“Stranger Dangers: Sexuality, Adolescence and The End of Everything” by K.A. Laity

Abbott uses the crime and its investigation to upend all manner of assumptions about how we view girls and – as narrator Lizzie discovers – how they view themselves and one another.

Megan Abbott’s 2011 crime novel The End of Everything deals with the situation most parents dread – and most news outlets exploit: the disappearance of a child. While the crime itself disrupts the community and separates best friends Lizzie and Evie, the seemingly unspeakable horror hides something even more dangerous and frightening to their middle class world: the nascent sexuality of adolescent girls. While the mystery of the child-snatching gets slowly unraveled, disrupting the community, the bigger secrets prove more explosive especially to those at close range. For all the handwringing about “stranger danger” it seems the real horror normalcy cannot contain is the sexual longings of adolescent girls. Abbott uses the crime and its investigation to upend all manner of assumptions about how we view girls and – as narrator Lizzie discovers – how they view themselves and one another. The truth is stranger, more complicated and certainly more incendiary than contemporary notions of sexuality can easily accommodate.

The thirteen year-old girls at the center of The End of Everything operate within this neoliberal sexual economy…. Abbott is well aware of the power of this hidden world.

The End of Everything is the first in a series of novels by the author that deal with the dark secrets of adolescent girls. Mining that seam has proved richly rewarding for Abbott, whose cheerleader-noir novel Dare Me catapulted her to popular attention in 2012 (enhanced by its recent adaptation as a television series), followed by The Fever (2015) and You Will Know Me (2016) and the forthcoming The Turnout, due later this year. These novels are not fond remembrances of the past shaded by rose-coloured glasses. Abbott portrays adolescence as a confusing time of surprisingly dark choices and limited options, nothing at all like the typical sentimental “coming-of-age” story or bildungsroman.

There’s a discomfort with adolescent sexuality in our culture that coexists oddly with our hypersexualising of younger and younger girls. We somehow reconcile fury over alleged paedophile rings at pizza parlours with the need to use ever younger beauty to sell. No wonder girls find this time difficult to negotiate. As a recent review of the literature in the field terms it, “Youth sexuality has been primarily studied with a focus on its potential public health issues, such as sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies, and its comorbidity with other risky behaviors” (Boislard et al 2016). Laina Y. Bay-Cheng has argued that, in the current neoliberal political climate, “Empowerment is popularly equated with individualized concepts of self-efficacy and agency” but it is clear that “collective efforts to develop critical consciousness and to address systemic bias and inequality” are what is needed. For the purposes of analysis here, I’m going to use the novel as a way to explore her second point, “how contextual factors, including non-sexual ones, shape young women’s sexual choices and lives” (Bay-Cheng 2011). As Bay-Cheng has argued more recently, the effects of neoliberalism have been “that in the U.S., girls are now judged on their adherence not only to gendered moralist norms, but also to a neoliberal script of sexual agency” and further that

upon critical inspection it becomes clear that young women remain confined to a prescribed normative space that divides them from one another, compels self-blame, and predicates their worth on cultural appraisals of their sexuality. (Bay-Cheng 2015)

For “gendered moralist norms” consider the army of MAGA blondes on Fox News and elsewhere viciously attacking every female politician they deem “leftist,” however middle of the road they might be. Notice, too, the mocking of young women taking selfies, when they dare to frame their own self images. The thirteen year-old girls at the center of The End of Everything operate within this neoliberal sexual economy. While their awareness of the scrutiny they face (and offer) grows within the course of events, they only gradually realise the devastating effects it has on their lives.

Abbott is well aware of the power of this hidden world. Talking to The New Statesman about the novel’s release in 2011, she commented that, “It’s the moment girls develop desire. It’s very humorous and funny to talk about boys at that age, looking at dirty pictures and things like that. But I think we’re still really uncomfortable about girls of the same age.” The novel begins with a clear demarcation between narrator Lizzie, her best friend, the “boy-girl” Evie (4), and her glamourous seventeen year-old sister Dusty, whose room they visit like “furtive intruders” to experience the future they consider both unattainable and yet inevitable, that “ecstatic pink loveliness” of the “constant, effervescing explosions of girl” (4). The younger girls were “all snips and snails” evidenced by their fierce devotion to field hockey. Lizzie dreams back to those days making note of “my funny little thirteen-year-old body, compact and strange. Bruise on my thigh. Scab on my knee. Ink on my hand” (6-7) but Dusty, perfect Dusty is a “candied interior” (5), “baby powder and lip gloss and hands wet with hairspray” (4). The collision of sensuality and youth is jarring. The thirteen-year-old also examines closely the parents of Evie and Dusty: Mrs. Verver is all negations and mystery. Never calling attention to herself or embarrassing herself at the annual block party, with a “tidy, bland voice as flat as a drum” she becomes mother-as-tasks, doing laundry “the shadow moving from room to room” (5). Most tellingly Lizzie notes, “her body seemed too bony for her daughters, or her husband, to hug” (5).

