How Sweet Valley High Saved My Life

And The Consequences of Drug Use


When I was a little girl I was a total bookworm. My parents had strict rules regarding TV consumption for me and my brother. We were only allowed to watch one TV program a day and we didn’t have cable. Every summer my mother made a deal with me that if I didn’t watch TV the whole summer she’d give me $100 at the start of the school year. That’s a lot of money when you’re 8. Instead, I was encouraged to read. My mother was an English major, and taught English in Korea before coming over to the states back in the day, and I seem to have inherited her love of literature.

What did I read? Anything I could get my hands on. My copy of “A Wrinkle In Time” was utterly warped and stained from how many times I reread it, and I’d often get in trouble in school for ignoring the lesson for a hidden copy of the latest Baby-sitters Club book under my desk.

As I entered my pre-teen years I outgrew Kristy and Claudia’s adventures in babysitting and took on the twins of Sweet Valley High. The Sweet Valley High book series was written by Francine Pascal and her team of ghostwriters, spanning over 152 books that centered on a pair of identical twins, Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, as they took on the challenges of adolescence and high school. Basically, a junior soap opera chronicle. So how did this teeny-bopper series change my life?

It’s all here in Book #40, On The Edge.

Regina Morrow, a beautiful, wealthy, raven haired close friend of Elizabeth’s, has been dating Bruce Patman for some time now. Bruce is a total d-bag, but Regina’s sweet nature seems to have tamed some of his douchier ways. Regina was deaf, but underwent some crazy surgery in Switzerland to restore her hearing recently. She’s on top of the world, right? WRONG.

Bruce dumps her for some cheerleading floozy and Regina, in her teenage despair, falls in with the wrong crowd. She goes to a party one night with said wrong crowd and they are doing drugs. Regina is a classic good girl, but wants her new friends to think she’s cool, so she tries some cocaine. AND DIES. That’s right. She does coke and dies. Turns out Regina had an undetected heart defect and the cocaine was just too much for her frail heart.

I was devastated. I must have been about 11 or 12 when I read this book, well before any real threat of drug use hit my Midwest suburban crowd, but I knew then and there I would never, ever, do drugs.

This book achieved something no PSA could have at my age. I’d loved this character, Regina. She was everything I wanted to be as a pre-teen. She was beautiful, smart, and kindhearted. Having read each book in the SVH series faithfully, I felt like I knew these girls. They were my friends, they were my enemies, they were me. It made me realize the gravity of drug use and the severe consequences they held. Would I have become a junkie in adult life if it hadn’t been for SVH? Probably not, I was crazy enough without additional stimulants, but the book certainly reaffirmed my position on the subject.

This isn’t a story about my amazing willpower and resistance to peer pressure. It’s a story about how the literature we read and the media we consume as young people shape our truths and expectations about life. It’s why I hate the Twilight books for what messages they send to young women about healthy relationships. [Team Jacob!] It’s why I can’t stand TV shows like Real Housewives of Anywhere, and why I think Miley Cyrus is a bad role model.

With the recent passing of the extremely talented Philip Seymour Hoffman, we are reminded of life’s lack of permanence and predictability. “What a waste”, we say, and can’t possibly imagine what inner demons the late actor must have struggled with amidst such success. If anything, this tragedy should be a reminder of how frail we are as humans, and the consequences of drug use.

No hit is worth the grief storm of an overdose, and we have an obligation as a society to make sure what happened to Regina, what happened to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, never happens to our friends and today’s youth.

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