Once upon a time, the King of the Greek gods, Zeus, was getting ready to cheat on his wife again. His latest target was a beautiful mortal girl named Io, whose resistance he’d been wearing down by sending her a series of racy dreams of which he was the star. Having finally arrived on her doorstep to make his case in person, Zeus wrapped the two of them and that whole region of the world in a thick black cloud to hide the incipient goings-on.
This was a serious tactical error. Zeus’s wife Queen Hera noticed the peculiar change in the weather, checked Olympus to see if her husband the Cloudgatherer was on site, and – not finding him there – immediately put two and two together and headed for the area of sudden overcast. She dispersed the clouds and found herself looking at her husband and an extremely lovely (and one must assume, confused-looking) white cow, which Zeus explained had sprung from Mother Earth just that minute. Not even slightly fooled, Hera promptly confiscated the cow, and assigned to guard her – or rather, to make sure her husband didn’t get anywhere near her – one of her security staff, a creature by the name of Argus. Argus was completely covered with eyes that stared in every direction and saw everything for miles around. The eyes even slept in shifts, so that the watcher’s pitiless regard was inescapable by night or day. Hera went off confident that her husband’s case was well handled.
Myths being what they are, of course, such a situation can’t last. Zeus quickly has words with Olympus’s resident thief, trickster and inside-job man, Hermes, who disguises himself as a handsome shepherd boy and shows up in the flowery meadow where Argus is guarding Io. There he proceeds to bore all Argus’s eyes to sleep by telling him serial tales of mortal romance.* Then, when the last of Argus’s eyes fall asleep, Hermes pulls out his sword and kills him, signaling, if not the end of Io’s troubles, at least the beginning of the end. Later on the frustrated Hera winds up putting all of Argus’s eyes in the tail of her favorite bird, the peacock — probably as a reminder to Zeus that at least this once she caught him in near-flagrante — and over the subsequent centuries Argus’s name becomes a metaphor for unsleeping watchfulness.
The world is full of people who appoint themselves to roles like Argus’s, as would-be watchers and guardians. Sometimes they’re even useful in those roles. Their motives aren’t always suspect: sometimes they genuinely mean well. But good intentions aren’t always enough. And sometimes these can lead the would-be guardians into serious mistakes, especially when their intelligence (in the informational sense) is incomplete or poor.
It looks like we’ve just seen an example of this in a recent Wall Street Journal article, which spends a while purporting to analyze the “fitness for purpose” of some modern-day young adult fiction, the kind that deals openly with difficult topics like self-harm. The reactions to the article’s assertions have been widespread and passionate. Readers and writers alike have responded at length, and lots more opinions and links to them, short and long, are to be found on Twitter filed under the #YASaves hashtag.
Having read the article, though, I found myself reacting most strongly to two specific passages that jumped out at me: and the reactions came on two different levels.
The first passage really annoys me as a former psychiatric professional:
“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.”
“Indeed, likely –”? I’m ready to be shown the clinical study that underlies and supports this statement. So sweeping a generalization has no business being made in a public forum without a solid underpinning of fact. What fact I can bring to this issue is that in my time as a psychiatric nurse who worked with adolescent / young teenage patients, I never came across a single case that supports any aspect of the columnist’s opinion. If she can produce any evidence to reinforce her claim besides what I strongly suspect is wishful thinking, I’ll be glad to examine it and draw my own conclusions as to its validity.
But I really doubt there is any such data. And if (as I suspect) that conclusion just came out of the columnist’s head as a feeling or a theory, or was a vague summation of even vaguer third-person anecdotal material, I have one word for it: CODSWALLOP.
What I found while doing one-to-one therapy with adolescent patients is that to successfully start working through their problems, what they initially needed more than anything else was confirmation and acknowledgement from those around them that the problems existed in the first place – that they weren’t unique or alone in their situation, that other people knew about it and that it was real. Books dealing with the problem in question were and are often a useful tool to help that acknowledgement get started, and even (in some cases) in getting a patient past their own denial that they had any such difficulty at all.
When I was practicing, such books were often painfully dry and didactic, and I wish there’d been more young adult fiction available on such subjects… for fiction (especially when done well) tends to lecture less than nonfiction and is more likely to be successfully internalized because you’re hearing, not a dry recitation of fact, but someone’s voice. Young adult novels that deal honestly with such issues unquestionably have value for teens groping their way toward understanding of how to tackle their problems. They invite them into the dialogue: they make the troubled teen part of the solution. And at the very least, they let their readers know that they’re not alone. There are times when that knowledge is enough to mean the difference between life and death. Here, without any doubt whatever, YA really does save.
A side issue here: there are probably some who think I have no dog in this particular race, since my YA books are not known for dealing with edgy teen issues, and also have no explicit sex, not a lot of violence, and language not much stronger than the “crap” level. This is personal preference for me, a matter of style. But I support my colleagues who are working the grittier and more uncomfortable part of the young adult coalface, and I strongly dislike the casual, if not outright mischievous, mischaracterization of their works in the columnist’s article. She has done them a disservice, and owes them an apology… which unfortunately I doubt will be forthcoming.
