The Musings of a Wallflower: Writing to Read, Part VI

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.

Charlie, from Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, is still detailing the aftermath of his friend’s suicide to “Dear friend” in his first letter. After finding out over the loudspeaker at school, being picked up by his protective brother who doesn’t want their Dad to see Charlie crying, and eating some french fries, Charlie begins his discussion of the counseling sessions sponsored by the school that followed Michael’s suicide:

“At the guidance counselor sessions, they asked the few of us that actually liked Michael to say a few words. I think they were afraid that some of us would try to kill ourselves or something because they looked very tense and one of them kept touching his beard.”

This seems the perfect time for a tangent in the form of a personal story. When I attended high school, a young boy, I believe a freshman or sophomore, was critically injured in a car accident where his best friend was the driver. The young boy was on life support for several days before his family finally made the heartbreaking decision to discontinue that support, and he died at the hospital days after the accident. His best friend, the driver, along with the family and his close friends, were obviously deeply moved and hurt.

I don’t mean to come off as cynical, but high school is a strange place in many ways, and one of those ways is how closely connected people want to be to tragedy and grief. The whole school rallied because neither boy had been wearing a seatbelt in the accident, and this was a major contributor to the kid’s death. “Friends” of the boy—I’m not naming the boy who died by choice, though I do remember him—crept from the darkest corners and the smallest spaces. What I mean is this—people were pretending to be much closer to this boy in the aftermath of his death than they actually were.

Even now, it amazes me how people reacted in a time when a few select people had actually experienced a major loss and were grieving. Though I supported and still support using a tragedy such as this one to promote seatbelt safety and the like, I never support taking advantage of tragedy. Then, and for the most part, now, I still believe many of those students just wanted the attention that came with being connected to the loss of life. This is a terrible reality, but it is a reality.

The reason I tell this story is because Charlie writes “they asked the few of us that actually liked Michael.” To me, this indicates that Charlie is in a large group counseling session with many people who may not have even known his friend Michael, or if they did, likely only knew him by sight or name. In this way, Charlie is isolated in this session, and even further, put on the spot, because as one of the “few…that actually liked Michael,” the counselors have no choice but to go to him for opening a dialogue in the counseling session.

Here is what is amazing about reading a book, especially for the first time—your perceptions are always shifting, changing, or growing. In an earlier post, when I was discussing the lines where Charlie learns about Michael’s death, I proposed several reasons the authorities at school delivered the news to Charlie in such a poor manner. One of those potential reasons was “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.”

By the time we arrive here, in this counseling session with Charlie, where the counselors are forced to ask one of the “few,” we know that this option is no longer on the table. If the counselors know the boys well enough to call on Charlie as one of Michael’s “few” friends, then they know him well enough to have delivered the news in a better fashion. This means my original conclusion prior to this development is still heavily supported by the novel. That conclusion was that they “assumed…students of this age …do not have deep feelings about death, and are therefore not affected.”

This seems even more likely considering the shift from delivering the news of a student’s death via the PA system to giving counseling sessions to support the friends left behind. Initially, the school authorities failed to recognize the affect death would have on students like Charlie, but once Charlie had his crying session and “memory lapse” in Mr. Vaughn’s office, they have to recognize Michael’s death as an event that potentially matters to some students. The educational system is still growing in this aspect beyond the literary world.

The death of students happens in real life, so it must be dealt with in real life. It can be difficult, especially when the schools aren’t sure what to do. An article put together by David Balk, Donna Zaengle, and Charles Corr, sheds light on the death of adolescent peers:

“Whether a life event is considered normative or non-normative depends on the probability of occurrence, the sequence of occurrence, and the degree to which an event is anticipated at a specific point in life. Normative events are expected to occur…Because death during adolescence is not anticipated, bereavement over a peer’s death is not considered a typical experience during adolescent maturation. Nevertheless, because such deaths occur, it is helpful to review what we know about…the subsequent impact on surviving peers.”