Like the girls’ own awakening sexuality, much of the truth of the story (in Abbott’s novel) is lurking in shadows unseen or at least not looked at…. (Megan Abbott, pictured above)

Mr. Verver is another story all together. Lizzie first repeats his name three times, as if conjuring him, the original version of him that has changed by the end of the book: “He’s the one always vibrating in my chest, under my fingernails, in all kinds of places. There’s much to say of him and my mouth can’t manage it, even now. He hums there still” (6). Of course he’s her first crush: as Lizzie describes it, “I couldn’t remember a time when I wasn’t craning my neck to look up at him, forever wanting to hear more, hungry for the moments he would shine his attentions on me” (6). He is the site of her first sexual fantasies, which he becomes acutely aware of at a time when that knowledge confuses them both.

Like the girls’ own awakening sexuality, much of the truth of the story is lurking in shadows unseen or at least not looked at, much like Mrs. Verver. “What if everything was there all along,” Lizzie muses in the opening chapter, “creeping soundlessly from corner to corner, shuddering fast from Evie’s nighttime whispers, from the dark hollows of that sunny-shingled house?”(6). Looking back at the incident – the crime – that occurred, she notes, “When I remember Evie now she is always slipping through shadows” (7). Shadows hide so much.

The two girls are poised on the edge of that newly-born sexuality that makes the most trivial moments potentially explosive. The boys tease them at the ice cream parlour with childish hijinks that echo with a sexual charge, touching and grabbing, throwing water on each other until Evie’s breasts are outlined clearly with “those pebbly nipples” that make Lizzie want to cross her own arms against her chest and drop her suddenly hot face (12). But Evie stares the boy down, fearless – or perhaps not as bedeviled by the sexual charge as her friend. When Mr. Verver takes Evie out for ice cream to assuage her blackened eye from hockey, Lizzie longs to be invited along. “When boys tease, you don’t want it to be you, but with Mr. Verver, his teases are like warm hands lifting you” (17). The disparity between the two girls seems apparent, though they both speculate about Dusty’s sexual attraction to all the boys and men who obsess over her. She seems so distant, untouchable: Lizzie has only admiration for her powers. Evie seems to regard them as entirely foreign; it’s only later that Lizzie realizes just how much Evie sees herself eclipsed by her sister’s pink and gold presence.

But then Evie disappears and sexuality suddenly becomes a dangerous thing: no longer a fire to play with and ooh at the sparks, but a conflagration that consumes. Lizzie knows that on TV they say you have to wait 24 hours to report a disappearance. Her mother tells her “they don’t  make you wait with children…With children…every minute matters. Everything can be ruined in a half hour. You have no idea.” This confuses Lizzie: “I feel a hard rake across my chest. It’s the most awful thing I’ve ever heard. What could she mean? What does that mean?” (24) The detectives talk to her about Evie and boys, whether there were boys she liked or maybe boys who liked her. “No…Never” (26). They were best friends living in each other’s pockets: there could be no secrets between them, surely. Abbott’s books return to this conundrum repeatedly: the intimacy between adolescent girls, its closeness that can verge on suffocation and yet its cracks hide so much.

Evie’s absence allows Lizzie to incorporate the way things have been evolving between them. Lizzie admits, “I can see things had been changing for who knew how long. It was like the scar on her thigh, the one I could feel beneath my own fingers, had slithered from my own leg back to hers. ‘Maybe I won’t try out for field hockey,’ Evie’d said one day, even as we’d talked of little else all year long” (27). The mirrors of each other that they had been – Lizzie envying everything Evie had been, as well as aspiring to what Dusty was and what Mr. Verver represented – were suddenly gone. The real grief of Evie’s disappearance offers a kind of psychological break for Lizzie: without Evie as her mirrored double she no longer knows who she is. The search for Evie, for an explanation of Evie’s absence, becomes a search for herself.

“Rather than ‘stranger danger’ – the thing we’re all taught to fear, the monster drilled into every child’s head – it’s a neighbor, someone known.”

The kids at school complicate this process, telling tales of another girl who disappeared, probably taken by her father, but they all thrilled to the thought of “a child killer in our midst” (28) or “white slavery” or “a perv”, but Lizzie doesn’t believe any of them, clinging to her knowledge of her friend. “I would know if Evie were dead. Something would hollow out in my chest and I would know” (29). Lizzie finally remembers when one of those ruptures occurred, when Evie showed her cigarette butts left behind by some man, not one of Dusty’s ‘boys’. “Sometimes, at night, he’s out here” (32), but then she backtracks: “I guess it was a dream. I guess it’s all confused, like a dream” (33) but Lizzie remembers because of the distance it created. They put it aside with childish shoves and laughter until Evie is gone and Lizzie remembers, then crawls out at night to make sure “they are there” (33), the cigarettes.

