I've lived with the pretense/of perfection for seventeen/years. Give my room a cursory/inspection, you'd think I have OCD. (1.7)
Cara's joking, but she knows there's a difference between having a mental illness and just appearing to have one. The story of Cara's life is looking like one kind of person but actually being another.
I never would have expected/Conner to attempt the coward's way/out, though. Some consider suicide/an act of honor. I seriously don't agree. (1.15)
Cara's version of honorable is to stick it out, not check out. She's the lone twin left behind to deal with their parents—whom, we might add, seem to need therapy way more than their kids do.
When people ask/How he's doing now, I have/no idea what to say except for,/"Better." I don't know if that's/true, or what goes on in a place/like Aspen Springs, not that any-/one knows he's there, thank God. (1.56-57)
Cara feels she has to hide the fact that Conner's in a psychiatric hospital, and she doesn't correspond with or visit him. There's still a lot of stigma around mental illness, and even someone with whom you shared a womb can feel unsure about what to do or say.
Did/a switch flip inside your brain? If it did/I think what flipped it was that little boy/who suddenly grew tired of being scared. (6.83-84)
Conner's mental health was slowly eroding due to the pressure to be perfect. While the attempt may have been impulsive, Kendra sees many years of desperation led up to it.
Maybe I'm two people./God, maybe I'm many./Does that make me a freak?/Do I belong in Aspen Springs,/finger-painting scenes from/my childhood, right along with/my messed-up brother? (13.6-8)
News flash: Feeling like you're lots of people trapped in one person's body is totally normal, especially if you're a teenager.
No wonder/Conner flipped./It's in the genetics./Both of his parents are freaks. (21.21)
Cara's dad doesn't think Conner's improving enough, given the amount of money he's spending to keep Conner in Aspen Springs. Cara understands why Conner wouldn't want to come home. People in a mental hospital are less insane than their parents.
"I knew he was/messing around with his teacher./If I would have told, maybe… he…" (33.41)
Cara's dealing with classic survivor guilt here—she thinks that by telling someone Conner was sleeping with his teacher, she could have stopped him from shooting himself. Sometimes it's easier to feel guilty than to accept that there was nothing you could have done.
Conner Sykes, loose in/the head? Yep, that makes/sense. But even if it's true,/why should I give a shit?/I guess I don't/Unless it means Cara shares/whatever craziness gene/he's carrying. (35.10-11)
The world according to Sean: Craziness is genetic, and the same genes that make you crazy make you gay. Can someone please give this guy some biology lessons?
He says I'm/borderline schizo and that/he won't supply me anymore./At least, not for a while. (47.19)
Sean's pretty misinformed about mental illness, but describing his hallucinations as "borderline schizo" is accurate. There really is such a thing as steroid psychosis, which mimics the symptoms of schizophrenia.
We hug, as we're supposed to do./I watch her go, leaning on her mother,/wonder if she'll be around next year, or/if she might wind up starved, in a coffin. (57.9)
Conner is the character in Perfect who dies by suicide, but Kendra's the one with the deadliest disease. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
The more she goes/on, the more I'm sure the carpet/guys understand. There is no/possible way to satisfy our mother. (1.26)
What Cara never acknowledges is that her mom isn't satisfied with herself—if she were, she could be satisfied with external things. Do you think Cara even realizes this consciously?
The pressure they exert individually/is immense. As a team, it's almost/impossible to measure up. (1.29)
This is how it always works with bullies, and parents can definitely bully their children. When you have someone else feeding your antagonism, it intensifies. Why else do bullies always have posses?
I struggle daily to maintain/the pretense. Why must it be/ expected—no, demanded—of/me/to surpass my ancestors' achievements? (4.2-3)
There's a whole 'nother level to the parental pressure Andre gets. He's not just responsible for making his family look good; he's responsible for making African Americans look good.
I will/ forever walk beneath an umbrella/of expectation. Mom and Dad/have a plan for me and won't talk/about alternatives. (5.12-13)
Have the narrators of Perfect ever tried talking to their parents about alternatives, or are they too busy hiding the alternatives they dream of out of fear of disapproval?
