The Books We Think We Deserve
THE DEFENDANT: The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky
THE VERDICT: Banned in numerous US schools. The Perks of Being a Wallflower has come under constant fire since its publication in 1999 and the firestorm it sparked has not let up. The cult classic came in at #10 of the ALA’s Most Frequently Challenged Books List for 2000-2009. It ranked in the top ten five times in the last ten years, according to the readers’ guide in the book itself, including #3 in 2009 and #5 in 2004. The media spotlight that a movie adaptation brings will likely do nothing to temper the fervor with which this book is purged from library shelves.
THE CHARGES: According to the ALA, the reasons for banning the book include “anti-family, drugs, homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited to age group.”
THE REVIEW: The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the coming of age story of a young, deeply traumatized boy named Charlie. The story is told in a series of letters from Charlie that chronicle his first year of high school, and all the drama that ensues, as he finds friends, discovers more than one inconvenient truth, and tries to start participating in life rather than merely observing it.
We’re not talking about your run of the mill teenage drama here. No, this book has everything: teen sex, abortion, copious drug use, alcoholism, mental illness, suicide, rape, gay bashing, child molestation, child abuse, abusive relationships, domestic violence, more child molestation, and just about everything else. Charlie is dysfunctional and deeply troubled, but, frankly, the fact that anyone in this book can function at all is a triumph.
The characters seem hell-bent on one-upping each other’s trauma to win the coveted title of Person With the Most Baggage. It’s like Stephen Chbosky boiled PTSD down into its most concentrated form and then sewed it into a book. This is not at all a bad thing, just something important to note.
If you watered the traumatic elements down substantially, this book is not unlike Looking For Alaska. It has a similar set up of boy goes to new school, boy meets unfleshed-out girl, boy falls in with new friends, boy starts drinking and smoking, boy gets girl (maybe-ish?), horrible things ensue, boy finds some closure. Yet this book was everything Looking For Alaska failed to be.
Yes, Sam is kind of a non-character (more on this in the upcoming movie review), but she does not bother me the way Alaska does. Perhaps because everyone in this book is so screwed up that they have more of my sympathy, perhaps it is that Sam serves only to dispense the meaning of the book instead of pseudo-feminist soundbites, perhaps it’s because she doesn’t string Charlie along (as much), or perhaps it’s because she’s not really a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
She is clearly supposed to be, but Patrick quickly snatches away the role and runs with it. I’m pretty sure Charlie only ends up with Sam instead of Patrick at the end because Sam has girl parts. The two kind of function as one unit and Sam doesn’t have much characterization separate from Patrick.
Or maybe it’s that Charlie is just so completely unhealthy and his infatuation with Sam still feels healthier than whatever the hell was going on between Miles and Alaska for two reasons: 1) When Sam’s heart is stomped on Charlie is sad that she is in pain rather than happy that he now has a shot. i.e. He sees her as a human with feelings instead of, to quote the internet, a machine you put kindness coins into until sex falls out. 2) Sam denounces being friendzoned as the pussyfooting bullshit it is and tells him that if he wants to date someone or kiss someone, he has to pluck up the courage and say so.
But I digress.
Through Charlie’s naive voice (which is far more genuine when discussing horrible things than when trying to write at the level of a fourteen-year-old), we face trauma after trauma and get some insight into the nature of choice, love, friendship, and the cycle of violence. No one is innocent in this book. And no one is guilty. Everyone has been hurt and has hurt others in varying degrees of severity.
Charlie’s aunt Helen, who had a terrible life, from her father’s physical abuse to being molested as a child to having one abusive relationship after another to depression, molested Charlie. Yet the book does not condemn her. Everyone’s deeds are laid bare and yet, with the exception of one rapist who gets his tires deflated, no one is really punished.
Normally this would bother me, but, instead, it helps make the reader feel the uneasy weight of Charlie’s own situation and the cycle of violence itself. Terrible things happen to us, but we can choose how we react. And we can come out the other side, perhaps a little damaged but still capable of recovering and moving forward.
This book is a powerful look at why people do self-destructive things, such as stay in abusive relationships or try to control those around them. As Charlie’s teacher tells him “we accept the love we think we deserve.” This line really resonated with me as abusive relationships are an all too common evil that many smart, talented, seemingly reasonable people seem all too willing to put up with.
This line is as damning as it is hopeful. We all have trauma and insecurities and needs. Yet if we do not change we will be the ones who suffer. No one can help Helen except Helen. No one can get Sam to leave Craig except Sam. Yes, Peter certainly expedited the process, but it’s up to Sam to determine that enough is enough and to decide if she will seek out yet another unhealthy relationship just to have someone or if she will demand more. Charlie can continue to float through life as a damaged shell, or he can start to heal and take control of his own life.
Frankly, I loved this book. It made me feel incredibly anxious, but that’s just a sign that Chbosky has done something right. As Charlie says in the book, a movie is only good if you feel different after. This book definitely achieved that. Even if you live a wonderful life and have never been in an abusive relationship or been cheated on or regretted a sexual encounter or wondered what’s wrong with you or lost a friend or felt isolated, this gut-wrenching, brutally honest story can still resonate and inspire, whether in how we treat others or in how we treat ourselves.
THE DEFENSE: I am not at all surprised that this book has been banned. It really does have everything. It is upsetting and unsettling and likely has at least one trigger for everyone. Still, many teenagers (and children), have been through some of these things, whether something as world-shattering as repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse or something as simple as not having anyone to sit with at lunch.
This issue of deeming honest trauma as unsuitable in a world where 1 in 6 boys are molested, 1 in 4 women are raped, and 1 in 3 women will be in an abusive relationship at some point in their lives may seem like an uphill battle, but it has certainly been a hotly contested one. However, these things are realities for many teens, whether we discuss them or not. As Sherman Alexie once said of condemnation of his own book:
“Does Ms. Gourdon honestly believe that a sexually explicit YA novel might somehow traumatize a teen mother? Does she believe that a YA novel about murder and rape will somehow shock a teenager whose life has been damaged by murder and rape? Does she believe a dystopian novel will frighten a kid who already lives in hell?”
This book has heavy stuff, but so does life. We are not sheltering children by keeping unpleasant things from them; we are forcing those who have suffered to suffer alone and keeping those who have not from gaining much needed insight into their peers and their world. Perhaps we would not be so hard on each other if we were a little more aware and understanding of the battles those around us may be fighting.
Perhaps with more awareness, Charlie would have known the incident at the party was rape and could have reported it or stepped in. Perhaps if the girl had been better informed, she wouldn’t have endured her undesired sexual encounter with her boyfriend as the cost of being in a relationship and seen that this is not as an issue of differing appetites but of consent and assault. Knowledge is a double-edged sword. It can force us to face painful truths, yes, but it can also help us stand up for ourselves.