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Sunday Reflections: Silence Hurts Everyone (Why don’t adults intervene more when abuse is suspected with further discussion on Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell)


Months ago we posted about Eleanor and Park, and I recently added that post to the SVYALit Tumblr page where it has had some interesting discussion.  One comment in particular has me thinking:

Not one able adult called Child Protective Services, the Police, a counselor – none. It’s not even clear that Eleanor’s Uncle and Aunt did (in fact, given that the town gossip doesn’t mention it, I assume they didn’t). And that really, really bothers me. It’s possible that they could have called and nothing would have happened, that’s true. But not one adult – and these were written as otherwise self-aware and proactive and responsible characters – even tried to do this, which just does not sit well with me.

In the end, I feel like all of the adults in Eleanor’s life failed her, for no particular reason other than no one thought to pick up a phone or talk to an expert on the subject. There’s nothing in the book that addresses this oversight, or makes it understandable to me. And that’s a thing that worries me: because, yes, it’s made clear that Eleanor’s situation, that the behavior of her stepfather is very, very wrong, but it also doesn’t do much of anything to show the reader how adults can help right this wrong.

And if the book had commented on the fact that adults sometimes – maybe quite often – fail to help teens in dire situations, I might be able to look past it. Instead, it doesn’t even address it. I know as an adult – one who as a teen had an unrelated adult intercede on my behalf to prevent the threatened abuse of a parent – I know exactly what I would have done, which was called the authorities. It may not have helped, but I would have at the very least tried, and I don’t know another responsible adult who wouldn’t. (From the Falcon’s Pen is Quick and Sharp Tumblr)

What I believe Genie Este is asking is why don’t the adults in Eleanor’s life – especially those who seem to indicate that they know something is wrong in her life – intervene on her behalf.  To be honest, it has been a while since I read E&P and when I did read it, this did not stand out to me.  But I want to talk a little bit about it.

When I first got married, at the age of 22, we lived in an apartment.  In the apartment next door to us lived a couple with a small daughter (maybe 2 or 3) and an infant boy.  There were a couple of nights where I told The Mr. that I thought the husband next door was beating his wife, and The Mr. suggested that I really didn’t know what I was hearing.  One night, I finally called the police.  When the police came to my door, they thought that I had been calling and using the “no, no it’s a friend” excuse because apparently people don’t call and report these things.  It took a long while for me to convince them that no, I wasn’t being beaten but that I thought the lady next door was.  This was my first real life experience with bystander apathy.

You see, we live in a culture where we are taught no to judge, not to be nosy, not to interfere.  How many times have you overheard a parent yelling at a toddler in the grocery aisle or even your library and heard them call that child stupid, worthless, and many other horrible things?  The truth is, many of us have and we do nothing.  Because we feel that it is not our place to do something.  Almost daily you can find some type of blog post or article reminding us that we shouldn’t judge the way others choose to live their lives – and this is true in most cases. But it shouldn’t be true when we see abuse happening.

BUT, we are also taught not to think badly of others, which makes it easier to be in denial when we have those little inklings of abuse in the backs of our brain.  Surely, we think to ourselves, I am misunderstanding things.  In The Gift of Fear (and also in Protecting the Gift), author Gavin DeBecker talks a lot about intuition and how we are taught over time as we grow up to suppress our intuition, in part because we are taught not to think badly of others – and this puts us all at risk.  And really, we don’t want to think of the possibility that our neighbors, our friends – our family – could be the type of people who might abuse someone.  So it can be easy to explain our nagging suspicions away.  So for The Mr., it was easy to suggest that maybe the man next door was just building a cabinet instead of beating his wife.  I think this is also part of the reason why we have mandatory reporting laws for educators – it can be so easy to explain things away, but making educators mandated reporters means that they are more likely to report those inklings rather than explain them away because their job security is tied into reporting.

So I guess, for me, it’s not hard to see that the adults in Eleanor’s life may on some level suspect that abuse is happening, but I can also see how they would fail to act on that suspicion.  People fail to act on those suspicions every. single. day.  And in many ways, we are enculturated to do exactly that.

1 in 6 has an interesting look at why adults often fail to protect children from sexual abuse by failing to acknowledge or report it:

As difficult as it may be to accept, there are many genuine, compelling reasons that it can be challenging for adults – even otherwise loving and caring adults – to take protective action, or even to notice, when children are being sexually used or abused, or at risk of being harmed in that way. These reasons or causes include:

  • Overwhelming feelings (like fear, anger, or shame) caused by just thinking about the sexual abuse of children.
  • Confusion caused by incorrect stereotypes about what kinds of people sexually use and abuse children.
  • Physical, emotional, and financial dependency on an individual or group that would be lost (for oneself and the family) if such concerns are raised
  • Self doubts of various kinds (e.g., “I’m paranoid.” “What if I’m wrong?” “It’s none of my business.”).
  • Fears of various consequences (e.g., of acknowledging betrayal by a trusted and respected person, of being wrong, of being right).

