Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Negotiating the Gap

I'm shy around kids because I know they're smarter than I am. On certain dimensions I've got age and experience on my side, but often that's a double-edged sword. Children possess a level of wisdom often lacking in adults. And, in some children, that wisdom is a curse.

There's the wisdom that comes with differentness (name your type; any differentness will do). There's the wisdom that comes from having had to grow up too soon (name your trauma). Many children survive ordeals that many adults have never had to face -- and often those children engage in coping mechanisms that are simultaneously self-destructive and self-preserving. The lucky ones get to preserve themselves long enough to move past the destruction.

The unlucky ones die. Bottom line.

I wouldn't be a teenager again if you paid me. I remember how excruciating it was. But remembering from decades out is doing so with the voice of an adult, complete with its creaky echoes of, "When I was your age...." When I was 15 I was watching the Watergate hearings and the Vietnam War on TV. Time Magazine gave a snapshot of the status of women and conditioning of girls when its November 5, 1973, issue quoted from a Harper & Row fourth-grade reader ("Oh, Raymond, boys are much braver than girls"), and a Science Research Associates third-grade reader ("You're certainly not up to a man's work, so you'll start as a scrubwoman"), among others. I listened to music on vinyl LPs and cassette tapes. Home computers were reserved for Star Trek and The Jetsons.

That provides important context in one's development but it is still surface structure. It would be as though I, in the throes of adolescent grief, were hearing the reminiscences of someone who had been a teenager during World War II. How could that history possibly have related to my own?

Memory can do only so much; preserving the actual voices can do more. (Anne Frank can provide some insight into the teenage mind during World War II, but she was living under horrific conditions of a different sort.)

Recently I dug out an old diary in response to a teenager's post. I read what this person was going through and it resonated with what I remember from my own childhood. The words I used then are much different from those I use now. The words I use now are more decisive, more self-confident, less self-conscious. They show where I am, not where I was.

How could I show someone I've survived Point A if I couldn't show Point A itself? To circumvent the inter-generational "You don't understand," I had to go back to the child. As an adult I cannot fully understand what a child goes through. I can go partway, can understand with an adult's brain. But then, like Dante's Virgil, there is a point beyond which I cannot step no matter how much I might want to.

I understood, once. I did when I was that age, before I accumulated the experience, skills, and armor that come by virtue of simply being alive for a more extended period of time. I could not speak to the anguish as eloquently as my child-self did, the girl who was going through the same trials as this teenager. Our different historical context didn't matter; the human condition was the same. I could show that, way back in the Pleistocene, years before this person was born, someone else was going through similar agony.

In tandem I could show that in spite of everything, the teenager-from-the-distant-past had fought her way to survival and then toward thriving.

Point A
to Point B. It's possible. Like any other pair of Before and After pictures, the After becomes more believable when one sees the Before.

When I was writing of my own pain my father made the comment that diaries mired one in the past. He didn't believe in them. I don't purport to know the pain he himself had gone through, that might have led him to reject journaling so decisively. But I am learning that -- just maybe -- keeping and saving those early diaries could have a positive impact on a life other than my own. I've been told my words both past and present have been helpful. I hope so.

Sometimes all it takes is to know that someone's been where you are, has felt what you feel, and has gone beyond the suffering of those years. That surviving those years is worth whatever it takes.

A Cautionary Tale:

In 1979, the United Nations' Year of the Child, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of the commitment of children to mental institutions without trial. Linda Greenhouse reported in the June 21 New York Times ("Parents Upheld on Committing Minor Children"):

The Supreme Court, in a 6-to-3 ruling today, upheld the constitutionality of state laws that allow parents to commit their minor children to state mental institutions....In the case involving children, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wrote in a majority opinion joined by four other Justices: "Our jurisprudence historically has reflected Western civilization concepts of the family as a unit with broad parental authority over minor children...More importantly, historically it has recognized that natural bonds of affection lead parents to act in the best interests of their children."

By 1986, instances of such institutionalization had skyrocketed. Pundits were baffled. D. Gelman, G. Raine, T. Jackson, S. Katz, D. Weathers, and V. Coppola reported in Newsweek (January 20, 1986, "TreatingTeens in Trouble"):

According to data compiled by the House Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families, admissions to inpatient psychiatric services of children under 18 more than doubled between 1970 and 1980. Between 1980 and 1984, adolescent admission to private psychiatric hospitals increased more than 350 percent, from 19,765 to 48,375.... A study by sociologists Carol Warren and William Staples of the University of Southern California describes hospitalization as "a hidden system of adolescent social control."... Perhaps partly as a result, psychiatric units for the young have become a growth item for the hospital industry.

The authors make no mention of the 1979 Supreme Court decision. I wonder what would have happened if the Justices had voted the other way.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

At the beach today, I realized how much I love to watch children play. I get filled up watching them. Sadly, I then thought in this day and age if I was a man, I would probably have to hold back on delighting in children. There was an article in the local paper about a child molester jus the day before.

2:55 PM  

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