Sunday, June 5, 2011

Why I write about damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds

I use a quote from the TV show My So-Called Life to open up my second YA novel, BALLADS OF SUBURBIA:

"If you made a book of what really happened, it'd be a really upsetting book."

Fifteen year-old Angela Chase played by Claire Danes says this in (I believe) the very first episode of the show when asked to justify why she quit yearbook.

I was fifteen and a sophomore like Angela when My So-Called Life originally aired in 1994. It was my favorite TV show. I'd never seen anything so real. The way my life mirrored Angela's (and as I got a bit older, her best friend Rayanne's) was uncanny. That was the year I first dyed my hair. Not Crimson Glow like Angela's, but I put a blond streak down the middle (yeah, like I said, maybe I was a bit more Rayanne...) I had a best friend that I was growing apart from and starting to spend more time with a crowd that was perceived as bad or troubled. My parents marriage wasn't perfect and I could see and worried about the fissures. I longed for a better relationship with my father and judged him for his flaws. And oh my god, the Jordan Catalanos in my life during 1994/1995....

But I digress. My point is that I loved My So-Called Life because it was real. And when it was canceled, I was pretty damn convinced that it was taken away from me because it was too real.
I'd scrawled that quote, "If you made a book of what really happened, it'd be a really upsetting book," in my diary because to me it explained why I couldn't find answers to my teenage struggles in books, a fact that troubled me greatly. As a child I read avidly. Books were the places I found answers, understanding, friends. Somewhere around 8th grade I couldn't find characters that I related to anymore--not characters that were my age, at least. YA wasn't what it is now. It wasn't as real.... or as the Wall Street Journal put it in this despicable article yesterday, full of "damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds."

This article, which I think it is essential to point out DOES NOT QUOTE A SINGLE TEENAGE READER is basically a call for censorship. It asserts that teenagers are children who need to be protected from the dark and ugly things that go on in the world. We should not talk about self-injury or drugs because it might encourage otherwise innocent teenagers to start doing them. We shouldn't talk about rape, abuse, incest, gay teens being battered, etc, etc because it is depraved. Damn fucking right rape, abuse, etc. is depraved and vile and disgusting and wrong. (Oh, pardon me, I suppose that should be D#%n f&%#ing right...) But unfortunately it exists. And horrible as it is, it happens to teenagers. It happens to children. Do I wish I could wave a magical wand and make it go away? Hell yes, I do. But I can't. So I write about it, I read about it, and I share those books about it with others. Why? Because not talking is not protection, not talking can be lethal. In the dark, you are blind.

I grew up white and middle class in a suburb of Chicago. If you are blind or ignorant, you would probably like to believe this means my life was sheltered and untouched by the dark, demented forces that according to the Wall Street Journal is too prominent in YA fiction now.

Not. At. All.

For the regular readers of my blog, I'm going to keep this short and sweet because they already know a lot of these stories. Not to mention it would take me all day to get in depth about it.

As I mentioned before I was an avid reader as a child. Part of this was an escape from loneliness. My family moved to suburban Chicago from inner city St. Louis between second and third grade. I did not fit in. I tried during grade school. I gave up in junior high. I was bullied. It made me depressed. I started cutting myself when I was twelve or thirteen. I discovered it quite by accident. I was very upset one day while working on stage crew and snagged my arm on a nail. For some reason the sensation released the tension. I would continue cutting until my early twenties. It worsened in high school. I was in an emotionally and sexually abusive relationship during my sophomore year. I already had low self-esteem so it was easy to fail prey to this guy and convince myself that what he was doing to me was love. I had a brief bout with anorexia following that relationship. I used and abused various substances from alcohol and pot to coke and heroin in my teens and early twenties. I was in love with a heroin addict. I was in love with an alcoholic. More than one of my best friends were molested as children. Some multiple times. Some by family members. I have friends who were raped. I can't bring myself to use the word rape about that sexually abusive relationship because I didn't say no, but when someone is crying through sex I'm not sure exactly what you call that. I have friends who dealt with severe mental illness in their families. I have friends who feared for their lives on a daily basis in their pretty suburban homes. I have friends whose parents neglected them. I have friends who became parents way too young. I have friends who are dead. I have friends who have been to rehab multiple times and failed. I have friends who still refuse to get the help they need. I have friends who survived, who lead shockingly normal lives, who I am insanely proud of and grateful for every day.

Fortunately there is a large number of those friends who survived. There is one common factor among us: WE TALKED ABOUT IT.

That's the thing about "damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds" if you keep quiet about it, it festers, it bleeds, it gets infected, it never ever heals. In my seemingly perfect suburban town, the rape, the abuse, the neglect, the violence was ignored, not confronted. So the people dealing with it found ugly destructive ways to cope.

