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Hello, darkness

Teenagers and the literature of hopelessness and suicide

Hello, darkness

Nathan Austin (Karen Austin)

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.”

Emily Whitten

Emily Whitten

Emily reviews books and movies for WORLD and is a contributor at RedeemedReader.com. She homeschools her two children and sees books through the eyes of a mother.

Comments

  • CUPOFTEA
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:47 pm

    To  phillipW  , my heart goes out to you in your loss.  

  • fieldsfam's picture
    fieldsfam
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:47 pm

    For many years I taught AP Lit in high schools with "Christian" in their titles. Biblical worldview featured prominently in my literary investigations, and, to name a few over the years, we read Death of a Salesman, The Awakening, Heart of Darkness, Brave New World, Hamlet, Lear -- in short, great pieces of literature that prove the depravity of Man and the desperate need we have for Truth and the Savior who can redeem us from the present darkness. Literature always shows us a sliver, sometimes a great huge chunk, of who we are, what the world is like, what worries us, stops us dead, gives us hope. Whether or not an author defends Truth, rejects it, or merely makes us long for it, readers ought to be encouraged to take that sliver of life revealed in 'art,' and consider what truths can be gleaned from it. that the world (without Jesus) is hopeless and bent on toward destruction is true. Why, then, do we hope? Because the Lord has filled us with longing for 'whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is praiseworthy -- and teachers should help students dwell on those things, so that when they encounter darkness, in the world around them, in themselves, or in the pages of literature, they will recognize it for what it is, and seek the only Hope of the world, Christ. I am forever thankful that my students and I could read those great literary works in that context. It's not that we shouldn't read those works, but we do have an obligation in teaching them (reading them together) to bring Light to bear on them. Reading literature means far more than achieving a high score on a high stakes test. Too often, we tend to forget that.

  •  phillipW's picture
    phillipW
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:47 pm

    My 15 yr old son just committed suicide a week ago, so this was incredibly timely to read.  He had only concluded his freshman year of high school, but it does make you think, and start to ask questions about this sort of habit within the books that he read, or was forced to read.

  •  Soapbxn's picture
    Soapbxn
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:47 pm

    This so angers me.  The world thrives on darkness.  If you have your kids in the public school, you need to work hard to stay on top of what they are being fed.  As for book choices - there are some wonderful list providers that parents can tap into.  Honey For A Child's Heart, Honey for a Teenage Girl's/Boy's Heart - three books of literature lists and recommendations.  Sonlight Curriculum, a literature based homeschool provider, has fabulous lists of great literature.  The author of the article - Emily Whitten's redemmedreader.com website is also excellent.  Parents need to pay attention to what their kids in the classroom are being assigned.  Your child can politely request from the teacher a substitution, most good teachers will oblige.  Don't blindly let the school be the end all of your child's education.  Be an advocate and encourage your child to seek to recognize literature that may not be appropriate. 

  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:47 pm

    Reply to Courtney: There is excellent children's literature comprised of books that achieve literary honor awards. I love Minert DeJong, many biographies of wonderful people who overcome odds, such as the Helen Keller story, animal stories such as Misty of Chincoteague Isalnd, and nearly everything written by E. B. White. The language and writing skills displayed in these books are fantastic. Perhaps those who influence those who establish state and national reading standards could begin to suggest that students (and parents) be given choices on the books which they will read--at least two choices per assignment. I believe the high school literature assignments are a good reason for Christian parents to homeschool their children.

  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:47 pm

    The books we read in high school honors and AP are Catcher in the Rye, The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ulysses, "Of Human *******", "Moby ****", Mutiny on the Bounty, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, Lord Jim, Turn of the Screw, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, and Look Homeward, Angel. While four of these contain graphic sexual scenes or themes, all concern the dark, ruined side of humanity. Where is there any joy in any of these? The literature program in public schools has been rotten for generations, totally unfit for children, which adolescents are. [Asterisks are due to the censor! Can't seem to get around that. How about Moby Richard? and Of Human Slavery?] Postscript: We also read several of Charles Dickens' novels, and these I can heartily recommend.

  • sanman101
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:47 pm

    Courtney, The Shack and Same Kind of Different as Me were two books that I completely enjoyed.

  • Courtney
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:47 pm

    Obviously, the Bible shows the greatness of God, but what are some suggestions of other literature?

  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:47 pm

    It does seem the left wishes to censor hope.  Anything that speaks of divine deliverance from anything; sin, disease, despair etc. is carefully avoided and called extremist.  Amazing how much they fear it.  

  • Richard H's picture
    Richard H
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:47 pm

    "For a depressed teen, I would never suggest dwelling on the depravity of man but on stories that demonstrate the greatness of God." You will seldom find this in our Politically Correct government schools particularly with Common Core.