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Does dark or graphic material in literature harm teens? Never? Always? Sometimes? Among authors, librarians, and teachers, asking that question often starts an ideological battle, with some focused on protecting against censorship and others focused on authors’ and teachers’ worldviews.
But is that debate the whole story? When Texas high-school senior Nathan Austin committed suicide on April 2, 2012, his parents, Paul and Karen, examined new research on the biology of depression and suicide prevention, and saw that reading about death and suicide may have contributed to the mentality that led to their son’s death.
The Austins knew their son had been struggling with depressing thoughts, but they didn’t know, until soon after Nathan’s death, that his Advanced Placement (AP) English course, intended to help high-school students earn college credit, included many books that dealt with death and suicide, such as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.
Thousands of students, of course, read these books and don’t kill themselves, but among the depressed they may contribute to bleakness. A classmate of Nathan later told the Austins, “The books we read our senior year of high school were dark. It seemed every book we read told us that life was meaningless and in the end nothing matters. … These books all together made life seem hopeless.”
When the Austins asked teachers and administrators why such bleak books would be chosen for teens, teachers explained that, among other reasons, the AP exam frequently has material on such works. Beyond that, the people behind the AP exam choose their books based on recommendations from top U.S. colleges, so these books represent a consensus view within the literary community about what is good for teens. (Officials at Westwood High School, where Nathan attended, declined to comment on this point.)
Paul Austin says, “For one who is healthy or naïve, these books may offer a glimpse into a darker world.” In Nathan’s case, though, Paul believes reading so many dark books “was like filling his pockets with lead before a swim in the ocean.” Part of Nathan’s summer reading assignment asked him to research the method of suicide used by Willie Loman, the protagonist in Death of a Salesman. Nathan later used a variation of this method to end his own life.
Jill Harkavy-Friedman of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) says the inclusion of detailed or how-to information is one of the most detrimental things a writer can do for those struggling with suicidal thoughts. News stories often lead to copycat suicides, and in some cases suicide “contagion” has been reduced up to 80 percent simply by taking simple steps such as not focusing on the methods used or romanticizing the act.
Juli Slattery, co-author of Pulling Back the Shades, points out that biological factors among teens make them more at risk from dark, graphic stories: “The last area of the brain to fully mature is the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is used in decision making, weighing consequences and suppressing emotional and sexual urges. This is why even ‘good’ teens can be impulsive. … They can get lost in their own emotions and experiences without taking into consideration the larger truths around them.” She adds, “For a depressed teen, I would never suggest dwelling on the depravity of man but on stories that demonstrate the greatness of God.”