Sean idolized his father. He pulls into/the driveway, and even from here I can/see sadness in the forward tilt of his/shoulders. It's a memory-shadowed day. (5.25)
Sean's a classic lost boy. Even though our teen years are when we most intensely think our parents are lame, they're also the time we most need them to guide us. When you're standing on the precipice of adulthood, you need some trustworthy adults to show you how to do it.
Finally he says, My mom loved/roses. She grew them everywhere/in our yard, and when she died,/Dad went kind of crazy and/tore them all out. (5.32-33)
Have you ever broken up with someone and thrown out (or burned) all the stuff they gave you? This is the same action, but on a much larger scale. Sean's dad reacts to his wife's death by killing other living things, ones he can kill without consequences… except, of course, for totally traumatizing his son.
I wait for some sign of sadness. But Sean responds/instead with a quick jab of anger. Stupid/bitch. He takes a deep breath. If she hadn't/gone all New Agey, she wouldn't be dead. (5.50)
Sometimes it's easier to tap into anger than sadness, which we see Sean doing here over his mother's death.
Because Cara's Mom/reminds me of crystal --/all sparkly and beautiful/distraction while it carves/you clear to the bone. She/is a don't-turn-your-back-/on-her kind of woman. (7.34-35)
Distraction is another kind of denial, and not liking who you are can cause you to become consumed with fooling other people. The thing is, when they turn their backs on you, you're alone with yourself.
Daddy pretty much/pretends we don't even exist anymore. (10.52)
And look: another kind of denial. Kendra and Jenna take it personally, but the truth is that people often ignore other people because they can't deal with what they themselves have done. If someone's ignoring you when you haven't done anything wrong, it's usually way more about them than it is about you.
For some/asinine reason, Patrick decided he needed/to play Daddy tonight. He called a family/meeting. First, he accused/Kendra and me of stealing Mom's Xanax. (32.43)
And here's one final kind of denial: refusing to see how your kids (or step-kids) are destroying themselves until it's too late.
I think/if love is real, and headed/toward the altar, the sex part/can—within reason—wait. (7.20)
Sean's way more sensitive about Cara's feelings before he starts taking steroids, but the "within reason" part is the slippery slope here.
That's not to say/that there aren't any cute girls here./There are a few, and yeah, I've had some/casual sex with one/or two. (Okay, maybe three.) (12.12-13)
One of the reasons Andre takes Jenna more seriously than the other girls he's slept with is that she doesn't feel the need to change herself to meet anyone else's standards. In this way, Jenna is the kind of person Andre wants to be.
I lift up on my knees,/turn to face him, kiss him as if this/might be our last kiss—intention clear/in the race of my heart and the way/my tongue tangos over his. He pulls back. Wait. Are you sure? (13.53-54)
Cara doesn't really feel any sexual attraction to Sean, but she tries to convince herself she does in order to be "normal." It's one more way she's trying to live up to what other people expect her to be.
We have gotten/naked a time or two,/and Lord help me, that girl has shown/me things most grown women/would blush at. (16.9-10)
Jenna might not feel the need to alter her appearance to make other people approve of her, but she's using her body to win their approval in other ways.
But just as I test the barrier,/everything screaming yes,/go, she opens her eyes./And out of her mouth/comes a single word: No. (23.22)
Sean's fully aware that Cara says no. He hears her; he just convinces himself she doesn't really mean it. After all, he thinks she's been leading him on.
She sobs, and her entire/body shakes with the force/of it. No. You raped me./Her voice slices, tempered/steel. I told you to stop. (23.30)
Sean knows in that moment that his relationship with Cara is over, but instead of apologizing, he chooses further physical violence, grabs her, and tells her she didn't really mean what she said. Sensitivity: You're doing it all wrong, Sean.
"Look, I'm not sure exactly/what happened here, but you/are everything to me. Even/if you weren't, you have/to realize you can't get a guy all worked up, then/tell him to stop. It's not fair." (23.37)
Note to guys: Girls get worked up, too, it's just that there are all kinds of shame attached to female desire. This is one more kind of societal pressure to negate who you really are and what you really want.