For these and many other reasons (explored in detail below), even when an adult knows about such behavior, he or she may not speak up, or may even tell the child to keep quiet. Also, if the child’s distress or any harm seems minor or absent, a tragic calculation may take place: the immediate costs of confronting the situation seem greater than the imagined long-term costs of looking the other way. (source: https://1in6.org/men/get-information/online-readings/others-who-were-involved-or-not/why-do-adults-fail-to-protect-children-from-sexual-abuse-or-exploitation/)

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBPEkEOUUp0?rel=0]
This video is not about sexual abuse, but it does do a good job of demonstrating how people fail to act on their suspicions of abuse.

Which is WHY WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT SEXUAL ABUSE AND VIOLENCE.  By drawing back that curtain, we make it harder to deny or explain away; we take the blame off of the victim and put it where it belongs – the abuser; and we can help everyone understand what some of the signs may be so that more adults can speak out for victims when they suspect abuse may be happening.  And always remember that if you have suspicions of abuse you can call your local children’s protective services anonymously.

As for the neighbor next door, a couple of months later she moved out and the landlord did tell me that the apartment was full of holes in the wall and doors off of hinges and that there were clear signs that someone definitely had an anger management problem.  It looks like I made the right call, though I will never know if it made a difference. Silence hurts everyone.

Teens NEED Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Today, Christie Tweeted me this:

In a nutshell: Two authors – Meg Medina and Rainbow Rowell – had separate school visits scheduled at different schools.  Both of the schools got squeamish about the content of the books and quietly uninvited the authors.  This is not the first time this has happened.  For example, Ellen Hopkins was famously uninvited to a festival in Humble, Texas.  So I went on a Tweet Out against censorship.  It went something like this.

Here’s the deal, we can say what we want about what children (teens actually) should be exposed to, but then there is real life.  There are teens in EVERY SINGLE TOWN AND CITY living the life of Eleanor.  Who is protecting them?  We’re not by keeping their story silent.  Books give them voices, and when we say their stories aren’t something we should be reading we silence those hurting teens, sweeping their pain and abuse under the carpet and allowing it to continue in our silence. 

 Here’s Rainbow Rowell discussing the situation.

The 80s as Historical Fiction (A review of Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell)

I will never forget the day I was driving in the car, listening to the radio when the DJ declared it was a flashback weekend – and then he started playing a song from the 80s.  Suddenly, the music I grew up listening to was considered the “oldies”.  It’s possible that I have even heard myself say, “Music today just isn’t any good”.  Maybe.  (You can also go retro with your programming.  Find out more here.)

The music of the 80s is what brings Eleanor and Park together.  That and some comic books.  In fact, Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell is a love letter to the 80s, music, comic books and all things geekery.  It is brilliant, touching, and not what I was expecting. 

Two misfits. One extraordinary love. – from the inside cover

E&P first came on to my radar when I asked earlier in the year if anyone knew of any upcoming light, contemporary romances.  I was working on a book order and noticed that everything was dark, dark, dark, dark.  And not all of my teens like dark.  So several people responded with Eleanor and Park.  But, there are a couple of things you should know.

1) Eleanor and Park may be a love story, and a beautiful one, but it is not contemporary.  It is set in the 1980s, which might make it technically qualify as historical fiction.  But it definitely has a relatability that transcends time.  Teens might not know what it means to have to worry about the batteries running down on their walkmen’s or what it means to make a mix tape, but they have still shared headphones and they can create playlists to share with the freak sitting next to them on the bus.

2)  Eleanor and Park may be a love story, and it is a brilliant one, but it is definitely not light.  Eleanor has a very dark home life.  She is living in abject poverty.  Her stepfather is abusive and that abuse seems to be escalating.

But instead of talking about what Eleanor and Park isn’t, let’s talk about what it is.  E&P is one of the most organic love stories I have ever read.  The first time Eleanor steps onto the bus, Park is just trying to keep his head down and avoid being noticed by the school bullies.  He knows that to offer her a seat would be the death of him, but he sees her struggling and does so.  They sit side by side for weeks without saying a word, until Park realizes that she is reading his comic books over his shoulder.  Soon they are sharing comic books.  Then talking. Then kissing.  Rowell captures every aspect of a budding relationship perfectly: the ackwardness, the sparks, the longing just to be near that person.

