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James Franco's "Palo Alto": Are things really this awful?

Original post made by Adobe, Adobe-Meadow, on Apr 8, 2011

I recently read through some of James Franco's collection of short stories, "Palo Alto". He grew up in Palo Alto and all the stories are set here, so it was pretty cool to see so many familiar places--the Children's Library, Middlefield Road, California Avenue, Paly and Gunn, etc.--mentioned in the book.

But apart from that....yikes! The stories are all about teens growing up in town, and it seems like every character is a borderline sociopath. All characters are either perpetrators or victims of bullying, alcohol and drug abuse, misogynist sexual exploitation of girls, vandalism, and more. No one exhibits remorse for any of their deeply antisocial behavior, and everyone is depressed. Reading the book, you get the impression that teens in this town are all Eric Harrises and Dylan Klebolds, teetering on the edge, about to commit some horrific crime.

This all seems inconsistent with what you read on this forum, where the prevailing characterization of Palo Alto teens is of over-worked academic and athletic over-achievers staying up until 1am doing their homework. I also don't recognize all these sociopathic types among the bright, polite, and apparently well-adjusted local high school kids I've come in contact with.

A lot of the reviewers on call Franco's book pretentious, pointless, derivative and poorly written. That may be true, but what I'm more interested in is how prevalent is the stuff he describes among our town's teens. Everyone knows that the middle and high school years can be really tough times for everyone, and you're always going to have some who act out. But Franco's book makes it seem like the world of teens in Palo Alto is one big cesspool, hanging by a thread.

Have any Gunn or Paly students on this forum read the book? What did you guys think of its depictions of high school life in Palo Alto?

Comments (27)

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Posted by Paly Alum
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 8, 2011 at 1:56 pm

The library has the book on hold for me - perhaps you just returned it! I'll bet it's just the alternative crowd he hung out with. Sure, partying is always alive and well in all high schools. Whether a child engages or not is their decision. People write books so they can tell their interesting stories.

I grew up here in the 80s and was not part of the partying crowd but did hear stories. And I have heard current stories too but my child is not a part of that scene. This is an intellectual town; there are too many nerds for the majority of kids to be partying it up.

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Posted by truth
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Apr 8, 2011 at 8:23 pm

i've read the book. I believe it to be about 85% true... Yeah, things are that crazy.

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Posted by Anon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 8, 2011 at 11:22 pm

I lived on the East Coast for a while, and the Gulf Coast for a while before we moved to Palo Alto. What I noticed about Palo Alto and California in general ... this is just my anecdotal opinion of course, is that it was the most unfriendly, unneighborly place.

Within minutes of moving anywhere except California the neighbors and neighbor kids were right there introducing themselves, bringing food, being friendly, helping out. In California/Palo Alto ... not really one. People and kids were alienated unfriendly and cliquish. To me, it did not matter that much because as a young teen I already had a fairly strong character, but there were bullies in Jr. High, and even High School, slightly more than the norm I thought.

I think it was class consciousness in Palo Alto. Palo Alto then and to some extent now, maybe even more, was a mix of working class, white collar, but today it is really stratified. The addition of ethnic groups that come from cultures that are very class conscious only hurts. There is no norm in Palo Alto except a kind of aloofish pretentious arrogance - and from all sides.

Instead of taking the best from all these groups it seems like Palo Alto (and surrounding cties) has magically determined the most effective way to provoke the worst in everyone, while teaching everyone how to act like they are supremely happy and confident. I get this from the years later talking to people I went to school with and they all felt completely misunderstood and were also off base about everyone else of their friends.

Whatever the US used to have in terms of down to Earth norms of culture that we used to be very proud of is completely gone in my opinion and in denial even the whole country seems to cling to these slogans like we are best, richest, most powerful nation on the face of the Earth. The irony of it is that we still have the core of what created this and the more we lean on the words the more we lose the reality.

There certainly are strong communities in some areas, but they seem like enclaves to me, and there are a lot of very community spirited people, but they are made almost invisible by the high-visible awful people and awful things that happen.

We have so much, we should just relax and enjoy each other a bit more, maybe compete a little less.

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Posted by Get out of the kitchen
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 9, 2011 at 6:18 pm

@Anon: Your posting is off topic, but in response. . . As you posted, it is your "anecdotal opinion." I have lived in many different states, including Minnesota, which somehow is deemed as having friendly people, yet they are too reserved to be helpful. The friendliest and most helpful people are in California by far.

