Dominic's Reviews > Twisted

Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson
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Jul 22, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: young-adult

In 1994, Mary Pipher published her seminal work of psychology entitled Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. It is arguable that no other piece of nonfiction comes as close as this one to exposing the trouble teenage girls must face and what parents and other adults can do to help them traverse the raging waters we call adolescence. As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, I wonder what an updated version of this text would reveal. Would it expose even more poisons endangering our young women and girls? Would it uncover even more challenges to dissect and worry over?

And then what would it say about our young men? While girls may arguably have a greater challenge, the sexism in our culture is certainly no encouraging place for young men and boys either. In one sense, the opening quote could apply to them as well. Adolescent boys, in their own way, are “saplings in a hurricane.” And while like small trees that bend easily in order to withstand great winds, our young people will endure as they always have, as we ourselves did. Every year more and more young people emerge out of adolescence, not without scars, but emerge they do.

Reading the YA fictions of Laurie Halse Anderson cannot provide the answers of a book like Pipher’s. These do not provide suggestions, per se, for adults; however adults would be well served to read them—not only because I find them well-written and intriguing narratives but also because they are realistic representations of teenage life. The depiction of the adults in works like Twisted and Speak, especially the parental figures, are often critical and even negative, but their depiction makes a strong statement. Anderson seems to impress that parents, both fathers and mothers, need to play strong roles in the lives of their children. Even when on the outside they may appear to push adults away, parents and even teachers much accept the responsibility of helping these young people navigate the divide between childhood and adulthood.

In both Twisted and Speak, the young protagonists must navigate difficult situations. In Speak, freshman Melinda is flailing psychologically after being raped by a fellow schoolmate. Melinda is turning inward, emotionally splitting herself into shards while she submerges her body in oversized clothes and a cynical attitude. Anderson uses silence as a motif throughout Speak to emphasize the distance that grows between Melinda and the rest of the world. Instead of just mentioning Melinda’s silence, for instance, Anderson writes again and again the word “Me:” followed by a bunch of white space.

In Twisted, Tyler must deal with a criminal record and is accused of sexual harassment. He’s a confused, overwhelmed senior student, the very precipice of adulthood. Instead of turning inward, like Melinda, Tyler is growing up and out. He is a late bloomer, who over the course of one summer of hard labor transforms from “Nerd Boy” to a powerful Adonis. While Anderson exaggerates the growth spurt for her book, the device works well for it makes a powerful statement about our culture’s creation of a generation of boy-men. In 2009, while we continue to watch women break barriers in the workplace, redefining in many ways our image of what is “masculine,” we continue to produce grown men who are emotionally and socially stunted, men who still cling to their Playstations as much or more than their wives and children, men who have never been taught how to be men.

Tyler’s narration was sometimes uncomfortable, because Anderson draws him as someone who has a tendency toward violence, sex and lust for power. For example, Tyler often imagines violently beating up his father, “I pick him up by the throat and lift him slowly until his feet dangle three inches off the floor. He can’t make a sound. His fingers claw desperately at my hands. His feet kick. I squeeze” (Anderson 232). But although a female writer, I think she captured the teenage male mind and the contradictions of what they imagine and what they see. The use of italics was purposeful in showing the paradox of manhood boys must face. Our culture tells boys that they must be all things lustful and virile and violent or else they are deemed less masculine—the worst possible thing for a teenage boy. Anderson, though, still writes Tyler as knowing what is the right thing to do. He could have taken advantage of a drunk Bethany (and the italics say that he did want to!), but he doesn’t. And he even sticks around at the party to keep an eye on her. Without any role model, this character at least has some idea of what masculinity could look like that doesn’t hurt or rape women, a masculinity that is even gentle and loving.

