Dangerous Books for Teenage Girls

Believe it or not, I still haven’t seen the final installment of Stephenie Meyer’s masterful saga, Pretty Hair, Platelets, and the Hottest Chastity Ever, or whatever it’s called. From what I hear, it’s either fiercely and unexpectedly pro-life or horrifyingly damaging to the pro-life movement.  One things seems certain:  it’s a pretty crappy movie inspired by a crappy book.  So.

More interesting than the books themselves is the debate over whether or not they are dangerous to young women’s ideas about love.  I’ve made sure that my own daughters would rather eat Vaseline than read a Twilight book (snobbery has its benefits).  But as a dopey and malleable teenage girl, I came across lots of literature which had a horrible effect on my ideas of love—but which were terrific books.  Some examples:

Wuthering Heights.  When Emily Brontë‘s novel came out, there an outcry over its fevered and degenerate excesses.  And at age 16, I fully internalized the idea that the highest form of love is self-immolating, world-excluding, virtue-obsolescing devotion to an eternally predestined companion soul.  Now, in the novel, this relationship is clearly not healthy; but oh how exquisitely it is portrayed, and I couldn’t get enough of it.  But it’s a great story and a great illustration of the collective unconscious of the 19th century.

Pretty much everything by Walker Percy.  These books weren’t above my reading comprehension, and were incredibly nourishing to my ideas about humility, repentance, and courage, and the modern novel in general.  But they were just above my emotional comprehension (and I worry a bit about Percy’s own emotional comprehension of women).  The romantic escapades of Dr. Thomas More are his tragic flaw, and a symptom of his deeper, similarly flawed relationship with Christ, which comes in cycles of ecstatic lust and regret.  But a teenager will likely take any likable character as a role model, ignoring or normalizing the misery and distress that the character suffers.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Like a disastrously out-of-context quote (“As Shakespeare so wisely taught, ‘To thine own self be true’”), a single scene can overwhelm even a book whose themes are otherwise perfectly moral.  This semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel is very much about the pain and sacrifice demanded by love, and about the mystery of the human capacity to forgive and to grow strong through hurt and deprivation.  It also has one scene where the mother tells the daughter that her first sexual encounter might be immoral, but will certainly be exquisite, unforgettable, and irreplaceable.

What to do? I don’t like the Utterly Inoffensive, Better Safe Than Sorry approach to young adult literature—first, because it’s ineffective:  what’s safe for one kid could be damaging for another.  (I know a dad, for instance, who had to ban Dumbo because his son learned from it that getting drunk is hilarious.)  Anything can be distorted.  And most teenagers are needy in one way or another.  We do our best to understand what their needs are, and to teach them to fulfill (or deny) these needs in healthy, God-centered ways.  But we don’t always understand our kids; and they are not always responsive.  As I read the three books I list above, I was, like many teenage girls, ravenous for romantic love.  There was nothing wrong with the books I listed above; but because of who I was, I learned terrible lessons from them—even though they were not primarily about love.

I also reject UIBSTS system because it can be damaging in its own right.  My kids briefly went to a school where all reading material had a clean bill of moral health, often with a moral in italics.  The danger?  My kids were being trained to regard all literature as tedious and preachy.  I would sooner have them learn that water doesn’t hydrate you.

On the other hand, we have an extremely serious responsibility as parents to guide our children along paths which at least have a chance of being straight.  So if we can’t feed them a diet of straight milk, but of course don’t want to offer them things we know to be poison—what to do about that vast middleground of excellent literature which could turn into anything at all in the fevered imaginations of the typical unformed kid?

My answer:  Variety, variety, variety.  You are not going to be able to shield your children from every malign influence, because children themselves are so variable—from child to child, and in the same child, at different stages of development .  There simply is no reliable way to predict which aspects of which works will take root in your child’s imagination. You can discuss ideas, correct bad ones and reinforce good ones, and be vigilant about trends in your child’s thinking. 

But ultimately, probably the most effective thing you can do is to pray for them.  Dedicate them repeatedly to Mary.  Ask her to make them a sponge for good ideas and Teflon against the bad; and abandon the idea that you can follow a formula that turns out perfectly virtuous kids.

And let them read books, lots of books, books of all kinds. 

Except for books by Stephenie Meyer.