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.Ms. Gurdon's second article in defense of the original, published last week, went on:
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.
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.