When was Palo Alto "working class"? I grew up here in the 70s and it was not "working class".

Perhaps since you live in Crescent Park, you have seen bad attitudes in your neighborhood. I find the majority of Palo Altans to be modest, unpretentious, and friendly.

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Posted by truth
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Apr 9, 2011 at 6:22 pm

Anon said it perfectly. That is how people from Palo Alto act these days. I've seen it first hand and had double takes on the behavior of my neighbors and also the parents of my daughter's friends. This is not nirvana -- this is a very pretentious, ugly place.

Of course, not all... but this applies to more of Palo Alto than anyone would guess.

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Posted by jass
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 10, 2011 at 5:05 am


It is that awful, an awful book.

As an old song once preached - "You have to be carefully taught"

People in "shallow alto" do seem to have great expectations, as well as, a perception of themselves as "special" and so many of them pass these values to their children. This is a broad brush but not an unfair one, where the wealthy home buyers who move here for better schools, apply more and more pressure to their children. No wonder the kids start to either crack or escalate the "mean" modes of childhood friendships.


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Posted by Anon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 11, 2011 at 12:22 am

> Get out of the kitchen, a member of the Palo Alto High School community

Your post is so full of contradictions. I really love the question:

> When was Palo Alto "working class"? I grew up here in the 70s and it was not "working class".

Who do you think lived in all the Eichler, or little cracker-board houses in this town? There were a lot of them, and over time the town became so popular that professional people started buying and rennovating these old houses. Are you telling me you do not get that? You can drive through town and see the changes in the houses. Have you ever gone to a few real estate open houses. The first thing people do when they buy one of these old houses in Palo Alto is to tear it down and build a mcmansion.

It is so ironic as well that when there were more working class people living here we had a better town, the parks were much nicer, and there were no homeless people on the streets. I happened to catch the transition at PALY where they went from the old buildings to the new buildings. The old buildings were like Room 222, the new buildings did have air conditioning, but they had no windows or fresh air, and today they look terrible, like a prison.

Things change, it's a fact of life,but ignoring it or pretending they don't is just silly.

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Posted by PA Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 11, 2011 at 5:04 pm

We make our community -- all of us, even you.

Yes, Palo Alto isn't ready-made friendly community, but I see a lot of people these days who care about making it so, and I've seen specific steps taken by many. I have a lot of hope. Especially for our young people WHO ARE INCREDIBLE!

I have been amazed by how intelligent, mature, conscientious, helpful, ambitious (in the best sense), and strong so many of our kids are, I have never witnessed anything like this anywhere else.

We choose our friends. Apparently James Franco was too "cool" (or maybe something else) for the kids I see, and thus chose his experience reflected in his book.

I lived in Oakland for years. Despite what you see in the media, it was one big small town. Very neighborly. Some parts you wouldn't want to visit in the daytime, but same goes for any big city. That aspect of Oakland I would love to see here in PA. One day....

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Posted by ODB
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 11, 2011 at 10:30 pm

I grew up in Palo Alto from 1955 to 1973 back when school teachers, police officers, store merchants, post office employees, etc. could actually afford to live here. Starting in the '70s with the high-tech boom, people flocked to Palo Alto from all over the world to seek their high-tech fortunes and brought with them their overachieving, consumptive and materialistic values. In the process, they and their McMansions priced the middle class out of town. Now the school teachers, police officers, store merchants, post office employees, etc. can no longer afford to live here have no other option but to live far, far away.

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Posted by Paly Alum
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 11, 2011 at 10:44 pm

The people who vent about Palo Altans being snobby should move away if they don't like the community. Most likely, they aren't successful themselves, so they need to point the finger at those they envy. I love the people here. There are successful people everywhere and one wouldn't know it due to the low-key Palo Alto attire. I HEART PA.

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Posted by Bikes2work
a resident of Santa Rita (Los Altos)
on Apr 11, 2011 at 10:53 pm

I don't think the behavior represented in the book is necessarily unique to Palo Alto. It is more a reflection on the potential consequences for children growing up in extreme affluence. Think of the Billionaire Boys Club or the Chowchilla Kidnappers. It comes down to teaching morals above all else. It isn't easy when academics and status are so important to the local populace.


