I’m far from the target audience for the simulated teen drinking party I attended last weekend—that audience being freaked-out parents who want to see what really goes on at the hormone-fueled ragers their children are just starting to attend—but let me start by saying that the whole thing was very effective. I was expecting some sort of cornball Red Asphalt style PSA with the pathos of a church-operated haunted house, but no, I was wrong. This “reality party,” as they are called, was thoughtful, and then terrifying—but not for the reasons you’d expect.
It was also, thankfully, short. For a half hour, I, along with 10 other utterly freaked out parents, watched about 30 non-actor teens play out teen drinking games, teen schemes to get more booze, two teen fights, and a teen sexual assault.
By the end a few of things were very clear:
- Teenagers are fucking liars.
- The teenage paradox—the fact that the more constraints you apply, the more your teen acts out—can really only be solved by adults who are on top of their loving, empathetic, emotional intelligence game.
- They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
Escorting us through the immersive modules of this “reality party” was hosted by the CLARE Foundation—a rehab center based in Santa Monica. Karen Kasmir, the inventor of the reality party format, served as the Virgil to our Dante, walking us through circles of teen iniquity. This was followed by a very solemn debrief and discussion conducted by one of CLARE’s front-line rehab counselors.
The reality party structure is a relatively unique model for education, which Kasmir conceived of after doing outreach where she’d rap with teens about how and why they partied the way they did. Kasmir put together the crowdsourced responses for an immersive PSA-cum-theatre vérité—directed, interestingly, not at teens but at their parents.
Module 1: Teens describe the way they lied to their parents to come to this teen drinking party
We airdropped into a half-moon circle of teens mid-party. The throng of teens (who received community service hours for their participation) swilled their tequila bottles filled with apple juice and bragged about the ways they hoodwinked their parents into letting the come to this “cool party.” As the teens outdid each other with tales of omission and deception, one thing became clear: it doesn’t matter if your sneakers light up or if you can wear your phone on your face; the, “Hey, I’m spending the night at Innocuous Friend’s house,” story will be a lie teens tell their parents from now until the end of time.
One young man in a Wu-Tang shirt explained that his mother uses the GPS on his phone to track him and so he leaves his phone at the location he said he would be at (“Chad’s House”) but then would have his calls forwarded to his friend’s number at the “Cool Teen Party Location.” This seemed overly complicated, and I hope most teens have figured out how to effectively use $10 cell phone burners to better lie to their parents.
Next up, the teens described various strategies for procuring booze. They included: stealing bottles from their parents’ wet bar, shoplifting, and fake IDs. One blonde teen described how she would sidle up to men outside liquor stores and just ask nicely for a six-pack of Mike’s Hard Lemonade. There, voila.
The teens started to play High Card/Low Card, and within moments they’d sucked down four shots of “vodka” to rousing applause. Then, the flow of activity and booze abruptly stood still for a Scorsese-style freeze-frame with an overlapping monologue delivered by a bespectacled teen. “I feel left out and like I’m not getting enough attention,” she said, demolishing the fourth wall, “I think I’m going to do something big so I can feel like a part of the group.” Within a flash the bespectacled teen had her mouth wrapped around a hose connected to a beer funnel.
Under all the Teen Party Factoids and stilted line delivery, there was a truth in all of this that most grim PSAs about Out of Control Teens tend to miss: teenagers aren’t really directly pressured to do stuff. No one really gives a shit if you do body shots, vape weed, or butt-chug. Teens more often do stuff because they’re afraid that, if they don’t, they will have missed a definitive teen experience; that the tide of experimentation and invincibility will sweep their friends right past them.
Module 2: Creepy old guy walks in on two passed-out teen girls
Some time later in the evening, the teens’ flushed and oily faces are smushed into pillows and the Sharpies have done their work. A man in his 50’s surreptitiously enters the “living room” to enact every parent’s nightmare. It’s unclear if the older “non-actor” was a CLARE staff member or a resident of the rehab center or just a brilliant bit of casting, but he nailed the part of a creepy burnt-out beach hippie who used to roadie for Neil Young. He told us onlookers, our backs straight as fence posts, that he found out about the party through a blast on Facebook.
Gesturing to the comatose girls, he said, “They think I’m a 17-year-old named Josh!”
Then he reached for one the girls phones and swiped through her pictures until he came to some “lingerie shots.” Then he ran his finger along the ribcage of one of the sleeping girls, just stopping short of her breasts.