The death Charlie is left to deal with is even more excruciating because it is a suicide. He did not lose his friend to a long illness. The death is a surprise, as it would be if it were an accident of some sort, but it is not that simple. The death is a surprise and it is one that could be avoided. It is a choice his friend Michael made, and Charlie is left to deal with the residual emotional impact.

According to Balk, Zaengle, and Corr, “Among US adolescents, suicide is the third leading cause of death, accounting for approximately 12% of deaths (CDC, 2009b).” Charlie wouldn’t be alone if he was a real person living in our real world. As we read the novel, we have to acknowledge Charlie as individual that seeks protection, and now, even further, we have to acknowledge Charlie as individual reacting to the death of a friend. Without acknowledging these factors, we are not gaining a full understanding of Charlie’s character.

Balk, Zaengle, and Corr also set us up for what to expect from a normal adolescent suffering the loss of a friend, which will give us a baseline for considering Charlie’s reactions as we continue to read the book. This is what they say in School Psychology International:

“Bereavement impacts adolescents on several dimensions (physically, cognitively, emotionally, interpersonally, behaviorally, and spiritually), and may be more intense and chronic than anticipated by peers, parents, and teachers (Balk, 2009). Reactions associated with normal bereavement are distinguished from complicated bereavement by various indicators. In normal bereavement the grieving person acknowledges the death, does not feel extremely lonely or empty after the death, feels emotionally connected to others, believes life still holds meaning, and retains a sense of self-efficacy.”

This is a lot of information to consider as poor Charlie sits in a room full of people who don’t even know or care about Michael trying to process his feelings about his friend’s suicide. On top of that, it seems the school has just decided to acknowledge how Michael’s death may have a real impact on a few certain students, Charlie included. However, this acknowledgement comes late, so damage has likely already been done to Charlie’s healing process.

It leaves me to wonder if the educational authorities in Charlie’s life simply reacted badly, or they reacted badly and have no sense of Charlie’s world, meaning Charlie’s particular age group. Some scholars would argue having a sense of an adolescent’s world is key, even if that viewpoint places them in the minority. Sandra Lopez tackles the idea of considering adolescent culture as it relates to grief throughout her article in Prevention Researcher:

“While there has been general acknowledgement that culture is an important factor in understanding grief, mourning, and bereavement, it is significant to note that there has been very little attention to how culture specifically impacts the experience of grief for adolescents. Nonetheless, some authors have addressed the subject. Corr and Balk (1996) offer a limited treatment of culture and adolescent grief in their discussion of adolescent experiences of death and bereavement, emphasizing that it is important to understand adolescents as being uniquely different from others based on their community affiliations, which may be social, cultural, religious, and/or economic. In an examination of grief and loss across the lifespan, Walter and McCoyd (2009) highlight the importance of what they call cultural understandings and note that grief is also socially defined by one’s cultural context.”

At this point in the novel, it seems the authorities in Charlie’s life have given little thought to his “cultural context.” As readers, we have the opportunity to consider both Charlie’s personality and his culture as we continue to take this literary journey with him. It may seem a lot of effort to give to a novel, but sometimes really diving into something intellectually can yield surprising, positive results.

I’ll give up the analytical read for today, but I have to admit, reading one of my favorite novels in this much detail is already proving to be rewarding. I started this entire project because I wanted to justify keeping a novel I have read a dozen times on my shelf despite my move to embrace minimalism in the last year or so. I can’t know for sure, but when I finish this project, which I expect will take months or even longer, I think I may be ready to let The Perks of Being a Wallflower go. At this level of detail, I’ll be carrying this novel around in my soul for a long time to come, whether it collects dust on my shelf or not.

Sources, my peeps:

Balk, David E., Donna Zaengle, and Charles A. Corr. “Strengthening Grief Support For Adolescents Coping With A Peer’s Death.” School Psychology International 32.2 (2011): 144-162. ERIC. Web. 25 June 2015.

Lopez, Sandra A. “Culture As An Influencing Factor In Adolescent Grief And Bereavement.” Prevention Researcher 18.3 (2011): 10-13. ERIC. Web. 25 June 2015.

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