Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I have been half in love with easeful Death

I was looking at a New York Times bestseller list from a couple weeks ago today, and I noticed:

  • #2: Twilight: Directors' Notebook. A book about the making of a movie based on a novel about a girl in love with a member of the undead. (Twilight itself was on the series list, of course, along with House of Night, which is also about vampires.)
  • #4: Thirteen Reasons Why. A novel about a teenage girl who kills herself and thirteen people who influenced her to do it.
  • #6: If I Stay. A novel about a teenage girl in a coma, making the choice between living and dying.
  • #7: Wintergirls. A novel about a teenage girl whose best friend has died of an eating disorder, pushing herself to that same point.
And I thought: What is it with teenage girls and death? Why all these teenage girls at risk, on edge, and no boys? How would these books have been different if they showed the boy version of those stories* -- a boy who killed himself because he was harassed/teased/neglected, a boy in a coma, a boy whose competitive pathology puts him on the brink of collapse? How might the books have been differently received by editors and readers? And what does it say that these stories of girls in extreme situations are so popular now?

* I should add that I absolutely don't mean this to criticize any of the authors or editors involved for publishing these books just as they are, as they're all interesting and important books just as they are, and authors have to tell the stories that come to them as they come. I'm just interested in the what-if of switching the genders, and the why of books about this particular gender and death being so popular.

I thought all this just sort of as a thought experiment, and then I thought, Well, did I read any books like that when I was a teenage girl? And one title leapt to mind immediately: Love Story. I don't remember how I found that 1970s classic weepie during my freshman year of high school, but I know I adored the weepiness; I saw the movie once but read the book multiple times. I'm not sure that falls under the same rubric as the books above, though, except maybe Twilight. . . . What I loved about it was the romance, and the way the romance was sharpened by death, how much more sweet and sad the story became when Jenny died. (I read a couple of Lurlene McDaniels, too, until I figured out the formula and got bored with them.) But Wintergirls, Thirteen Reasons Why, and If I Stay aren't so much about a romance with a living, breathing boy as they are about a romance with death itself (as I understand them; I haven't read If I Stay), and in Twilight, of course, death and the boy are one and the same.

So this made me think of a brilliant passage late in Jaci Moriarty's The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie. Jaci puts these words in the mouth of a decidedly ambiguous character, so I'm not sure their wisdom gets recognized and appreciated, but the passage reads:
It is my belief that the teenager is a person with three main characteristics. . . . First, teenagers get caught up in their own heads. . . . teenagers think about themselves a lot. They obsess about what they look like, what people think of them, what the point of life is. So number one, too much introspection.

. . . Now, number two, the teenager needs excitement--it's a reaction, I guess, to the realization that life is ordinary. In childhood, it's fresh and exciting, but then you start to see that the grown-up world is boring. So you look for hysteria and drama. You scream at concerts, you shriek when you see each other, you ride on rollercoasters, you get into alcohol and drugs. All year I've been hearing you guys use words like conspiracy, compulsion, pathology -- you get post-traumatic stress from exams; you're always running from the cops. I mean, you guys are just desperate for excitement. You're looking for extremes. You're looking for a climax.

. . . And finally, teenagers lose their sense of perspective. They're stuck between childhood and adulthood so they don't know whether they're up or down. One day, they're dressing up to look old and get into a bar; next day, they're putting on their cute voice to get the child's fare on the bus. It's like they're in an elevator all the time, so they can't judge where they are." (p. 404-405)
Death's finality and hugeness feeds introspection. It is extreme and exciting -- the approach to it, anyway, and the dodging of it, or the struggle or choice to embrace it. And it provides an end, a certainty that has its own comfort (though also terror) in the up and down.

But that wouldn't explain why there are so few books about boys and death. So one other theory here (which I'm pretty sure isn't original to me): More than anything else, teenage girls want to be seen. Twilight is a story about how special Bella is, how she is an exception to Edward's rules about humans, how he sees her once and falls helplessly in love with her then. (Love Story = same thing.) Thirteen Reasons Why is about a girl claiming the attention she was denied in life; If I Stay about the people who gather around a girl's bedside, paying attention to her, asking her to stay in life; Wintergirls about a girl who wants to be the skinniest -- to have the least seen of her, actually, and having that be her victory -- until that desire consumes her. Death, in its extremity, promises and focuses attention in just the same way a love story does. And when the two are combined: teenage-girl bliss.

