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Solitude and the Fortresses of Youth

Posted: 2004-04-18

This article about teenagers and writing elicited strong letters to the New York Times. They are below the article.

This article appeared in the New York Times, April 13, 2004

SAN FRANCISCO ? Earlier this month my local paper, The San Francisco Chronicle, reported that a college student had been expelled from art school here for submitting a story "rife with gruesome details about sexual torture, dismemberment and bloodlust" to his creative writing class. The instructor, a poet named Jan Richman, subsequently found herself out of a job. The university chose not to explain its failure to renew Ms. Richman's contract, but she intimated that she was being punished for having set the tone for the class by assigning a well-regarded if disturbing short story by the MacArthur-winning novelist David Foster Wallace, "Girl with Curious Hair." Ms. Richman had been troubled enough by the student's work to report it to her superiors in the first place, in spite of the fact that it was not, according to the Chronicle, "the first serial-killer story she had read in her six semesters on the faculty at the Academy of Art University."

Homicide inspectors were called in; a criminal profiler went to work on the student. The officers found no evidence of wrongdoing. The unnamed student had made no threat; his behavior was not considered suspicious. In the end, no criminal charges were brought.

In this regard, the San Francisco case differs from other incidents in California, and around the country, in which students, unlucky enough to have as literary precursor the Columbine mass-murderer Dylan Klebold, have found themselves expelled, even prosecuted and convicted on criminal charges, because of the violence depicted in their stories and poems. The threat posed by these prosecutions to civil liberties, to the First Amendment rights of our young people, is grave enough. But as a writer, a parent and a former teenager, I see the workings of something more iniquitous: not merely the denial of teenagers' rights in the name of their own protection, but the denial of their humanity in the name of preserving their innocence.

It is in the nature of a teenager to want to destroy. The destructive impulse is universal among children of all ages, rises to a peak of vividness, ingenuity and fascination in adolescence, and thereafter never entirely goes away. Violence and hatred, and the fear of our own inability to control them in ourselves, are a fundamental part of our birthright, along with altruism, creativity, tenderness, pity and love. It therefore requires an immense act of hypocrisy to stigmatize our young adults and teenagers as agents of deviance and disorder. It requires a policy of dishonesty about and blindness to our own histories, as a species, as a nation, and as individuals who were troubled as teenagers, and who will always be troubled, by the same dark impulses. It also requires that favorite tool of the hypocritical, dishonest and fearful: the suppression of constitutional rights.

We justly celebrate the ideals enshrined in the Bill of Rights, but it is also a profoundly disillusioned document, in the best sense of that adjective. It stipulates all the worst impulses of humanity: toward repression, brutality, intolerance and fear. It couples an unbridled faith in the individual human being, redeemed time and again by his or her singular capacity for tenderness, pity and all the rest, with a profound disenchantment about groups of human beings acting as governments, court systems, armies, state religions and bureaucracies, unchecked by the sting of individual conscience and only belatedly if ever capable of anything resembling redemption.

In this light the Bill of Rights can be read as a classic expression of the teenage spirit: a powerful imagination reacting to a history of overwhelming institutional repression, hypocrisy, chicanery and weakness. It is a document written by men who, like teenagers, knew their enemy intimately, and saw in themselves all the potential they possessed to one day become him. We tend to view idealism and cynicism as opposites, when in fact neither possesses any merit or power unless tempered by, fused with, the other. The Bill of Rights is the fruit of that kind of fusion; so is the teenage imagination.

The imagination of teenagers is often ? I'm tempted to say always ? the only sure capital they possess apart from the love of their parents, which is a force far beyond their capacity to comprehend or control. During my own adolescence, my imagination, the kingdom inside my own skull, was my sole source of refuge, my fortress of solitude, at times my prison. But a fortress requires a constant line of supply; those who take refuge in attics and cellars require the unceasing aid of confederates; prisoners need advocates, escape plans, or simply a window that gives onto the sky.

Like all teenagers, I provisioned my garrison with art: books, movies, music, comic books, television, role-playing games. My secret confederates were the works of Monty Python, H. P. Lovecraft, the cartoonist Vaughan Bod?, and the Ramones, among many others; they kept me watered and fed. They baked files into cakes and, on occasion, for a wondrous moment, made the walls of my prison disappear. Given their nature as human creations, as artifacts and devices of human nature, some of the provisions I consumed were bound to be of a dark, violent, even bloody and horrifying nature; otherwise I would not have cared for them. Tales and displays of violence, blood and horror rang true, answered a need, on some deep, angry level that maybe only those with scant power or capital, regardless of their age, can understand.

