Don't touch that dial - keep it shut off

May 20, 2007|By Bernadette Murphy | Bernadette Murphy,Los Angeles Times

The Big Turnoff

By Ellen Currey-Wilson

Algonquin Books / 352 pages / $23.95

Reading Ellen Currey-Wilson's The Big Turnoff, a memoir about raising a television-free child in a media-soaked world, is a little like attending a 12-step meeting, only the drug of choice is television. There's the requisite story of the addiction, how it is overcome by great effort - in this case, in order to spare the next generation - followed by a tale of the happy recovered life that ensues.

"One of the things I have always liked best about television is that it keeps me from thinking about or feeling anything unpleasant," the author confesses of her lifetime crutch. "If I'm sad, depressed, or anxious, I turn on the television. Afraid, nervous, bored, I turn on the set. It's a long list of emotions and situations I have trouble with, but television is always the answer."

When the book opens, Currey-Wilson, who lives in Portland, Ore., is pregnant with her only child and develops a plan to create a nearly TV-free household by the time her son arrives, weaning herself down to 15 hours a week, then 10, then two - the desired goal. As the author sees it, Casey's birth will present her with a unique opportunity: the ability to root him in the fertile soil of creativity, intelligence and emotional well- being, a foundation she believes she missed due to her early-onset and intense television habit.

Readers follow along as she falls off the wagon again and again through her son's preschool years. At times she completely relapses, sneaking away whenever possible, leaving her newborn in the care of her husband (who has taken three months off work) to get her fix, even squirreling away contraband videotapes that she has bought by the armloads, bingeing on the small screen.

Throughout, television shoulders a huge amount of culpability for the author's erratic behavior, which she painstakingly details. When her son is in day care, she slinks away to watch TV, not wanting to lose that precious time to do mundane things like housework.

When she doesn't hear immediately whether her son has been accepted into the tony kindergarten to which they've applied, she hires a psychic to quell her fears. When he is accepted, she color-codes the class list to line up friendships, tells Casey to make friends with popular kids and ingratiates herself among the "clique" moms - all to shield Casey from the almost-certain ostracism she fears will occur as the result of his TV-free life.

(To his credit, Casey, now a middle-schooler, can take TV or leave it.)

And just thinking about other television-watching families elicits cynical comments from the author, like this one about another mother. "Peggy is the normal one. It's normal to watch television. It is normal to drug your children. I remind myself that I'm abnormal."

This is not to suggest that eliminating or limiting television watching isn't an admirable goal - this reviewer, in fact, doesn't watch television and has raised her three children in a TV-limited household - only that Currey-Wilson's fixation with the import of turning off the television set seems out of proportion.

Alas, it's those irrational elements, rather than a practical solution to going without in this screen-saturated world, that become the focus of this self-obsessed narrative.

Bernadette Murphy is the author of "Zen and the Art of Knitting," and co-author of "The Tao Gals' Guide to Real Estate." She wrote a longer version of this review for the Los Angeles Times.

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