Sarah Dessen

Telling the Truth vs. Being Nice in Just Listen

[(Essay date June 10, 2011) In this essay, A.A. analyzes the author’s portrayal of the main character’s struggle between being nice or telling the truth in Just Listen by Sarah Dessen.]

In her broken family, Annabel Greene always said what her parents wanted to hear to keep from adding to the already existent problems. This kept everyone happy except herself, especially after her own issue arises and she is left only with Owen Armstrong for a friend. His brutal honesty coupled with his advocating it to Annabel causes her to struggle with whether she should say what people want to hear to keep the peace or say how she really feels but potentially add to the distress.

Annabel sees being nice as life’s ideal; the keeper of the peace, the preventer of arguments.

“‘Why can’t you just be nice?’ she’d [Annabel’s mother] plead with them. They [Annabel’s sisters] might have rolled their eyes, but a message sank in with me: that being nice was the ideal, the one place where people didn’t get so loud or so quiet they could scare you. If you could just be nice, then you wouldn’t have to worry about arguments at all” (Dessen 12).

Dessen portrays Annabel as clinging to this message, as if its directions will keep her life from falling further apart. She continues her modeling career only because she feels it is the only thing holding her mother together after the breakdown. The happiness it brings her mother is expressed as more important than telling the truth of her own dislike of it. Between Whitney’s anorexia, and Kirsten quitting modeling to go to school in New York, Annabel’s continuation of modeling is relayed through her thoughts as if it was a need, and her feelings didn’t matter;

“This was the one reason why I hadn’t yet told my mom I wanted to quit modeling. The truth was that all summer, when I went to go-sees, I had felt strange, nervous in a way I never had before. I didn’t like the scrutiny [...]. At one fitting [...] I kept cringing when the stylist tried to adjust my bathing suit, a lump rising in my throat even as I apologized and said I was fine.
Each time I got close to telling my mom about this though, something would happen to stop me. I was the only one left modeling now. And while it is hard enough to take away something that makes a person happy, it’s even more difficult when it seems like it’s the only thing.” (Dessen 36)

The author uses this argument through Annabel’s point of view to show how much easier it is to lie to keep the peace than it is to tell the truth knowing it will upset the balance. The emphasis Dessen places on it being the ‘only thing’ keeping Annabel’s mother happy creates a tone of necessity about the matter, as if being unhappy was simply a trade-off to keep her mother from relapsing back into depression.

However, Dessen creates a counter-argument through the character of Owen Armstrong. Owen, who had been through an anger management course as punishment from the court for beating up another kid, and who is initially described as a hulk, the least likely place Annabel would ever have looked for a lesson, but the place where it would be most well-known, as the effects of holding things inside once led him to trouble.

"‘So you're always honest,’ I said.
‘Aren't you?’
‘No,’ I told him. This came so easily, so quickly, it should have surprised me. But for some reason, it didn’t. ‘I'm not.’
‘Well, that's good to know, I guess.’
‘I'm not saying I'm a liar,’ I told him. He raised his eyebrows. ‘That's not how I meant it, anyway.’
‘How'd you mean it, then?’
‘It’s just...I don't always say what I feel.’
‘Why not?’
‘Because the truth sometimes hurts,’ I said.
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘So do lies, though.’
‘I don’t...’ [...] ‘I just don’t want to hurt people. Or upset them. So sometimes, you know, I won’t say exactly what I think, to spare them that.’
‘But that’s still a lie,’ he said. ‘Even if you mean well.’” (Dessen 109-110)
This first presentation of Dessen’s counter-argument completely alters the tone towards the original argument for ‘being nice’. Instead of being viewed as ‘nice,’ it is now presented as a lie. This change towards a more serious and implicating tone reveals the full weight of the ‘being nice’ as being a lie, but not just to the other person, also to oneself.

As Annabel tries to adapt to the changing standard being set for her by Owen, Dessen shows her difficulty through the need to be constantly rephrasing what she says;
“‘You looked stressed,’ he said. [...] ‘Something wrong?’
‘No, [...] everything’s fine.’
I was aware, [...] that with my last response, I hadn’t exactly been honest with hi. Of course, he never would have known this. Or cared, probably. Still, for some reason, I felt the need to Rephrase and Redirect. As it were.
‘It has to do with my modeling.’ [...] ‘I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. Both my sisters did it, too. But lately, I’ve been wanting to quit.’
And there it was. The one thing I’d said only in my head, now finally out there, and to Owen Armstrong, of all people.” (Dessen 139)
While she does need to rephrase, Dessen shows Annabel’s progress in the struggle through her willingness to tell the truth to Owen. This honesty is not something that Annabel has spoken with before, other than in thought. However Dessen reveals Annabel’s remaining confusion on the issue as she and Owen debate about telling Annabel’s mom;
“‘It’s complicated, because my mom’s really into it, and if I quit, she’ll be upset.’
‘But you don’t want to do it anymore,’ he said. ‘Right?’
‘So you should tell her that.’
‘You say that like it’s easy.’
‘Isn’t it?’
‘No.’” (Dessen 139)
The continuing struggle and desire to keep everyone happy goes back to Dessen’s original argument for sacrificing happiness as a trade-off to keep things in the balance elsewhere, as with family. However, this argument is no longer being validated, and through the confused tone the author reveals Annabel’s real want to quit and be done with modeling, as well as her search for a way to tell her mother.