Lizzie finally brings up this clue when Mr. Verver talks to her alone. She is conscious of the effect her information has on him. Having noticed the haggard look of him – she’s not seen him like this since Dusty was in the hospital with a burst appendix – the girl discovers a pleasure in revealing the clue. “I can see his face lifting and something swells in me” and when they walk out in the backyard to see the cigarette butts he puts a hand on her shoulder and Lizzie says to herself, “I feel a weight on my chest” (36). Later as the detectives examine the evidence, Mr. Verver is “jumping with energy” though Lizzie has begun to grasp how much more awful the situation is and gets a “tingle” on her tongue. Like magic it unlocks the memory of the car that went by twice, the maroon car, more than that – a familiar car: their neighbour, Mr. Shaw’s car.

Rather than “stranger danger” – the thing we’re all taught to fear, the monster drilled into every child’s head – it’s a neighbor, someone known. Lizzie is conscious of the disparity. “The way they talked at school, the way everyone has been talking, you’d think it had to be some lurching drifter, claw for a hand, living out of his truck. But it’s Mr. Shaw” (46). The monster is familiar, “a hundred men like him in the five blocks on either side,” Lizzie says, “and I never noticed one.” Parents are mysteries, she concludes, as mysterious as the youth they try to recapture at parties. Evie does not mirror Lizzie’s contempt for adults. Lizzie recalls passing Mr. Shaw’s insurance office, his gloomy eyes made her shiver. “He looks so sad,” Evie said once, “like his dog died” then doesn’t share Lizzie’s laugh (47). It feels like a betrayal, as all their differences do. Somewhere under Dusty’s bright shadow, Evie has begun to find ways to assert her difference.

For Lizzie the bonus of this confusing time is getting to spend more time with Mr. Verver. Her growing attachment to him has a fevered unreality. When she brings over Dusty’s MVP trophy from school, they spend some time down in the basement listening to records. Lizzie recalls how last summer “Mr. Verver…pulled up the fallen strap of my bathing suit with one long finger. I still remember the tickly-achy feeling, a feeling I never felt before” (70). She feels a sympathy for the worried father that she never felt for the sad Mr. Shaw because he has brightness she wants. Lizzie asks him about his music trophy in the case, even though she knows what it’s for, because she remembers “how he got so excited when he talked about it” (71). As he reminisces, Lizzie nearly swoons. As he talks she realizes, “I’ve always wanted this, even before I knew it. To hear Mr. Verver talk and talk with no one to interrupt, not Mrs. Verver, not my mother, not Dusty, calling out always calling out for him” (75). But memory eventually evokes the missing Evie and the spell breaks.

For Lizzie and Evie the lure of desire – and the power it offers – clashes terribly with the costs of negotiating those dreams.

Lizzie grieves for her inability to make Mr. Verver happy, though she grieves for her friend, too. But in Evie’s absence – and perhaps more importantly, the absence of Dusty, the golden girl – Lizzie moons after Mr. Verver like a lovesick medieval knight. Disoriented when she sees her mother and her lover Dr. Aiken embracing on the porch, the girl sneaks out to case Mr. Shaw’s house, determined to find something concrete, because an old woman claims to have seen Evie dive into a notorious lake and disappear into its depths. As horrible as Mr. Shaw snatching Evie might be the possibility of death is far worse, Lizzie is certain, because it will break Mr. Verver’s heart. And if his heart breaks he cannot give it to her. Lizzie avoids stating this on a conscious level but it’s the fervent hope in her heart. She desperately wants him to shine that golden glow on her, to make her the special one. Her true shadow is not Evie, but Mr. Shaw and his doomed, helpless love.

It is for Mr. Verver that she cases the Shaw house even though the cops have already gone through it. She finds the cigarettes in the milk chute that they missed, the crumpled pack of Parliaments that link him to the shadowed figure outside. Even more daring, she goes back later and like a thief enters the house, getting information from schoolmate Pete Shaw, bitter and confused about both his parents. Lizzie brings the location of their hideaway hotel like a precious gift to Mr. Verver, and gets rewarded with another intimacy that gives her power “like a god, thunderbolt in hand”.

