I’ve read a lot of great author debuts in 2013, but one of the best was Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn. (You can read my review here.) YaReads is hosting a month-long 2013 Debut Authors Bash to celebrate some of these wonderful authors. I’m very excited to host Stephanie today, with her guest post below discussing writing about mental illness.
Charm & Strange: Published June 11, 2013 by St. Martin’s Griffin
Synopsis: When you’ve been kept caged in the dark, it’s impossible to see the forest for the trees. It’s impossible to see anything, really. Not without bars . . .
Andrew Winston Winters is at war with himself.
He’s part Win, the lonely teenager exiled to a remote Vermont boarding school in the wake of a family tragedy. The guy who shuts all his classmates out, no matter the cost.
He’s part Drew, the angry young boy with violent impulses that control him. The boy who spent a fateful, long-ago summer with his brother and teenage cousins, only to endure a secret so monstrous it led three children to do the unthinkable.
Over the course of one night, while stuck at a party deep in the New England woods, Andrew battles both the pain of his past and the isolation of his present.
Before the sun rises, he’ll either surrender his sanity to the wild darkness inside his mind or make peace with the most elemental of truths—that choosing to live can mean so much more than not dying.
About Stephanie: I grew up in Berkeley, California, which is a quirky sort of a place with a ton of wonderful bookstores. My very first job was working in one of those bookstores, and I’ve been a freakishly avid reader for as long as I can remember. Back then, some of the books that had the greatest impact on my life were young adult novels, and now, as an adult, I’ve found my own passion in writing books for teens.
Other passions of mine include mental health advocacy, social justice, and sports of all kinds. When I’m not writing or reading (or studying for graduate school), I’m usually outside running or playing with my family. I currently live in Northern California with my husband, three kids, and our menagerie of pets. Life is loud, joyous, and filled with animal hair.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, my last name is pronounced keen. I know! I don’t get it either.
Like most people, I suppose, I approach the topics I want to write about from the vantage point that interests me most. My personal beliefs, philosophical views, and theoretical underpinnings all play a part in the creative choices I make, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. However, as an act of deconstruction, when I reflect back on the writing of Charm & Strange, the following four ideas about mental health are ones that I believe guided how I told the story. And why.
1. the theory of empathy
Empathy is the capacity to feel what another person is feeling. It is different from sympathy (feeling sad for someone else’s situation) and even further removed from pity (the state of feeling sorry for someone, in which there is a power differential between you and that person). Empathy means being able to contextualize another person’s experience and subsequently feeling the emotions that would arise from finding oneself in that exact same situation. My intent in writing Charm & Strange the way that I did was to set up a narrative structure in which the character’s mental state was experienced on an emotional level. I wanted people to feel what he felt, and in turn experience empathy for him (and for serious mental health struggles, in general).
2. resilience is a strength not a weakness
There are many unfortunate and damaging stigmas about mental health issues in our culture, and one of those is the notion that mental illness arises from some sort of innate weakness. This is something that I see very differently and it is through the experience of empathy that I wanted the main character’s strength to be evident. For however stuck he is in his internal cycle of creation and annihilation, he’s also doing his best to cope and to survive.
3. compassion is ours to give, not something to be earned
There are young people all around us who are struggling with things we don’t know or can’t understand. Every day we see them and every day we overlook them. When I wrote Charm & Strange, I think I was motivated and inspired by the way angry, destructive young boys are often treated by authority figures and institutional systems in our culture. Too often, they are dismissed with cynicism, with blasé righteousness, and made to feel as if they are bad. In real life, angry, sullen, broken boys are not the ones smart, self-determined girls fall in love with. In real life, they don’t always have a soft, vulnerable side that lets people in. They may just be…really, really angry and unhappy and hurt. Pain and suffering is ugly stuff. That’s truth, nothing else. Perhaps it’s up to the rest of us to care about the children around us, regardless of whether we like them or not. Perhaps it’s up to us to not qualify our compassion based on qualities such as niceness or beauty or pity.
4. no diagnosis
I purposely did not give Win a diagnosis in the book because in literature, as in life, I believe there is a reductionistic quality to diagnosis. Diagnosis can serve a very real purpose for mental health professionals, but I didn’t feel it would serve a positive purpose in this story. However, I also feel that a deeper understanding of complex trauma/complex PTSD is important. For a quick rundown of what complex PTSD is (and how it is different from PTSD), here’s a good link from the VA. And for a further look at how early trauma can impact childhood development and emotional functioning, this is a more in depth article. For even more information about current treatment options and specific types of trauma, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network is a wonderful resource.
Thank you so much to Stephanie for visiting, and to everyone else: do yourself a favor and read Charm & Strange!