Thursday, April 19, 2007

Editorial: Art and Alienation, or, Can Books Save Lives?

Normally, our posts here focus on particular cases of banning and censoring going on across the country rather than the big philosophical issues. Sometimes particular cases will lead to interesting philosophical discussions in the comments section, but today I want to put an idea right out there for us to think about and discuss. And this isn't a rhetorical question; I don't already have an answer for myself. I really want to know.

Like many today, I've been hearing and watching clips from the video "manifesto" put out by the Virginia Tech shooter, Cho Seung-Hui. I have to admit that some of what he says doesn't sound all that unusual to me---he sounds like a lot of people I knew in high school who were pissed off at the world, felt done to, felt they had no place, angry and misunderstood and feeling helpless. But set him and his words aside, because the incident is too new and his history of mental illness too clear to make the case that a good book could have turned this situation around. It gets me thinking, though, about past school shooters in junior high and high school incidents of the last twenty years. Every case is different, every individual different and infinitely complex, but one of the recurring themes is that the shooters were outsiders, kids who were bullied, alienated, misunderstood, lacking a social circle that understood them, unable to articulate fear or rage or sorrow or whatever they were feeling.

One reason I read when I was a kid and teen was to feel understood. When I cracked open THE CHOCOLATE WAR for the first time I remember feeling that finally, finally, someone out there really understood the hell it was to be fourteen years old. Whenever I read a Madeleine L'Engle book, I knew it was okay to be smart---something kids in my junior high used as an insult over and over again. ("You're so smart." It came out sounding exactly the same as, "You're so ugly." I recently got an email from an adult who read about my book, and said that her own sexual promiscuity in high school started in an effort to hide and change her identity as the "smart girl.") I sought out books that featured alcoholic parents, because I had one and wanted to know I wasn't alone.

AS IF founder and regular poster here, Brent Hartinger, has gotten letters from teen readers who were so confused and alienated by sexual identity that they were considering suicide. Reading about the gay characters in Brent's books may have literally saved their lives. Authors of the so-called "edgy" books that get challenged and censored regularly hear from readers who say that their books are the first and only place they have found some understanding, some safety, some knowledge that they aren't alone. I know that sometimes adults look at the topics in some teen books and say, "How depressing! How hopeless! Why are we letting kids read this stuff?" Because for many of us, there is enormous hope simply in knowing you are not the only one who has done/felt/thought/been through a particular experience.

One thing AS IF sees again and again in censorship cases is this pervading fear of art and what it might do to children or teens. There is concern over exposing them to topics that seem too dark, too challenging. What is more fear-inducing? The prospect of a teen reading about something potentially controversial and difficult, or the prospect of a teen believing that violence---towards self or others---is the only remaining option? Maybe getting the very books that draw so much fear into the hands of kids before they turn that dark corner can be part of a process that changes a path from hope to despair. Is it possible that the defense of intellectual freedom can be the defense of life itself? It could be that I'm too optimistic about the power of art to reduce the feelings of alienation, I don't know. What do you think?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

10:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So well said!!w

11:39 AM  
Blogger T.S. said...

I'm going to link to this in my blog.

11:50 AM  
Blogger Lisa Yee said...

Recently, I read 19 Seconds by Jodi Picoult. I could not help being struck by the similarities between her book and the tragedy at Virginia Tech.

Has anyone else read Picoult's book?

2:51 PM  
Blogger Sarah Darer Littman said...

BRAVO Sara!!

I, too, read non-stop as a child and a teen because finding people I related to in books was infinitely easier than finding them in "real life".

7:17 PM  
Blogger C. K. Kelly Martin said...

If you're too optimistic, so am I, because I do believe art can reduce feelings of alienation. I remember after John Lennon was shot in 1980, one fan said:

"He kept me from dying so many times."

That's the power of art, it connects people to something larger than themselves.

"There is concern over exposing them to topics that seem too dark, too challenging."

What I have trouble understanding is how some parents can believe that children aren't being challenged/encountering darkness in their real lives. For example, RAINN stats show that about 44% of rape victims are under 18. Maybe it's a kind of denial, the hope that you can shield your children from bad experiences, but that denial won't help them.

7:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you accept the idea that a book, art, can be powerful enough to change a life, even to safe a life. Does that mean you have to accept that a book can affect a life negatively? Even destroy it? After Columbine some people wanted to blame Marilyn Manson. I do believe that books can be powerful, can cause pleasure and pain. That's why I believe they should be freely available to all in a library, and also why the subject of assigned reading is such a touchy one for me. I think people, of any age, should be free to read what they want and to not read what they don't want. I'm pro-choice.

I also plan on locking my children in their rooms until they've read all my favorite books, so yeah, as I said, the whole assigned reading thing is fraught with contradiction for me.

9:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have long been of the firm opinion that we protect our children too much. While the Victorian ideal of the innocence of childhood is all very well and good, if we prolong that childhood to the extent we try to, I think what we wind up with is adults who have no idea how to be anything but children. They are so protected from life that when faced with ugly realities, they will do anything to hide their heads in the soil.

Protection from the hard factors of life as a child becomes a desperate game of self protection as an adult. People don't watch news or read newspapers because it makes them mad. People don't fight politics because they could get into legal trouble. People don't reach out to their fellow man because bad things COULD happen (never mind statistically our crime rate plummets while our fear of our neighbors disproportionately increases). We have adults trying to live the same sheltered lives they did as children, probably because they know no other way to live.

And these people wind up hurting us all. We really CAN'T protect our kids. As another commenter stated, almost half of all rapes recorded are for underage girls and boys, and the statistics start at the age of 12. Children molested, abused, and raped under that age--yeah, there are statistics, but not good ones.

And that doesn't start to cover all the other things kids go through--neglect, trapped and powerless in situations they can't leave, or made by nature to be different in a world that demands conformity so rigidly that they'd be happy to drug you into it, just to make sure you don't step out of line. (Oh, come on now, lets be serious--we take the highly energetic 6 and 7 and 8 year olds, lock them in a classroom and make them sit all day, take away their PE times, then when they won't sit still we med them up on Ritalin. They are literally drugging 3 year olds these days. Anyone else see a flaw in this logic?)

Parents who can barely handle their own lives are raising kids--properly "protected"--who are given no tools to handle the hard stuff in theirs. And these kids are falling apart as a result. And parents of intelligent or perceptive or precocious kids, or parents of kids who's lives have taken a turn they cannot even imagine (gay, raped, called to a different god, etc.) often alienate these children even in the best and most loving of homes simply because these kids know that, though their parents love them, they simply cannot understand. And they feel like islands cast adrift. Kids from broken homes have it even worse.

There is a quote in the film "Pump Up the Volume."

"Sometimes being young is less fun than being dead."

I am sixteen years away from high school, and those words still strike me to the core. I remember seeing that movie and having it shake me to my very center with how much it KNEW, how much someone REMEMBERED about the pretty societal lies of the joys of being young. I recall reading Mercedes Lackey's earlier works, and feeling triumphant and justified, because so many of the things I said fruitlessly time and again to my family and was laughed at, she said too. And she was an ADULT saying these things, so I wasn't crazy or stupid or just plain wrong. I recall reading Lord of the Rings, and being so impressed by the strength of the main characters who never gave in and never gave up, no matter what the odds, and trying to incorporate that into my life. I recall reading CS Lewis's "The Last Battle," and the scene where the deity-lion Aslan allowed someone from a competing, bloody, and brutal religion into his heaven because in his heart he had purely searched for god, and was not judged on his culture, but what was inside. No preacher had ever taught me what God was like the way that book did, or took away in a few slim pages an entire lifetime of feeling chained to a deity I hated for making me a veritable slave to His rules and regulations and demands to conform to His way, even though he professed to love me for who He created me to be.

I guess I am one answer to the question you asked, and ranting about a few more questions you probably didn't. I am a child of abuse, neglect, and an uncomfortably lingering question of rape. I was given food, shelter, and clothing, the basics for survival, but not much more. I had no friends in school, no teachers I was close to, no mentors, and at one time I was so angry I felt I could have ripped the world in two.

I never stopped and thought what might have happened if I hadn't found the books I did, if I hated reading or wasn't allowed, but I think I might be dead. I can say hurting others is a proclivity--many kids cut or attempt suicide because they turn the anger inward rather than lash out and hurt those around them. Others fight, or shoot, because they DO lash out, and see hurting others as the more acceptable path.

