Last week I talked about the wonderful novel Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Saenz, but I cautioned that the book might not be appropriate for some teens. This is a point that I’ve made before in other posts, but I just wanted to look a little more at why.
When I was in 9th grade, my teacher made us all read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, Animal Farm by George Orwell, The Pearl by John Steinbeck, and Night by Elie Wiesel. If you aren’t familiar with all of these titles, well, the common theme is that they are all hella dark and depressing.
Now she might have had us read these books because she thought that we were all pampered little rich kids who needed shaking up–and undoubtedly many of the students in the class were, but not me. And I came away from the year pretty sure that she wanted us all to commit suicide. Did I get anything useful from reading all of this pain? Well, I’ll tell you that the only thing I remember about any of these books is the scene in Lord of the Flies when they murder Piggy and the scene in The Pearl when they shoot the baby’s head off while his mother is climbing the cliff. It also gave me a lifelong aversion to both Steinbeck and Orwell. And it was years again before I was willing to read any novel or watch any movie that I even slightly suspected might be sad.
Now I know that all kids are different, and some just have a higher tolerance for emotional pain in books, but I do think that there are two real risks when asking a kid who has suffered, or is currently suffering trauma, to read books depicting trauma.
The first risk is that reading the trauma, if it is close enough to what the child has experienced, can actually trigger flashbacks or at least the emotions experienced during the original trauma. This can actually have the affect of re-traumatizing the child. The second major risk is that if the child is using any sort of suppression or dissociation to cope with her experiences, then reading a book with dissociation or with trauma too similar to what she has experienced, can undermine the coping mechanism. As I said in my last post, if she is in a safe environment and is ready to deal with her traumatic experience, then this is a good thing. But if she is still in an abusive environment, as I was, then this can actually be really dangerous. It can trigger depression and anxiety or even self-harm or suicidal behaviors.
I believe that being forced to read so many books about bullying, murder, depression, war, rape, etc. was really harmful for me AT THAT MOMENT because I was not ready to deal with the emotions that they brought up. And I think that teachers need to be aware of these issues when they assign books dealing with trauma to an entire class to read. Some kids who are in safe, healthy homes can really benefit from these books. Kids who have experienced hardship but are ready to deal can have life-changing experiences with these books. But kids who are not ready to read them should not be forced to.
It’s funny because in a way the whole point of this blog is to encourage us to create more books about trauma and adversity. And this is really important because when a kid is ready to deal with what has happened to her, then she desperately needs these books. But like I said in the post about rape books, there are different ways of treating these materials for kids at different stages of dealing. And then there does need to be awareness that some kids just are not ready to, and forcing them to can be really harmful.
To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most beloved books of our time–but being forced to read it as a ninth grader did it a huge disservice for me. I was not ready for it, and I may never be able to enjoy it as a result. I look at all of those books with utter loathing, to be honest. What a shame.
Just something to be aware of.
Next Week’s Topic: What do you all want to talk about? I’ll pick a topic from the first five comments.