Christina McDowell grew up in a red-brick mansion in McLean, a privileged existence of private schools and country clubs made possible by her father’s career in finance. As an adult, she has come to view that world with skepticism, grappling with the inequality and structural racism she saw at its root. Yet she watched as much of her cohort made its way into the usual exclusive DC institutions. What, she wondered, might it take for that to change?
That question is at the center of McDowell’s new novel, The Cave Dwellers. The scathing satire offers a cartoonishly exaggerated look at parents and high-schoolers from various corners of Washington’s insider class. “I wanted to understand why children I had grown up with were becoming the spitting images of their parents,” she says. “I wanted to explore the idea of breaking away.”
McDowell’s own separation from the DC elite didn’t happen by choice. In 2004, during college in LA, she lost everything after her father was charged with financial crimes related to the events depicted in The Wolf of Wall Street. He went to prison; she was left shell-shocked and more than $100,000 in debt. (Her dad had stolen her identity.) In The Cave Dwellers, several characters suffer due to their parents’ misdeeds. “I certainly drew on my own life,” McDowell says. “I wanted to explore what it means when you’re the child of someone who has morally and legally failed you. How does a child reconcile that when pressures and expectations are already so high?”
To research the book, McDowell moved back to DC for what she thought would be a year, crashing with a family friend while she explored the book’s settings, from the Bishop’s Garden at National Cathedral (the kids’ school is obviously based on St. Albans and National Cathedral School) to the secretive Alibi Club, which she managed to penetrate via a member she knows.
McDowell’s novel also uses an actual local tragedy as a plot device: the 2015 crimes known as the “mansion murders.” “It really scared me because they reminded me so much of my own family, superficially, just from the outside looking in,” says McDowell. “I kind of became obsessed with reading about it. I took that incident and let my imagination run with it.”
But couldn’t it come off as insensitive to use granular details of a real family’s trauma as a major plot point in a novel meant to satirize insider awfulness? Why not just make up an entirely fictional murder? “I’m sorry for those who are going to feel triggered by this, and I’m sorry for their loss,” McDowell says. But, she adds, “It’s fiction. Writers take articles all the time that they read and let their imagination go. These are uncomfortable conversations that we should be having about wealth in Washington and the roots of that wealth, and about the value of human life.”
McDowell is now working on another novel about DC, which she says will “explore femininity versus masculinity and the patriarchy,” most likely through the lens of the alt-right and extremism. She’s writing it from her home in Cleveland Park; despite that plan to move back here only temporarily, McDowell changed her mind and decided to stay. “This is a very dynamic city,” she says, “that I certainly have a complicated relationship with.”
This article appears in the June 2021 issue of Washingtonian.