relationships are forfeited. Off-camera nurturing is nonexistent. Essie’s pregnancy, therefore, is discussed by her mother and the producers as a possible plot point.
It’s not outside the realm of possibility, this calculation of how to spin a teen daughter’s pregnancy to the public. We’ve seen it before with political figures and pop starlets.
And we’ve seen the cover-ups of wrongdoing among reality TV stars. People in power hide crimes and misdeeds to protect reputations and places in reality TV fame, often at the expense of the victims.
But we know how the proverbial sausage is made.
It’s no secret that what we’re served on reality television isn’t always actual, unvarnished reality. The act of observing changes that which is observed. But still, we (including me) watch. Why?
It’s a question with many answers. Andy Denhart, reality TV guru and founder of realityblurred.com, gave a TEDx talk in which he hearkened the experience back to Mr. Rogers.
(Quick side note: if you are of the generation who grew up watching Mr. Rogers, look up clips of his videos on YouTube and try not to cry while watching them. The nostalgia is powerful with that one.)
Mr. Rogers was the ultimate early-childhood motivator, telling children, “You are special. You matter.” Denhart expands this experience to reality TV. By participating in and watching these shows, we are validating that we, too, are special. These small-time, non-celebrity people may not have fame and riches, but their everyday lives still matter. They’re worth broadcasting and watching. Maybe ours are, too.
Denhart also credits exposure and access with helping in society’s acceptance of disenfranchised groups.
When we see different sexualities, races, religions, ages, lifestyles, families, and any number of marginalized groups represented in reality shows, they become more human and normalized. Perhaps we can call it the Lance Loud Effect.
Hello Giggles interviewed several psychologists for their theories on why we watch reality TV in their article, “So, here’s the science behind why we’re so obsessed with watching reality shows.” Their disparate opinions include our decreasing connection to people, voyeurism, and pure escapist fun.
Whatever the reason, I’ll be there. Bachelor in Paradise anyone?
Fine. I’ll watch the make-out and cry-fest by myself.
The Book of Essie
Meghan MacLean Weir
Published June 2018
Watch this book review of The Book of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir and other bookish videos on my YouTube channel.