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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 

Incest, the last taboo (A discussion of Flawed by Kate Avelynn)

Please note: This post and this book deals with a sensitive subject and may be triggering for some.

Back in the day of the dinosaur and before we had color tv (just kidding), there was an author named V. C. Andrews who wrote a book called Flowers in the Attic.  All my friends were reading it so I did too.  That’s how peer pressure works.  Nonetheless, it turns out it is a book about the kids locked in an attic and they fall in love.  Except they are brother and sister.  I am not making that part up.  They are brother and sister and they kiss and it is as gross as it sounds.

Because I have a brother and ew . . . . I mean seriously ew.  We basically just beat each other up and talked smack to one another.  You can not talk bad about my brother, but I always had plenty of negative things to say.  So I can not imagine any universe in which a brother and sister fall in love.  Punching I get, kissing not so much.

Flowers in the Attic is not the only title to have incest as part of its storyline.  In fact, it has come up in Young Adult fiction:

Incest plays a minor role in Robert Cormier‘s 1988 novel Fade. The main character, a teenage boy named Paul Moreaux, has the ability to disappear or ‘fade’ from sight. He uses the ‘fade’ to spy on two new friends, twins Emerson and his sister Page Winslow, and is shocked to witness an incestuous encounter between the two.

In Sonya Hartnett‘s Sleeping Dogs (1995), a brother and sister’s incest is only one symptom of the family’s degradation.

One young adult novel of note is Francesca Lia Block‘s Wasteland (2003), which features the incestuous relationship of a teenage brother and sister.

In the Young-adult series “Blue Bloods” (from 2006) by Melissa de la Cruz, which features vampires reincarnated every lifetime and couples who are “bonded” and find each other every lifetime, two of the semi-main characters, who are a bonded couple, are twins.

In the 2007 novel City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, the main character, Clary, and her romantic interest, Jace, discover that they are siblings. Their romantic relationship (though now very tense) continues into the second book, City of Ashes. But in the third installment, City of Glass, it is later revealed they are not siblings, so it really isn’t incest. However, Clary’s real older brother, Jonathan Christopher Morgenstern (who Clary has never met), impersonates Sebastian Verlac (whom Clary or the other characters have also never met). Clary is unaware that Sebastian is really her brother spying for their father, Valentine, and it leads to them sharing a kiss. However, unlike when she kisses Jace (even when they still think they are related), she notices that kissing Sebastian feels wrong.

Forbidden (2010) by Tabitha Suzuma tells the story of a teenage brother and sister who fall in love while caring for their younger siblings.

And of course their is an incestuous relationship in the Game of Thrones saga by George R. R. Martin, not distinctly YA but definitely popular among this age group.

Don’t tell, but I totally got the above information from the Wikipedia entry on “Incest in Popular Culture”.  I know, not a great source and all that.  But there you have it.

Entangled Teen, January 2013 ISBN: 9781620612323

Which brings us to Flawed by Kate Avelynn.  Flawed is the story of Sarah and James, two siblings who have made a pact.  Because of this pact, James saves his sister from their violent, abusive father.  They are already off to a bad start in life.  Sarah thinks she owes James everything because of all that he is sacrificed to save her, but one day he asks for more than she can give, and it breaks her.  Sarah thought that James was going to save her, but he turns out to be far more dangerous than their father ever was.

Opening page . . . 
“My first memory of James is what keeps me here, smoothing hair out of a boy’s blood-splattered face. the sirens screaming in the distance are too late.
They’re always too late.

Forehead pressed to his, I choke on the burnt stench of gunpowder and try to hum the lullaby James used to sing to me.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine . . .

James is why I never left.

I should have left.”

Flawed is not an easy read and it is about a topic – abuse and incest – that we don’t like to talk about, or even think about. These are truly damaged people and this is a heartbreaking read. 

