Friday, February 8, 2013

Meet Susan Froetschel, author of Fear of Beauty

ROSEMARY HARRIS: Today at Jungle Red we welcome Susan Froetschel, the author of Fear of Beauty, a compelling novel about reading and secrets...for some, a matter of life and death.
SF:Secrets, rattling the souls of characters, are the heart of mysteries. I wondered if I could write mysteries as soon as I started reading Nancy Drew, but kept this goal a secret. Obsessed with reading, I loved entering worlds nothing like my own. I was wary of any who suggested this obsession might be odd – whether it was the relatives who worried about my eyes and social life or the children who teased me as a bookworm. Wise teachers often advise, Worry about the quiet ones, and that applied to my childhood. No need for detail here, just take my word for it. I grew up headstrong and competitive – a radical reader on the hunt for the best ideas in living.  

So like most writers, I regard illiteracy as a terrifying trap. The definitions of illiteracy are many. The CIA World Factbook tracks literacy rates, and the US ranks high. Yet other assessments suggest that at least one out of six Americans, maybe more, has minimal literacy. Whether they can read only a little or not at all, many adults devote considerable effort into hiding this deficit.                                                                   

At first, strong readers might shrug, feeling relief it’s not their child. But it’s a mistake to think we can glide through modern life unaffected by others’ struggles with literacy. Consider the manufacturing employee who can’t read warnings on labels, mixing the wrong chemicals and releasing a gas that injures co-workers or home health aides earning minimum wage who can’t follow directions on medication packages or equipment. Too many legislators and citizens don’t read bills before the votes are cast. And then there was the subprime mortgage debacle, with thousands of homebuyers trusting loan officers on unrealistic and unaffordable terms, signing toxic contracts that eventually threatened the global economy.

No agency keeps tabs on mistakes linked to illiteracy, yet one estimate suggests the problem costs the US economy about $225 billion per year. And literacy is linked to security:  The US military has promoted literacy since the Revolutionary War, when General George Washington directed military chaplains to teach soldiers reading and other basic skills. Reading and writing, early steps to seducing the hearts and minds of others through the arts, are tools of power, suggests Robert Greene in The 48 Laws of Power, a book purchased by my son before he attended high school and since abandoned to my basement bookshelves. Those who belittle education and reading would deny others power.

Some illiterate adults have grown up in families and communities that devalue and resent education, trapping generation after generation. Some students were bullied into rejecting reading, and others do the bullying themselves. Some grow up feeling alone and stupid only to discover a learning disability long after school years have ended. Others know that seeking help as an adult takes courage and fiercely rally their children and grandchildren to read and avoid a humiliation that’s so often a motivation for violence.
Not long after reading The Color Purple by Alice Walker, I responded to a local literacy organization’s call for volunteers. Dozens of adults were waiting for individual tutors in the small town, and the program was unusual in that volunteers didn’t need special credentials. Instead, we were encouraged to create a safe starting point for raising awareness and encouraging clients to enter more formal literacy classes and GED programs.  In a small town, these illiterate adults refused to join others in a classroom and divulge their secrets. Gossip was rampant, and as a reporter for the daily newspaper, I was a major purveyor.  The director emphasized confidentiality.

My first student, a laborer at a seafood plant, refused to meet anywhere but his kitchen and only when his family wasn’t at home. My second student was a prominent businessman. He agreed to meet in the public library after developing an elaborate story about hiring me for a writing project. These men were ashamed, skilled at dodging any scenario or questions about anything associated with the written word.

Those who can’t share our passion for reading are vulnerable, accustomed to a life of heartbreak and confusion. Poverty, lay-off notices, foreclosures, divorce, illness or arrests often derail plans for adult learners. The program’s director had many resources, but encouraged us to build trust and develop strategies for clients to pursue, preparing them if our meetings were to end abruptly.

Every life is a story, and yet, suggested Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The most wonderful inspirations die with their subject if he has no hand to paint them to the senses.” Reading and writing help us craft better lives. Catching up with reading as an adult is grueling and time-consuming. Many spend their lives hiding desires and talent or risk teasing or bullying – another side to this story. Secrets about an activity taken for granted by so many – reading – can be a matter of life and death in other parts of the world and in some communities of the United States.

So let me ask, fellow readers, has there been a time when you felt compelled to keep your own reading a secret?

ROSEMARY:  Susan's novel, Fear of Beauty (which i was lucky enough to get an advance copy of!) is a story of a woman in rural Afghanistan desperate to learn how to read after her son’s battered body is found at the base of a nearby cliff on the day he was supposed to leave for school. Most villagers blame an accidental fall. Others wonder if US troops and aid workers at a nearby outpost should be blamed. Defying all odds and taking advantage of war’s chaos, Sofi finds a teacher and discovers the truth behind her son’s death and extremists’ real purpose in her village. And JR readers, Susan and her publisher, Prometheus Books, are giving away a copy of Fear of Beauty to one lucky commenter today. Stop by and say hello!


