Why 13 RW is an important show.

There’s been a lot of controversy about the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why (produced by Selena Gomez) and how it sends the wrong message to young people about suicide and mental illness. While I agree with some of the issues raised by mental health “experts,” cancelling this show would be a huge mistake, as it does help raise a dialogue that simply doesn’t exist today even in neighborhoods with the most resources to address it.

And finally, after the suicides of Anthony Bourdin and Kate Spade we wake up to the fact that depression can strike anyone.

I teach, and write fiction that helps young people share on issues that are too difficult to discuss “in real life.”

This week I’ll be writing a response to the mental health experts who think the show, 13 RW is damaging to young people. Most critics state, the show doesn’t address the issue of mental illness which lies at the heart of why young people take their lives. OK, I get that. But please read the real life history I document below and tell me how it addresses the underlining causes of teen suicide.

I’m waiting beside the train tracks at the corner of Alma Street and West Meadow Drive in Palo Alto. I’m waiting for the train to pass, when I spot a man on the side of the tracks dressed in a lime green jacket beneath a lime green awning with a pair of binoculars and a utility belt. He’s wearing a headphone. He must be a crossing guard only I’ve never seen a crossing guard so well-equipped. In fact, I haven’t seen a crossing guard on the Caltrain tracks, ever. As the train approaches he carefully studies the tracks with the binoculars. The train passes. I ask him what he’s doing. He tells me he’s a volunteer on “suicide watch.”

In a single year, four teenagers have committed suicide by walking in front of speeding trains. I read about them; bright, promising young people in an affluent and extremely competitive town, Palo Alto. Why? Everyone wants to know. And everyone is frustrated that no one wants to talk about it. No one wants to talk about it because no one knows how to talk about suicide, at least not in a way that can help young people.

“It’s very difficult and it’s very sensitive,” Caltrain spokeswoman Tasha Bartholomew said.

So sensitive that most of us want to ignore it. Palo Alto set up a committee comprised of pediatricians, schools, police and community agencies after the first two suicides this year “to come up with a response to address this pattern.” Gunn High School, where the victims attended school, referred all questions to the Palo Alto Unified School District. A district spokeswoman said there would be no statement from either the school or the district because “it’s just felt that’s the best approach.”

Is it? I think there’s another approach that parents, teachers, and students should be taking, that is by reading Jay Asher’s fine book and sitting down to watch an episode of 13 RW with their kids.

I’d like to ask all the young readers a question and they are welcome to respond in whatever way that feels safe for them. Has a friend, fellow student, family member ever come up to you and confided thoughts of suicide? What did you do to help them? Have you ever read a story with a character who committed suicide? What book was it? What did you think of the story? Of the character?

Parents or any adults currently reading. I’d like you to share with an answer to this simple question. What inspirational novel would you recommend to a young person who appears depressed?

This is the dialogue I want to nurture on my blog. It may not be as easy as posting gushy raves about our favorite YA reads, but I think it will be rewarding to share authors who can help us deal with some really tough issues. It’s tough to break the ice on a topic these sensitive, so I will give out a copy of my YA debut novel, Cease & Desist, that has a character who commits suicide before the story begins. The first two responses from anyone will get this book.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

Sympathy for the Devil–Why We Love to Hate this President

This is the last post I will write about President Trump. Of course, I promised that after the first post I wrote about the Donald. But like most people who love rubbernecking a trainwreck, I can’t look away. He’s so outrageously inhuman, so preposterously un-PC that it feels as if our nation’s collective unconscious has been cast in a reality show gone horribly wrong. I’m not alone. I listen to people make predictions, count the days to his coming impeachment.

Wake up, America. We need Donald Trump. The same we needed Tonya Harding. The same way we needed Rosie Ruiz. Do you remember her? She cheated at the Boston Marathon over thirty years ago. But even non-runners alive that day remember her name.

Could you tell me which President was in office on the day Rosie Ruiz “ran” Boston? You know from my posts I believe there’s a small, ugly part of each one of us that loves to hate this President–and that means there is a small part of each one of us who is egging him on. Before you adamantly deny this, please give me a chance to explain.

We need cheaters. They make us feel morally sound…they make us feel that our system–all those checks and balances our forefathers set in stone–really work.

Do you remember Jason Blair? He cut some corners on the way to the finish line. Do you remember Janet Cooke? She won a Pulitzer, until The Washington Post found out she made up the whole story. Fake news has been around for a lot longer than we are willing to believe. We need fake news because reality is sometimes too hard to accept.

And that’s the same reason we need fiction. Only fiction has changed. And we need to study it if we want to know what’s really going on.