For the first time ever, the love we/made was unhurried. It's good slow,/he said. Do you like it this way? I did/but wondered just when he'd decided/that, and how. Still, I didn't dare ask/him. Instead I just let him. (26.70-72)
Violation of the female body is a major thread that runs through the narrative of Perfect. Kendra does a lot of "just letting him" throughout the book, despite what she herself actually wants. (Do you think she even knows what she wants, or what she enjoys sexually?)
I told her everything—how I had kept/my virginity until I needed to be sure./How I teased Sean. Challenged him,/even, only to change my mind. (33.34)
Cara feels a lot of guilt about other people's choices. Just as she couldn't have changed what Sean did, though, she couldn't have changed what Conner did, even if she'd told that he was sleeping with his teacher.
Maybe the trick is just having lots/and lots of sex until you get tired/of it? Does everyone eventually/get tired of it? (37.13-14)
Answer: No. But if you've never had a partner who respects you or to whom you're sexually attracted, this is an understandable question.
I like driving a pricey car, wearing clothes that feel/like they want to be next to my skin./I love not having to be a living, breathing/stereotype because/of my color. (4.8-9)
Andre's reference to "clothes that feel like they want to be next to my skin" is telling. He's not just talking about the comfort of the clothing; he's talking about his right to wear it.
He absorbs the information. Blinks twice./Finally comments, Blond,/huh? Which means, "So she's white?" (12.29)
Andre doesn't say whether or not the other girls he's fooled around with were white. However, if his dad doesn't know he prefers white girls, this might be one more thing he feels he has to hide.
Like how his own wife (my toffee-skinned mom) skews/way toward the Anglo/ideal. Like how she has made a fair/amount of money altering the features/of her African American/sisters, all to make them more "beautiful." (12.35-37)
Money frequently drives people to do ethically questionable things. Andre's mom might not like making black women more "beautiful," but she definitely likes having beautiful things.
Am I wrong to feel/this way? Does it make me a stereotype?/Or does it in some weird way make me/racist? If it does, would/I be less racist if I were only attracted/to black women? It's hard enough to/find someone you want/to be with. Why worry about color at all? (12.44-46)
We can't control who turns us on, but the social pressure to date within our ethnic groups can be pretty intense. Do you have a different opinion? Is Andre racist for only liking white girls?
Suddenly, food flies out of his mouth./Who the fuck is that with your sister?/Guess it's time for Dad to meet Andre. (22.92-93)
If your racism actually makes your dinner fly out of your mouth, it might be time for some sensitivity training, n'est ce pas?
Dad: Listen to me, little girl. I'd better/never see you with/someone like… that… again. Never. (24.47)
Jenna's dad is doing too little parenting, too late—not unlike her stepdad. Instead of addressing the fact that she's dating an older guy, he addresses the guy's skin color. The parental cluelessness in Perfect is strong.
My grandparents aren't the most open-/minded people in/the world, she says. He definitely learned/it from them. Her hand skips across/the seat, pounces on/my leg. But, hey, aren't you glad I chose/to break the cycle of hate? (24.62-64)
Jenna's joking, of course, but the truth is that she's perpetuating the cycle of hate against herself by putting herself in dangerous situations. If you like who you are, you tend to protect yourself from harm.
I have to admit/I felt sorry for the guy. He had no idea/that Dad is stuck in the pre-civil rights/era. (26.8-9)
Jenna brings Andre to the restaurant largely as a form of denial about her dad's wedding. She doesn't want to deal with the fact that he's getting remarried, so she creates a distraction—she knows that bringing Andre to the restaurant will make him focus on something other than his much younger fiancée for a minute.
I can't make Jenna's sister stop being a star./I can't change last quarter's report card/so her parents will let/her get her driver's license./I can't insist/her father stop being a racist jerk. (40.6-8)
Andre sees that Jenna's acting out is a way of getting attention, but he can't change the circumstances that make her do it. He also ignores the fact that dating him is one of the ways she's acting out.