“Bono met his wife in high school,” Park says.
“So did Jerry Lee Lewis,” Eleanor answers.
“I’m not kidding,” he says.
“You should be,” she says, “we’re sixteen.”
“What about Romeo and Juliet?”
“Shallow, confused, then dead.”
”I love you,” Park says.
“Wherefore art thou,” Eleanor answers.
“I’m not kidding,” he says.
“You should be.”
– from Eleanor and Park

Rowell also does a really amazing job of character and family development.  Park’s family is simply awesome.  They are a multicultural family struggling with poverty and stereotypes.  Park himself is half Korean.  Everything about Park’s family is done so well.  And when the moments matter, they rise to the ocassion.  Loved this aspect of the story.

Eleanor’s family is so much harder to read because her home life sucks and way too many teens are living in these types of homes.  They walk around on egg shells, fearful of the next wrong step and what the consequences will be.  Simply heartbreaking.

“You’re my favorite person of all time.” – from Eleanor and Park

This is simply a really amazing book.  Read it.  What more can I say.  5 out of 5 stars.  I did have one issue with it, and you can read about that here if you would like.  Next up for Rainbow Rowell – Fangirl, coming in September 2013. 

For more books set in the 80s (or professing a love to the 80s), check out:

The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler
Way to Go by Tom Ryan
The Catastrophic History of You and Me by Jessica Rothenberg
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz
Paper Covers Rock by Jenny Hubbard

They have a nice discussion and booklist over at Stacked.  So tell us, what would you put on your #80smixtape?  And what are your favorite books set in the 1980s?

Who Will Save You? Boundaries, Rescue and the Role of Adults in the Lives of Teens in YA Lit

Danger, Will Robinson, Danger! Eventually I will tell you what titles I am talking about and why and you will be minorly spoiled.  Not details of individual plots, but a general sense of what happens.  Read on after the jump understanding that. Consider that your spoiler alert.

The Set Up

The last three books I have read had an interesting underlying rhythm to them.  It goes something like this: A girl is in some type of a dangerous situation (abuse at home, in the witness protection plan) when a boy falls for them and tries to pursue them.  Even though the girl says no, saying it puts her (or the boy) in danger, the boy continues to pressure the girl (not for sex, just for a relationship).  She gives in but tries to hide it.  The situation escalates. Then, the boy saves her.   I want to talk about this for a moment. There are two issues that I think are worth discussion in these titles.

First, the disclaimers

Each of the books I am talking about are, in their own right, actually very well written and good reads.  I enjoyed them all and was very satisfied.  I recommend them. Highly actually.  In fact I would, or have, given each title 4 out of 5 stars or higher.

The books in question?

Flawed by Kate Avelynn (Entangled Teen 2012)
Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (St. Martin’s Press 2013)
The Rules of Disappearing by Ashley Elston (Hyperion 2013)

A Brief Synopsis of Each Title

Note! Danger, Will Robinson, Danger! I will try to have this conversation at spoiler free as possible.  But honestly, don’t read on if you haven’t read the books.

Flawed is about a girl who has a very abusive home life.  She begins a relationship with her brother’s best friend that puts her in incredible danger.  He tries to save her.

Eleanor and Park is a beautiful love story.  Eleanor also has a very abusive home life.  Her relationship with Park puts her in increased incredible danger.  He tries to save her.

The Rules for Disappearing is about Meg, who is not really Meg.  She is in the witness protection program.  Ethan wants to be in a relationship with her but she keeps pushing him away, in part to save herself but also to protect him.  He tries to save her.

Issue 1: The But I Really, Really Want to Be With You Argument and I Promise It Will Be Okay

In each of these book, the girl in question clearly says to the boy in question at some point that she DOES NOT want to be in a relationship with them.  They clearly state, in most cases, that they CAN NOT be in a relationship with the boy because there is danger to them.  Instead of respecting those wishes, the boy persists, he pursues, he pressures her, he assures her that no really, it will be okay.  Even though they have no real understanding of what the problem is, they disregard the girls fear and feelings and words.

