This post is a continuation of an ongoing subject. If you’re just tuning in, you should start at the first blog post on this subject, which you can read here.
At this point in Charlie’s first letter, appearing in the novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, we find out that a friend of Charlie’s, Michael, died in the recent past. Now, I know that this is only a novel, and it may not reflect how delicate situations are handled in the real world, but in the letter, Charlie describes finding out about Michael’s death when a teacher named Mr. Vaughn announces it over the school’s PA system (Did you know PA stands for public address? Fun fact!).
I doubt this small fact had a hand in any major influence over Chbosky’s novel, but this small detail speaks volumes to me about the authorities in Charlie’s life. Right from the start, I am driven to expect those in a position of authority over Charlie will have little concern about his feelings.
To announce Michael’s death over the loudspeaker before telling Charlie directly leaves us to assume one of several things:
- No one cares enough to tell Charlie before making a public announcement, so they disregard the sensitive nature of death and allow him to find out in this way.
- No one knows Michael well enough to know that he is good friends with Charlie, or vice versa, no one knows Charlie well enough to know that he was good friends with Michael. Either way, no one has taken the time to invest into learning anything about one or both of these boys.
- It is assumed that students of this age (we will later find out that at the time, Charlie is in middle school) do not have deep feelings about death, and are therefore not affected.
- Someone in a position of authority has made the very wrong assumption that Charlie already knows.
Of course, these considerations initiated some critical thinking about the topic of death in different age groups in general. For instance, if this novel was the real world, how would we expect Charlie to handle the death of a friend? Even further, does Charlie have some basic understanding of what he believes death means? Even further still, how would we expect educational authorities in Charlie’s life to handle the situation?
Nuria Galende presents a paper in ScienceDirect that explores some of these topics in real depth. She opens the paper with an immediate address to some of the concerns I have about Charlie’s situation when she writes the following:
“Although death is a natural thing and inherent to life itself, the fact is that it still remains as an issue that can be considered a…educational taboo…constantly banned and avoided…These same attitudes are found among education professionals, which, sooner or later, will have to talk to children about the subject of death and dying…It seems that we live in a culture that overestimates joy and shies away suffering, although the latter is also part of life and although we normally need more help just when the latter occurs.”
Well, it would seem addressing a student’s death over the loudspeaker dubs it far from “taboo,” but perhaps this is a veiled attempt to avoid the subject altogether on the part of the educational authorities. It may be that they do care for Charlie, but they just don’t know how to handle this situation properly. If the news is delivered in such an indirect, impersonal, hands-off way, there is no tangible link for the children in the school to follow in order to pursue a discussion of their feelings about the matter. By so publicly informing the students, they strip the personal from death, and as they strip the personal away, it distances the students from their own feelings about death itself. As a result, it distances them from their feelings about Michael’s death. It may be a jump to consider that any of this discussion has a place in what Chbosky was creating in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but it is an interesting discussion nonetheless.
Let’s consider more of Galende’s thoughts in her paper, “Death and its Didactics in Pre-School and Primary School:”
“The fact is that children have the right to being talked about death sincerely…but it seems that adults who will be in charge of their education are not being trained for it. And the fact is that the idea that children are not interested in the subject, or are not afraid of death because they do not think of it, or can not in any way understand it -ideas all present in the minds of many adults-, are all false. Children may not have the capacity to understand the issue as an adult does -even for many adults the topic is difficult-, but that does not mean they are not interested in it and, of course, does not mean it does not affect them at all.”
In only two pages, there is strong evidence to suggest Charlie, as a character, is interested and affected by death. He is undertaking writing letters to a stranger, and in his first letter, he is introducing and addressing the death of his friend Michael. Even though no response is expected, we can assume Charlie is still in the getting-to-know-you-phase of writing to this person, but he is already willing to place a major subject down on the table.
As one of the assumptions I proposed earlier in the post was that “it is assumed that students of this age (we will later find out that at the time, Charlie is in middle school) do not have deep feelings about death, and are therefore not affected,” using the information from Galende’s study, we can assume this assumption is wrong. As a result, we can assume the way Charlie’s educational authorities handled this situation with Michael is wrong, but likely, fairly normal to the real world. Knowing this, I can assume the reality Chbosky is creating in the novel is credible. Now, if I was not doing a close-reading, I wouldn’t have this background knowledge to promote the credibility of the novel. However, as a book I have been holding onto for years, it seems an instinctual credibility flagged me long ago.
To highlight the sadness of Charlie’s situation further, he writes this in the lines following the description of how Michael’s death is announced:
“I don’t know how news travels around the school and why it is very often right. Maybe it was in the lunchroom. It’s hard to remember. But Dave with the awkward glasses told us that Michael killed himself. His mom played bridge with one of Michael’s neighbors and they heard the gunshot.”
I know when I when I read this originally, it made me feel closer to Charlie to know his best friend committed suicide. There is no specific reason for this. At the time I first read the novel, suicide had never touched my life directly. In fact, other than the normal tendencies of a teenager to consider suicide in a manner that is far from concrete, I had no experience with suicide. No friends had expressed serious consideration, no friends had killed themselves, and in fact, no one at all that I knew at the time had taken their own life, not even an acquaintance.
However, I think we all know at some gut-feeling level that suicide is prevalent enough to matter. Consider these statistics presented in Karen Slovak and Jonathan Singer’s academic study, “School Social Workers’ Experiences with Youth Suicidal Behavior:”
“Child and adolescent suicidal behavior, including ideation, attempt, and dying, is …national and preventable…and a significant concern for school staff and administrators. In 2006 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), the third leading cause of death among U.S. youths ages 5 to 19 years was suicide, with 1,774 deaths. Rates (per hundred thousand) of youth suicide increase significantly with age: 0.18 for youths ages 5 to 12 years, 2.78 for youths 13 to 15, and 8.06 for youths 16 to 19 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2010a).”
For children the age Charlie was when he found out about Michael’s death, suicide is already a mid-range threat to their mortality. As Charlie begins these letters, he is already at a delicate stage in his life, but as far as we know at this moment in the book, he has been burdened further by the death of a friend and who (at this point) knows what else. I previously established that I felt a connection to Charlie as a character who craves protection, but now there is a sense that as much as Charlie may want protection, he almost certainly and legitimately needs that protection as well.
Some sources, dudes and dudettes:
Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: Pocket Books, 1999. Print.
Galende, Nuria. “Death And Its Didactics In Pre-School And Primary School.” Procedia – Social And Behavioral Sciences 185.The Proceedings of 3rd World Conference on Psychology and Sociology (2015): 91-97. ScienceDirect. Web. 21 June 2015.
Singer, Jonathan, B., and Karen Slovak. “School Social Workers’ Experiences With Youth Suicidal Behavior: An Exploratory Study.” Children & Schools 33.4 (2011): 215-228. CINAHL Plus with Full Text. Web. 21 June 2015.