Wednesday, July 6, 2011

On YA Saves and the "Normalization" of Self-Destructive Behavior

On the weekend that Meghan Cox Gurdon published her now-infamous Wall Street Journal article decrying the darkness in Young Adult literature, I took a break from the #YASaves conversations on Twitter to have some fascinating discussions offline, with friends and roommates and publishing industry connections and anyone who would muse with me for a minute. I talked with friends about the article’s implicit assumption that YA as a genre belongs to privileged, protected young adults who can reasonably expect shelter from the horrors in many novels, not the many teens who are underprivileged and devalued by the very color of their skin or the neighborhoods in which they grow up (Sherman Alexie handled this brilliantly in his response to Gurdon's article, “Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood”). I talked about the tendency of adults to forget that children are actually capable of handling a great deal of sorrow—that they even seek it out as a natural part of growing up and forming an identity (something I wrote about back in 2009). I talked about how that article related to the book I was reading at the time, and I want to talk about that even more next week.

Mostly, I discussed my feelings about one section of Ms. Gurdon’s article in particular:
The argument in favor of such novels is that they validate the teen experience, giving voice to tortured adolescents who would otherwise be voiceless. If a teen has been abused, the logic follows, reading about another teen in the same straits will be comforting. If a girl cuts her flesh with a razor to relieve surging feelings of self-loathing, she will find succor in reading about another girl who cuts, mops up the blood with towels and eventually learns to manage her emotional turbulence without a knife.

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.
Ms. Gurdon's second article in defense of the original, published last week, went on:
For years, federal researchers could not understand why drug- and tobacco-prevention programs seemed to be associated with greater drug and tobacco use. It turned out that children, while grasping the idea that drugs were bad, also absorbed the meta-message that adults expected teens to take drugs. Well-intentioned messages, in other words, can have the unintended consequence of opening the door to expectations and behaviors that might otherwise remain closed.
Oh, how I turned that idea over in my mind! I want to disagree with the sentiment, but I can’t—not with my whole heart.

As a high schooler, I watched one friend of mine after another come to school with gashes on her arms. It happened over the course of a year; by the end of it, nearly half of my regular group was self-harming. I listened to discussions of where scars could most easily be hidden, how to acquire razors or scissors or sharp enough knives, and most of all what it felt like, why it was impossible to resist. My friends and I were dark teenagers, and our taste for dark books and films was insatiable. When I try to remember where we first encountered the concept of cutting, I don’t know which came first: the book I recall all of us reading, or the first person one of us knew who self-harmed.

Would we have encountered cutting outside of literature? Probably. Would it have seemed alluring, written in the scars on an acquaintance’s arms rather than the delicate prose of a book we treasured? I don’t know.

But do I think that the book “normalized” cutting, as Ms. Gurdon suggests? No. What I believe is that my friends, who were hurting immensely for all sorts of reasons, encountered what they thought might be a solution to their pain in those books.

Of course it was no kind of solution worth having. It was horrific. It made everything darker. At the time, if I could have saved my friends from going through that pain or stopped them from hurting themselves, I would have. But I couldn’t. So I waited. I hoped that things would get better, that they would find their way out of the darkness and into someplace lighter.

And you know what? They all did. They’ve become mathematicians and computer scientists and accountants and research assistants and neuroscientists and writers. They’re married or in relationships or single. Some of them make a lot of money, and some don’t. Some of them live with their families, some of them live with friends, and some live on their own. Some of them make art, and some make tools, and most of them somehow make the world a better place for a living. Last time I checked in with them, they were all happy. Isn't that what we all want for teens?

But we had to explore that darkness. If we hadn’t, we would have sat always in the sun, wondering, wondering what temptations the shadows might be hiding from our sight.

My mother called me a few weeks ago to talk about one of my teenage relatives. She was worried, she told me, by his behavior, the people he’s hanging out with, the hobbies he’s taken up. He’s dreadfully close to making a decision, she says, that could destroy his future.