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Posted by A Different Paly Alum
a resident of Mountain View
on Apr 11, 2011 at 11:09 pm

Paly Alum, people who vent about the shallowness are just jealous and unsuccessful? Um, okay. I also grew up in Palo Alto, went to Paly in the late 80s and the changes in Palo Alto since then are huge.

Back to the book, I did read it, and it was completely disturbing. James Franco isn't that much younger than me, he went to Paly at the same time as my siblings. I certainly hope it was all a work of fiction, but damn, there were some really disturbing moments in that book. I didn't know anyone like his characters when I was in high school. Thankfully.

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Posted by Not a fan
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Apr 11, 2011 at 11:53 pm

Franco is everyplace you look these days -- movies, book, the awful Oscar performance. I can't forget his behavior at the Oscars. He wouldn't share the microphone with his co-host, she had to bend around him to talk into it.
I hope his 15 minutes of self promotion will be over soon.

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Posted by daniel
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 12, 2011 at 7:07 am

Palo Alto used to be the friendliest town one could hope for. I believe that the insane competitiveness and overachieving mentality created by the high-tech boom changed the nature of the town, although there are still friendly and down to earth residents living here. The influx of residents from other parts of the world, some of whom originate from societies that are highly class conscious have also contributed to the feelings of alienation and unfriendliness. I would compare teenagers in Palo Alto to those in Beverly Hills- great affluence often creates teens who go through life feeling, and behaving, like masters of the universe. Luckily, some of them, perhaps most, have kept their humanity and decency despite the peer pressure.

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Posted by Gunn mom
a resident of Ventura
on Apr 12, 2011 at 8:30 am

We moved to Palo Alto in '92 and our kids are now in high school. They've made great friends at school and playing sports. While there are a few wild ones, most are very kind, responsible and are doing well in school.

Our strong sense of community is enhanced through volunteering at school events, cheering at soccer games and making time to nurture friendships.

Ventura is an old working class neighborhood and is in transition as homes are remodeled. Our neighbors have come from Europe, Central America, the Caribbean and Asia. We delight in the diversity here.

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Posted by Anon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 12, 2011 at 9:05 am

> The people who vent about Palo Altans being snobby should move away
> if they don't like the community. Most likely, they aren't successful
> themselves, so they need to point the finger at those they envy.

This comment is hilarious. If people live in Palo Alto they are by definition successful at least in some way. Living here is expensive. So this kind of reverse sour grapes comment is just the kind of thing that is at the heart of the problem, a kind of arrogant non-introspective defensive insecure statement, based on a money scale of measuring the world. Palo Alto was better before this way of thinking took over.

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Posted by Adobe
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 12, 2011 at 10:11 am

Like Gunn Mom, we’ve had nothing but good experiences here with our neighbors and in our children’s school communities.

I wonder if there are some huge differences among the different neighborhoods, because in my own neighborhood, I certainly do not recognize the snobbery and unfriendliness complained about here. People are down to earth, the most popular car on the streets is the Prius, neighborhood kids play and go trick or treating together. Parents at the local school are laid back, get involved with community activities, and care a lot about their kids.

In many ways, it's an idyllic suburb, and given all the positive things we see every day, it’s easy to see why so many people want to live here. The main reason I found the James Franco book so jarring was that even among the high schoolers I’ve met, I haven’t seen anything like the extreme nihilistic tendencies pervasive among characters in the book.

I appreciate other people’s points about economic diversity, but I think there’s another side to it. I went to a public suburban high school. The top 10-20% of the school cared a lot about academics, but unfortunately much of the rest of the school didn’t. 99% of the ridiculousness that went on in school--spray painting graffitti and starting fires on school grounds, going to class high, doing acid, shouting out racist epithets, tormenting those suspected of being gay, making fun of the studious kids for being “brains”--was perpetrated from the kids from those wonderful blue collar backgrounds referred to here. I know it’s not politically correct to make that observation, but that’s the way it was.

Whatever complaints people might have about academic pressure here, from what I can tell, this is a place where a kid doesn’t have to feel embarrassed about being smart or having intellectual interests. And the Gunn kids’ response last year to those hate-mongers was inspiring and made me really admire the kids in this town. I wish my experiences didn’t make me feel this way, but I’ll take all this over economic diversity any day.

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Posted by south PA Mom
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Apr 12, 2011 at 10:47 am

Neurotic people gravitate to neurotic people so they see a neurotic world.

My experience in the district is there is a majority of talented, balanced, hard-working kids. If you want to find neurosis, it is in every community. If you gravitate to that sort of thing, it's easily found anywhere.