It’s important to note here that in each instance, the boy in question does seem to genuinely like the girl and they basically develop meaningful, substantive relationships, although those relationships come with a lot of secrets and angst and push and pull because of the outside circumstances.  So I’m not saying that the boys in question are in any way abusive.  I’m just not sure that it is okay to continue to pressure a girl into a relationship when she has not only said no, please leave me alone, but when she has said that she can’t because IT WOULD PUT HER IN DANGER.  Now obviously, it shouldn’t put her in danger, and that is definitely part of the issue.  But shouldn’t these boys be respecting the things that these girls are saying, and the boundaries that they are trying to establish?  If no means no, then it should mean no here too, right? Not just in sex, but in respecting all of another person’s boundaries.  Isn’t consent about more than just sexual boundaries, but about respecting people’s wishes?  And if we are teaching and talking about consent in any meaningful way, shouldn’t this be part of the discussion?

Finding Joy in the Midst of Chaos

And yet, in each instance, in truth the girl really does want to pursue a relationship with these boys – it just really is a serious threat to their situation.  The relationships are satisfying to their souls and emotional well being.  The relationships (and the boys) help them find a sense of self and peace.  But they don’t make them safe, at all. The thing is, when we are in true relationships, they can help us find that sense of center.  Does a girl need a man to feel whole, happy? No.  But can we find bliss and happiness in romantic relationships? Clearly, yes.

The romance in Eleanor and Park is one of the most organic, beautiful relationships I have ever read on the page.  It builds slowly, authentically.  It moves you.  Park accepts this truly difficult girl for who she is- wild carrot top hair, emotional swings, and all.  In many ways, he, out of all 3 characters, is in fact the one who most clearly understands the situation she is in and respects those boundaries (somewhat) by not coming to her home.  Eleanor and Park truly captures that desperation of teenage love, the ache to simply be near a person, the longing to spend all night on the phone so you can just hear their voice, the way the rest of the world can disappear when you make eye contact, those secret, knowing looks across the classroom.  I was not prepared for how beautiful this book was, or how heartbreaking Eleanor’s home life would be.

I liked Ethan, the young man in The Rules for Disappearing.  I liked Sam, the young man in Flawed.  I just felt really conflicted when each of them continued to press, to push, to insist when our heroine asked them not to.  I wanted them to respect that, to respect her wishes, and to let her come to them if, or when, she was ready.

Issue 2: Who Will Save My Soul?
In each of our titles, the boy ends up running in – often literally – to save the girl. To give credit where credit is due, in 2 out of the 3 cases the girl actually does initially attempt to save themselves with a half-cocked plan (born out of desperation).  But it is the boy who jumps in and saves the day.  In one of the titles there is an actual sense that the boy is saying, “really, that was your plan?”

While this is not intrinsically bad, girls in these types of situations often do need some type of outside help and intervention.  I simply just wish that sometimes the girl could save herself, and possibly with the help of a positive adult role model.  And truthfully, in the end, there are some positive adults in each of these titles.  But I wish sometimes that protoganists would go to a school counselor, teacher or trusted adult and that they would get help that way to let teens in crisis know that they can, in fact, get real help and save themselves.  And overall, I think we need more positive representations of good adults and positive adult/teen interactions in teen novels.

Ironically, in two recent titles (Period 8 by Chris Crutcher and Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick), the main protagonists (both male) do seek the help of a trusted teacher and I felt that in both cases, the teacher overstepped their legal bounds and put themselves at risk.  And in the case of Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, it ends up being in many ways truly ineffective and meaningless.  Although it is interesting that in the case of a male main character they ask for help but in the case of a female main character they are, in the end, “saved” by the romantic male lead.  Interpret that how you will.

But in the interest of full and complete analysis, I am reminded of Rotters by Daniel Kraus.  In this book, a troubled teen boy does not turn to any adults for help and does in fact try to take care of his own problems, though in very unconventional ways.  Every single adult, from CPS to teachers, basically fails this young man.

As an adult who works with teens, I read a book on two levels.  On the first level, I read for the pure enjoyment of it.  On the second level, I read and analyze what messages are repeatedly being sent to teen readers.  With each individual title it is not really an issue, but when you look at them collectively we seem to be repeatedly saying to teen readers: boys keep pursuing, girls you need rescuing. 

I think we are also reinforcing the notion that adults are the bad guys, that you can’t reach out to them in a crisis, that they won’t come through for you in meaningful ways.  And while this is sometimes true, I would like to see the message better balanced with some more caring adults who help teens, especially teen girls, save themselves in ya lit.

So now it is your turn, can you give me examples where the girl really and truly saves herself?  And how do we talk to teens about respecting other people’s wishes and personal boundaries? Also, it would be really nice if you didn’t flame me. Thanks.

Edited 5/17/2013 to include Tweet from Pauline Holdworth