Growing up suburban

The generation that came of age in the midst of the American Dream still has nightmares about it.


Laura Miller
September 16, 1996 11:00PM (UTC)

Whenever I find myself in the midst of neat green lawns, turquoise skies and stuccoed ranch houses, I get short of breath. It turns out I'm not alone. In his new memoir, "Blue Sky Dream," journalist David Beers recalls blissfully going up in a single-prop airplane with his pilot father at the age of 8, and as his dad pointed out their suburban Northern California neighborhood below, feeling suddenly "terrified." And D. J. Waldie, in "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir," describes an aerial photograph taken of his native Lakewood, a Southern California subdivision laid out according to a plan as precise as graph paper: "Seen from above," he writes, "the grid is beautiful and terrible."


Scaring the living daylights out of us wasn't what our parents had in mind when they staked out their claim to the American Dream during California's suburban boom of the 1950s and '60s. Like their neighbors, they had left the Midwest, or the South, or the East Coast in search of brand new lives in brand new towns. "We never looked at a used house," Beers' father remembers. "A used house simply did not interest us." In the suburbs, refugees from the working class found a place without history. In those quiet, orderly, homogenous settlements, nothing unusual or unsettling was ever supposed to happen: change isn't needed in a place that's already perfect. The suburbs not only had no past -- they anticipated no real future.

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From the very beginning, the new neighborhoods exercised social critics. Pundits like David Riesman, in "The Lonely Crowd," and William H. Whyte, in "The Organization Man," railed against the conformity and materialism of the suburbs and the soulless corporations that spawned them. In the case of Beers' family, the sugar daddy was Lockheed, which employed his father as an engineer on a series of projects he is still forbidden to discuss with his wife and children. Waldie's town was built to house workers at a nearby Douglas Aircraft plant, although the author's father worked for the gas company.

Suburbanites themselves have been idealized by TV sitcoms, filmed by documentarians, studied by ethnographers, hunted by marketers, denounced by leftists, tracked by demographers and sneered at by urbanites. Every couple of years, a Village Voice writer trots off to a particularly dismal outpost and delivers a report on the complete demoralization and anomie of the teenagers found there. But there have been few serious, thoughtful accounts of what it was like to grow up in this symbolically potent, if resolutely bland, landscape. Publishers occasionally pop the word "suburban" into the subtitles of autobiographical accounts, but those books tend to be "How I Got Out" narratives. Mark Salzman's immensely likeable "Lost in Place: Growing up Absurd in Suburbia" relates his journey to Yale's Chinese Studies department via an early passion for martial arts, and Frank DeCaro's breezy "A Boy Named Phyllis: A Suburban Memoir" describes a gay boyhood that was aimed at bright lights and big cities from the moment he first heard Nancy Sinatra sing "These Boots Were Made for Walking."

Beers and Waldie, however, contemplate the secret, uncanny heart of suburban life. Both of these books feel haunted, Waldie's especially. Beers did "get out" eventually, but Waldie still lives (alone) in the glorified tract home where he grew up. He works as a Lakewood city official, reading letters from demented fellow citizens and overseeing the updating of plaques on park monuments. And, interestingly, both of these men were raised as Catholics. This coincidence may be simply demographic. Like Long Island's Levittown, Waldie observes, California's suburbs -- contrary to their reputation for WASPishness -- were often at least half Catholic. The working-class Irish, Italians and Poles who fled American cities at mid-century were largely Catholic, and developers lured them by promising to keep Jews and racial minorities out of their neighborhoods.

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Then again, it may be that a popish background uniquely suits one to write agonizingly about one's suburban upbringing. The mythos of the suburbs has always harkened back to Eden, and what could prove more disastrous than to install a bunch of Catholics in a place that's supposed to be paradise? These two memoirs echo with a single question: This place is supposed to be perfect, and so were we -- what went wrong?

For Beers, original sin appears in the form of Lockheed's blood money. His father, a former naval aviator, prospered from the Cold War weapons industry, despite his burgeoning pacifism and hatred of bureaucracy. The corporation kept the former daring pilot in a cubicle with a slide rule, working on projects he wasn't permitted to fully comprehend until he attained Top Secret clearance. To get the clearance, Beers' father had to pass regular polygraph tests and maintain strict silence about his job while outside the office, an office his family never visited during the 34 years he worked there. An unflinchingly honest man, Beers' father observes "If you ask me, these days nobody at Lockheed is clean."

Ronald Reagan and his ludicrous "Star Wars" program brought more money and even greater cynicism. "Everyone I talked to was skeptical of the whole thing," Beers' father explains. "But nobody was turning down the contracts." Beers became an investigative journalist, but his earnest attempts to find solidarity with inner city kids and Latin American Indians left him feeling "hopelessly the American child of aerospace, just beginning to glean the limits to suburban-bred hubris."

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But nuclear weapons and white guilt (the legacy of what Beers calls "my blue-sky tribe") can't explain why an eight-year-old boy should be terrified by an aerial view of his own neighborhood. In that moment of ur-dread, Beers looked down, searching for his family's cul-de-sac, and saw, "like berries growing on trellised vines, many, many cul-de-sacs. . . I cannot locate our lives amidst all the sameness below."

Raised on an even more merciless grid, and without a technocratic "blue sky" legacy to blame, D.J. Waldie sinks even further into mysterious, panicky gloom. Composed of 316 tiny "essays" (some no more than a sentence long), "Holy Land" oscillates eerily between stories about Lakewood's founding, statistics on such matters as the precise width of the city's sidewalks and streets (4 and 40 feet, respectively), images of the deaths of Waldie's parents, bleak vignettes from his current life, descriptions of Catholic liturgy and anecdotes about the city's more eccentric residents. It conveys the impression of profound loneliness, like the flickering light of a TV in a deserted, darkened room.

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Lakewood's grid, Waldie implies, imposes a necessary structure on the emptiness of his life, one he badly needs since he can't fully espouse his father's faith. "This pattern -- of asphalt, grass, concrete, grass -- is as regular as any thought of God's," he asserts. Every house is precisely 15 feet from its neighbor, and "You are grateful for the distance." The walls are hollow, "a thin, cement skin over absence." Walking to work, Waldie (describing himself in the third person) "passes the house of people he does not know, though he has lived on his block for forty-six years."

Waldie is an anomaly, a man clinging to tradition in a place built to erase it -- and that, oddly enough, makes him quintessentially suburban. The suburban dream was intended to reconcile a series of opposites: country and city, individualism and community, freedom and order. It packed several potent myths -- New Jerusalem, City on the Hill, frontier homestead, machine for living, rose-covered cottage -- into one rationally-engineered package. The suburbs gave us towns-by-design, providing exactly the external conditions that every homeowning citizen demanded and every scientist endorsed. In a way, it was the cul-de-sac of American utopianism. If, after arriving at last in this paradise, we still weren't happy, then there must be something terribly wrong with us -- what else could we blame?

It's no wonder that seeing this plan -- grasped visually and completely from the sky, from God's perspective -- should strike terror in the heart of a suburban child.

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Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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