“Let him,” I surprised myself by saying. “He’s smart. He’s going to realize, eventually, what a mistake it was.” I paused. “I mean, I did, didn’t I? And I’m okay.”

I believe that few mistakes are completely irreparable. And I believe that teens are going to make them, no matter what wisdom we impart, what measures we take to shelter them from darkness, and what rules we enforce about what they can and cannot see, think, and do. And I have faith in teenagers. I have immense faith in their intelligence, their capacity for survival, and their ability to heal. That’s what’s missing in these arguments about the darkness of YA lit: the faith in teenagers to navigate those treacherous waters—the faith that teens can and will find their way around to the right path, even if it means backtracking because they’ve gone the wrong way.

What are we so afraid of? That teens will make mistakes? Didn’t we?

And doesn’t every person deserve a chance to own his or her destiny?

They say that the only way out is through, and I believe it. When my friends and I think back on those dark times—and when I think back on the many stupid, painful, destructive decisions I made as a teenager and all the ways in which those decisions could have affected my future—I don’t want to go back and erase any of it. All that darkness became a part of the people we were growing into. It made us strong, it made us powerful, and it made us empathetic. It taught us where we didn’t want our lives to go, and in doing so it taught us what we did want, and who we were. And when our morbid curiosity lost its charm, and the horrific ways we found to patch up our wounds failed us, we started looking for a way out of the darkness. And we all found one, no matter how far in we'd gone or how many mistakes we'd made.

Because darkness lasts only until you seek out a place that’s light.

Edit: Maureen Johnson and Meghan Cox Gurdon herself continued this debate today on WHYY. If you missed the show, catch up here. I was glad to note that one of the callers brought up what I do in this article: that what's missing from the discussion is adults' faith in teenagers' intelligence and ability to make decisions.


  1. Powerful, wonderful piece. I too felt a pang when I read her question about "normalizing" dark behaviors. Could she have been right? In the end, I thought not, but I couldn't have articulated how I came to that conclusion as well as you have!

  2. Wonderful response. I found, in my darkest times, that I had already found a way to hurt myself through valuing the opinions of my peers. Through books, I found that I wasn't alone and that I wasn't necessarily what my peers thought of me.

    As always books mimic life. If we aren't shown the darkness, we'll never really understand, appreciate or even desire the light.

  3. Very true, Diana, and another great and very real reason to need even the darkest books in the genre.

  4. Rachel, thanks for this post. I think what Ms. Gurden was arguing has a certain amount of logic to it, but I have to disagree with her. Whoever said teens are logical?

    Teens reading books about other teens cutting won't make them become cutters. To say that teens will be more likely to try forbidden things found in fiction is like saying there are more serial killers now that C.S.I is on TV.

    I think what dark YA does do is raise awareness. I don't think I'll ever read a YA novel about a teen in pain and despair who isn't in a lighter place by the end of the book. And that's the point--YA illustrates that life sucks, and then you find a way through to get out, as you've said, Rachel. When I read a YA novel that illustrates the cruelty of life without tempering it with the beauty and possibility of life, I'll begin to worry.

    Again, great post!

  5. Thanks, Lauren! I think it's more than fair to say that teens are likely to try forbidden things -- but I think that's going to happen with or without fiction and TV. And I am a firm believer in giving them the benefit of the doubt to find their ways back out of it.

  6. I think that some YA books do make darker things out to be okay. It's hard to differentiate fiction from reality when you're caught up in a story, and I do think that internalizing bad messages from those books is a problem. But books like Diary of a Part-Time are important to show a way of thinking about a problem that gives you a solution instead of making you more confused than before. I'm a teenager, and I know first hand that it's easy to get caught up in darker things and thoughts when everyone around you is thinking the same way. Imagine you're given the materials to build a house, then instructions on how to build it that conflict with everything you knew previously about construction. When you read about being pressured into drinking or dysfunctional families from another perspective, it's like someone came with new instructions that go with your intuition, explained to you why the other directions were wrong, and helped you start your house. I'm not against dark stuff showing up in YA literature, but some of the ways it's portrayed are destructive and should be put in another section or banned.