Your comments? Theories? Thoughts?

One last thing that has nothing to do with death but a lot to do with teenage girls and love: The video for Taylor Swift's "Love Story." I freely confess I'm fascinated by this video, partly because it seems to have been concepted after someone watched "Pride and Prejudice," the What the Hell??? version (but with eighteenth-century dress for the ladies), partly because it (and the song) pushes all my romantic buttons, partly because it pushes all my feminist ones at the exact same time, and then finally because the song is such a well-constructed piece of narrative craft, moving from first glimpse (being seen!) to forbidden love to marriage proposal with Daddy's permission in less than four minutes. As a friend of mine said, "It's total high-school English class crack," and the part of me that is still in Mrs. Markley's Honors English II class third period adores it. Well worth watching, for any of those partial reactions.


  1. I know! When I first watched the Love Story video, I immediately thought of Joe Wright's adaptation-- the green pastures, the ball dancing scenes, the close-ups of the couple towards the end of the song against bright light...the resemblance is uncanny. Gah.

  2. Wow. This is a brilliant post, thanks for sharing.

    Of the books you've mentioned, I've only read Twilight & 13 Reasons Why.

    I did not like either of these books. I think it's linked to your suggestion that it's about the girl wanting to be special/seen. Because--neither did anything to deserve that specialness. This is a harsh interpretation, especially given 13 Reason's Why and what happened to that character--but the stories, to me, seemed to be more about glorying in attention that applying any sort of goal/motivation and accomplishment into deserving attention. Ultimately (in my humble opinion of course), both Bella and (what was 13RW's character...) Hannah? were selfish. It's the same characteristic trait that is driving me crazy: the desire to have fame and be famous overrides the goals of many girls--so that they don't think about doing anything worthy of fame, they just want to be famous.

    That said, I am eagerly looking forward to reading the other two books you mentioned. I have heard wonderful things about them, and they seem to have a more positive message to me: the joy of living, and the consequences of eating disorders.

    Of course, none of this diatribe of mine says anything about why these books are so popular--because clearly they are. And I do think that many teen girls have a fascination with death and the dark--I read a couple of Lurlene McDaniels when I was a kid, too.

    Personally, I think it's because many girls today are surrounded by too much "fluff"--these books about death are the opposite reaction to the books/movies/TV shows with light romantic comedy or gossip-girl type nothingness to them: these books provide a balance for the girls who seek them out in an unconscious response to much of the drivel they are surrounded with.

  3. this is a fascinating post, and I'm not sure I have much to say, except that the trope of the dying child in literature is, of course, much older than these books, and is nearly always female. Think of Little Nell, or Little Eva, or Beth in Little Women. (Hmm, lots of "littles," too!) I think these are fundamentally different from the examples you mention--their popularity seems to me much more like the popularity, in my day (late 70s/early 80s) of Sylvia Plath, especially The Bell Jar. But I need to think about this some more.

  4. Forgive the overly long comment, but this is a very interesting question and one, no doubt, with many answers.

    What about the possibility that we are wired to concern ourselves emotionally with death? We all must come to terms with it eventually. A century ago, people were much more familiar with death. So many more children and young people died of disease, and young women, from childbirth, and young men, in vast wars. It’s possible that today a young person may not have anyone close to them die until they’re in middle age. As it’s been in shorter supply in the west, maybe since WWII, we must embrace death in our entertainment, rather than in reality.

    Since death is more distant to most of us, today, it’s easier for adults anyway, to deny (especially when we have no good explanation for it), and enquiring teen minds may yearn for more knowledge and familiarity with it. Leave it to females to be quick to embrace or be drawn to this emotionally fraught subject. And death is nothing for the living, if not emotional.

    I also agree with the “attention” and wanting to be “seen” reasoning behind young women being interested in death. For some of us girls, there is (was) an awakening, post childhood (a la Reviving Ophelia) to female sexual vulnerability and physical weakness, relative to males, and a perception that we are valued less than males. Or valued for only superficial reasons, i.e. physical beauty. We become aware that we generally have less power, and get attention only for things we may not personally have or care about. We all want attention, lord knows.