His face goes all red, and hatred feeds/his ugly glare. You./This is because of you, you goddamn—/No! Kendra stops him cold. This is not/because of him, Dad./It's because of you! (48.59-60)
Kids act out when their parents ignore them? Say it ain't so! We're glad Kendra finally lays the smack down on her clueless dad, because somebody needed to. Now, if only she could lay the smack down on her agent…
So I'll count every calorie. Train even harder./Fight for buff. And maybe I'll ask Sean/about that steroid I read about—/the weight loss phenom of the stars. (2.90-91)
Kendra says she wants to be buff, but that's different from skinny. In trying to be fit, she goes overboard, which gives her a very different type of body.
I don't want to work/that hard. There's an easier/way. He waits to see if/I bite. When I don't, he says,/I was hoping you could help/me out with some 'roids. (3.37-38)
Sean gets angry with Bobby for asking for steroids, but he decides to use them himself. He's wrapped up in the game of competition, and he doesn't want anyone to beat him.
But here in the medicine chest, between/the ibuprofen and the Benadryl, as a little/amber bottle, with Jenna's name on/the prescription label. Percocet. (14.67-68)
It's surprising that Jenna didn't finish her Percocet, given that she abuses other substances. Alcohol's her poison, which proves that the phrase "drug of choice" is a bit of a misnomer. In reality, the drug usually chooses you.
Chad, Steroid Expert/is also my supplier. And not/just mine. He underwrites/his living expenses dealing/illegal substances. Steroids/are just the tipping-off place. (15.34)
If Chad's willing to supply Sean with steroids, it seems likely that he'd be willing to supply other drugs in the future. Instead, he tells Sean he won't provide any more steroids. It's his version of sibling concern.
I have to admit I'm curious/to see if the "little blue pill"/can fix me. If it can make me/some kind of sex superstar. (15.42)
Sean goes from wanting to be functional to wanting to be a superstar. He's not only trying to beat people on the field—he's trying to beat them in bed as well.
Alcohol and backward bungee jumping?/Sounds like a bad/combination to me. (16.34)
Andre learns right away that Jenna makes bad choices due to alcohol, but he continues to date her. In a way, she's his drug.
He took her in, and when she left us/for smack again, he raised Caleb like/his own. We were doing okay, except when Mom died, Caleb freaked out./Like she'd ever been his mom, you know?/Anyway, he fried his brain on ecstasy. (17.54-55)
Kids whose parents abuse drugs often deal with it by abusing drugs themselves. It might be a bad choice, but it's easy to see why you'd seek out ecstasy if your daily life is misery.
Who knew so many answers/might be found inside/little amber bottles? Sad?/Pop a pill. Fat?/Run screaming for/the medicine chest. (18.3-4)
Drug marketing encourages us to believe pharmaceuticals can solve our problems. Prescription medication advertising can be helpful to those dealing with genuine health issues, but it can be dangerous for the vulnerable and dissatisfied.
We're going/to a party. "A Queer Spring Break/Bash" is how it's been billed. Booze./Beer. Drugs (?). And gay people. (29.14)
Cara doesn't know if there will be drugs at the party, but she's willing to risk it if she can be with Dani.
Broken bones. Stitches. And all because/she asked the wrong guy to buy her booze. (46.91)
Jenna's afraid to steal alcohol from her parents' liquor cabinet, so she chooses a much more life-threatening option. She's more willing to risk a stranger's wrath than theirs.
Between dance lessons/and vocal training and helping out/at the food bank (all grooming for Miss/Teen Nevada), I barely have time for/homework, let alone fun. (2.10-11)
None of the activities Kendra participates in are fun for her. Her family doesn't care if she enjoys what she does; they just care about her winning.
Doesn't matter. Once I hit eighteen,/my pageant winnings will be all mine/to spend, and I will have the D cups I need/to kick ass in the cutthroat world of fashion. (2.58-59)
Runway models usually have very few curves, but for some reason, Kendra's perception is skewed. Plastic surgery is a way of exerting control over her body, of doing something to "improve" it, even when the improvement is actually detrimental.
