This is a long post. Part of me apologizes for the length. The part of me that feels that people need to talk about this stuff, however, totally doesn't apologize. - jw.
So, this morning I listened to what Twitter referred to as the #YAshowdown. WHYY Radio
featured author Maureen Johnson
and Wall Street Journal-ist Meghan Cox Gurdon to discuss last month's kerfuffle over Gurdon's article "Darkness Too Visible"
. Gurdon believes that current trends in Young Adult fiction (aka. YA) are too "dark" for children to read. While she never exactly defines what constitutes "dark", she singles out books like Cheryl Rainfield's SCARS for graphic portrayals of self-injury, abuse and rape. According to Gurdon:
"...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."
After reading the initial article and finding several points to be questionable, author Maureen Johnson began a hashtag conversation on Twitter (#YAsaves) for people to share their experiences. Within hours, 15,000 people had put in their 140-character summations of what libraries of books try to explain - young adult literature that provides a mirror can help people cope with their own hardships.
This morning, the server couldn't handle all of the would-be listeners of Gurdon vs Johnson. I was one of those locked out. This afternoon, however, the mp3 became available and I was able to get an earful. Within minutes, Ms. Gurdon had pissed me off. I'd like to talk a bit about why.
WARNING: What follows may be considered "too much information" for my family and some friends. There will be anecdotes of my own youth which included dealing with molestation, depression, suicidal thoughts and self-injury. For those who are sensitive to such things, consider this a trigger warning. You continue to read as you wish, I understand if you don't. Thank you for coming this far with me.
Still with me?
Hi, I'm Jamie and I'm a cutter. It's been more than 10 years since I last used self-injury as a coping mechanism. (YAY!) At age 10 I was going through a lot of shit. My parents had divorced and that was the good part. Seriously, I danced for joy when I got that news. But, after that, life changed. We had to move, our family didn't live together any more...when we moved, I changed schools. Now the kids at my old school had known me for 3 years, so they'd had time to get used to me being the fat & tall kid. My new school had to make up for lost time. I won't say I was bullied so much as ridiculed mercilessly. (Believe it or not, that stopped around 9th grade, but by that time, I had a constant loop of self-loathing going in my head. But I get ahead of myself.)
Not long after moving into a new house with my mom and starting a new school, I was molested by the kid who lived next door. That is a whole story that I won't get into at this time or in this space right now. AT THE TIME, I knew that I said no to something uncomfortable to someone just a few years older than me. I didn't have the vocabulary to articulate what had happened. "Molestation" was something that grown-ups did to kids, in my mind. What I thought was that I'd almost been raped. Whatever label you put on it, the experience left very clear emotions behind. I felt dirty and wrong. I felt used, betrayed, and that this person was a constant danger. He bullied me for a while after that, physically and psychologically.
I didn't know how to deal with that. In October of 1990, at age 10, I wrote my first suicide note. At 10. Thank whatever deity you choose (or curse them, if you wish), but my mother happened to call at a pivotal moment. I didn't do it and instead asked for help. I started seeing a psychologist. She suggested that I write.
I did, a little, but I also just started internalizing a lot of things. The kid next door moved away, the bullying stopped and I could return to my regularly scheduled "fat ass" jokes. Then, in 7th grade, the nightmares started. Vivid, horrific nightmares of all the things that Kid Next Door could have done. Almost nightly. About a month later, I saw him again, in my school. Every day I had anxiety attacks because he passed me in the halls. He was in my school and in my dreams and I felt like I couldn't get away. All of those emotions from a few years earlier came roaring back...now enhanced with puberty.
I started writing.
Really shitty, angsty poetry began to fill notebooks. Stories about women being violated or hunted...my stories didn't have happy endings. In the end, the rapists won. The hero died. The woman killed herself. Every time. I had friends who were dealing with their own variations on these themes. Dear friends that I still talk to now. We would sit around writing in our notebooks, occasionally sharing them with one another. It was a way to cope.
Things got worse. At 15, I started having suicidal thoughts again. I started scratching at my left wrist, cutting into my flesh as a way to relieve the pressure in my mind. A few of my friends knew, but they had their own coping mechanisms, too. We accepted one another's "pathologies" (as Gurdon calls it in her article) as just another part of that person. Gurdon would probably say we enabled one another, that we should've gone to an adult or something else. All I know is that at the time, self-injury became theraputic. Cathartic. I pulled out of that tail spin, self-injury waned and I graduated high school happy and healthy.
Other things happened after that until I finally broke my own cutting cycles and habits, but all of that happens after I leave the scope of "young adult" fiction protagonists, so, it's for another time.
Now, any of my high school English teachers will tell you that while I could write an essay to blow the bell curve, my reading assignments were abysmal. I did the Cliff's Notes thing...some assignments I flat out ignored because I just couldn't stand Jane Austen. (And yet, I still graduated in the top 11% of my class.) I didn't read much at home, either. When I did read, it was likely to be Dean Koontz or one of my mom's Christian apocalypse books. (Which, I'm sure Ms. Gurdon would say was a mistake. After all, the books I read contained rape, murder and aberrant behavior.) I didn't read young adult fiction when I was a young adult.
I wish there had been books like SCARS in 1994.
I didn't hurt myself because it was "vogue" or because television or movies glamorized it. Kids from that time, back me up on this--it wasn't vogue. It wasn't even on the radar. Suicide, yes. We had suicide all over the place...but cutting? Peer-molestation? Nope. It wasn't talked about and that silence only added to the stigma and shame which just perpetuated the cutting (for me). Now, the kids of that time are growing up and writing their stories. These are stories we needed then. Stories we are telling our 16 year old selves. These books that Gurdon says are too "dark" are a way for us to shine a light into the past and lead ourselves out, but also a way for us to make it worth something by helping someone else NOW.
Gurdon got under my skin when she said it in her article, sure, but reiterating it today on her radio appearance further fueled my ire. To paraphrase, she believes that writing about young protagonists who cut or have eating disorders will "normalize" that behavior.
First of all, Ms. Gurdon, I never woke up and said, "Oh gee, I can't wait to cut myself today!" I never once thought that it would make me cool. I never hoped it would make me an outsider (because outsiders are cool). I never thought it would make me friends. I did it because it helped. Having control over at least ONE pain that I felt was empowering and relieved the pressure in a way.
Secondly...what's wrong with "normalizing" it? The writers who tackle projects like SCARS are taking a group of people that is stigmatized for their "pathologies" and treating them with empathy. They give a voice to kids who otherwise suffer silently. You would have those kids remain in the shadows? The only things these books "normalize" is empathy. And, Ms. Gurdon, there is NOTHING wrong with empathy.
Thank you for listening to me rant. Feel free to weigh in and share your own experiences.