So on June 4th, The Wall Street Journal published a piece titled “Darkness Too Visible” by Meghan Cox Gurdon.
People have covered the subsequent uproar rather nicely, as has Twitter. Laurie Halse Anderson wrote one of my favorite (and very compassionate) response pieces, as did the incredible Sherman Alexie.
As for me, this article makes me sad. Really it’s nothing we haven’t heard before, but it creeps me out every time. And why?
Probably because I find the article’s assumptions about the parent/child relationship, and the child’s relationship to the world, rather eerie.
I think of teenagerhood as a window of time in which people are hungrier for experience and understanding than possibly any other time in their lives. I remember being a teenager, and I remember the lives and fates of classmates of mine whose parents either worked very hard to keep them as sheltered as possible from the dangerous, chaotic nature of the world, as well as kids whose parents themselves were depictions of that dark side (addicts, abusers)? In either case, these parents were disengaged. Checked out. Not there.
Teenagers understand that the world is nuanced, frightening, that there are dark corners that house atrocities and violence. Many of these teens seek out books, which offer glimpses into the lives of characters reflective of the teen’s experience, or who introduce him/her to an entirely new one. In healthy home environments, the parents of these teens are present to their children—they’re there to honestly answer the hard questions that books might raise.
But for some children, literature is one of the ONLY doorways into normalizing the truths of a world that is terrifying, unpredictable, random. For kids whose lives are darkness every day, the experiences shared in books are often the only things addressing the truth in the life of the child at all. If the adults in his or her life aren’t present, where is that child to turn? There are few to no classes in school that address these darknesses with any authenticity. There’s nowhere for the child to have his or her personal and very real experience normalized and validated. AND, the children who live in the darkness of having experienced abuse, rape, bullying, cutting, attempted suicide, and drugs are not relegated to certain socio-economic groups, as is often imagined; they’re everywhere—including among the very rich, the very white, the very elite. They’re there, with no one to talk to.
What’s the alternative to censorship? Self-education. Parents seeing good reason to educate themselves, and therefore their children, about what happens in the world every day. Parents having the courage and curiosity to wonder why children do things like cut or commit suicide or do drugs. AND, those parents no longer seeing their worlds as utterly separate from the “darkness” as it were, and understanding that their own children are exposed either directly or indirectly to some form of violence every day. And that their children are wondering. Their children are curious. Their children, if given the chance (and even if they’ve had limited exposure to trauma) would like to develop empathy as to what goes on in the mind and heart of a troubled child, a troubled neighborhood, a troubled community.
To me, that’s the very saddest part about all this. The terrible, false assumption that “darkness” and “trouble” happen over THERE. Away from HERE. In my experience, the children of parents who assume this are not happy, safe, free from harm, living in a light-filled world. Instead these children work tirelessly to house their personal darknesses all alone, because there’s No One There. Emotionally, they’re orphaned.
The author of the WSJ article naively assumes that parents are the all-knowing gatekeepers who alone understand that when teenager’s minds are exposed to “darkness,” they are instantly ignited with thoughts of self-harm or harm to others. This viewpoint suggests that the human mind itself, sheltered or not, is not innately curious. It’s a monstrous underestimation of capacity.
No human being is exempt from darkness. To assume that a light-filled and innocent state is one to be cultivated and then sustained does an incredible disservice to any child. By hook or by crook, a human being will find a way to explore his or her own darknesses. The ways in which this happens are as varied as people themselves. But all of us will do it—either with the wide-awake help and guidance of loving adults in our lives, or without. And the road is far darker without.
Most YA literature is written with more integrity and concern for the human experience than adult lit. I have never read a YA book in which hope was not a prominent theme, no matter what the issue at hand. YA themes reflect aspects of the psychological developmental process—individuation, family dynamics, identity, struggle, tragedy, coping skills, powerlessness, cultivating a moral compass, and often, the protagonist regaining/developing a sense of empowerment within his or her given world. Most adults would do well to be so preoccupied with these fundamentals of the human experience.
And here they are in YA, finally. If anything, we should celebrate. Far less teenagers, and therefore members of our population, will grow up repressed, forced to experiment with their budding sexuality and desire to be accepted in isolation, away from parents who shy away from subjects that make them uncomfortable—only to later make decisions reflective of people who have never been spoken to with honesty and courage. Children have the right to develop the tools to navigate this world—empathy, critical thinking, honed perception. And they need our help, and the help of books, to do it.