Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Self-Harm

I Believe That Children Are Our Future

Kids say the darndest things. Or so we’re told. Maybe, then, it is only fitting that we have turned children’s responses into a form of entertainment as adults exhibit a general reluctance to truly understand what children are saying; instead of striving to understanding the process of meaning making in the world of children, we filter their words through perspectives that, in some cases, have entirely forgotten what it means to be a kid.

In June 2011, an article published in the Wall Street Journal sparked robust debate about the appropriateness of the themes proffered by current Young Adult (YA) fiction, which ultimately culminated in a virtual discussion identified by “#YASaves,” on the social messaging service Twitter.[1] Although some of the themes mentioned in the #YASaves discussion, like self-harm, eating disorders, and abuse, seem outside the scope of YA dystopia, the larger issue of concern over youth’s exposure to “darkness” speaks to an overarching perception of children derived from views prevalent in Romanticism.

Consistent with the Romantic idolization of nature, children were heralded as pure symbols of the future who had not yet conformed to the mores of society.[2] (And here we see the humor presented by shows like Kids Say the Darndest Things, for we, as “knowing” adults, can juxtapose the answers of children with the “correct” responses.) Informed by a Romantic tradition that presupposed the legitimacy of children’s perspectives, privileging them over those of more traditional authorities, this stance also suggests that teenage protagonists are largely not responsible for understanding the intricacies of how their environments operate, expecting the realized world to instead align with their personal vision. Illustrating the potential pitfall of this practice, we need only look back a few years to the exclusive utopian vision promoted by President George W. Bush; dystopian for everyone who did not share his view, Bush’s “utopia” legitimized only one version of the truth (his).[3] Although discontent may be an integral part of the impetus to change, we begin to glimpse elements of narcissism and indignation as protagonists develop a moral imperative for their actions.

Building upon this model (and undoubtedly bolstered by the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s) mid-20th century YA fiction increasingly began to shoulder youth with the responsibility and expectation of overthrowing the generations that had come prior while simultaneously delegitimizing the state of adolescence through trajectories that necessitated the psychological growth of protagonists.[4] In order to save the world, teenage protagonists must inevitably sacrifice their innocence and thus become emblematic of the very institution they sought to oppose.

And even if the teenage protagonists of YA fiction represent those select few who transcend the impulse to do nothing, are they ultimately reactionary and thusly not truly empowered? An initial reading of genres like YA dystopian fiction might suggest that readers can extract philosophical lenses or skills through their identification with protagonists who struggle not only to survive but to thrive. However, further rumination causes one to question the accessibility of the supposed themes of empowerment at play:  although characters in dystopian fiction provide value by suggesting that hegemonic forces can be challenged, the trajectories of these extraordinary figures rarely do much to actively cultivate or encourage the enactment or development of similar abilities in the real world. In essence, young readers are exposed to the ideals, but not realistic actionable steps. Furthermore, although Roberta Seelinger Trites correctly cites power and powerlessness as integral issues in YA dystopia, one is left to question whether true power is a result of internal struggle and achievement or is instead conferred upon the protagonist through some external force.[5] Perhaps a product of a youth mindset that tends to focus on the self, teenage protagonists often fail to recognize (and thus comment on) the role of external factors that aid their quests; Katniss Everdeen in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, for example, routinely fails to mention (or seemingly appreciate) the ways in which her success are intimately connected to those who bestow gifts of various kinds upon her. Further challenging notions of empowerment, although Katniss develops throughout the course of the trilogy, she gives no indication that she would have become involved in rebellion had she not been forced (i.e., chosen) into a situation that she could not escape.

Echoing this idea, Lara Cain-Gray sees similar trends in the dystopian tendencies of teen realist fiction. In her analysis of Sonya Hartnett’s Butterfly, Cain-Gray argues that the protagonist, Plum, longs for some measure of extraordinariness—a saving grace from a dystopian world born out of banality.[6] Here again we see that agency is ascribed to an external source as characters yearn for salvation; individuals long for someone to save them because they have not yet learned how to save themselves. Regardless of later strides made by Plum, a lack of scaffolding means that her model remains inaccessible to readers unless they have also received a jump start. If we refer back to the idea that utopia and dystopia inherently contain political elements, it seems to follow that encouraging a wider recognition of, and sensitivity to, existing social structures might address gaps in the developmental process and help youth to become more active in real life, while combatting the adult-imposed label of apathy that is currently in vogue.