Dessen’s final argument for telling the truth as opposed to being nice defies all of what Annabel had originally believed; that by being nice nothing would change. That being nice would keep things as they were, hold onto the peace, prevent the fights that caused problems between friends. Her own trying to keep Owen from getting angry at her led to the change in their friendship that separated them for two months, not speaking. Annabel’s way of not changing things changed everything.
“[...] ‘All you had to do was be honest. Tell me what really happened.
‘It’s not that easy.’
‘Is this? Ignoring and avoiding each other, acting like we were never friends?’” (Dessen 346-347).
This ultimately ends Annabel’s struggle and forces her to choose a side; a choice between being happy or unhappy, truth or lies; “‘Annabel?’ His voice was lower now. Closer. He sounded worried. ‘What is it?’ [...] I hadn’t just told Owen about what happened to me at the party. I told him everything” (Dessen 349). Through this the author shows how Annabel’s struggle with which was right, telling the truth or being nice, couldn’t end until being nice failed her in more than just her own happiness. She had to face the confrontations she had always avoided in order to accept the truth and be able to tell it back. This also reveals a major theme of the novel; the value of being honest in order to be happy and be able to move on. Annabel couldn’t be happy and move on from her past until she could accept that people disagree, be honest with Owen, and realize that not everything is ‘nice.’

(A.A. 2011)

The Want for Freedom and Need to Accept Help and Companionship in Lock and Key

[(Essay date June 10, 2011) In this essay, A.A. analyzes the author’s presentation of the main character’s strong desire for freedom and independence and her need to accept help and companionship in Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen.]

Ruby Cooper, abandoned by her mother, thought she was fine on her own. The rented home she and her mother shared, despite having no heat, a broken washer and dryer, and eventually no running water in the kitchen, to her was perfect. In her mind she needed no one other than herself. She held up her mother’s job to continue paying the rent and was nothing but angry when she was discovered, a minor living alone, and taken by social services and sent to live with her older sister Cora.
Resentful of everyone standing between herself and freedom, Ruby seeks to remain independent, relying only on herself for what she needs and pushing everything and everyone else away. However, despite her best efforts, Dessen reveals, in many cases through subtle details, that even Ruby requires companionship in her life.

Even her first day with Cora and her husband Jamie, Ruby’s plan was to escape to freedom; “By the time Jamie called upstairs that dinner was ready, I’d decided to leave that night. it just made sense - there was no need to contaminate their pristine home any further, or the pretty bed in my room” (Dessen 17). However, Ruby’s escape plan is thwarted by the dog, Roscoe, who catches her scent before she makes it over the fence. Despite this, she remains determined to achieve freedom, blaming it all that “A shorter fence, a fatter dog, and everything would be different” (Dessen 30). Dessen reveals through Ruby’s thoughts that even the dog wasn’t welcome in her world, “Now that I finally had a real chance to study him, I saw he was kind of cute, if you liked little dogs, which I did not” (Dessen 42). This small detail tells more about how deep-rooted her independence is, and that with it she refuses to let anything be close to her; even the dog has to be irritating.

Still stuck living with her sister the following day, Ruby decides to ask Cora the big question;
[...] ‘Yes?’
‘Why am I here?’
[...] ‘Because you’re a minor,’ she said, ‘and your mother abandoned you.’” (Dessen 44).
Despite this Ruby argues that she is almost eighteen, and was doing fine on her own, denying living without heat and water in the yellow house however, the social worker’s report reads; “Minor child is apparently living without running water or heat in rental home abandoned by parent. Kitchen area was found to be filthy and overrun with vermin. Heat is non-functioning. Evidence of drug and alcohol use was discovered. Minor child appears to have been living alone for some time” (Dessen 14). Blinded by her determination for freedom and independence, Ruby remembers a romanticized version of her old life, explaining everything away in terms only satisfactory to herself;
“First of all, I had running water. Just not in the kitchen where the pipes had busted. This was why dishes tended to pile up, as it was hard to truck in water from the bathroom just to wash a few plates. As for the ‘vermin,’ we’d always had roaches; they’d just grown a bit more in number with the lack of sink water, although I’d been spraying them on a regular basis. And I did have a heater; it just wasn’t on. the drug and alcohol stuff - which I took to mean the bottles on the coffee table and the roach in one of the ashtrays - I couldn’t exactly deny, but it hardly seemed grounds for uprooting a person from their entire life with no notice.” (Dessen 14)
Dessen’s articulation of Ruby’s commentary on the social worker’s report clearly demonstrates desire for freedom as she willingly explains away all the things that horrify society about her living conditions. However, this is also a clear example of her need to accept help from others, as she was not living in suitable conditions on her own. Yet still, she blames everything else for ruining her freedom. “In fact, if the dryer hadn’t busted, I believed they might never have found out, and I could have stayed in the yellow house all the way until the end” (Dessen 13). It doesn’t bother her at all how she was living because she could “handle it.” “Sure I was behind on the rent and the power was close to getting cut off. But I would have handled all that one way or another, just like I had everything else. The fact was, I was doing just fine on my own...” (Dessen 13). Dessen’s selection of detail; the electricity about to be turned off by the power company, the broken dryer, the burst pipes, the cockroaches, and the drugs, all reveal Ruby’s dire need for assistance, even though she is unwilling to admit it or accept any.