Both Tyler and Melinda are young people dealing with very adult situations. Despite any possible good intentions by the parents of either character, both get thrust into this adult world by a series of bad choices and bad circumstances. Melinda is a victim to a sexual crime, and it doesn’t look like there were any signs that things were getting bad—until it was too late. While Tyler is completely responsible for the graffiti that ended up with a probation officer and a summer’s worth of community service, he, too, becomes victim to bullying, prejudice and some really bad circumstances. Anderson’s tendency to throw her teenaged characters into situations where they are victimized or face high-stress situations certainly will appeal to teenagers who are dealing with high-stress all the time or like to see themselves as suffering under the “dictatorships” of school and family. But it also highlights, for adult readers like me, the imperative need of positive, adult role models, especially fathers and/or mothers, in lives of our young people.

In both Twisted and Speak, the parents are still in tact as a unit, although both marriages are rocky. It never is clear whether there is much love between either set of parents. In Speak, Melinda’s mother seemed to be the one in control, but there wasn’t a big point made about their relationship; it was only clear that neither really connected with Melinda—communicating via notes on the fridge instead of real heart-to-hearts. Tyler’s mother and father, on the other hand, had a notably fractured marriage. They fought, frequently drank gin-and-tonics and scotch respectively, and didn’t even seem to spend much time together. Tyler’s father is often on out-of-town business trips without the mother even really knowing where he was or even caring why. At one point, Tyler points out the layout of the rooms upstairs and calls one room “Mom’s room” and one “Dad’s room”—a telling point that they aren’t even intimate with each other.

There is a lot of lip service today about the importance of having a two-parent home. Anderson turns this political talking point on its head, exposing that we have to do more than just be “present” as a parent. Instead, we need to actively play a role in our young people’s lives. We can’t let our sexist media and culture to set the example alone of what it means to be a woman or be a man. Young women will not find the encouragement to speak boldly, to take risks and to challenge norms in our culture as it stands. And as Pipher’s book eloquently and urgently notes, boys, too, are in danger of being lost without the right encouragement:

“‘Manhood’ needs to be redefined in a way that allows women equality and men pride. Our culture desperately needs ways to teach boys to be men. Via the media and advertising, we are teaching our sons all the wrong lessons. Boys need a model of manhood that is caring and bold, adventurous and gentle. They need ways to be men that don’t involve violence, misogyny and the objectification of women” (290).

Without the role models around them, young people are going to potentially damaging or simply self-stunting images of adulthood and never establish a sense of wholeness.

I appreciate Laurie Halse Anderson’s books so much because they depict young people who eventually set themselves on a road for wholeness, and it is a road that involves the assistance of adults. At the end of Speak, Melinda tells her secret/story to a very healthy version of manhood, Mr. Freeman—too bad it couldn’t have been her father—but there is hope that she may mend that bridge, too. In Twisted, Tyler is able to find some examples of manhood in Mr. Salvatore and even Janitor Joe, who tells him “Don’t be a baby—live your own life,” more advice than he’s ever gotten from his father (Anderson 197). Ultimately, though, Tyler realizes that these substitute male role models can’t completely replace the role he needs his father to play. In one of the final scenes, after a climatic and violent confrontation in the basement, Tyler and his father make the two of themselves a breakfast buffet and share a quite loaded but ultimately hopeful silence and peace together over the kitchen table. Even nicer was another of the final images in the book: “I put my arms around him. He pulled me close, hugging me back. He groaned, an agonized sound from deep inside[…:]I let myself break apart and lean all of my weight on him. He held me closer and patted my back like I was a little kid, whispering to me, until we both felt like could stand on our own” (248). It’s clear here that even the muscled Tyler, who Anderson points out is taller and bigger than his father, cannot be a man alone. Boys and young men, too, need others to help guide them toward a sense of self that will equip them for the challenges of adulthood.

It’s arguable that our young people are no better off than the rest of us in how to answer that question from Reviving Ophelia at the beginning of this essay: What is my place in the universe, what is my meaning? Surely there are millions of adults who never come close to answering this question. But it is our duty as teachers and parents to do whatever we can to create of ourselves responsible, whole selves, examples of manhood and womanhood that can act as guiding posts leading our children and students through the hurricanes of adolescence. Maybe a few more will make it through and with a few less scars. Maybe we can help them and help each other so we can all “stand on our own.”
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