Perhaps the problem lies in how we traditionally conceptualize youth as political agents (if at all). Although there are assuredly exceptions to this, the primary readership for YA dystopia—loosely bounded by an age demographic that includes individuals between 12-18 years of age—largely does not possess a type of political power commonly recognized in the United States. Prohibited from voting, a majority of the YA audience is often not formally encouraged to exercise any form of political voice; it is not until they near the age of adulthood that the process even begins to take shape with, at best, a course on Civics in high school. And, in absence of a structured educational process that promotes reflection, critical thinking, outreach, and activism, youth might be seen to cobble together their political knowledge from sources readily available to them. As author Jack Zipes suggests in his book Sticks and Stones:  The Troublesome Success of Children’s Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter, youth seek out agency through literature like dystopian fiction.[7] However, one might argue that what youth are really after is a sense of empowerment that they are unable to find elsewhere in meaningful quantities.

Elizabeth Braithwaite comments on one such example of the YA dystopia’s potential political influence and agency in her discussion of post-disaster fiction. Building upon work by Erich Fromm, Braithwaite notes the important difference between social orders labeled as “freedom from” and “freedom to”:

Fromm explains that the two types of freedom are very different:  a person can be free of constraints, be they obviously negative or the ‘sweet bondage of paradise’, without necessarily being ‘free to govern himself, to realize his individuality.’[8]

Although “freedom from” represents a necessary pre-condition, it would seem that a true(r) sense of agency is the province of “freedom to.” And yet much of the rhetoric surrounding the current state of politics seems to center around the former as we talk fervently about liberation from dictatorships in the Middle East during the spring of 2011 or freedom from oppressive government in the United States.

On a level arguably more immediately pressing for a teenage readership, however, let us invoke the issue of bullying, which has become a somewhat high-profile topic in recent educational news. In line with the discussion surrounding forms of oppression elsewhere, much of the rhetoric present in this topic focuses on a removal of the negative—and admittedly quite caustic—influences of teenage aggressors. Prompted by a rash of high-profile suicides attributed to this phenomenon, New York Times columnist Dan Savage started a project entitled “It Gets Better.” Ostensibly designed to encourage youth to refrain from suicide (and, to a lesser extent, self-harm), “It Gets Better” seemed to effuse a position saturated with the ideology of “freedom from.” Although an admirable attempt, “It Gets Better” ultimately projects a hope for a static utopia free from bullying—which, as has been previously demonstrated, inevitably leads to a dystopia of one sort or another. By telling youth that things will get better someday (i.e., not now) we are ultimately choosing to withhold information about how to make it better. Intentional or not, we have begun to slide into a practice of knowledge containment that mirrors the regimes of dystopian societies as we fail to challenge youth to become active participants in the process of change. Propelled by thinking grounded in a stance of “freedom from,” we are, in indirect ways, in the name of protection or aid, stripping youth’s access to information that would act to empower them.

In marked contrast, we witness a different tonality in movements like those involved in the support of gay marriage or the Dream Act. Perhaps coincidentally, both efforts have embraced the notion of “coming out” and the liberation that this freedom of self-expression brings. “Freedom to,” it would seem, allows individuals in the modern age to effectively begin the process of challenging patriarchal and heteronormative stances—as any child of the 1970s and Marlo Thomas’ “Free to Be…You and Me” well knows.

So what do we do, then, with the complex space represented by the intersection of youth, adults, publishers, and YA fiction? Ultimately, I argue for a reevaluation of the value of youth voices in discussion surrounding YA fiction. As adults, our natural inclination may be to protect children, but we must also endeavor to understand the long-term implications of our actions—after all, isn’t our real goal to equip the next generation with the tools that they will need to become successful citizens of the world? We must walk a narrow line, fighting our tendency to view modern youth as romanticized wunderkind while respecting the demographic as one that is increasingly capable of amazing resilience. If our generation is to have any hope of disrupting the adversarial cycle so prevalent in YA dystopian fiction, we must take it upon ourselves to educate youth in a way that encourages their empowerment while remaining open to all that they have to teach us. It is only through this integration, and a more sophisticated flow of information, that we can hope to avoid the manufacture of a disenfranchised generation destined to suffer the ultimate indignity of being born into a dystopia. To get there, we must whole-heartedly engage with children, seeking to understand the ways in which they process information and perceive their environment. Although we are armed with mountains of theory, we need to realize that we do not necessarily know better—we merely know differently. We need to take the time to truly listen to our youth and attempt to see the world through their eyes:  focus groups can be used to ascertain descriptive language while large-scale surveys provide an element of generalizability. Inventories might help researchers get a sense of things like the pervasiveness of self-harm or the recuperative value of YA fiction. Follow-up interviews or focus groups could help us to evaluate the effectiveness of treatment programs, allowing us to alter our course should the need arise. In short, we need to actually talk (and listen!) to those whom we would serve.