It was at this point I strongly considered asking my boyfriend for a vasectomy so I would never be in charge of a teen.
Module 3: The bedroom scene
Here is where the reality party took a turn into a electronica-camp fever dream. We entered a darkened room, lit only by the flicker of a half dozen Febreze-scented candles being held aloft by serious looking teens. A techno track played on the stereo with pre-recorded overlays on adolescent voices:
“We were both drunk so we didn’t remember to use protection.”
“Girls expect you to come on to them at parties. They’re disappointed if you don’t do it.”
Every time one of the snatches of dialogue played a teen would move a candle around their face, it felt akin to watching a Tori Amos video featuring Disney’s Hall of Animatronic Presidents.
“The last thing I remember was two guys taking my clothes off.”
“I didn’t even really want to do it. I was too drunk to move.”
Eventually, the music swelled and all the teens blew out their candles, and were we left with the sounds of one sobbing girl.
Debrief with the Parents
Shaken but relieved that we had reached the final circle of teen hedonism, we were escorted into another room to have a debrief conducted by a front-line counselor at CLARE. We were told that it is “OK if teens go to parties, but that parents should know what the risks are so they can better talk to their kids about them.” A reasonable position!
We went round the circle in pure 12-step style to say our names and how old our teens were (I confessed to being a journalist and a former a slutty teen drinker and a master bullshitter to my parents). Most parents had one or two teens on the brink of becoming binge-drinking-group-sex-machines (e.g. ages 14 to 15). The parents themselves were all well to-do types who populate the tony beach town of Santa Monica. Interestingly, they were almost all first-generation immigrants: a few from the Eastern Bloc, Philippines, France, and possibly Australia. Were they here because they were fearful of the what universal teen pressures were doing to their children or what American Culture was doing to their children?
For a moment I was filled with love. I had crossed the rubicon from pukey-public-property-destroying-drunk teen to Concerned Adult. Here was my tribe: cable-knitted compassionate types who take out time from Saturday night to figure out how to better rap with the teens in their life!
But then then parents started chatting about the way they “handle” their teens. There was quick consensus that it was kosher to check texts, search backpacks, search browser history, and impose lengthy grounding sentences. The sensation of listening to parents coldly discuss surveillance and punishment regimes was like that moment in the novel when you realize the reliable narrator has been the villain all along.
One woman expressed her fears that the offspring of a drug addict could corrupt her child. A flinty mother from Malibu gave an accidental lecture of the various class differences between the beach towns (Malibu = high, Santa Monica = middle, Topanga= low) her teenage son visits, and how she makes sure to meet all the mothers so she can and build a “basket of security” around her son. After describing her coastal panopticon, she confessed that her 14-year-old Little League star had come back from one outing puking and stinking of booze.
“We put him to bed and decided a good punishment would be taking away his cell phone, internet, and not allowing him to go out for a month.”
The counselor, gray-haired and soft, gently asked, “Do you think any punishment can really be good?” He went on to describe his time as an Out of Control Teen that resulted in a lot of punishment and even some jail time. “None of it deterred me.”
What did work? All the concerned parents wanted to know.
The counselor said that he was invited weekly to a friend’s house, a friend he really liked with a family he wanted to belong to. Eventually the father of the family pulled him aside and said he would like to give the counselor some responsibilities for the weekly meals, but he didn’t believe the counselor was reliable. The counselor started bringing small things to the meals—napkins, cups. Over time, he was asked to cook the roast the whole family would be eating. “It was love,” he said. “They just loved me.”
This was a tender moment, and then it quickly dissolved. Another parent told the Malibu mom that she was being too lenient, and that she and her husband planned to send their son to military school when he turned 16 (I didn’t even know they still had punitive military schools—I thought they mostly just served as a dramatic device in ‘80s teen movies).
Maybe the parents just needed to be assured that their children were less at risk at fucking up their lives because they had parents who are interested enough in their well-being to be here on a Saturday night watching a ninth grader perform a faux keg stand. But that was never said.
The debrief ended abruptly and the parents went off into the night.
I mentioned in the last few minutes that I had also done a night in jail because of my drinking but that I was now an upstanding citizen who had a great relationship with my parents. The military-school mom asked, “But your parents were still disappointed in you, right? It doesn’t matter how old you are.”
Poor teens. Poor everyone.
An earlier version of this post misdentified Karen Kasmir as the Executive Director of the CLARE Foundation. Nicholas Vrataric is the Foundation’s Executive Director.
Photos by the author.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.