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Living in the Dark

It’s no secret that my childhood was no sunny idyll. If you’ve managed to miss it, you can catch up some here and here and here. It’s not much fun, though.

I’ve spent much of the last week swapping stories that aren’t going to make it onto the blog with a friend. It isn’t something I usually want to do, but this is someone whose experience was close enough to mine that it really is a way of telling each other we aren’t alone–now. We made it. We may be broken, but at least somebody out there understands why and how and how far we’ve come.

That makes the timing of this WSJ article bemoaning the darkness of modern young adult literature all the more infuriating.

Now, whether you care if adolescents spend their time immersed in ugliness probably depends on your philosophical outlook. Reading about homicide doesn’t turn a man into a murderer; reading about cheating on exams won’t make a kid break the honor code. But the calculus that many parents make is less crude than that: It has to do with a child’s happiness, moral development and tenderness of heart. Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it.

If you think it matters what is inside a young person’s mind, surely it is of consequence what he reads. This is an old dialectic—purity vs. despoliation, virtue vs. smut—but for families with teenagers, it is also everlastingly new. Adolescence is brief; it comes to each of us only once, so whether the debate has raged for eons doesn’t, on a personal level, really signify.

Victorian romantic nonsense. Childhood wasn’t a happy, sheltered period then for more than a handful of privileged kiddies, and it still isn’t. Despite what a view from the WSJ might want you to believe, kids deal with an amazing amount of crap: unhappy parents, parental substance abuse, poverty, neglect, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, unreasonable and/or unreachable expectations, anxiety, depression, bullying. And that’s just counting the kids who aren’t somehow “weird.” Few of us makes it out unscathed, and none of us make it out completely ignorant.

Jackie Morse Kessler (one of the scary dark authors mentioned in the article) does a good job of translating adolescence into numbers in her response:

According to the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injurious Behavior in Adolescents and Young Adults, “12% to 24% of young people have self-injured” and “about 6%-8% of adolescents and young adults report current, chronic self-injury.” According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, “about 1 in 10 young people will self-harm at one point.”

One in 10. So in a classroom of 30 teens, 3 of them either are or will self-injure.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 10 million females and 1 million males suffer from anorexia or bulimia, and another 15 million suffer from binge eating disorder.

I was one of those 10 million females.

CyberMentors indicates that “as many as 70% of all young people have experienced some form of bullying” and “1 million kids are bullied every week.”

Let me repeat that: One million kids, every week, are bullied. This is not okay.

Nor is it okay to deny that these kids and these stories exist in order to maintain your sunshiny, simplistic, privileged view of what their childhood should have been like (particularly when all you really need to do is ask someone to help you find the cheery books of your own adolescence). That just makes you one more abuser, even if you wrap your denial in concern:

Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care.

Well, now, you see, this is the sort of thing that actually gets studied. In fact, Dr. Madelyn Gould has made a career of studying the almost purely young adult phenomenon of suicide clusters. And what she has to say is somewhat different:

But the most significant and critical red flag that predicts adolescent suicide risk, according to Gould and other researchers, is the presence of an underlying mental health problem. In teens, that’s most commonly depression, anxiety and alcohol or drug abuse.

“Even in the context of someone else’s suicide, without that underlying vulnerability, they’re not going to go on to attempt suicide or die by suicide,” Gould says.

Are there reasons to take care when creating a book like this? Of course there are, but that isn’t the argument being made in the WSJ. That argument is that things like this should remain hidden, that they shouldn’t intrude on a parent who wants a happy book for their little angel (who is, of course, absolutely not hiding anything scary from said parent).

They were hidden when I was younger. What I had then was “oh-em-gee, growing up is so weird and embarrassing” books by people like Judy Blume (which would have been wonderful had my main problem been embarrassment, and which I’m happy to know exist for those kids) and a handful of read-this-and-be-defined-by-the-issue books. I read adult books to find what I needed–books where broken people did things despite being broken. Luckily for me, my parents had a large and good library of this kind of book. Most kids I knew in situations like mine had to go without.

Now, though, many of those books are classified as young adult. More books like this are being written for young adults and put places where they can find them easily. And, having had the good fortune to talk to a number of young adult authors and editors, I can assure that these people are taking extreme care with their material and their audiences. While it may not be the case in book reviewing, people who make books for young adults don’t get very far by not knowing their audience or by treating them with disrespect.

So instead of concern trolling and wishing for a return to a nonexistent better past, maybe the WSJ reviewer (whose name, I admit, I haven’t bothered to look up for this post) should read a few more of those books. Maybe, just maybe, it’ll help her develop a better understanding of the needs of those kids. And who knows, maybe even a touch of empathy.

Comments

  1. says

    As an alienated teen, reading only about the shiny happy people is the literary equivalent of saying "everyone else is having a good time, you really are as freakish and weird as you think." And then you think you probably shouldn't talk about how freakish and weird you are (since it's obvious you're the only one), and you find some other way to cope. If, on the other hand, you read about other kids dealing with the very real darkness in life, fighting their demons and coming out on top, you know you're not alone. You know that it's possible to fight the darkness and that you can win. You know there's hope.

  2. says

    I am reminded of one of my favorite passages in fantasy, from the conclusion to Joy Chant's Red Moon and Black Mountain:"All that you have lost shall be restored, and all that you have gained remain untouched."Then Oliver met his eyes steadfastly, and said: "Young Lord, your words are gracious. But I have gained knowledge that will not leave me, and I know that you speak your truths too easily. There is something I have lost which you cannot restore, and that is innocence."There was an appreciative leap of laughter in the young one's eyes, and he answered gravely, 'And have men sunk so far, that the best they can hope for is innocence? Do they no longer strive for virtue? For virtue lies not in ignorance of evil, but in resistance to it.'