So much for that. Now for the other statement, the one that got up my nose in my role as a former teenager:
It is a dereliction of duty not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person’s life between more and less desirable options.
…Oh really, now. Every other aspect? And not just distinctions, I bet, but decisions. So there are no areas in which the child or young adult can be considered competent to have his or her own opinions, and make his or her own choices, without having them vetted and pre-ratified by the ever-watchful parent? (Because from the WSJ article, you get a strong feeling that when Mommy Says No about, for example, a book — well, the poor young adult just gets to pull on his or her PJs and go to bed early: there’s no mechanism for appeal.)
I really hope that’s not what the columnist is suggesting, because I don’t know about the rest of you, but it sounds like Hell on earth to me. And that would not just be because I’m one of a generation who would have laughed out loud at the very idea of my parents organizing, for example, when (or if) I went out to play, or who or what I played with. In my spare time I went where I pleased, lay out in green fields for prolonged periods staring at the sky and doing nothing remotely “useful” or educational, adventured widely through my neighborhood unsupervised, climbed trees and fell out of them, stayed out after dark (having informed my mom that I’d be doing so), and had a secret place to go and read where I spent hours on end, with no need to account for my movements to anybody. To have somebody ruling yes/no on every aspect of my life until I was eighteen? There’s a word for that kind of life. It’s jail. (And some of you will probably recall J.R.R. Tolkien coming up with something similar in a discussion of the value of the literature of escape. “Who are the people most concerned with the possibility of escape?” he asked. “The jailers.”)
I do not accept that life for kids is all that much more dangerous than it was when I grew up. I just don’t. The difference between now and fifty years ago is that we now openly discuss the dangers that were often only whispered about half a century ago. Yes, the new millennium has thrown up many new and different threats to the concept of the peaceful and safe childhood (itself something of a construct, but that’s a subject for another post). But those threats and challenges ought to be met in some other way than locking the kids up in a virtual tower until they’re eighteen. The fairy tales (always a treasury of useful archetype) tell us straightforwardly what happens to such children.
Under no circumstances am I questioning a parent’s right or responsibility to protect his or her children from danger. But I do think we’re building the protective fences way too high. Unfortunately, the sensationalistic focus of mass media on unusual events like the kidnapping, abuse and/or murder of children has successfully exploited the increasingly anxious love and cynically fanned the fears of a whole generation of parents, until they genuinely think it right that everything about their children’s lives must be rigidly controlled until they are no longer legally responsible for them. People who advocate some kind of return to common sense in these matters are practically condemned as the Antichrist. Freedom? That’s something a child will be allowed to experience only after it turns eighteen. Or maybe after it exits college at age twenty-one or thereabouts, and starts trying to find employment sufficient to pay off those pesky student loans. Until then, many North American parents are trapped in their role as frazzled, Argus-eyed controllers of their children’s mobility, their after-school activities, their diet, their access to money, their online activity, and a whole lot of their entertainment.**
Books, though, are revealing an interesting chink in this theoretically all-encompassing defense. Some parents are apparently beginning to find books scary because they’re not like the ones they read when they were kids… and because they understand from firsthand experience that books interact directly with the imagination in an essentially noncontrollable way that movies and TV and computer games do not. After all, when you sit down to watch a TV show or a movie with your child, you can at least verify that you’re being presented with the same imagery and deriving generally the same meanings from it. But you can’t be sure of that with a book: the reader does so much of the work in his or her own head. As a result, the hypercontrolling parents whose attitudes are reflected in the WSJ article sometimes seem to act as if they consider books to be a potential delivery system for some dangerous drug that will overwhelm their child’s defenseless mind. (The concept that the child might be able to stand aside from the book’s content and evaluate it independently before accepting or rejecting it is of course rejected out of hand.)
But I think this attitude is a pointer toward the underlying problem responsible for the article’s tone of righteous (and frightened) indignation. The presence of all these awful books on the market suggests that there must be a lot of young adults reading them – kids who are obviously out of the absolute control of their parents! (Horrors.) And this undeniable fact will surely provoke, in the hypercontrolling parent, a fear that their own defenseless child might possibly listen, not to the parent, but some book-pushing friend, and read one of these deadly objects… and the parent won’t be able to stop them from internalizing the contents. This will be due to a terrible truth that no hypercontrolling parent wants to face, but which books force them to confront more clearly than usual: Though so many other aspects of your child’s life can be controlled by you, the inside of your child’s mind is simply not one of them. With this unbearable admission, the hypercontrolling parent’s only daily certainty in their relationship with their children – the illusion of control – suddenly fades away.
And those of you who may have been children at one point or another will possibly remember another aspect of this truth (if you actually remember your childhood, and haven’t idealized it into a few frozen images. So much of this whole situation flows from people not remembering…) You know that if a child is absolutely focused on a parent not finding out about something, odds are good the parent never will. Let the parent have eyes like an Argus, they still won’t be able to keep their child under those eyes for every minute of the day. And Hermes, in his aspect as the wily patron god of untrammeled communications, is always lurking just around the corner: for if a child really wants to read something without this parent knowing it, he will find a way.
