Dearest fellow readers & wallflowers:
In honor of the upcoming release of movie The Perks of Being a Wallflower in U.S. theaters, I wanted to re-read this brief but classic book. No other book transports me so completely back to my high school experience.
The lime green cover of my signed, paperback copy (without Emma Watson on it) fits eerily well in the contemporary 2012 palette of fuel efficient Ford Fiestas and Droid logos. In my junior year of high school, I bought the book at a now-closed Borders. Stephen Chbosky returned to his alma mater to promote his MTV-backed first novel, and the reading was packed. That was back when MTV actually played music videos, and thought they’d try marketing a book to their young adult audience. It worked.
In the first page, Charlie reveals he is still struggling with the suicide of his best (and only) friend Michael last spring.
It is clear from the beginning that something is really wrong with Charlie…
It turns out grief is not the only thing that keeps Charlie writing letters to an anonymous person he’s never met. As covert letter readers, we are privy to Charlie’s observations throughout the mundane and infinite moments of his freshman year set in 1991-1992. Though buoyed along by the poignant humor and pure nostalgia of adolescent prose, the darkness and tragedy never fully lift. Charlie’s world has a dark shadow always hanging overhead.
Many reviewers have been quick to label Charlie autistic, but I completely disagree. Intentionally or not, Chbosky was spot on in his description of the internal life of a survivor of abuse. Most people are familiar with the “flight or fight” responses to trauma…Charlie is a classic case of “freeze.” He suppresses, he ignores, he is paralyzed: just like a rabbit waiting for the shadow of the hawk to disappear. For Charlie and for millions more like him, the shadow of the hawk is there every single day of his life, even when no one else sees anything in the sky. It takes a physical reminder, or “trigger,” to open his eyes to see why he is so afraid. I’ll let you read the book yourself to find the trigger, and the hawk.
I was a student in Charlie’s high school in real life
Though the person who wrote the bland back cover tries to convince you this tale could have happened at any high school, I would also argue completely differently. The setting is very important to my understanding of the book. You see, I was a student at Charlie’s high school (Chbosky’s alma mater) in real life when the book was released in 1999.
- I ate at the Big Boy, which is now gone, and the 24 hour teenage hangout has been replaced with some generic family-friendly Italian place. My friends preferred to eat and smoke at Eat N Park or Kings, where the movie was actually filmed.
- I was Co-President of The Earth Day Club to which Charlie’s sister belonged—we organized a paper recycling campaign so the hallways weren’t littered at the end of the year.
- Some of my theater friends performed in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
- I even had “Bill” as a teacher.
Actually, I had Mr. Brosnahan (mentioned in the book) as my sophomore Honors English teacher, and he had a student teacher named Mr. Morris who would give me extra books to read. I think they both knew I hated The Catcher in the Rye so gave me Franny and Zooey, instead, I think to reconcile me with J. D. Salinger. It worked.
My friend Caitlin and I would hang around Mr. Morris’s closet of an office to chat during our free period and were terribly disappointed when we finally met his beautiful, redhead fiancee. The fictional Bill and real-life Mr. Morris weren’t far outside of the norm, though: I had many other teachers who went out their way to challenge me through the restlessness and frustration of being an intellectually gifted, socially awkward teenager.
My classroom education was superb, but my social education was a nightmare.
In reality, Charlie’s high school is in a wealthy, 97% white public school district that consistently earns National Blue Ribbons and “best in the state” awards. Though some families (like Charlie’s) have to financially stretch to afford the high taxes and earn scholarships for college, over 95% of high school graduates go straight to postsecondary school…just like all of the graduating characters mentioned (except the drug dealer, Bob, who represents the other 5% who become entrepreneurs instead).
To me, The Perks of Being a Wallflower tells the real tales “behind the curtain” of what my progressive peers might label “wealthy white privilege.” To quote Jim Carrey, “I wish everyone could have wealth and fame so they could realize it’s not worth it.” The suicide, drugs, and sexual activity (consensual and otherwise) depicted in the book are the real, untold story of the suburbs that all the Blue Ribbons in the world cannot cover.
“I wish everyone could have wealth and fame so they could realize it’s not worth it.” -Jim Carrey
It’s not ennui or existential angst that is killing us; it’s the unrelenting pressure to perform. Let me share another statistic that might surprise you: middle class kids have three times the rate of self mutilation, suicide, and drug abuse as low income kids. Teenage pregnancy stats are so low in highly ranked suburban high schools not because all the kids are abstinent, but because kids with concrete plans for college or jobs tend to opt for contraception or abortions (so they get STDs instead).
All this is evidenced in the plot of the book, but Charlie’s insight, or lack of it, clouds the real causes behind our upper class agony. This book would attribute the high rates of drug addiction and mental illness to domestic violence or low self esteem. However domestic violence, sexual abuse, and low self esteem have much higher rates among families with fewer financial resources. So why is it the rich kids who are drinking themselves to oblivion and killing themselves?
Despite the stigma that the ghetto is full of doped up lazy people and drug addicts, it turns out that access and addiction to drugs is much higher where there’s cash to burn, and where the doctors and pharmacists buy their suburban homes.
Despite my criticism, the beauty of the book is that it shows how access to therapy, family stability, and education really do give people the courage and resilience to slog through the suffering inherent in human existence. This is the part of the story that has much more universal applicability: No one is immune from trauma, and it takes both internal and external resources to keep moving forward, but healing is possible, one day at a time.
Healing is possible with a little love…and some professional help.
What the book drives home for me is that if we want to work for social justice and an inclusive society, then we have to focus on a lot more than just increasing people’s income levels. If Charlie’s story tells you nothing else, let it be a reminder that trauma reaches everyone. A bigger bank account, more diplomas on a wall, or a more expensive house do nothing to increase your quality of life when trauma slithers up to strike your heals.
So what does this mean for educators and others interested in “saving the world”? Nowhere in our education curricula do we have standards like “Taking advantage of available resources,” “Be open to life’s beauty,” or “Strengthen family and community bonds.” But Charlie wants to remind us that you can still experience beauty and friendship, even if every day seems like a waking nightmare. Indeed, beauty and friendship are the standards that really make life worth living, that give us the strength to face the nightmares we want to forget, to stand on our own at the other side of the tunnel, and to feel infinite.
Now it’s time for you to sound off, dear wallflowers:
What do you think is really at the heart of the high rates of suburban drug abuse and addiction?
Do you think that love and beauty are more important than education and wealth? Why? What does your answer mean for how we approach social services meant to increase someone’s quality of life?
Can love genuinely exist in a relationship when one person has abused or taken advantage of the other?