With her 2012 novel Dare Me, Megan Abbott transformed high school bullying into a startling tale of reckless teenage chaos. In her new novel, The Fever, another group of young women find themselves at the center of pandemonium, as one by one girls fall to a mysterious infection that causes terrifying, gruesome seizures. The author shares how this haunting tale was inspired by a real-life “mass hysteria” outbreak in Le Roy, New York, in 2012.
She’s pretty, fresh-faced. A cheerleader in a hoodie, her nervous smile lurking. But something’s wrong. “I was always so active,” she says, her words broken up by a sharp vocal outburst, her head jerking. “Everyone was always so happy to be around me. I just don’t feel like myself anymore.” Her name is Thera Sanchez, and I first saw her on the “Today” show in January 2012, a time when she and several other female teens in Le Roy, New York—all with similar vocal tics and twitches—were appearing everywhere: the morning shows; CNN; every major newspaper and magazine. All these lovely, panicked girls begging for answers to the strange affliction that seemed to be spreading through their school like a plague. Watching them and their terrified parents, I couldn’t look away.
Within days of first hearing about the young women—18 in all—of Le Roy, I began writing The Fever, which chronicles a mysterious outbreak in a small town. In the novel, we see everything through the eyes of the Nash family: Tom, a high school teacher, and his two teenage children, Eli and Deenie. One by one, Deenie’s friends are struck by terrifying, unexplained seizures, and fear and hysteria spread through the town.
For several months in early 2012, it seemed like the Le Roy story was amplifying in size, with concerned parents, the media and various activists pointing the finger at environmental toxins, the HPV vaccine, rare autoimmune disorders and other potential threats. Ultimately, the medical diagnosis—accepted by most—was that the girls were suffering from “conversion disorder,” a condition in which the body “converts” emotional distress into physical symptoms. Though psychological in origin, the symptoms are involuntary and completely real. When it occurs in groups, spreading from one to the next, it is called “mass psychogenic illness,” or “mass hysteria.”
While The Fever’s plot diverges dramatically from what happened in Le Roy, I was continually reminded of the stakes for these afflicted girls, for their parents, for the community. And that fear in the girls’ eyes, which was so complicated, so haunting and real: What’s happening to me? When will I be myself again? And, perhaps most hauntingly of all, What if no one believes me?
Comparisons to the Salem witch trials appeared (and remain) everywhere, except in this case it was the afflicted girls themselves who were put on trial, accused of faking their symptoms, of being dramatic look-at-me teenagers, of making it all up, as if it were a game. One needs only to survey a few Internet comments on the articles written about the case to get a sense of what the girls faced: “This is how the herd mentality works. These little heifers are enjoying the show they’ve produced for themselves.”
The young women of Le Roy had undergone significant emotional upheavals (a sick parent, domestic abuse) that triggered the symptoms we all saw on TV, but they were being treated as unruly drama queens. Perhaps in some way, their tics made us deeply uncomfortable. And it was easier to minimize them, dismiss them. Place blame.
Last month, The Fever long finished, I began to wonder how it might be for the girls now, reportedly recovered and no longer under the media glare. I contacted Dr. Jennifer McVige, the neurologist who treated 10 of them. We talked for a long time about the experience and the aftermath, but one thing she said has hummed in my brain ever since: “I’d tell the girls, what you’re going through now is so challenging, but you’re going to come out stronger, smarter. You’re going to look back to this time in your life and say, I got through that, I can get through this. I can do anything now.”
It felt like such a parable of female adolescence, writ large. I think back to Thera Sanchez on the “Today” show, to the words she said—which, on one level, could be the words of any teenage girl, any young woman ever. There’s part of her that wants to please (“Everyone was always so happy to be around me.”), part of her that wants to do (“I was always so active.”) and part that feels lost (“I just don’t feel like myself anymore.”). She knows she’s changing, and it’s so hard because it feels like everyone’s watching, judging. And she’s just asking to be heard and understood.
Megan Abbott is the Edgar Award-winning author of seven novels. She lives in Queens, New York.