    The weight of expectations from family and society (in our culture) and the difficulty or perceived impossibility for certain young women of living up to them, arguably can lead to the consideration of death, voluntary or not. In the end (no pun intended) it's a foolproof escape from oppressive expectations or a perceived solution, notoriously permanent, to temporary problems. Depression and the sometimes accompanying suicidal thinking is well represented among teenage girls AND boys.
    [Even if they are on the same continuum, romanticizing death and actively wanting to end one’s life are very different mindsets].
    You could also argue, perhaps dangerously, that it is passive and feminine, to consider and romanticize death, over actively facing one’s problems and living.

    And what about that perplexing relationship between Death and Sex? Why is “la petite mort” a euphemism for orgasm? (They say it is in France, anyway) I think Twilight taps into this brilliantly – lust/sex/death/procreation all wrapped up in what’s-his-name. Sex for very young women especially can be as complicated and scary a concept as death. And it is all tied up, somehow, isn’t it?

    One last thought: death has undeniable glamour--“Live fast, die young.” How many celebrities do we worship mainly because they died at a tender age? How romantic! Maybe the next question is why are we females drawn to things emotional and romantic? Back to wiring, no doubt.

  5. I wonder if the reason why we see more girls in these books than boys is because of gender role expectations. Teenage girls are becoming women, and society anticipates they will soon assume their traditional role as nurturers and life-givers. As girls mature and struggle with their identity, contemplating death instead is a way of challenging, or at least exploring, another side of life.

    As for teenage boys, isn't the stereotype that they flirt with death? "Leader of the Pack," "Rebel Without a Cause," "The Outsiders"—popular culture is filled with examples of boys indulging in risky behavior to "prove" their manhood. So perhaps books exploring a young man's examination of death don't seem particularly original or compelling—or maybe authors don't want to attempt to compete with S.E. Hinton.

  6. Thank you for a great post, Cheryl. I just finished reading The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon (a memoir about when he set himself on fire when he was 14) and was looking up some suicide stats ... although more girls attempt suicide, boys are more successful at it.

    I don't know why there are no books featuring boys and death, but the heart of suicide is depression and an intense preoccupation with 'woe is me' instead of looking outside yourself. Now I realize that there are many causes of depression, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that people who tend to be self-centered will be prone to depression. Because that's all that they ever think about -- what they have, don't have, want, etc.

    I have known a scant few severely depressed and suicidal people (both men and women) and the common denominator is self-centeredness. I try to get them to do something nice for someone else and that does seem to help, but it is a habit that they need to cultivate ...

    I loved reading the Burn Journals because it's about recovery, about embracing life and recognizing how precious it is. I didn't like these other books as much because I don't like characters that think that death solves their problems.

    Thanks again for a great post. Btw, I just finished Marcelo and ... what a brilliant book! So wonderful to read about the process a bit.

  7. I have a relative who got married very young and fell into a depressive state. Every spring it got so bad that she'd have to be hospitalized. Well, after a few years of this, her family started showing less attention. They even forgot to send her flowers, so she called up and ordered some delivered to her hospital room. Shortly after receiving them, she packed up and checked herself out. Never went back. It's hard to imagine a guy doing this. Guys like to be noticed too, but they're more interested in doing and being than in waiting for attention. Especially if it means dying. What abot Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides?

  8. Thanks for the great thoughts, all! I do have to take slight exception to the idea that depressed people are just self-centered/in need of attention and that's the key problem they need to get over. I've been seriously depressed before, and it does lock you in a state where the thing you see most is your own unhappiness and despair. But a cure isn't as simple as just, say, volunteering at a food pantry. . . . Depression is much more difficult and complicated than that, and generally deserving of sympathy, because as a state of life, it is AWFUL, and it's very hard to escape from. Daphne Merkin's article in this past Sunday's Times magazine was instructive on this: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/10/magazine/10Depression-t.html?_r=1&ref=magazine

  9. This is a fascinating post. I think that there are, in fact, books about boys and death. As Diane T pointed out, there are different cultural expectations for boys vs. girls. Girls are often expected to be the more passive in this relationship -- they swoon at the thought of "easeful Death." Boys are supposed to be active; they don't interact with the concept of death in the same way. One could argue, in fact, that the entire Harry Potter series is about a boy struggling with death -- through his murdered parents, his continuing battles with Voldemort and many near-death escapes, etc.

