Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta

A strange thing has happened. A very strange thing indeed. I, the slowest reader in the book blogosphere, am nearly very behind in book reviews. I've got two books sitting here waiting for my review, another one upstairs that I'm nearly finished reading, and yet another sitting in my purse that I should be able to finish before the end of the weekend. For obvious reasons, this is a predicament I don't often find myself in. Part of it is work's fault, I'm pretty sure. By the time I get home I'm so worn out that while I might still have it in me to read, writing anything of consequence becomes a daunting task for my poor overtaxed mind. I worked yet even more than usual this week, and all indications point to this sort of thing becoming worse before it gets any better. But forget work! It's the weekend, right? I spent yesterday evening relaxing and chatting with my family around the campfire, and that's just the sort of thing that makes all the stress of the week kind of melt off of a person. So, my addled mind is back in action and ready to tackle a book review!

The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta is, first, the story of Ruth Ramsey, a sex-ed teacher with a practical view on her subject that leads her to teach in such a way that her students won't be afraid of their sexuality and will make decisions to practice safe sex when they do. A comment that involves the words "some people enjoy it" sets off a chain of events wherein the very pervasive Tabernacle, a local evangelical Christian church, demands that the school curriculum be changed to an abstinence-only perspective. Ruth is forced, much against her belief system and better judgement, to adopt this curriculum and teach it to her students under the school principal and superintendent's watchful eyes.

Tim Mason, Ruth's daughter's soccer coach, is a divorced and mostly recovered drug addict who credits Jesus and the Tabernacle with resurrecting his life from ruin. Tim and Ruth cross paths none-too-favorably when after a particularly grueling match and scary moment in which Tim's daughter might have been seriously injured, Tim, without much thought as to the consequences, gathers his young team into a circle to pray. Soon Ruth is pioneering an effort to get Tim kicked out of coaching, and Tim's pastor Dennis, is wielding him like a religious weapon to open the eyes and hearts of the young to the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

The Abstinence Teacher is not a character-driven novel, nor is it especially a plot-driven novel. It is an issue novel. For much of the book, the characters are not so much living, breathing people as microcosms for the many things that are wrong with both overzealous legalist evangelical Christian types and their polar opposite, the ever-liberal card-carrying ACLU member, "I have the right not to have you pray in front of my kids at a public sporting event" sorts.

Perotta does a good and surprisingly even-handed job of showing the problems with both extremes. First, you have the Christians trying to enforce their way of thinking on everyone without giving them a reason to choose their way. They naively believe that just because they choose only to teach abstinence and only in a climate of fear of the repercussions of unprotected sex, that teenagers will, indeed, abstain. Rather than preparing them for what may be their reality, they choose to frighten them about something that is natural, and in the right context, shouldn't be scary. Then you have Ruth, and her "type" of person who have nothing particularly against God or religion but object to it on priciple and who believe that young teens can be taught to make good decisions about sex but can't be taught or trusted to make their own decisions about religion and the belief systems they choose to follow. Perrotta exposes both sides' ignorance and hypocrisy.

This books is well done, but is one that is a struggle. Most readers, I would guess, have a pretty visceral reaction to this kind of religious versus secular debate which make it difficult to read without being enmeshed in one side or the other of the debate - or at least, believing that both sides are totally foolish in their inability to compromise and see things for what they are. At its heart, The Abstinence Teacher is frustrating to read not because it isn't a well-written book or a fast read, but because the people here act so much like people do, and people are often so frustrating. For me, personally, it's frustrating to see this all-too-realistic portrayal of heavy-handed Christians ignorantly doing more than anyone else could to actually keep people from believing in their God.

As it turns out, though, despite their beliefs and religious affiliations, Perrotta does bring home the fact that his characters are, when separated from their more radical ways, after all, just people. People who are struggling and failing in face of life's challenges, people who are trying to maintain good relationships with their children even as they enter the difficult years of young adulthood, people who despite their going about it in just the wrong way are desperately trying to do what they think is best for their children - people who have more in common than they think.


  1. We had abstinence-only sex ed in my high school, in the bible belt. We also had pregnant girls in every grade. *shrug* What upsets me more is when money to fight HIV/AIDS is earmarked for 'abstinence only' programs: that just disgusts me.

  2. Megan -

    First, yay for campfires and sitting around with family!

    Thanks for the great review. This book has been on my maybe list and I think you've helped me decide about it.

    And, Eva, I have to ask - do you think schools with non-abstinence programs avoid pregnancies? I know my high school doesn't.


  3. Great review, Megan. I find books like this especially beneficial when the author can present all sides of an argument.

  4. I read this one awhile ago and really enjoyed it. I remember being frustrated with both sides, thinking they both over-reacted. But, it was a good read.

  5. I didn't pick this up right away because I thought he would write the same kind of story as the previous novel. But the "issue" he presents here, with different sides of argument, will make it a good read. Thanks for the great review.