If you know me, you know I write contemporary fiction. You know I’ve written a YA novel called Cease & Desist about a reality show gone horribly wrong. People love reality shows for one simple reason; we love to watch people in distress. We love to watch them cut corners and get caught. But when our beloved reality show gets transferred onto the all-too-real world stage, we get scared. We helplessly lash out at the bad guy.

Cease & Desist is a book about a bunch of young people who do some pretty terrible things while the whole world watches, and votes for a winner.

Donald Trump may be evil. But he’s one of us. He may be a cheater. But so are many of those we trusted to report the truth. Do you want to know how this unreal reality show is going to end?

Keep watching.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“You Have No Other Choice But To Continue…”

…That was the order given to the test subjects who administered a nearly lethal electrical shock to unwitting “learners” in the Milgram obedience experiment, administered over fifty years ago, at Yale University.

Over sixty-five percent of the test subjects followed the order to deliver the shock.

John Milgram’s conclusion: Ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being.

So, who do young people obey today? A parent, a teacher, the POTUS? Most teachers agree that the new authority, the new Big Brother–is the media itself; and the media has gotten good at promising young people that they too can become accepted, even famous, so long as they conform to the marketable stereotypes; so long as they try to emulate the queen bees, the jocks, the cool people at school.

What would you be willing to do to join the in-crowd? What if you had the power to select the coolest, the strongest, the most beautiful kids who appear on interactive TV? What if you could watch them have sex and harm each other for all the world to see? Sound dsytopian?

Welcome to the brave new world of interactive, digital broadcasting currently in production by established Hollywood studios. The future has arrived and it looks horribly seductive. I write about the technology, and the enormous power the studios will have once these next generation reality shows come to life.

My book, Cease & Desist , chronicles the next generation reality show, called “Reality Drama” in which the viewers are allowed to award the participants for having sex and committing real acts of violence. I don’t write Science Fiction. I write contemporary YA, and the “fake” show I present in my book comes from research I’ve done into shows that will be launched in the next six months. They will debut on WebTV, which has no censors.

But that’s absurd, the authorities wouldn’t allow real sex and real violence.

Wanna bet? We’re living in a world where “the realistic” can be digitally altered so that it appears an illusion. We’re living with an administration that looks like the most unreal reality show we’ve ever seen.

Mark my words: in six months, you’re going to see reality like you’ve never seen it. You’ll be watching interactive WebTV, with real sex and real violence and most of all NO real censors. And hopefully you’ll be asking what I’m asking now: who has the authority to stop this? No one, the producers are saying, or, we all do–we all have the option to censor ourselves: just turn the channel. They’ve been saying that for years. Has it ever really worked? As a teacher, I know what’s going to happen when these shows generate a congressional hearing. They’ll be hours of hand-wringing and finger-pointing and in the end, we’ll blame young people for not being more sensible, not being more “adult.”

But before you point your finger at young people, take a moment, and put yourself in their shoes. Their “reality” has been skewed by realistic computer games they’ve been playing since before they could read—it’s easy to push a button and obey the new rules, especially since–just like the participants in Milgram’s experiment, they’re really just obeying orders, (and the actors on the screen are just “acting,” right?)

We can’t blame young people for following orders, for trying to be survivors in the social battlefield our schools have become. (And the studios are banking on the fact that parents will be watching too.) And when this seductive dystopia arrives, no congressional hearing or concerned parents group will have enough power to stop it–because we value our “freedom” too much. We live in a free society, only we all know it isn’t free. We do what we’re subliminally told by the media. And the media wants our girls to be sexy and our boys to be blood-thirsty.

Hollywood doesn’t want you to read my book, Cease & Desist, because Cease & Desist is a wake-up call. If you think C & D is merely farfetched fiction, please write me so I can name a few of the shows that you’ll probably be talking about next year around the water cooler at work.

Our online lives have always been a losing battle between freedom and censorship, and since we obey an unseen authority, we’ve never really been “free.”

As Aldous Huxley warned us many years ago: You pays your dues. You makes your choice.

Our Bold New Virtual World.

When we read something outlandish in a novel, we think that could never happen in real life, and we break that willing suspension of disbelief that makes reading fiction so enjoyable. When we witness a horrible event in real life, we doubt our senses, and a part of our brain tries to convince us that what we’re seeing isn’t entirely “real.” Scientists say this is the way the brain protects itself from the enormity of horrible events. The soldiers who were the first to discover concentration camps at the end of World War II felt this. Many people who watched the first plane hit the World Trade Center, felt the same way.