[1] See Meghan Cox Gurdon, “Darkness Too Visible.” The Wall Street Journal. June 4, 2011 and Sherman Alexie, “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood.” The Wall Street Journal. June 9, 2011 for constrasting views on this topic.

[2] Hintz and Ostry, Utopian and Dystopian. 2003.

[3] See Sargent, “In Defense of Utopia.” 2006 and Maureen F. Moran, “Educating Desire: Magic, Power, and Control in Tanith Lee’s Unicorn Trilogy.” In Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Adults, 139-155. (New York: Routledge, 2003).

[4] See Elizabeth Braithwaite, “Post-Disaster Fiction for Young Adults: Some Trends and Variations.” Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature 20, no. 1 (2010): 5-19 and Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature. (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000).

[5] Trites, Disturbing the Universe. 2000.

[6] Lara Cain-Gray,  “Longing For a Life Less Ordinary: Reading the Banal as Dystopian in Sonya Hartnett’s Butterfly.” Social Alternatives 28, no. 3 (2009): 35-38.

[7] Jack Zipes, Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children’s Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter. (New York: Routledge, 2002).

[8] See Elizabeth Braithwaite, “Post-Disaster Fiction for Young Adults: Some Trends and Variations.” Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature 20, no. 1 (2010): 5-19 and Erich H. Fromm, Escape from Freedom. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1994: 34).

Shine as Though You Never Had Any Doubt.

It hung there, slightly faded and more than a little wrinkled. Nestled among bright advertisements for football and spirit rallies lay a humble flyer, no larger than a quarter of a page, that caught my attention.

To Write Love on Her Arms

My ascent up the stairs to the college counseling office slowed as I reached out to touch the rough surface of the advertisement. So humble, so easy to miss, but yet the most powerful thing on the bulletin board—this was the thing that mattered the most (yes, even more than football).

During my presentations, I often make it a point to bring up things like “To Write Love on Her Arms” or “PostSecret” as I feel that these are important tools that allow me to connect with my audience. Through these websites and stories, I remember the stresses and the pressures of friends, of parents, and of school. Admittedly, I am a young professional and while I can generally relate to being a high school student (I was one at one point in my life), things like PostSecret vividly remind me of what it is like to be a junior or senior in high school. If nothing else, PostSecret has taught me that everyone has a secret that, if told to me, would break my heart.

This has changed the way that I look at the world.

One of the things that I have learned in my years of college admission is that an increasing number of students are suffering from something that I call “floating duck syndrome”—on the surface, students are serene and perfect but, underneath the water, their legs are churning. Needless to say, students have some issues. I don’t mean to imply that students will not be able to overcome these things, but I must admit that I was shocked to learn about what they were dealing with.

For this reason, I find myself absolutely thrilled when high schools have groups like “To Write Love on Her Arms” because I think that so many of our students can use an outlet. I am certain that individuals are dealing with various amounts of baggage (or maybe not at all) and I am so glad that St. Margaret’s has taken it upon itself to offer support for peers in need; whether the situation revolves around academic pressure or thoughts of self-harm, I see clubs like “To Write Love on Her Arms” as an invaluable part of the school community.

However, lest one become depressed, I should mention that I am incredibly hopeful for the generation of students that is following in my footsteps. I am hopeful that students will learn to brave the dark places of themselves, secure in the knowledge that friends and family will always be there to draw them back. I am hopeful that students will come to understand who they are and accept themselves for that. And, I am hopeful that students will learn to step outside of themselves in order to offer their help to those in need. I am lucky to be in a situation where I can empower future students to realize that, although occasionally overwhelmed by adversity, they are all survivors in some respect:  any person who has ever been teased, ridiculed, outcast, or made to simply feel less than is a survivor and can embrace that. And, because you are a survivor, you have been imbued with the power to tell your story to others in similar situations in order to pull them through. Ultimately, I am also hopeful because I have learned that young people are incredibly resilient and innovative—they can accomplish some amazing things if given half a chance.

Applicants to the University sometimes want to get inside my head and to gain insight about the college admission process. Often, people want to know how to get in, how to make an impression, and how to stand out from their peers. I will be honest and say that a clever title on your essay or photos of you in USC garb is not the most effective means; tell me a compelling story, however, and I will be hooked. I understand that this process is difficult, particularly for young writers, but one of the things that sets you apart from all other applicants is the truth of your story. Believe it or not, I want to learn more about you as an individual and these sorts of stories are the ones that I love to hear. These tales do not always have to be tragic or morose—I love the stories of triumph as well—but I would encourage all of you to dig down deep and figure out your narrative. I am fully aware that this process of self-discovery is quite scary (who knows what you might find?) but rest assured that college admission officers are not in the position to judge you and we are not laughing at you behind your back; instead, I believe that students who are brave enough to open up should be rewarded.