Susan Froetschel taught writing at Yale University and magazine writing and literacy journalism at Southern Connecticut State University. She’s now consulting editor for YaleGlobal, an online magazine that explores the global connections of all types. Fear of Beauty is a culmination of years of volunteering in reading programs and imagining growing up in a community without books.


  1. Was there ever a time when I felt compelled to keep my own reading a secret? Thankfully, no . . . and it is difficult to imagine a situation in which I would not/could not read, most especially since I cannot ever recall not reading. It seems as if the number of stories about people being denied an education are increasing these days . . . . It is heartbreaking to think that there are so many who cannot read, for whom the wonders contained on the pages of books are locked away . . . . it diminishes all of us.

  2. My Mother said I was asking letters at age two and went on to read all the books in our very small children's library section before I started school. I haven't stopped, although I now read slower than I did when I was younger. Dee

  3. Hard to imagine what it would be like not to be able to read. Reading has been one of the enormous pleasures of my life--probably most of yours too!

    Nice to see you here Susan, this sounds like a fascinating book!


  4. Thanks Joan, Dee, Roberta - thank you and of course there is hiding reading or learning to read as activity and hiding what we read, too.

  5. Hi Susan,
    As i mentioned I got an early copy of book and in eformat, I kind of missed the powerful cover. What an arresting image. were you apart of the cove discussions for Fear of Beauty?

  6. Rosemary, Only the title. The image was all Seventh Street. S

  7. Not being able to read... it's as hard to imagine as not being able to taste. As a former teacher, I've worked with bright kids who faked their way through elementary school, pretending they could read. Heartbreaking.

  8. Yesterday my hair stylist told me how thrilled she was that her 14 y.o. daughter has just fallen in love with reading. The parents have encouraged, even pushed, her, with no luck. (The mother admits, the kids don't often see her reading for pleasure.) But she finally found books that grabbed her -- James Patterson's Maximum Ride series -- and she's hooked now. Thrilled to welcome her to the reading tribe!

    Susan, your book sounds fascinating -- as does your literacy work. Thanks for that, and for joining us.

  9. I always read, even under the sheets with a flashlight. Can't even fathom life without reading. Susan's book is fascinating, I'm in the beginning chapters, and she keeps you on edge!

  10. Susan, my second book--a children's picture book--was written for a literacy program. Thank you for your work as a reading teacher and good luck with Fear of Beauty.

    Hallie, I read your essay in O Magazine yesterday and couldn't stop thinking about it all evening. It was beautifully written.

  11. Hi Susan. Glad to see you writing for one of my favorite blogs.
    I wonder if maybe the popularity of texting might put pressure on kids to learn to read, at least among kids who can afford smart phones.
    The weekly newspaper I used to have in a Florida country town was across the street from the post office. Several men would come in from time to time because they had "left their glasses at home" and needed help reading letters that looked important.
    A problem here in Florida is that so many of the residents have no roots here, no children, no grandchildren. Whole communities exclude children, so the elderly retirees don't even have young neighbors. They see no reason why they should pay taxes to support public education. Then they complain when a waitress can't read the menu or a cashier can't make change.

  12. Susan, thanks for the fascinating piece. I don't remember not being able to read. Can't imagine not being able to read.

    I've volunteered some this year, helping our local Kiwanis club with a program that rewards elementary school classes that reach their reading goals. It's so inspiring to see the kids proud of their reading skills. Wish I could stretch to do more for adult literacy...

    And I have to add, I love the cover of your book. So arresting. I'll look forward to your book.

  13. hmm... all my responses are not going up. It's me - not blog!

    Rosemary - Thank you for calling the cover "powerful" and having me here today!

    Hallie - what a spot for a teacher to be in - and it's such a common story. A united response is required by district, teachers, parents.

    Leslie - that is good news on 14-year-old reader. Mysteries, the desire to get to the end, are a great motivator for many readers of all ages.

    Reva - thank you for reading book - and under those sheets, are you hiding reading itself or the content?

    Darlene - It wasn't a lot of work. The dedication of the teachers and the students had more influence over me than I had on them. It was great to work with them.

    Skipper - I hope you are right about texting. Facebook was how I detected how one young man struggled with literacy. He could not read or write posts - and, yes, he is from Florida! Functional illiteracy - in reading, math, politics - is a huge drain on the economy and society.

    Deb - Wonderful you have helped children. Finding the time for regular volunteering is a challenge. And many places can't handle untrained volunteers, finding training time-consuming or considering them unreliable. Adult readers need a steady, patient presence who tailor lessons to their individual needs. and thank you for kind words on cover.

  14. To follow up on what Deb said, too, some programs do reach out for volunteers, like this one in Boston.

    5500 adults are on the waiting list.

  15. Hi Susan,
    Fascinating topic. I haven't felt pressure to keep my reading secret, but I have felt the pressure to abandon reading and literature in general in favor of other less, challenging, necessary forms of entertainment and diversion. I learned to read at a young age and I think this skill was essential to my success in school and the workplace. While I never struggled with illiteracy, I feel our society in general devalues the written word and pushes more transient, shallow forms of media to the forefront. I think this is one of the reasons illiteracy takes hold and would like to see a shift in emphasis in our culture from television and movies to books and literature as the basis for leisure and recreation in both children and adults.