[…] a real athlete shapes himself/muscle group by muscle/group, ignoring the/pain./Focused completely on/the gain. It can't happen/overnight. It takes hours/every single day/and/no one can force you to/do it. Becoming the best/takes a shitload of inborn/drive. (3.4-6)
Sean is the narrator who exhibits the most inborn drive. The other characters are trying to live up to their parents' expectations, but in the absence of parents, Sean pushes himself.
"I like winning them." Like every eye on me,/and when those eyes find me fairest of all./What I don't like is what it sometimes/takes to win. Backstabbing. Manipulation. (6.18-19)
If you have to manipulate the game and sabotage the other competitors to win, is it really winning? Do the judges really find you "fairest of all," or are they just responding to your tactics?
To win is to prosper./The game is defeating doubt./And the fun is in the game. (8.5)
Andre thinks life would be boring if it was friction-free, and winning is proof he's smarter and has more endurance than other people.
This isn't about winning./It's about conquering, and when/he errs, there's more than pride/on the line. (13.33-34)
Sean's anger comes out when he's on the field. People who are angry at the world often try to conquer it—it's a way of proving they're right.
Being The Hero/Ain't all bad, and while part/of me wants to go straight/after Cara, most of me likes/soaking up the limelight rays. (19.42)
Sean may feel some genuine love for Cara, but really, she's just another thing he's trying to conquer. Dating the most popular girl in school is another way of getting the limelight.
Shantell is right, you know./You were destined to/dance. If you try to ignore that, you'll be/completely miserable. (36.49-50)
Shantell's not an Andre fan when she finds out he's dating a white girl, but his dancing wins her over. It's the way he begins to redeem himself in her eyes, and she wants him to prove he's worthy of her esteem.
One of the judges,/this brilliant Broadway choreographer,/totally loved me, at least it/seemed that way. He gushed about technique,/and when he found out I've only been training/for a relatively short while,/called me one of the greatest natural talents/he's ever seen. (48.35-37)
Andre isn't sure if the judge is telling the truth or being hyperbolic for the camera, but he'll take the encouragement. Perfection is all about perception instead of reality, and "reality" shows are just another example of this.
I mean, putting/a ball over a fence, and/hearing people cheer for/me, well, that's a solo/effort, and a definite rush./Dead people don't get rushes. (55.7-8)
Conner's death causes Sean to experience a moment of personal insight. We can only hope the trend (insight, not suicide) continues.
[…] when/did creating a flawless façade/become a more vital goal/than learning to love the person/who/lives inside your skin? (1.4-5)
Hopkins begins the book with Cara's question, which is the same question the other narrators are dealing with. Cara and Andre are closer to finding their authentic selves than Sean and Kendra—at least they have genuine passions (Dani and dance).
When I look at her, I have/to admit her beauty regime/is working. It's as if by sheer/force of will she won't permit/wrinkles to etch her suede/complexion. But I know, deep/down, she is afraid of time. (1.35-36)
Seeing through her mom's fear is another way Cara is more insightful than the other narrators. If nothing else, she knows her parents aren't genuinely happy.
I grew up knowing I was/pretty and believing everything/good/about me had to do with how/I looked. The mirror was my best/friend. Until it started telling/me I wasn't really pretty/enough. (2.3-4)
The more pressure her parents and agents put on her, the more Kendra's mirror starts to lie. It's another judge, another reminder that she doesn't measure up.
Then I figured out Rule Number One/of the Popularity Game—looks trump/brains every time. (2.23-24)
If you're a teenager who feels insecure about your own appearance, you tend to idolize the people who look like you think you should.
Sean/is adventurous. Fun. Good-looking/in a jock kind of way. And you know,/everyone expects the perfect girl/to go out with the perfect guy./If there's one thing I've learned/from Mom, it's that appearances are/everything. (5.19-20)
Sean's actually far from perfect, but he looks perfect. If her daughter is dating a good-looking sports star, it makes Cara's mom look better (or so her mom thinks).