I am hopeful that this piece has given you more of a sense of not only what matters to me and, perhaps more importantly, why these things matter. I want to convey that the admission process is human and that we care more deeply for you than you might realize. We, along with your college counselors, are fighting for you to realize your potential and it is my profound hope that we can make this inherently frightening process less scary; I hope that we have made it easier for you to venture out into this sometimes daunting landscape of college admission and shine as though you never had any doubt.


Chris is in his fifth year with the Office of Admission at USC and also studies the intersection of popular culture, media, and online communities as a Masters student in Annenberg. When not on campus, Chris spends his time blogging or volunteering for 826LA in an effort to use his meager writing talents for social good. Chris is excited to write for the St. Margaret’s community and always welcomes any invitation to drink overpriced coffee while discussing the cultural merits of Six Feet Under, True Blood, or Gossip Girl.

Scarlet Letters

I may not be proud of what I did, but I am proud of who I am.

My forearm still bears the mark–you can see it if you look closely enough–the little half-moon, a result of the one time I couldn’t stop. Things were so much simpler then:  dig in, hold on, and focus on the pain. Focus on the pain not because you are a masochist, but because this pain–this pain–is at least definable; this pain is tangible, real, and quantifiable. I refused to pick up anything sharper, lest I turn into one of those tragic emo kids splayed out in the tub with one arm crooked over the edge of the tub–or maybe the truth was that I was just too much of a coward–so this pain was, for now, all I had.

I ran my finger over my arm in lazy figure eights, writing my name so many times over in those angry scarlet letters.

Now I write my names many times over so I will not forget:  I put ink to skin so that I will not forget who I am, what I am, and, most importantly, what I am worth. I write so that I will never hear someone say, “I knew you when.”

Part of the reason that this matters so much  is that I, for whatever reason, have managed to get out of that space–that I have miraculously survived. My whole drive in life is to teach youth to brave the depths of themselves and to learn to love the dark as well as the light. Because if you can love the parts of yourself that you most hate–and know that love isn’t the same as acceptance–well, that’s just magic. It’s part of the reason why I study Horror. It’s a hard lesson to learn, I think, that things aren’t just always going to magically get better and that you often have a lot of work in front of you, but that you have to be able to see (or, better, believe in) something better. It’s always this journey from stasis, to anger and discontentment, to wonder, beauty and love.

But ultimately, you fight for kids you’ve failed, for those you’ve yet to reach, and for those worth saving (hint:  it’s all of them). There are times when I feel overwhelmed because fighting is all you can do and yet it’s never enough–there’s always more to do and ways that you could have been better. But I’ve learned to take a break and get some perspective; I’ve realized that the world is hopefully a little bit better because I gave a damn and although you might not inspire every kid, that doesn’t detract from the ones that you do manage to move. Success can’t be measured in gains versus losses–I have to think about it in terms of the difference between me doing something and nothing at all.

Fears vs. Dreams

She cuts herselfusing the blade to write “FUCK UP” large across her left forearm.

Looking back, it would have seemed quite obvious: although I’ve now grown into someone studying for a graduate degree in Communication, I have always been enthralled by the power of narrative. As a child, mythology was my go-to, with stories of ancient cultures giving me—a kid with a short cultural history in America—a sense of place. I’ve since grown into someone who has embraced storytelling as a means of information transmission, learning to see identity as a complicated real-time narrative infused with performance. I think about the world in terms of stories being written, by ourselves as well as by others.

And perhaps this is why I tend to take issue with It Gets Better. Although a valuable message, the project has always sort of rubbed me the wrong way as it seems to suggest that others will write the story of your life for you. Things will get better, it says, somewhere and someday (that’s not here). Things will get better, but you will not. My gut is always to flip that and say that things will get better because you will make them better. You get to write the story of your life and, in so doing, learn the hard lesson that the story is never about you. Well, not just you, anyway. Your story intersects with millions of others and while you are the center of your story, you are a bit character in many others. You learn humility, but also that your presence makes a difference. Given my affinity for storytelling, it makes sense, then, that projects like PostSecret and To Write Love on Her Arms hit home for me.

I am particularly in love with TWLOHA’s newest project that asks people to define their greatest fear and hope. In so many ways, this is exactly what I hope to accomplish by studying horror—although the two aren’t always directly connected, I do believe that they stem from the core of our beings. Articulating both of those concepts is the first step on a journey that can lead to nothing but goodness. Articulating both of those is how you become a fighter, an activist, and a healer.

The video puts forth a series of statements:

This world needs you.
Your family needs you.
Your friends need you.
Your children—maybe someday, maybe now—need you.

But, to that, I would add: You need you.