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Posted by citizen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 12, 2011 at 10:58 am

I couldn't agree more with your observations and experience. Additionally, Palo Alto was the first place I had ever heard that wealth is a pre-condition for intelligence. Kids are getting that message loud and clear too.

That said, Palo Alto has a lot of good things going for it.

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Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 12, 2011 at 12:01 pm

James Franco really needed a new set of friends. Sheesh. It is sad when people view the "exception" as the "norm."

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Posted by Memory Lane
a resident of Gunn High School
on Apr 12, 2011 at 1:57 pm

I grew up in PA in the 70s/80s and could relate to most of the stories in one way or another. I don't know how PA compares to other places since I didn't grow up in other places, but I certainly witnessed no shortage of cruelty, partying, sex, violence, vandalism, and bored, thrill-seeking night wanderings by kids of all cliques. I thought it was a great book - well written if you keep in mind that the stories are told from the perspective of the teenaged characters using their voices.

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Posted by daniel
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 12, 2011 at 2:09 pm

The "extreme nihilistic tendencies pervasive among characters in the book" certainly exist among Palo Alto teenagers, but that doesn't imply that there aren't many well-balanced, decent, down to earth kids as well. I don't think that Franco implies that all high-schoolers in Palo Alto are into partying, cruelty, sex and drugs. Unfortunately, I have found out, because I have two teenagers myself, that there is a lot of that in Palo Alto, although many would like to pretend otherwise.

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Posted by Memory Lane's Biggest Fan
a resident of Gunn High School
on Apr 12, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Ditto to all that memory lane posted...reading it now and love the book and so much of it hits very close to home!

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Posted by Kathy
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 12, 2011 at 4:18 pm

Franco's book is fiction...he had to put some drama in it. And he probably did hang with an alternative crowd, leading to some alternative experiences to write about-good for him.
I recently moved to Palo Alto from the midwest. It is very friendly here. My work requires travel and that is how I came upon Palo Alto . The quality of the community and the friendliness is why I moved here.

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Posted by Been There Saw That
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Apr 12, 2011 at 5:21 pm

"I certainly witnessed no shortage of cruelty, partying, sex, violence, vandalism, and bored, thrill-seeking night wanderings by kids of all cliques"

Just like in my home town in the midwest, several decades ago.

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Posted by got to be kidding
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 13, 2011 at 10:33 am

It is FAR more friendly in the midwest than here - no comparison.
It is also friendly in a certain portion of the south,people are very polite.
It is so-so on east coast.

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Posted by Ajiax
a resident of another community
on Aug 24, 2011 at 6:44 am

Ok... As with any community Palo has it's good points and bad points. But do the good out number the bad here? Previous posters are negating the claims of people who dislike palo, then putting them down bc of where they live... Or attacking them personally.... They are NOT making a good case for their position!! It's laughable!!! I'm going to attack you because you don't like it here!!!? Stupid!! If someone doesn't like something I love, I ask why and tell them, I am sorry that happened to you and I would never do that, I feel for you, let me help you.. Those posters are thickheaded.

There are plenty of amazing things about Palo... Its the youth culture today all over the us thats diseased. There is alot of bullying, alot of greed and alot of Machiavellianism or in fact as Franco writes SOCIOPATHY. There are scholars out there writing about the massive narcissism of our culture today and from what I've seen it's absolutely true. The culture is sick, young people today are more manipulative than ever. And you know why?? It's the age of entitlement, the age of narcissism. Listen to some rap or pop music and tell me what our darling children are hearing!!! Yes!!! Palo alto is that screwed up! Everywhere is that screwed up. I moved every 3 years as a kid. I graduated in 07... Some places were a bit different but you know, people are just people. 

Sociopathy, and manipulative personalities have ruined and sometimes briefly rewarded societies since the dawn of man. I liked Palo Alto the book, it's indicative of many places I've been. It comEs down to this: can you understand that nothing, even a book is absolute? And Can you accept that the culture is tending to an extremely nasty post these days? (this is vague enough to be considered/ accepted). Lord knows we all need to take back our culture!!! Ex: People at some business schools are teaching students to put blame on others as a success strategy (beacuse it WORKS) .... And other business schools teaching HOW TO SPOT SOCIOPATHS. Hahaha! Don't be naive!!!! Yes,Palo Alto disturbing. It's real.

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