Dessen portrays Ruby as being unwilling to accept help from anywhere, even potential friends, instead opting back to independence, needing no one except herself. She doesn’t accept an offer for directions to class from Nate, and also turns down his offer to carpool;
“‘The carpool,’ he said, like I was supposed to have any idea what he was talking about. ‘Jamie said you needed a ride to school.’
‘With you?’ [...] I looked at him. ‘I don’t need a ride.’
‘Jamie seems to think you do.’
‘I don’t.’” (Dessen 71-72)
Ruby refuses to accept any ride from Nate, even fighting Cora and Jamie to take the public bus, walking to the bus stop and to school from where it left her. She only stops and reluctantly accepts the carpool when she realizes she wouldn’t have time in the morning to take the bus and make it to school on time;
“...After dinner, I went online and printed out four different bus schedules, circling the ones I could catch at the closest stop and still make first bell. Sure, it meant getting up earlier and walking a few blocks. But it would be worth it.
Or so I thought, until I accidentally hit the snooze bar a few extra times the next morning [...]. So ten minutes later, I was out by the mailbox cursing myself, muffin in hand, when Nate pulled up” (Dessen 102).
Even after Nate rescues Ruby from where she had fallen unconscious, drunk, in the woods, she still declares him not a friend of hers;
“‘No.’ I swallowed, pulling my arms tighter around myself. ‘It’s not your problem.’
‘Ruby, come on. We’re friends.’
‘Stop saying that,’ I said.
‘Because it’s not true,’ I said, now turning to face him. ‘We don’t even know each other. You just live behind me and give me a ride to school. Why do you think that makes us somehow something?’
‘Fine,’ he said, holding up his hands. ‘We’re not friends.’” (Dessen 220)
Through use of dialogue, Dessen shows how Ruby pushes away the people who try to help her, by asking why she’s there, and telling Nate he’s not her friend. Ruby is shown to be so focused on independence, that she won’t allow anyone to do anything for her.

Dessen also shows Ruby’s need for companionship, as well as her reluctance in accepting it, through the dog Roscoe. Ruby says she does not like Roscoe at the start of the novel, as aforementioned, but Dessen uses him especially to convey Ruby’s strong need for company. Roscoe is extremely fearful of the oven, so when Ruby puts lasagna in the oven for dinner he has a panic attack. Ruby had gone upstairs, leaving Roscoe and the oven;

“I don’t know how long I was there, staring out the windows at the last of the sunset, before Roscoe came into the room. He came in almost sideways, like a crab. When he saw that I’d noticed him, his ears went flat on his head, as if he was expecting to be ejected, but couldn’t help taking a shot anyway.

For a moment, we just looked at each other. Then, tentatively, he came closer, then a bit closer still, until finally he was wedged between my feet, with the bed behind him. When he started shaking again, his tags jingling softly, I rolled my eyes. I wanted to tell him to cut it out, that we all had problems, that I was the last person he should come to looking for solace. But instead, I surprised myself by saying none of this as I sat up, reaching a hand down to his head. The moment I touched him, he was still.” (Dessen 98)

This portrayal of Ruby by Dessen reveals that despite her rough exterior, she needs and at least somewhat desires companionship, like that offered by Roscoe. It also shows that she can have sympathy for someone besides herself because although she wanted to yell at Roscoe, she did not, and rather offered him the comfort he was looking for in order to escape his fear of the oven. Dessen takes advantage of the perceptive nature of dogs by taking advantage of describing Roscoe as being fearful of Ruby tossing him out of the room, entering sideways and lowering his ears upon being spotted, exemplifying Ruby’s rough exterior as she appears to him.

Through the use of dialogue, detail, and animals, Sarah Dessen portrays Ruby’s conflicts with freedom, accepting help, and companionship.

(A.A. 2011)