One of my parents tried to exercise the columnist’s style of control with me, at one point, way back when – trying to keep me from reading material “too old for me” and calling the local library to say that I wasn’t to have access to it. I was outraged, for I considered what I put into my brain in my spare time to be my business – my personal area of greatest freedom, and one I wasn’t going to give up for anybody. (I probably didn’t phrase this exactly this way, being nine at the time. But the above sentiment renders exactly how I felt.) The joke, though, was that I needn’t have wasted the outrage, because I quickly discovered for myself that there were simple ways around the silly parental prohibition (which I knew was silly because I knew what I was after – general knowledge, nothing salacious or evil).
Don’t get me wrong here. I’d have been delighted to discuss the whys and wherefores with the parent in question, so that we could work it out, they wouldn’t worry, and I wouldn’t have to hide what was going on. But it was imposed on me as a diktat, and all such attempts on my side to get some negotiation on the issue failed. So I gave up on what was plainly a wasted effort and got on with business… though I was still sad that my parent, even after all those years spent raising me, plainly didn’t know me very well at all. For the reading I was interested in doing, I simply took a bus to the next town over and used their library instead. They didn’t know about the “guidelines” my parent had issued to the home library, and the local library could report (if asked) that I was obeying the prohibition. Problem solved. (Was I guilty about deceiving my parent? Yes. For about five minutes. [Five minutes is a surprisingly long time when you’re nine.] Did my parent ever find out? No. Did I suffer any harm from it? Not in the slightest.)
The point is that now it would be way, way easier than that to game the parental system. You could make a case that books are the most easily concealed of all information technologies, and as technology continues to explode around us all, the situation just gets better for the clandestine reader. Besides libraries where your kid can read out of your sight, there are computers that don’t have NetNanny installed on them. There are other kids’ smartphones, left unlocked by parents not quite so controlling or paranoid. You think you’ve got your own kid’s phone locked down? What technology can limit, technology can defeat, and info on how to hack the protective apps on a phone, how to get around the parental-choice software on a laptop or a desktop PC, is common currency in every schoolyard, in newsgroups and online forums, on Facebook and in Tumblr and on Twitter and many other places. It passes in stealthily exchanged thumb drives, and jumps like lightning by text, in codes parents can’t understand, from phone to phone. Even that epitome of “safety” and supervision, the playdate, can be subverted if the kids know what they’re doing, and are careful about how they coordinate the manipulation of their parents. (It’s a choice irony that parents who have been manipulating every aspect of their kids’ lives for decades routinely have no idea where the kids have picked up the talent, and are horrified when it’s turned on them.)
It must be terrifying for the hypercontrolling parent to be jailer in so porous a prison. You have to feel for them.
…For about five minutes. If you’re a parent who’s become committed to such a role, you have only one hope of successfully discharging your “duty.” You must bribe or blandish or scare your prisoners into believing that your actions are either for their own good (that most horrifying of justifications, sometimes worst when genuine), or just too much trouble to fight. Otherwise you have no chance of maintaining any significant level of control. The minute the kids decide to stop cooperating, you’ve lost the game. But while you’re winning, you’re as much a prisoner of the regime as they are. And you’ll remain so until your children leave home – possibly ill-equipped, due to your actions, to be out on their own in this century – and you collapse, exhausted.
I think there is a way out of this trap. But it’s dangerous, and it flies in the face of too much of today’s unquestioned “wisdom” about childrearing. It involves building a genuine informed partnership with the resident child or young adult as regards reading material, with give and take on both sides; and a real attempt to put yourself into the other party’s head, instead of merely imposing sheer brute-force control (which will eventually fail). It involves actually reading books that you’ve heard scary things about to find out if those things are true, before you start issuing reading fatwas. And – scariest of all – it involves standing up to other parents who will try to force you back into the role that they’ve succumbed to for the sake of being seen as a good parent, sometimes even when way down deep they’ve disagreed with it.
Of course it won’t be easy. As my mom used to say (I believe quoting the cookbook writer Peg Bracken), “For every pint of wine you drink in this life, you’ll drink a quart of vinegar.” While forging and implementing this agreement with your child, there will be screaming and yelling and carrying on, “human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria,” and so forth ad infinitum. But if you stick it out and make the break, you and your child together will have a chance to experience a shared experience of literature that in retrospect will make both childhood and parenthood memorable.
And as the certainty sets in that your children are going to be all right – as they assert their ability to handle their own growing freedom, and you realize that you’ve clawed back at least one precious sector of yours — you will at last be able to sigh with relief and start shoving those sleepless eyes back into the peacock’s tail… right where they belong.
*Attn: romance-writing colleagues: I’m not taking a poke at you. It’s in Ovid. Apparently after a long warm thyme-scented Greek afternoon of sweet reed-piping and storytelling, the tale of Pan and Syrinx is what pushes Argus over the edge into Snore City.
**I have to add that most European parents I know from a quarter century’s life on this side of the water find the whole North American “helicopter parent” concept kind of bizarre: some use it as yet more evidence that a lot of my people need their heads felt. As a former head-feeler, I normally invoke possible conflict-of-interest issues and seek an excuse to either leave or order another pint.