“But even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them.” -Stephen Chbosky
It took me about four pages into the Perks of Being a Wallflower to realize something was up with the main character, Charlie. It wasn’t so much the writing style, which in itself is distinctive – the book is written as a series of letters from Charlie to an unknown recipient – but his peculiar, detached voice that alerted me to the fact that all was not well beneath the surface of Charlie’s day to day life. Aside from the obvious, I mean; Charlie is a socially awkward young high-schooler with a dysfunctional family, dealing with both the suicide of one of his only friends and the death of his beloved aunt from a car crash years ago. Unrequited love also features heavily. So far, then, it’s your standard coming-of-age story. But there’s a darker thread running underneath that runs past a couple of red herrings to an ultimately devastating conclusion.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let’s deal with the book itself: it is engagingly written, featuring characters that are somehow both larger-than-life and curiously relatable. It portrays teenage drama and ennui with a surprising amount of realism and empathy. To top it all off, it is set to a kicking 90’s alternative playlist. In other words, it’s sensitive teenage crack. Even so, I felt a distinct unease while reading it, waiting for the revelation with an increasing amount of queasy dread.
It took me until about four pages into the book to recognize something was up with the main character of Stephen Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower, and about ten minutes to guess what that something was. Charlie, you see, is a survivor – or victim, or both – of sexual abuse.
Call it a benefit of my rape crisis training – I saw it coming from a mile away. Even so, when the denoument finally came, it wrecked me. Maybe it was the recognizable detachment, so common in survivors of such a profound violation at such a young age. Maybe it was the way in which he was outed: like so many survivors, the truth comes out not as a choice, but as an undeniable physical reaction. Maybe it was the resignation with which Charlie finally accepts what happened to him. Maybe it’s because I know that that acceptance will ebb and flow with the day, and the mood. Some days he will accept it. Some days he will ignore it. Some days it will make him so angry that he’ll want to tear his body apart, piece by piece, looking for the place that hurts.
1 in 4 girls will be sexually abused in some way by the age of eighteen, and 1 in 6 boys. I learned these stats in my training class to become a certified rape crisis counselor. But I didn’t really learn them until I sat through a three-hour training on childhood sexual abuse, listening to symptoms and stories, and watching the faces of the people around me. It was day four of a long and grueling training, and it’s safe to say our guard was down. Looking around that room, at all the faces – some stoic, some sad, some squirmy, like they’d rather be anywhere else but in this room at this moment – you could almost count it. 1, 2, 3, survivor, 5, 6, 7, survivor. As it turns out, it’s a really fucking depressing game to play. Halfway through the training, I was sadder than I’d ever been. But after it was over, when I sat talking afterwards with twenty-some people who had been total strangers a few days before, I felt a tentative, wispy kind of hope. Some of the people there had long since come out and made peace with what had happened to them. Some of them clearly hadn’t told anyone, perhaps even themselves. Most were somewhere in the middle of this long, arduous process. But that was the beauty of it: it didn’t matter where any one of them happened to be in their own story – they could still look around and see someone else that had been there before. It was, to coin a phrase, a safe space.
This, to me, is the beauty of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It’s a book that normalizes intense emotional experiences at a time when most of us felt our emotions most intensely – from being gay, to suffering through unrequited love, to watching your sister accept physical abuse, even to facing up to your own sexual abuse – there’s nary an emotional ground that isn’t covered in an honest, empathetic way. In this way, Perks will probably always be one of those books that’s a lot of things to a lot of people. To some it’s a coming-of-age story. To some it’s a story of the kind of intense friendships you form as a teenager. To me, it will always be the story of a survivor of sexual abuse making his way – slowly, painfully – out of the closet. But it’s also about something else: it’s about finding a safe place to come out of that closet. It’s about finding people that will look at you as a whole person, even when you feel at your most broken. It’s about getting help. It’s about being okay.
The other day, I was sitting with two of my friends, both of whom had the extreme misfortune to be victims of childhood sexual abuse. They were talking about relationships, joking around about their various intimacy issues, when one of them stopped suddenly and said, totally deadpan, “But you can’t tell we’re sex abuse survivors. Not at all.”
And then, something kind of great happened: we laughed. And then we went on to talk about other things. I thought about it for a long time afterwards; about how choices that you didn’t make can affect you in such profound, irreversible ways. And I wondered how that could be, how that was in any way fair. I still don’t have an answer for that. But then I thought of something else – how two people who have gone through trauma can sit in a room with each other and laugh about it. In that way, Stephen Chbosky’s conclusion seems better than any other: even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them.
Read When: You need to cry, and to feel better, in that order.
Recommended For: survivors of child sexual abuse and those who know them; more generally, for anyone who feels, or has felt, alone as an adolescent.
Listen With: If you’re paying attention, Stephen Chbosky provides a nice little playlist within the book itself (see here, for those of you who like to take shortcuts in life). Short version? Lots of 90’s alternative, with some Beatles cut in to smooth it out.