  10. My apologies. This is a sensitive topic and I didn't mean to imply that depression can be cured simply, if at all. Perhaps it can only be managed ... and I do have sympathy for people who suffer. But I do have to wonder that just like happiness is a habit, whether unhappiness is another habit as well.

    My experience is limited, but when I read books about suicide, I get a glimpse of what's going on in their heads, how they come to the conclusion that death will solve everything ... Death is a release but life has so much more to offer. My hope is that kids who are reading these books will always choose life, even in the face of despair.

  11. I do think there is something about the attention someone receives when facing death (or experiencing its coming) that girls find romantic and/or thrilling. As for the lack of similar boy stories, I think perhaps boys are more interested in reading about facing teenage emo-ness with rebellion and/or violence, instead of the quiet fading away tactic. :) In other words, girls may find an introverted, pensive conflict with death more fascinating, and boys may find a more extroverted, reactionary conflict with death more fascinating.

    Btw, I noticed that you are Lisa Yee's editor and am so giddy about that! Ms. Yee actually lives about a mile away from me. I met her before and she is such a delight!

  12. I have a strong memory, as a young teenager, of imagining my own funeral in loving detail (come to think of it, I spent much more time planning my funeral than I ever did on my wedding - don't know what that says!)

    I think you are right on the money with the idea of being "seen" - being known, being unconditionally loved - and the whole point is, surely, that the love and apprehension of self is not earned or worked for - it arises out of her (our) essence. I agree that the desire for fame and celebrity is a twisted form of this longing, to be loved absolutely - for ourselves.

  13. Maybe the perception is that boys who want to be famous go for school shootings instead of self-mutilation?

    I also think that women writers are often discouraged from writing the male point of view (I hear a lot of "I didn't believe this was a boy talking" and it's easier to bypass that criticism by writing about girls) when it comes to emotional issues.

  14. It's posts like this one that keep me coming back. You insight and thoughts and excellent. Thank you!

  15. (I must still be sleepy. What I MEANT to post was...)

    It's posts like this one that keep me coming back. YouR insight and thoughts ARE excellent. Thank you!


  16. Fascinating blog! I have been writing about a teenage boy dealing with the issue of death and loss for the last year, so I am excited to read all of your views on this difficult and often ignored issue.
    Oh, the drama! Teenage girls are attracted to drama like flies to honey. If they cannot be in the center of the drama spotlight, they attach themselves to the periphery. As Cheryl stated, they want to be seen. Years ago, I overheard a group of girls in my English class discussing how they wished they had broken their legs in a skiing accident like a fellow classmate. They mused over how lucky she was, giving the good luck saying “Break a Leg!” a whole new meaning. It’s not that they truly wanted to break their legs. What they wanted was for their classmates to swarm around them offering sympathy and gathering gory details about the accident. They wanted the boys to argue over who would carry their books to their next class. They wanted to be seen. Drama draws attention, and death is the ultimate drama.
    In addition to being dramatic, in literature and cinema, death has been romanticized. Pyramus and Thisbe, Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, Jack and Rose, Noah and Allie all link true love with the ultimate sacrifice, death. Even Edward’s love for Bella in New Moon is so all-encompassing that he decides he must end his “existence” at the mistaken word of her suicide. Sacrificing one’s life for love has always been painted as the true measure of pure, unwavering devotion. In reading books about love and death, young girls get to dream of the existence of unconditional love and be an audience to the high drama. They can talk about the romance and tragedy, and girls love to talk.
    Boys, on the other hand, do not. They do their best to avoid drama. They view the strong feelings, connected to love and death, as weak, so they swallow them until they are emotionally constipated. Unfortunately, those festering feelings may ultimately explode as anger in odd moments, at unintended targets. That is why, I believe, there are not many books dealing with death for boys. The emotions involved are taboo for them. Death is drama, and boys avoid drama. That being said, as the mother of two young boys, I do feel there is a need for these books and hope to see more available as my sons get older.
    As a side note, the draw to love, death and drama does not appear to fade as girls get older. In the middle of writing this response, I received a phone call from a good friend, who wanted to discuss the season finale of Grey’s Anatomy. Talk about love, death and drama! Yes, I too, am still a teenage girl at heart.

  17. All kids want to be seen. They just have different ways of doing it.