  16. Truly important work you're doing. And then to set your book in Afghanistan - wow. The challenges there for learning are so much greater. I have American friends who lived and taught there for a couple of years recently, despite the dangers, and the stories are heartbreaking - bright kids accepted to a private US high school, all expenses paid, and then a father or an uncle refuses to give permission.

    I'll put your book on my list! I also can't imagine not being able to read.

  17. Think how intelligent someone must be to survive in a world when they are unable to read. I was reading at a very early age. And I am grateful that it was not difficult for me. I am well aware that being unable to read is a sign that for some reason the teaching they have seen was not the right method for them.

  18. I can't imagine not reading, can't imagine parents not encouraging their children to read. When we were growing up, we knew that "we are a family that reads". Reading always seemed as natural as breathing. By their example, our parents taught us that reading was exciting and fun, as well as educational. Both parents grew up during the depression and could not afford to go to college. They were such avid, well-rounded readers, though, that I believe they aquired the equivalent of a college education on their own.

    It is very sad when I hear people saying of someone: "s/he reads too much". How can that be? It's as foreign a concept as hearing that someone breathes too much.

    Hiding the fact of reading: I do remember my dad saying that he had childhood friends who though it odd that he liked to read. He stopped talking about it to those particular friends because of the responses he got when he brought it up. He told my siblings and me to never let someone else's opinion about love of reading make us feel uncomfortable. I had forgotten about this until I read your blog post today,Susan.

  19. Hi Thomas - So true what you say about our choices in entertainment and even some books. What we read and do can be rote - or can inspire and challenge us. And even adults need to remind ourselves of this ...

    Edith - that is heartbreaking, children given an opportunity, then denied that by parents and community. The book is set in Afghanistan but I hope readers realize how many parallel pressures we have in our society, too.

    Annette - Illiteracy and intelligence do overlap. The low literacy rates in some countries, with so many women and children denied an adequate education, reminds of this. In our society, we expect parents to stand up for their children when teaching methods do not work. But many fear they cannot complain, often because of their own lack of confidence.

    Deb - Sadly, we can still see this in low-performing schools - children being teased for wanting to do well. Relativity of a poor performance next to a slightly better performance does is not lifting any of the students. I often think parents and schools should urge students to keep their grades - even at young ages - absolutely confidential. Could eliminate a lot of teasing. Thanks for sharing the memory of your father. Much of my main character's confidence comes from the relationship with her father. That brief excerpt is at the end of
    another blog:

  20. What a powerful plea for literacy!

    I can't remember a time I didn't (or couldn't) read. I had my tonsils out the summer after first grade. While I was stuck sitting quietly at my grandparents' house for what I remember as a nearly a week after the surgery, not allowed to go out and play, I plowed through the few books they had for children my age. Then I started in on the Bobbsey Twins books, and when I finished those, I found my mother's Nancy Drew mysteries. That was the start of a lifelong love affair with books. I can't imagine a life without reading.

    As for keeping my reading secret... only when I was supposed to be asleep, and instead was reading under the covers with a flashlight!

    The best thing we can do to encourage children to read is to read to them. I wonder if that might also help when working with illiterate adults?

  21. Lark - thank you! So getting your tonsils off is remembered a great time for reading! Reading does make any problems in life better - and it's why I love it so much!

    My experience is letting them set their own goals, and then as a tutor, working on skills that will help them reach those goals. They're adults and they must control the agenda and syllabus. Patience and understanding help.

    Here is a great directory for finding literacy resources in this country:

  22. I can't ever recall reading in secret, but I did have a friend in High school whose parentws hated him to read. We were both nerds heavily in SciFi etc. It seemed the strangest thing to me, because my parents connected reading with academic achievement. I probably should have been more simpathetic to my friend instead.


  23. Fear of Beauty brought back very vivid memories to me of my first visit to our school library. The librarian explained in such an exciting way to my Kindergarten class how we could find books. Then she said, to my horror, you may each select one book to take home and read.

    Decades later, I still remember how guilty I felt that I did not know how to read. I was ashamed.

    I did select a book, and learned the power of someone believing in you that night. I sat up and read that book. I still believe I was able to read it because the librarian said I would take home a book and read it.
    As a result, I became a Librarian as fast as I could, going straight from college to Library School, and loved being a school and public librarian in Hartford, CT, sharing that excitement throughout my career with a very diverse range of people. As technology entered libraries, I learned about systems by reading.
    I believe “if you can read, you can learn anything.”

  24. SOrry to miss this today, Susan! I'm looking forward to being home again and soon as the storm is over.xoo

  25. Douglas - You probably were a better friend for being cool or puzzled rather than sympathethic. Kids don't like sympathy, and maybe he relished being with someone who know his parents were rong.

    Irene - So true - the learning never stops, does it? what a wonderful story. Our teachers are so important in those early years. I appreciate them all.