BY ELIZABETH THOMSON
Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a 1990s coming-of-age novel that covers every aspect of human life and worth. The main character, Charlie, is a "wallflower" who is writing letters to someone he does not know. During the novel he is learning to "participate" in life rather than remaining a wallflower, and through letters chronicles his high school freshman year experience. Chbosky is unafraid to confront topics such as suicide, rape, incest, domestic abuse, abortion, and bullying. This blog series will include analyses of aspects of the book (including spoilers). While Chbosky's intention probably was not to make statements about consistent ethic of life, it seeps through the pages and becomes more apparent with each read. This series may be just as sensitive as the novel.
In the opening pages of Perks, Charlie is called to the guidance counselor's office with the news that his best friend died by suicide:
Well, I [Charlie] think that Michael was a nice guy and I don’t understand why he did it. As much as I feel sad, I think that not knowing is what really bothers me . . . The counselor said that he suspected that Michael had "problems at home" and didn’t feel like he had anyone to talk to. That’s maybe why he felt all alone and killed himself. Then, I started screaming at the guidance counselor that Michael could have talked to me. And I started crying even harder . . . Michael’s funeral was strange because his father didn’t cry. And three months later he left Michael’s mom . . . I think about it sometimes . . . Michael never left a note or at least his parents didn’t let anyone see it. Maybe it was "problems at home." I wish I knew. It might make me miss him more clearly. It might have made sad sense.
Michael is not mentioned much for the rest of the novel. No doubt it profoundly impacted Charlie: he mentions Michael only while high, and his private wrestling with questions about Michael's aloneness and life demonstrate the value Michael had. Charlie wanted Michael's friendship probably as much as Michael wanted to reach out. Despite Michael's father's indifference, he was not un-cared for. Charlie ultimately moves on to new friends, and toward the end of the book reflects on his own progress made through the 213 pages. He concludes with his gladness to be alive, his surprising lack of fear about moving forward in life, and that life -- even at its darkest -- improves "soon." From a literary standpoint, Chbosky is coming full circle. The book begins with despair and ends on a note of hope, almost as if to encourage readers that happiness can prevail. From a CEL standpoint, it is a statement of hope for those who struggle with the temptation to suicide.
There are a lot of misunderstandings about suicide: "Suicidal people are sick, they get sick pleasure out of the idea that they're going to die"; "How selfish"; "People don't die of suicide, they die of sadness." For someone whose life has been touched by suicide, these are hard statements to hear. They are not necessarily true. For example, to accuse someone of deriving "sick pleasure" out of the "idea of their own death" is far from the case: if someone is driven to suicide, it is because there are seemingly no options remaining. It is not "pleasurable." If a person feels that suicide is the only option left, he has hit the bottom of despair with no hope for pleasure. Perhaps he thinks the next life will be better, or non-existence is less painful than existence. In all probability, his intention is not to be selfish. Sometimes he mistakenly believes that his death is better for those around him. It takes far more than sadness for someone to choose suicide. In 2007, suicide was the third leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24. There are clearly common threads that lead people to believe that suicide is a viable solution; what those threads are is debated, but there are pinpointed risk factors.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, risk factors of suicide include a family history of mental illness or suicide, substance abuse, sexual abuse, or exposure to suicidal behavior in others. However, NIMH continues:
Suicide and suicidal behavior are not normal responses to stress; many people have these risk factors, but are not suicidal. Research also shows that the risk for suicide is associated with changes in brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, including serotonin. Decreased levels of serotonin have been found in people with depression, impulsive disorders, and a history of suicide attempts, and in the brains of suicide victims.
In other words, it was not Charlie's fault that Michael died by suicide. It is not his fault that he did not see what was going on in Michael's life that caused him unbearable pain. Even if he did know about Michael's "problems at home," suicide is not the usual way that people cope with pain, and Charlie could not have predicted it. It is a completely different contrast to CEL in that the diminished view of human worth lies not exteriorly, but interiorly. Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in others' worthiness when they are contributing to numbers of drone victims. We forget that we ourselves are of equal value, of equal dignity, and have the same amount of worth by merit of being human. Michael probably did not realize the pain that Charlie would have to face as a consequence of his death. Friendship and the human touch are vital to remembering that dignity, but they are not all.
As demonstrated in the contrasting lives of Charlie and Michael, there are two paths that can be taken from any given valley: one leading to sequential pain, and another that is harder in the meantime -- as Charlie discovers while hospitalized for his own mental health problems -- but ultimately the result is freedom.
If you or someone you know is struggling with temptation to suicide, immediately contact a doctor, or call the number below (in the U.S.):
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1999. Print.
“Suicide in the U.S.: Statistics and Prevention.” National Institute of Mental Health. N.p., 27 Sept. 2007. Web. 9 Feb. 2013.