The thunderbolts come fast and furious, though. The excitement of the news and Mr. Verver’s insistence that Lizzie must be there, too, “She has to come” (153) gets undone by the empty hotel room: they’ve escaped again. Then Evie appears in the night, alone. Lizzie awakes from a dream of Evie to “the worst sound” she’s ever heard (171): a sound made when Mrs. Verver sees her daughter suddenly appear. Lizzie runs out to meet her only to be shoved aside by her mother who screams and cries, holding onto the blank-faced girl. “Why that’s not Evie” Lizzie says to herself, “This is a dream, and that’s a ghost, a phantom. A trick” (173).  Lizzie watches Mrs. Verver try to pick her up, Mr. Verver rushing out to carry her into the house “like a bride over a threshold” (174) and Dusty “face red and ruined” as they all disappear into the house. Dusty’s face – and her absence from the house for much of the troubled time – points to the next series of thunderbolts.

Evie was not snatched from home: she went willingly. The reasons are complicated. “There’s  a love so big it can break you, that’s what she is saying to me, even if she can’t say it and I can’t make the words come,” Lizzie tells herself (196), but her attempts to romanticize the situation, run up against the roughness of the truth. After a last interlude of intimate attention from Mr. Verver where he mythologises the cruelty of women toward dreamy boys, the attraction bubbling under their conversations comes to the top and Lizzie knows it is gone forever: “It crushes me” (202). Her pining for her best friend’s father has been undone.

The next thunderbolt comes in the night when Lizzie awakes to see a man beneath the tree and thinks, “He’s come here to reclaim his girl-queen…like a knight rescuing the princess from her high tower” (203). It is indeed Mr. Shaw who has shot himself under the pear tree. Lizzie desperately hopes that Evie will recognise this romantic gesture, but the face looking down from the tower is blank. Instead it’s Lizzie who must stare at the “black, ragged hole” in his face, “that dark tunnel I stare down, like I might follow it, like it might swallow me whole and I would let it willingly, to see where it might take me, to see what secrets it might tell me” (204-5). In his devotion, Lizzie sees the depths of her own hungry desires. “For the first time ever, those eyes looking straight at me, into my own black heart” for she knows that he carried out this last desperate act “to make [Evie] feel it forever, on her very own skin” (206).

The last thunderbolts come from that darkness: the revelation of the terrible fight between Dusty and Evie, when the older sister accused the younger of reveling in this in appropriate attention from the man who watched her sometimes at night. Evie’s accusation that Dusty’s relationship with their father was no different led to the brawl that nearly ended in Dusty choking her sister with a hockey stick across her neck. “So I went with him,” Evie confesses to Lizzie, “I asked him to take me away” (213). And Mr. Shaw’s fairy tale moment of falling in love, rescuing the girl from the lake years before: it’s actually Lizzie he rescued. A memory misremembered that unspools all this madness. Lizzie had remembered it as Mr. Verver saving her. “Both our memories self-spun, radiant fictions. Me and my shadow. Wanting something so badly you make it so” (245).

For Lizzie and Evie the lure of desire – and the power it offers – clashes terribly with the costs of negotiating those dreams. Their innocence is now lost forever. The best friends remain together and yet now inescapably separate. The entry into the world of adults forever changes what went before and the trickiness of memory gives way to an uncertainty about what, if anything, can really be known. But memory is what Lizzie clings to anyway, for she realizes it’s the amber where everything does not have to end.

Works Cited

Abbott, M 2011, The End of Everything, Picador.

Bay-Cheng, L.Y. 2012 “Recovering Empowerment: De-personalizing and Re-politicizing Adolescent Female Sexuality,” Sex Roles 66: 713. doi:10.1007/s11199-011-0070-x, viewed 6 April 2017.

Bay-Cheng, L.Y. 2015 “The Agency Line: A Neoliberal Metric for Appraising Young Women’s Sexuality,” Sex Roles 73: 279. doi:10.1007/s11199-015-0452-6, viewed 6 April 2017.

Boislard, M, van de Bongardt, D, & Blais, M 2016, “Sexuality (and Lack Thereof) in Adolescence and Early Adulthood: A Review of the Literature,” Behavioral Sciences (2076-328X), 6, 1, pp. 1-24, Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost, viewed 6 April 2017.

Derbyshire, J 2011, “Megan Abbott,” New Statesman, 5070, p. 49, General OneFile, EBSCOhost, viewed 9 April 2017.

Tolman, D, Anderson, S, & Belmonte, K 2015, “Mobilizing Metaphor: Considering Complexities, Contradictions, and Contexts in Adolescent Girls’ and Young Women’s Sexual Agency,” Sex Roles, 73, 7-8, pp. 298-310, Education Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost, viewed 6 April 2017.

K. A. Laity is an award-winning author, scholar, critic, editor, and arcane artist. Her books include Chastity FlameLush SituationLove is a Grift, Satan’s SororityHow to Be Dull, White RabbitDream Book, and A Cut-Throat Business. She has edited My Wandering Uterus, Respectable Horror, Weird Noir, Noir Carnival and Drag Noir, plus written many short stories, scholarly essays, songs, and more. See https://KALaity.com for more. 

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