That is an awesomely portentious title for a blog post, and my melodramatic drama queen side couldn’t resist. It also possible portends an essay much more thought out than the one I’m typing out here, pretty much stream of consciousness, but you’d be less likely to read a blog entry called “stuff I think when I’m freshly awake and trying to process things I’ve been thinking over the last 3 days”, so we’ll go with the one I’ve got up there.
And it’s actually true – I do believe that everyone, EVERYONE has some darkness inside…it could be that little bit of schadenfreude someone gets from passing the jerk who was just cutting in and out of traffic, trying to get ahead of everyone. It could be an enjoyment of gory mysteries or slasher flicks. It could be something less socially acceptable, like an liking for erotic films, something “normal” but that we’re not proud of and don’t like people to know (maybe you donated to SarahPAC?)…the point is we all have some darkness inside.
So I guess that is one of the reactions I have to an article published over the weekend in the WSJ, titled Darkness Too Visible. It’s ridiculous to assume that no one has any darkness inside them until it is put there – has that woman not ever met a child? Children can be so offhandedly, unintentionally and intentionally, cruel that is leaves you breathless. And they are not living in a little universe where they never see or hear or think bad things, no matter how much you protect their world. But these points have already been made, by far better writers, so I suggest you go here and here and here and even here for more of that. The point I am going to/attempting to make is this: you don’t have to have a trauma in your life to want to read about it.
Here’s one of my deep, dark secrets: I had a pretty trauma-free childhood. I was raised in the Midwest when everything still felt pretty safe, my parents are still married and didn’t have obvious marital difficulties until I was in college and only aware of it tangentially. There were no abuse issues, physical, mental, emotional or substance, and no major health issues – my parents have both dealt with cancer, but when I was an adult, so better (?) able to deal with it (or as better as one is able to deal with the “c” word). I had a good support system, I could talk to my parents about issues as much as any teenager could, and for all intents and purposes, I had a “normal” and “healthy” adolescence, even with all the drama and emotional upheaval that comes from friends who aren’t and boys that didn’t like me when I liked them, and boys who did like me when I thought of them as just friends. And, guess what? I read books.
I read The Outsiders and every Judy Blume book I could get my hands on. I read the smutty romance novels (including one with sex scenes AND slasher scenes of a character who turned out to be Jack the Ripper). I read everything that looked good in the kids section and, after a time, everything that looked interesting and had a flashy cover in the adult section (yes, I’m still influenced by the cover). I didn’t read V.C. Andrews or Stephen King – I tried, but Andrews squicked me out (ew, that’s her brother!) and King freaked me out (I’m never sleeping again!), so they went by the wayside, unfinished and unstarted again. The thing is, I was able to self-select what made me uncomfortable and what I didn’t want to read about, as many others have mentioned – let’s give teens credit where credit is due. If it is something they don’t want to read about or is beyond their ken, they generally WON’T read it…unless you make it taboo and thus alluring.
But even more importantly, the other thing I did was to read about people who were not being raised in “whitebread” situations, who did not have two parents who took me to dance class and coached my softball team and attend spelling bees where I was competing. And that was a very good thing. It opened my eyes as to what other people were going through out there in the world, stuff that hadn’t occurred to me. Did it make me afraid? Well, for me, no, because I still had my insular world with my “normal” life, and besides, stuff like the Cold War, and The Day After and AIDS and the Gulf War (that’d be the first one, for you young’uns) and spaceships blowing up (goodbye Challenger, I still think of you) were making me more aware of the bad things out there than the books ever could. The books, in fact, were comforting in many ways. It was a way to escape the bad stuff – even when bad things were happening in the books, they gave ways to deal with the bad stuff, they addressed the bad stuff as though they COULD be overcome or solved, and there was generally some ray of hope or way out of the darkness…unlike the real stuff I was seeing on TV and in the news and studying in school, the real stuff we usually refer to as “real life”.
It also gave me some real empathy for what other people went through in their lives. I credit that opening of my eyes to why I became a social worker and then, a librarian – I wanted to help people, not out of a sense of pity and “I will bring them up out of the darkness” (although there was some of that – I was 21 when I got my BSW and started working as a social worker – idealism is what we DO at 21). It was more an awareness that things were not as peachy-keen out there for everyone else, and maybe I didn’t have to let that be OK. Maybe I could make a difference. Whether or not I have or do remains to be seen – I might never actually know. But the point is that if kids without trauma in their lives don’t have a way to find out about it in a safe way, they are never motivated to do anything about preventing it for others. Give teens some credit, give them some tools to learning about more than just their own sphere of influence, and give them the opportunity to talk about the things that make them uncomfortable. Or curious. Or passionate. Don’t assume they can’t be the candle in the darkness, or the flashlight in the dimness or whatever other metaphor floats your boat.