Books were the way I was raised to understand things. When dark things started happening in the world around me, when I was struggling with depression, with self-injury, with addiction, and the aftermath of abuse, I wanted a book that would shine a light for me, that would tell me I wasn't alone. Knowing that there are other survivors would give me faith that I could survive. But during my teenage years, I didn't have books written for teens. I had books that were slightly older like THE BELL JAR and GIRL, INTERRUPTED. However towards the end of high school and into my early twenties I started to find books like THE HANGED MAN by Francesca Lia Block, SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson, and SMACK by Melvin Burgess.

The more I read, the more I talked to my friends and my family, the less I cut, the less I drank. Writing had also always been a release for me. Poetry, 'zines, the occasional short story. When I finally found my way to college for creative writing at twenty-one, I started writing about punk rock kids struggling to find their place, about girls and women who were hurt but trying to survive. At first, it was therapy. Eventually it became a mission.

Sometime around then, I got My So-Called Life on DVD. When that scene came up where Angela says, "If you made a book of what really happened, it'd be a really upsetting book," I went running for a scrap of paper. I wrote those words down. I taped them to my computer monitor. That was what I needed to do. I needed to write that really upsetting book, not because it was really upsetting but because it was about what really happened.

No, neither of my books are autobiographical, but yes, my second one, BALLADS OF SUBURBIA is set in the town where I grew up and it does deal with a lot of the issues (and resulting coping mechanisms like cutting and heroin addiction) that I faced as a teenager.

And I will continue to write those upsetting, real books partially because it helps heal the wounded teenager in me who needed those books so desperately but could not find them, but mainly because I know teenagers still need those books so desperately now. My name is not a big one, my books have not had a vast audience (though maybe if I put suicidal vampires in the next one, they might), but I am happy to know that they get to the teenagers (and adults) who do need them.

I want to send the Wall Street Journal copies of the emails from teenagers who tell me that BALLADS or I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE helped them seek the help the need, for drugs, for depression, for self-injury, for surviving abuse, for surviving rape. But I would not dare violate those people's confidence, especially not by giving them to someone who does not understand how sacred it is to find your voice, your experience, your fucking key to survival in a story like I have, and apparently, I've been fortunate to help others do through my books. That's why I write YA. That's why I write about "damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds." These stories are not just stories of darkness, they are about hope, survival, and the human experience. Sharing them makes me feel like my existence has a purpose.

Please feel free to share your comments about YA fiction and how it has helped you. Also if you are on twitter, I highly encourage you to check out the #YAsaves thread. You will smile, you will cry, and you will rejoice in the strength of the human spirit.


Ashley said...

Amazing response! I know that your book challenged the way I view my world. It opened my eyes to a side of life I've never experienced and I have only positive things to say. It was an insanely powerful read for me.

Please, keep writing these important books.

Anonymous said...

It is no small thing to say that the written word has saved someone's life, but that is exactly what books do. Speaking to the sadness, darkness and anger that all humans experience is not a bad thing and unfortunately, many of us go through those experiences as young people and the damage can stay with us throughout our lives if we don't ever talk about it or process what happened. I fear for what can happen if we're not allowed to do that in whatever form we see fit.

Audrey (holes In My brain) said...

Saying "fantastic post" is such an understatement, it's things like this that remind me why I read books about teens that don't sparkle. Thank you for this beautiful post, and ditto to Ashley, keep writing those important books about stories that need to be told.

Renee Pace said...

Amazing honesty in that post. Bravo! I grew up in a community where the social worker raped the kids placed in foster care, where my best friend was being molested by her step-dad, where my cousin killed himself because of his abusive alcholic father so when we shelter teens who are we really sheltering? I'm a mother of 4 and trust me it still goes on. I write YA nitty gritty stories becuase they are real and those stories should be told - sad that publishers don't see the value in them. We need more stories and TV shows that discuss these issues. Teens feel isolated no matter the love and if you don't understand that you are blind.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thank you all for your replies. I can't tell you how much it means to hear your voices!

Ashley, I am glad my book was so powerful and an eyeopener for you, that means a ton to know I could do that and I plan to continue trying to do so.

Adrianne, I agree with you 100%. When I stayed silent, I was very damaged. I agree, people need to express what they went through in whatever form!

Audrey, thank you for reading my books and this post and reminding me why I tell the stories I do.

Renee, hugs for what you endured and saw and for being a loving parent of 4 teens who urges them to speak and read freely. I agree wholeheartedly with everything you said, especially about teens feeling isolated. Books help us all feel less isolated!