As many of you who read my blog already know I use fiction to help teens discuss topics that are too tough to talk about “in real life.” Teen Suicide is one of the most important topics for young people to share on. Today, I’d like to respond directly the recent criticism about the show 13 RW from mental health “experts.”
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?
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. 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.
In my headline, I’ve borrowed the French idiom, trompe l’oeil–“something that misleads or tricks the senses”–to make a point about what we’re experiencing in America today. We love this notion of being “tricked” in painting and fiction, and maybe art’s greatest contribution is to fool our senses long enough to get us to believe something that can’t possibly be real. But what happens when reversals to our core principles such as equal rights, healthcare, and immigration happen so quickly that the righteous anger we feel when our freedom is threatened just isn’t enough?
We’re in a state of shock. The center cannot hold. Those values we thought were rock-solid are being destroyed and that makes us feel as if our reality has become, well, unreal. When are reality becomes unreal we turn to fiction, specifically dystopian fiction, because fiction is what we need to confront all those issues that are too difficult to take “in real life.” Sales of the classic dystopian novels–1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451, are on the rise.
Dystopian fiction is deeply, cathartically, satisfying. Don’t we all love to read about a world in distress? A world that’s really a wake-up call for all those things we need to avoid. It’s all fun and Hunger Games so long when we close the book we can return to our safe, not-too-troubled world.
What if we woke up and found the most unreal dystopia we could possibly imagine right at our door? (Remember dystopia is only dystopia so long as it stays in the future.)
What we’re feeling now isn’t just righteous anger, it’s fear.
Whenever I turn on the TV, it feels as if I’m watching a reality show that can’t be real. That would be a great compliment to a fiction writer who strives for verisimilitude. But it’s real. At least that’s what we have to keep reminding ourselves.
The YA novel I wrote, Cease & Desist, was supposed to be dystopian, but most of its far-fetched notions will be commonplace by the time you read it. Soon you’ll be able to watch young people have sex and harm each other on digital, interactive, WebTV. You’ll be able to vote on who’ll be the winner, the same way the mob chose the winner in the Roman Coliseum.
Do you think I’m making that up? Think again. The future is coming at us way too fast, and we’ve got to stop it before more people get hurt.
For those of you who read my blog and books, you know I teach and try to find role models for my young students. Some of the ones I select lived hundreds of years ago. Some are alive, and giving parents, teachers, and young people better choices than the dismal pantheon of famous teenagers in Hollywood who rely on sex tapes and high speed chases to gain notoriety.
Classes started this week, so I have a lot to hear from my students about who they admire and why. I write the words that are traditionally associated with leaders and role models on the board. “Integrity” “Vision” “Kindness”…but there are other more subtle attributes that we miss, and I think they can be found by looking at two actresses who are making some breakout choices with the roles they take, and some of the off-screen decisions they make about what’s really important in life.
Great leaders and role models share one trait that most of us miss when looking for the next person to follow: Vulnerability. This is an unlikely superpower to most larger than life characters. To make yourself vulnerable is put yourself in a place of risk, to appear weak, to make a choice that tells the world you know the difference between fame and personal achievement, between adulation and respect.
Selena Gomez decided to take three months off to assess her mental health and her career. It was a shocking move to the Hollywood establishment and her fans. Why didn’t she just check into rehab after a wildly publicized and largely manufactured “breakdown.” Instead, she sat down with strangers in therapy and made choices most adults couldn’t fathom. She came back a new different person. What we saw once as a squeaky clean girl with talent and mouse ears has blossomed into a young woman who is ready for a new role. In short, Selena became a real life wonder woman. She made risky choices the way Gal Gadot did in her breakout performance of Wonder Woman. By showing us her weaker side, she gave us a glimpse into a real superpower we all have the power to possess.
So, Selena is up on my board in the classroom as this month’s young woman to watch. One parent of course took issue with my choice and asked how I could be so admiring of a girl who sings the ultra sultry songs “Fetish”, and “Bad Liar”. How could I endorse an actress who wears a string bikini and sucks off a gun barrel in Spring Breakers. And my answer was because Selena, like any girl who needs to find womanhood on her own terms, is growing and exploring the complex difference between passion and true love in ways that give us the kind of conflicted character who is tired of playing a little girl. The world doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to shoving teenage sex in our faces, why should Selena? Can’t you hear her pain between the lines of those so-called “inappropriate” songs? Can’t you see why she’s supporting 13 Reasons Why as a way to stare down teen suicide? We parents and teachers still have a lot to learn on what it takes to survive as a young person today.
Thank God, Selena is showing the way.