I recently had the opportunity to visit my stellar niece, Stephanie, and caught her in the middle of Catcher in the Rye, the classic high-schooler-getting-filled-with-angst-coming-of-life story. I remember reading that waaay back before the dawn of time, when dinosaurs ruled the earth, and I was in grade 10. I couldn’t get it at the time – the profanity, unusual in that ancient world, blocked me effectively from reading and understanding. So I picked it up recently, figuring that now that I had aged and become all too used to profanity, I’d be able to understand the story, identify with the anti-hero.
My niece is much wiser. She reached the same conclusions I did, at a much younger age. “In the beginning,” she said, “It was interesting and I could understand what he was thinking. Now though,” as she disparagingly flipped through the pages, “it just seems like he’s ranting…” Amen, Steph. The story is one of ultimate self-obsession, and, like The Great Gatsby, I still wonder why these are on the reading list for every student, American or Canadian. Surely there have been a few adequate authors since then?
And the self-obsession, so totally already there in the life of the average person, let alone teenager (who always get blamed for the equal sins of their parents) – why reinforce that with visions of thousands of silken shirts, anger at anything that doesn’t go your way, sulkiness, gaiety, song and dance?
When I was in high school, I had the opportunity to play a child in the excellent play from the better short story, The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson. I read Miller’s The Crucible, and Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. I won’t pretend I understood any of those better than Catcher in the Rye – I was an innocent, thoughtless gal, with the depth and weediness of a duck pond. I was much more interested in Robert Redford and the concept of his affluent life in Gatsby. I had my first boyfriend during my time in the Lottery, so I barely listened to the play. Too busy dealing with the shame of not knowing how to French Kiss. (Thank you, Dan J. for being my instructor – such a useful skill!)
But those stories, all of them about scapegoating and what we do to each other when we find “different” amongst us, they sunk into my psyche. I can’t help but feel these readings, along with the horrific Lord of the Flies, are more pertinent for growing youth, and maybe for we “grownups”. It’s so easy for them, and us, to categorize people into innies and outies, people we want to take the time to get to know, people not worth our effort. And then to target those outties with venom and hatred. We pounce. We stone. We kill. We yell at them when they don’t get our multi-layered Starbucks coffee order quite right. We send amusing photos of “Walmartians” to our work colleagues and make fun of the poor. We blame people for their life circumstances or punish them for their bad choices, as if these weren’t punishment enough. We make them carry identification cards, take away their land, deny them rights.
Isn’t it more important for us to understand our need to scapegoat than our essential angst? Isn’t gazing outward more important than chewing the inside of our lip and fretting about why we are unhappy and what we can buy to make it all better?
All right, perhaps the economy would crash if we weren’t all on a continual wander through shopping therapy, but perhaps that wouldn’t necessarily happen – if we could only turn outward and see where our spending could help.
I know my niece is already there, gazing outwards, taking steps toward making this a better world. Maybe she’ll be the one that writes the book to replace Catcher in the Rye with another book more geared to a feminine perspective, to a generative perspective, male or female, that leads to encompassing, compassionate thinking towards the rest of the world.
As for me, I’m off to reread The Lottery and The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter. I need to remind myself of how I, too, slip into scapegoating and prejudice. And then I am going to pick up my pen.