It is important to note that this is, in the end, not really a book about incest but a book about abuse and the cycles of abuse.  Here, there is more than one abuser, father and son.  James thinks he is saving Sarah, but he fails to realize how he has become a version of his father and is in fact doing the very same things to Sarah.  He is not her savior, but another tormentor.  It is crushingly hard to read, but Avelynn does a very good job of developing the psychological pillars of abuse, the way that Sarah is alienated, controlled, dis-empowered. For years, the two siblings have had to weather this crazed and terrorizing life together alone and they have developed a very unhealthy relationship as a coping mechanism.  When James’ feeling turn to obsession for his sister, she recognizes and fears it, but still feels an incredible sense of obligation to him that keeps her there when she should be fleeing for her safety. I cried a hundred times reading this book, and although it was so very hard to read, I kept reading because I just wanted something good to happen for Sarah.

The situation is complicated when Sarah falls in love with Sam, James former and probably only friend.  There is a pseudo white knight feel to Sam that is hard to swallow, like he is here to rescue the princess when the truth is, she can probably only really rescue herself.  But he also becomes the catalyst that causes events to spiral out of control.  They often use physical interaction, “making out”, to “make it all go away”, which was annoying, but has a ring of truth to it for this age group and someone who has been through what Sarah has been through. 

But let’s talk about Sam for a moment.  Sam is presented to us as the one who truly loves Sarah and wants good things for her, but even he is at times controlling, though in more subtle ways.  He pressures Sarah to be in a relationship with him when she repeatedly says she can’t because it would anger her brother.  There is this scene where they are at the grocery store and Sam takes the things Sarah puts in her shopping cart out and replaces them with a healthier alternative, not understanding that 1) this is a type of control and 2) he could very well be getting her into trouble at home if she goes home with the wrong foods.  So even though this relationship was supposed to be the true love, there were some subversive elements that didn’t sit well with me.  If it was supposed to be an example of what a healthy relationship looks like to contrast with the other relationships in Sarah’s life, then I think Avelynn failed. Do I think that Sam had some true feelings for Sarah? Yes.  Do I think that this was a healthy relationship? No, and maybe it wasn’t meant to be.  In the end, Sarah is really and truly at a place where it would be impossible for her to be in any type of a healthy relationship without serious counseling to help her understand what one is, what it looks like.

The emotions of abuse are depicted with a strong sense of realism, a heartbreaking honesty, a very real level of dysfunction that is so very difficult to read – especially when we keep in mind that this is the family dynamic of far too many people in this world. It is crushing to read, but important at the same time.  

The writing is at times beautiful: “But at the press of his lips against mine replays in my head, that love starts to feel heavy, like stones pulling me under the water.”  But oh my goodness are these some damaged people and there are some truly horrible things happening here; psychological abuse, physical abuse, manipulation, fear . . . Sarah is a classic abuse victim, making excuses for her brother and allowing him to control her out of a sense of debt that she feels. It is a heavy read with a very sad ending. 

I can’t say I recommend this book because it is truly psychologically horrific, but I can say that the writing is often lush, the emotions and psychology seem real and spot on, and that it will be very triggering for some people.  I am a firm believer that every person deserves to have their story be told, and this is definitely a story that needs to be told and is told well.  We can learn from it. But man, this is not an easy read – I felt wrecked for a long time after reading this book, that is how visceral it is.  The words in this book will gut you like a knife.  For style, writing skill and the development of the psychology of abuse, I give it a 4 out of 5 stars.  For all the James and Sarah’s out there, I hope this book sheds a light on your life and that we can all learn how to recognize the signs and try and find help for you.  I think adults, especially, should read this book to better understand what this life is like.  I would have a hard time recommending it to a teen, but I know many that would devour it just as they devour the A Child Called It books, I simply hope they learn empathy and compassion from it.  Pair this with Scowler by Daniel Kraus for a compelling look at the psychology of abuse, the life of its victims, and the depth of fear that many teens are living in daily.  I do think the abuse in Flawed is more terrorizing because it is firmly set in a realistic world whereas there are some Horror/Fantasy elements to Scowler that help provide that element of distance to make it slightly more palpable.