Questioning  “reality” is an essential part of our education, I tell my students. The internet is far from truthful. Fake news is the latest example of a reality that many people have come to accept as part of the unreal world we live in. But the problem goes a lot deeper than most people think; young people have trouble determining what’s real because they were brought up on video games and reality TV that achieves verisimilitude with a seductive allure to the senses that few great novels can achieve, at least, for those who don’t make reading a habit. What happens when your sense of reality becomes so blurred with the virtual you stop questioning the real all together? What happens when RealityTV becomes interactive and you’re allowed to tell willing participants what you want them to do and say?

A lot happens, and none of it is good. Soon young people won’t just be temporarily duped by the unreal, they’ll be convinced it’s the way life works. Interactive, RealityTV will soon present programming that will allow people to vote for and recommend real sex and real violence.

Can’t we can put a stop to this? Not necessarily. Remember the only censor for live, streaming digital, broadcast is you, the viewer. You can turn the channel. You can write your congressman. Or what you see will appear so horrific that you’ll convince yourself that it can’t possibly be real.

There are laws against that sort of programming, aren’t there? Maybe, but tell that to a young person that’s been given an order to do something that could make them the Queen Bee or most popular boy to millions of viewers. Should we hold young people responsible for “following orders?” And some of those orders will probably be given by adults who are watching and want to see them “go all the way.” Remember, those people in the Milgram experiment were just “following orders.” So were the Nazis. In the coming months you’re going to see this sad reality come to pass. I’m writing to ask you to do two things when you witness the real and try to dismiss it as just a virtual photo-shopping of the perverse.

First. Don’t blame young people. Sure we’d like them to read more and question authority. But young people didn’t create these games. We did.

Second. This bold new world of interactive entertainment isn’t going to go away. Can anyone tell me the difference between “Mixed Reality,” “Virtual Reality,” and “Enhanced Reality?” All three terms are being used by manufacturers of computer game headsets, and while their differences may be nuanced, the result is clear: we’re being robbed of a reality that’s vital for young people, who need to understand the boundaries of what constitutes acceptable behavior.

There may be finger-pointing and hand-wringing by concerned adults at congressional hearings. But in the end, the only censors will be those of us with the courage turn the channel.

 

 

 

 

Why We’re Afraid of Fearless Girl

 

On Wall Street there’s a bronze statue of a girl who looks about the same age as the sixth graders in the middle school that I teach. She looks pretty fearless as she’s standing up to a raging bronze bull; and she’d better be, it doesn’t take much to see that bull represents men, greed and the lack of women in positions of financial power. The artist, Kristen Visbal, maintains that the statue of a child posed with her fists on her hips represents “the power of women in leadership.” Many feminists who don’t like the statue claim she’s a cheap corporate-centric ploy to hide the real issues like equal pay and reproductive rights (the piece was commissioned by State Street Global Advisors).

Everyone loves the image of empowerment represented by a girl standing up for herself in the ruthless, financial jungle our world has become. But, how would some of us men feel if it were a woman standing there? Pretty intimated, right?

But the problem goes deeper than that for men, women and children.

We aren’t just angry at Fearless Girl. We’re afraid of her, afraid for her. We’re afraid because we know in our hearts her future is imperiled. She doesn’t stand a chance alongside a President who is being mocked as “the pussy-grabber-in-chief”; but also brags his daughter (or is that his wife? Even he often gets them confused) is a model–not just for the latest issue of Maxim–but for longer maternity leave. Will our fearless young women be devoured by the wave of sexism that many attribute to the president’s base? Hillary Clinton recently claimed that she lost the election because of misogyny, that America is threatened by having a woman in the oval office. I don’t believe that a majority of us feel that way. I watch young girls stand up for their rights every day in my classroom.

The real problem isn’t just emanating from the oval office. The truth is, Fearless Girl doesn’t stand a chance against the mixed messages the media sends all young women. We want our daughters to be strong, but don’t we also want them to look gorgeous in revealing bikinis? The media thinks so. And the truth is, we who call ourselves “feminists” don’t even know what that word stands for anymore. The most progressive and intelligent young women I talk to at my school don’t consider themselves feminists, because they think it stands for a woman who doesn’t like men and doesn’t enjoy being herself.

To speak against feminism is to speak against basic human rights. But it’s time for someone to admit that the type of feminism that once worked–or at least, forced people to take notice–has changed. Young women aren’t weaker than they were a generation ago, but they’re a lot more confused about how their voices will be heard. Fearless Girl doesn’t just need a woman mentor, she needs an interpreter who can help separate the truth from the bull.