[…] my mom might/argue that I'll want to/know math for a future career. She uses/it all the time, calculating body fat/percentages and how/many millimeters of bone to remove/or skin to tighten to achieve the desired/effect. (8.8-10)
Andre's mom makes a lot of mistakes, but at least she uses math to figure out that Kendra can't handle anesthesia.
Perception is everything to Mom, and style/is a vital component./She wants her son to be a fashion trendsetter. (8.25)
Andre says the same thing about his mom that Cara says about hers: Cara's mom wants her to have the perfect boyfriend, while Andre's wants him to have the perfect wardrobe.
Me? No way. My sister is in there/now, choosing a new nose. But I kind/of like what I've got,/you know? (8.38-39)
"Choosing a new nose" is an interesting way to put it. It's like there's a set menu of perfection for Kendra to select from.
What/I'm more than a little/vague about is/the stranger/who keeps insisting/she is the real me—/and that if I would allow/her to take up residence/inside/this flawless shell,/I will finally come to terms/with who I was born to be. (13.3-5)
Coming out is just the first step for Cara in figuring out who she really is. Dani's authenticity gives Cara the courage to find her own.
I'll talk your mom into the implants, Xavier/promised. Everyone will want you then. (22.25)
Actually, there are plenty of people who don't find implants attractive, but Xavier seizes on Kendra's uncertainty to craft her into the kind of woman that turns him on. He knows the pressure of other people's opinions will sway her. It's pretty predatory.
She scoots/sideways, her knee touches mine./And for some crazy reason, I want/her to kiss me. Wait. What? (9.41)
This is what people are talking about when they refer to attraction as chemistry or electricity. Attraction often feels like being unexpectedly struck by lightning.
Did kissing/Sean ever make me feel that way?/I don't think so. Don't think/kissing any boy ever made me feel/that way… (17.43-44)
Cara doesn't have words yet for "that way," but she's experiencing lust for the first time.
His mouth/covers mine. I should wilt. Instead,/I feel stiff as cardboard. (21.40-41)
Cara doesn't talk about joining together with Sean, feeling their bodies as one, or any of the things making out should be—instead, she talks about him "covering" her. Being with him feels like annihilation, not mutual desire.
I loathe labels,/especially those I can't free myself/of. So how do I hang out a "lesbian"/shingle? (25.16)
There's a difference between accepting other people's labels and claiming your own. Still, there's no need to give yourself a name until you're sure it fits.
I've never/seen so many same-sex couples before./Not all in one place, laughing, downing/drinks, making out in plain view. (29.40-41)
Since pride is, at least on one level, the ability to be yourself in public, Cara's first same-sex party is its own kind of gay pride celebration.
Gay. Lesbian. Words. That did not/ apply to me until recently. Or did/they? Do you have to admit you're/a lesbian before you are one? (33.13)
Answer: No. You are what you are, no matter what you call yourself. Deep inside, you know, and you'll put words to the knowledge when you're ready.
Hard enough coming to terms/with the label "lesbian," without/somehow having to prove that you/are "lesbian enough." (33.23-24)
Dani's friends might be comfortable in their sexuality, but they still have their own standards of appearance. Even around them, there's still pressure to be a certain kind of perfect.
I mean, most/people at school are fairly tolerant/toward the GLBTQ crowd. But you/don't vote for them for class presidents/or homecoming princesses. (42.13-15)
This is another way societal expectations come into play. What would your friends think if you didn't vote like they did?
So that's the dancer? What do/you see in him?/Aren't all guy dancers, like, gay? (44.62)
Jenna's friends might be ignorant, but at least she's not afraid to tell them her boyfriend's a dancer. She genuinely doesn't seem to care what other people think of her. Even though she's got some serious problems, this is one way she's more self-assured than the other characters in the book.
"I know this is not on your/Top Ten Qualities In A Daughter list./But I am a lesbian." (45.21)
Yay, Cara. The scene in which she comes out to her parents is one of the few bright moments in an otherwise bleak book. This is where Hopkins tells her readers that pressure doesn't have to crush you.