Susan Choi Takes Her Teenagers Seriously

8 hours ago
Originally published on April 9, 2019 7:40 pm

The new novel Trust Exercise opens with teenagers attending an elite performing arts high school in the 1980s.

There, the theater kids form heartfelt friendships and relationships, and then sabotage them. Their semi-tyrannical drama teacher both inspires and manipulates them — with his "trust exercises."

Midway through, the book leaps forward in time and perspective. One of the students, Karen, is now an adult, re-thinking her past.

Trust Exercise is Susan Choi's fifth novel. She wanted to explore what happens when you look back on decisions that you made as an adolescent — when you felt like a grown-up, but may not have been as in control of your life as you had imagined.

Interview Highlights

On the teenage mind

It's so hard to just decode the world. And when we're teenagers, I think that we're wildly improvising. We're just sort of grabbing standards of judgment, we're grabbing values out of the air, and hoping that they fit. And we are really, really, I think, prone to make mistakes. I hate speaking for all teens, but I have to say: As a teen myself, I made loads and loads of real mistakes about the values that I held, the things that I thought were important versus dumb, the people that I thought were admirable versus silly. I really was basing my judgments on pretty limited experience. But it was so important to make those judgments. Remember? That's what it was all about. That's what growing up is all about. ... And we're supposed to! I mean again, that's what we're supposed to do ... because that's what growing up is.

On discovering the music of David Bowie

As a teen, it was very important for me to understand about music. And I remember being confronted by David Bowie. ... I remember David Bowie being this amazing conundrum, where I was like: Is this the kind of thing lots of people like? Is this a secret that I've discovered? Is this — I think I like it, I think that's OK, I think I'm brave enough to choose this as one of the things that I like. So that was what we were constantly trying to do. But with ... a very small toolbox.

On Karen's high-school experiences, in hindsight

Karen is a student who has an experience that I think could be recognized by some people who have struggled to know how to feel about a relationship they were involved in, in the past when they were young. Karen is really torn between — to put it most simply — blaming the adult in the room at the time, and blaming herself, because she felt so much like another adult in the room at that time. But now that she's really an adult, it's impossible for her not to understand that she was a child. ...

What Karen is really struggling with, that I really struggle with, is that she had an experience of agency, of choosing. ... And what do you do with that? Once you grow up, what do you do with that? And so that was something that I — I didn't want to give the reader a pat answer because I don't think there is one.

On how some women feel about other women coming forth with accusations of misbehavior later in life, in this passage:

Karen's attitude toward them is violently mixed. She might defend them to David, but in her bowels she scorns them, these young women who made a bad judgment and now want to blame someone else.

The thing that's really complicated about this — and I would never want a reader to imagine that that sentiment of Karen's is in some way a sentiment being endorsed by the book — what I wanted to express is that I think that sentiment is really real. I think it's one of the reasons that people who experience abuse or misconduct at whatever level struggle so much with figuring out how to tell the story to themselves before they even try to tell the story to others.

I think a lot has changed for young women today, and I think a lot hasn't. I think a lot is exactly the same as it was when I was a young woman. I think that there's every reason for a young woman to feel very strongly that allying herself with a powerful man, regardless of how she has to do it, might be her path forward — might sometimes be her only path forward. And forming that alliance may be a decision she makes when she is less experienced, and a decision that she is able to recognize for how compromised it was later in life, but we still have to recognize that there's this whole baked-in social and cultural structure that's pointing her toward that decision. Just identifying all the "bad men" and putting them into a time-out isn't really going to address the ways in which sexism is baked into our society.

On if younger generations are more cognizant of structural sexism

Oh yeah, definitely. I don't think that I would have written this book without my students. And I think the experience of teaching younger people — my students [at Yale University] are all 17-20 years old, and I've been teaching for quite a while — their way of seeing and their way of thinking is totally different. And I'm so grateful from it. ...

There are a lot of things that I take for granted that I realize: I shouldn't take them for granted. I shouldn't just go, "Oh, well that's just the way it is." My students will go, "No. Uh-uh. We don't like it. We don't like this. It shouldn't be like this." And it's like having the wool pulled from my eyes, where I've most often end[ed] up going, "Wow, they're right. I don't know why I would've accepted that."

