Monday, May 23, 2011

Romanticizing Stockholm Syndrome OR A Dark Week in Popular Y.A. Fiction: Part I

Remember Go Ask Alice?  That 'diary' novel (?) by Anonymous that you kept hidden from your parents and then passed along to the next girl?  Well, it still gets passed around in exactly the same way.  Early-teenage girls, in particular, find it fascinating. 

And now they've so much more to choose from when they want to subsume themselves in dysfunction and misjudgment and self-pity - a slew, a plethora, an explosion of issue-novels mimicking the dark intensity of that early tell-all novel of drug addiction and self-hatred.  These newer novels, while not necessarily focused on drug abuse, appeal to that same fascination with the most painfully perverse potentials of adolescence.  And they feature characters who are indeed harmed by the actions of their peers, their tormentors, but who also participate in their own pathologies through the misjudgments and self-pity and fascination with their own pain that is so often a focus of the adolescent mind. 

I can see these books' appeal to young women; I remember that fascination well.  And perhaps it's OK for the market to offer books to meet the demand for teenage-woman-as-victim novels spurred by the Twilight phenomenon and perhaps by Laurie Halse Anderson's pre-Twilight, (actually quite worthwhile and non-exploitative) novel Speak .  But personally, I'm having trouble with this trend.

Here's a case in point: Stolen by Lucy Christopher.

British-Australian author Christopher's Y.A. novel features a kidnapping victim writing an account of her captivity in a nostalgic letter to her kidnapper.  What started as a PhD project is now a novel purportedly exploring Stockholm Syndrome, and features narrator Gemma, our pretty, privileged heroine from London who's kidnapped in a Bangkok airport en route to Vietnam with her artist/stockbroker parents.  From there, we travel with her to the Australian outback, where she's the captive of Ty, the charismatic, spiritual-ish artist-kidnapper. As fulfills the adolescent fantasy, he is a few years older - nominally an adult - and handsome.

Sure, he drugs her and then takes her to another continent and to a shack so far from any civilization that she cannot possibly escape alive, and sure she's exposed to all manner of dangerous snakes and spiders and such, and sure, he also quite purposefully brainwashes her with an alternate history of their long-standing 'relationship', but he had a hard childhood and his obsession with her is so romantic that all those issues can be pretty well overlooked, right?  He does it because he 'loves her' and wants her to love him.  And, remember, he's cute too, so...

It is on this account - and my experience with literally hundreds of young teens - that red flags started flying as I closed the book, and the knot in my stomach hardened to resolve.  In my view, Christopher (and she is not alone among Y.A. writers in this) is playing into a current - and to my mind potentially dangerous - trend offering a definition of romantic love based on abuse and obsession as if these pathologies are equal to transcendent passion

Yes, adults and truly mature teens will get Christopher's point, that Gemma is probably more than a bit delusional due to Stockholm Syndrome, and that this was not a situation to be wished for under any circumstances.  But I suspect that many adolescent girls will close this book yearning for Ty rather than wary of him.  In fact, just hop on over to the reviews on and you'll find the majority of girls gushing about how they still dream of Ty and wish that Gemma could have stayed with him.  Yikes.

So despite the fact that Stolen offers intriguing descriptions of the natural world and the development of a truly unique relationship, and it's purportedly a cautionary tale about not trusting strangers to buy you coffee in airports, I have trouble recommending it. 

Somebody prove me wrong: I'm open to alternate views.  But it'll take a pretty good case to sway me on this one...


Action?  This post is actually my action.  Why?  Words out in the world have a power of their own, and I take my responsibility as a book blogger seriously.  I get so anxious when I think about posting a negative review that I often simply add certain books to my reviews page (tab above) with a particular # of stars, but don't offer a discussion of why.  This time, I felt so concerned about this particular trend in adolescent literature targeted at young women that I mustered my courage to make my case.


Julie @ Knitting and Sundries said...

I also have a problem with books targeted towards teen girls and young women that glorify abuse, obsession, and casual sex. I just don't see why an author with a conscience would use their words to paint a beautific picture of it. Thanks so much for your words.

Laurie said...

Hi Julie, and welcome!
I'm glad I'm not alone in my concerns. And it's not that this author didn't vividly demonstrate the horrors of the protagonist's captivity: she did. It's just that in choosing the perspective of a young woman still experiencing Stockholm Syndrome and allowing readers to see her captivity through that particular psychological lens alone, I think that, unfortunately, it's easy for either somewhat inexperienced or naive readers to misinterpret distorted memories as accurate ones. Hence the attachment of so many young Amazon reviewers to the kidnapper.

Sara said...

Unhealthy obsessive relationships drive me nuts. If they show the negative things that come from the teen behaviors it doesn't bother me. It's when the drinking and partying is seen as totally normal and everyone is doing it (and it's a book that is geared twards the younger audience).

As for this book, I just couldn't get over the format of the book. All the You did this and You did that drove me nuts along with the someone is watching you and waiting to snatch you vibe.

TheBrokenFox said...

Although I did like this book very much so, I do have a slight problem with it being "young adult fiction". The scenarios captured by it are disturbing, although painted well, in my opinion. The point of the book was to be on-par with what Stockholm Syndrome does to the victim's perception of reality, however, and I think that it proved itself. Sure, it raises some flags, but that is what it was meant to do. And it's still a better love story than Twilight.

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