Therapists say turning anger inward is self damaging and a victim mentality, so does that make the shooters more correct than the cutters? Are they more emotionally healthy and stable, reacting in a more normal manner to a fucked up situation? Is what we are most afraid of not that they are criminals, but that they had reasons to do what they did, and WE are the criminals who pushed them to it, taking advantage because we figured them for just another set of cutters? Are we afraid of the madness we see in them, or the utter lack of it, and the reflection of the dark side in all of us that just wants to start slicing the world until the idiotic wrongs we are forced to endure all fall away? Do we fear their aggression because we never expected them to fight back, and feel they should never have challenged our right to rule their lives the way we see fit?

I have wondered about these questions since long before Columbine, as we hypocritically say on one hand that a child under the age of 16 doesn't have the sense to drive a car, under 18 doesn't have the sense to cast a good vote, and under the age of 21 doesn't have the sense to responsibly use alcohol, but then we turn around and try an 11 year old as a n adult for murder. They don't have the sense to drink responsibly but they do have the sense to plan a cold-blooded murder? Which is it?

And some part of me, the part that is a cutter, that is suicide prone, the part that fights to protect the very people who are hurting me because that's just the way I am hot-wired, that part still sees the pain in the kids who pick up guns and speaks their rage in a spray of bullets, and I know WHY they do what they do. And bleeds for them, just a little.

I read a lot as a kid, I escaped into fantasy and sci-fi, I wrote when I didn't read, and I dreamed. Books gave me hope of a better future, glimpses into what normal family life and love should be. They taught me that man sometimes has more mercy than the God I was taught, and that the all knowing preachers may have it wrong--they taught me compassion and forgiveness I didn't get elsewhere. They taught me strength and great deeds, and morals that have been practically forgotten by modern culture. I won't say I'm normal or a good little girl, and I won't say they taught me how to get along in society or be social--quite the opposite. Wallflowers never learn the finer points of social graces, especially not wallflowers who spend more than half their life in a fantasy. But I do think they gave me hope and opened a world of possibility, a knowledge that it didn't always have to be the horrible way it was, and that knowledge kept me from being a cutter, a suicide statistic, a slut, a bad girl for badness sake, a fighter, or a shooter. Or any of the other stereotypes of a childhood gone horribly wrong.

As you can see, the whole subject will set off a rant with me. *sheepish grin* A friend of mine once said; "We live in a society that treats adults like children and children like property," and I couldn't agree more. I think censorship and the overprotection of children--shielding them from life instead of preparing them to deal with it--is a lot deeper issue than we admit. I think it has a lot to do with keeping kids as kids for far too long, and that legally they ARE property until they are 18 or 21. (After all, keeping humans as property worked so well for the slaves, right? And while it is not as bad as slavery once was, yes, there are definite parallels--but thats a whole other rant.)

The question I want answered is why we as a society in a country founded on freedom and based in the revolutionary change of old ideas, we who had our birthing pains in conquest, wars, and the forcible eradication of ties to old ways of thinking and living, and who's very beginnings ache and echo with the screams of people who left their home country and took a treacherous and even deadly journey to an untamed wilderness, all to simply flee to a place where they could live the lives they chose unmolested and escape judgmental persecution--why is it we fear change so much that we are willing to wear blinders on our own eyes and forcibly blindfold our own children, stop our ears to the screams of others that echo the very cries our country was founded in, and do ANYTHING to keep the status quo, even when that very status quo is killing us? Who taught us to FEAR that badly?

Forgive the TRULY long reply, some of which is relevant, some of which probably isn't. Call it a problem of being overly passionate (and more than a little frustrated).

9:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I think your comment was great. Thank you for the whole rant; I am glad you didn't abbreviate. I am the anonymous right above you. I checked back in to see if anyone had added a comment because I think this is post I would like to see discussed all over the web. I'm glad I came back. There are lots of things to think about, but the bit I liked best was this:

"I won't say they taught me how to get along in society or be social--quite the opposite. Wallflowers never learn the finer points of social graces, especially not wallflowers who spend more than half their life in a fantasy"

Yeah. That's me, too. And it was great to read books and see things besides social skills valued in them. It helped me imagine a life where all the things I sucked at, wouldn't be the only things that mattered anymore. Go Fantasy.

7:49 PM  
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8:42 PM  
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12:54 AM  

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