Justine Kenin and Dave Blanchard produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit


Santa Anita Park in Southern California has been out of the headlines for a few days. That's welcome news at the famous horse racing track. Over the past three months, 23 thoroughbreds have died, mostly due to injuries from racing or training. The track was shut down for most of March, but it was open this past weekend for a major event. Still, the scrutiny from Congress to the LA County district attorney continues. And as NPR's Tom Goldman reports, throughout the racing industry, there's concern the future of the sport is at stake.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Santa Anita is nicknamed the Great Race Place, and Saturday, it was easy to see why.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: And Lemoona's in the back.

GOLDMAN: From the grandstand along the stretch, a visual feast - a bright blue California sky, the San Gabriel Mountains, muscular thoroughbreds rumbling by on the dirt track.


GOLDMAN: Beneath this festive scene, though, there was anxiety among those connected to the track. Their mantra had been just get through Saturday. Meaning, after 23 thoroughbred deaths, Santa Anita certainly didn't want another, not on a day when a national TV network would broadcast the Santa Anita Derby, a big prep race for the Kentucky Derby next month. This was jockey Joel Rosario after he rode in one of the day's early races.

JOEL ROSARIO: You know, just hopefully everything, you know, go nice and smooth and then, you know, we don't have any, you know, any problem, you know.

GOLDMAN: Steve Bazela was among the 30,000-plus paying and gambling customers on this day. He's been coming to Santa Anita since the 1960s, and he certainly didn't want to see what he saw just a week before - the catastrophic injury to a thoroughbred named Arms Runner, the most recent to die.

STEVE BAZELA: All you got to do is see that once or twice in your life, and it changes you. I saw a horse break down at the finish line about eight years ago here. I just literally walked to the parking lot I was so upset. I mean, they give you everything they got.

GOLDMAN: It changes you, but you're back.


GOLDMAN: You still love this sport.

BAZELA: Oh, I love it.

GOLDMAN: How'd it change you, then?

BAZELA: It just makes you more aware.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: And they're off in the Santa Anita Derby.

GOLDMAN: The big race didn't disappoint. Horses trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert finished 1-2 and qualified for the Kentucky Derby. Baffert, the face of horse racing in this country, was thrilled and grateful for the fans who turned out and saw an entire day of injury-free racing.

BOB BAFFERT: We needed a lift. I know I did.

GOLDMAN: Catastrophic injuries happen in horse racing, but these spikes in deaths are not the norm, which is why Baffert warned against overreacting.

BAFFERT: You don't have to burn the house down just because the pipes are bad, you know? And so, you know, we're going to work through this, but I really think the weather really caused a lot of this.

GOLDMAN: He's not wrong. In January and February, Southern California got a ton of rain. It affected the multilayer dirt track at Santa Anita and posed a potential risk to the massive horses who need those layers just right in order to protect their legs. But Dr. Rick Arthur says you can't just blame the rain.

RICK ARTHUR: Frankly, we shouldn't have run on some of the days that we had a bad track.

GOLDMAN: Arthur is an equine veterinary specialist who's been based at Santa Anita for more than four decades.

ARTHUR: And some of the days when the track wasn't as good as it should have been, trainers shouldn't have trained their horses.

GOLDMAN: Those decisions, Arthur says, are driven by a reality that goes beyond Santa Anita to many of this country's racetracks, where the focus, he says, is more on economics than on horses. That, he says, is horse racing's real problem.

ARTHUR: Racing has become more competitive over a period of time. Horses are worked faster, and there's fewer horses to fit the slots that are available, so there's more pressure on the horses to race more frequently.

GOLDMAN: Getting the horse racing industry - track managers, owners, trainers - to buy into less racing and resting horses more, that's going to take a culture change, Arthur says. But he adds, if that doesn't happen and horses keep dying at higher rates, there's a unanimous belief in what will happen.

ARTHUR: If we don't make racing safer, I don't think the public's going to allow us to continue the sport.


GOLDMAN: There've been nine straight days of racing and training at Santa Anita without a horse dying. Considering the last three months, that's a big deal. The weather now is warm, and Arthur says the track is in great condition. The group that owns Santa Anita has implemented new rules regulating medication - always a controversial issue in horse racing. Also more veterinarians have been dispatched to observe training sessions.

Even the industry's harshest critic, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, praises the ownership group's action. But PETA is now turning its attention to Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. In a statement yesterday, PETA said, quote, "Kentucky is on notice. Churchill Downs has the second-worst death rate for horses in the country." The organization says change is overdue, and it needs to come now. Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.