It was not long before I began to write: stories, poems, snatches of autobiographical jazz. Often I imitated the work of my confederates: stories of human beings in the most extreme situations and states of emotion ? horror stories; accounts of madness and despair. In part ? let's say in large part, if that's what it takes to entitle the writings of teenagers to unqualified protection under the First Amendment ? this was about expression. I was writing what I felt, what I believed, wished for, raged against, hoped and dreaded. But the main reason I wrote stories ? and the reason that I keep on writing them today ? was not to express myself. I started to write because once it had been nourished, stoked and liberated by those secret confederates, I could not hold back the force of my imagination. I had been freed, and I felt that it was now up to me to do the same for somebody else, somewhere, trapped in his or her own lonely tower.

We don't want teenagers to write violent poems, horrifying stories, explicit lyrics and rhymes; they're ugly, in precisely the way that we are ugly, and out of protectiveness and hypocrisy, even out of pity and love and tenderness, we try to force young people to be innocent of everything but the effects of that ugliness. And so we censor the art they consume and produce, and prosecute and suspend and expel them, and when, once in a great while, a teenager reaches for an easy gun and shoots somebody or himself, we tell ourselves that if we had only censored his journals and curtailed his music and video games, that awful burst of final ugliness could surely have been prevented. As if art caused the ugliness, when of course all it can ever do is reflect and, perhaps, attempt to explain it.

Let teenagers languish, therefore, in their sense of isolation, without outlet or nourishment, bereft of the only thing that makes it all bearable: knowing that somebody else has felt the way that you feel, has faced it, run from it, rued it, lamented it and transformed it into art; has been there, and returned, and lived, for the only good reason we have: to tell the tale. How confident we shall be, once we have done this, of never encountering the ugliness again! How happy our children will be, and how brave, and how safe!

Michael Chabon is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2001.


These letters were published 4/18/04.

To the Editor:

In "Solitude and the Fortress of Youth" (Op-Ed, April 13), Michael Chabon objects to the expulsion of a student who wrote a story about murder and sexual torture. If a young person is writing about murder, misogyny and mayhem, at the very least he or she needs a talking to by a parent, teacher or other adult.

No doubt writing offers a way for the writer to understand better what he or she thinks about the world. But if in reaching that understanding a young person becomes harmful to himself and society, then we as parents, teachers and adults have failed that young person and probably generations to come.

I appreciate the creative and artistic discussion offered by Mr. Chabon, but some kids are crying out for help, not literary standing.


Jersey City, April 13, 2004


To the Editor:

In his April 13 Op-Ed article, Michael Chabon offers the nostrum that fiction is "all made up" and therefore, finally, harmless.

It's not. Fiction is all too true. It expresses the best and worst of human impulses and intentions. If a writer ? teenage or not ? is writing about poisoning and bombing or early childhood sexual abuse, fathomless despair and suicidal reckoning, that writer should be taken seriously. That doesn't deny rights; it recognizes the fact in fiction.


Baltimore, April 13, 2004

The writer is a senior lecturer in writing at Johns Hopkins University.


To the Editor:

"Solitude and the Fortress of Youth," by Michael Chabon (Op-Ed, April 13), should be read by every parent and teacher in America. The Bill of Rights does indeed protect the voice of each individual. Still, in dealing with teenagers in a school setting, there must be an effective balance struck between the absence of censorship and unbridled freedom of expression.

This does not mean the doctrine of "in loco parentis" should yield to draconian methods. In the wake of tragedies like Columbine, rather than expel a student for writing a story with graphic plots, a teacher should recognize such work for what it is: an expression of something deeper.

A teacher might say: "Hey, great story. Really creative. So, how are you doing? Is everything cool?"

The outcome would surely be better than calling in the authorities and imposing censorship.

These are our children, after all, and they deserve our best attention and love.


Ann Arbor, Mich., April 13, 2004

The writer is a novelist.


To the Editor:

In "Solitude and the Fortress of Youth" (Op-Ed, April 13), Michael Chabon understands the adolescent mind, though I would not apply the same consideration to a college student. At that point, I was already in a combat zone, and what was gruesome was not in my imagination.

Adolescents, however, are seeking parental input, even if obliquely ? putting their thoughts out there and using our reactions to help shore up their own guardrails.

So what worries me when we argue too vigorously for free expression is our potential failure to give those adolescents the backstop they are looking for.


Stow, Mass., April 13, 2004

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