Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Memory, Morality and Youthful Indiscretions

Psychologists have found that the mind pushes immoral acts into the past and recalls good deeds as happening more recently, creating a false sense of moral progress. Memory amplifies self-righteousness. The mind creates distance from unpleasant events. 

Benedict Carey’s “Why All Indiscretions Appear Youthful” reported how “people subconsciously maintain and massage their moral self-image.” One sentence about high school memories really resonated with me: “Those who hated their time in those locker-lined hallways feel further from their teenage selves than those who enjoyed it.” 

So that’s why I'm writing young adult fiction! It’s not just that I’m a parent of two terrific teens; I also enjoyed being a teenager. I went to a fabulous school in NYC. Not everything was perfect: my love life was a tangled mess and mean kids picked on me. I was not a typical teen, but I had a group of good friends who understood me then and now. Living in Manhattan gave us independence and plenty to do outside of school. We were bookish girls and not part of the “popular” crowd, but even good girls had bad fun.

Back in the 1980’s dance clubs gave free passes to high school girls. The drinking age and club admittance was 18, but fake ID's were easy to get in the Village. A bouncer at a club gave us the address. We went to clubs to dance but didn’t drink much because cocktails were expensive. We never drank to get drunk, and none of us drove. My friends’ midnight curfews meant we left clubs before the drug scene started. The worst thing that happened was Andy Warhol stole our cab on a rainy night. I bet he didn’t have a curfew!

Still, I look back on those years with amazement because no responsible parent would allow club hopping now. The legal drinking age in the USA went up to 21 when I was in college. Binge drinking has become a big problem at both high schools and colleges. My children consider alcohol to be as bad as I considered drugs at their age. Our mind may rearrange events to bolster our ethical self-image, but society also shifts our definition of moral behavior.

When I write for teens now, I take this shift of morality into consideration. In “as u like it” under aged drinking in Manhattan leads to consequences.  In my work in progress, NOT CRICKET (A MATCH FOR EVE), I'm facing a different moral landscape where the drinking age is 16 (for beer and wine) in England. I write about teens that act responsibly and sometimes make mistakes, just like I did. We learn from experience, and it appears, the good deeds will be remembered and our slips pushed into the past. I’m not sure if that’s disturbing or reassuring.

YA Book Blog Watch:

Lisa Schroeder blogged about Binge Drinking for The Comtemps, a new blog penned by a group of authors who write contemporary realistic young adult fiction.

Presenting Lenore asked, "Does a YA Novel Have To Be Accessible?"

The Story Siren posted a list of  2011 Debut YA Authors

Reading in Colorposted a list of 2011 Debut YA/MG Authors of Color.


Anonymous said...

Dear Sarah, Binge drinking is, I feel, reaching epidemic proportions in the UK and, on most weekends, town centres the length and breadth of urban and rural Britain are turned into scenes of carnage. It is all so very disturbing. But, how interesting your research is on 'massaging the moral conscience' since, presumably, these wayward young people will have buried these misdemeanours by the time they are thirty somethings. The big concern, however, has to be if their livers will reach that age too.

Dave King said...

That's fascinating, not least because it explains a lot about me. Ta.

Bonnie Zieman, M.Ed. said...

A lovely telling of why you excel at and enjoy writing young adult fiction.

I love your Carey quote that says something like 'we massage our moral self-image'. How true and we do so in part by re-writing history. The more we tell our revamped account the more we become convinced it is truth. Memories can sometimes be quite unreliable. This can make psychodynamic therapy an interesting challenge!

tina said...

I think teens in Europe definitely act responsibly-at least more so than American teens when it comes to alcohol. What a relief too with all that beer available.

Carol said...

Memories are painted colors we prefer, but some are remembered, as if yesterday, and pinch one into recalling thoughtless mistakes. When looking at the world at large, we might better understand the state of our young adult minds. Family life is so important and good friends, as you say, help build a solid foundation of morality. I so admire authors, such as yourself, who write for our youth (of all ages) and give them glimmers of hope and another way to see life. There is a great contrast to the horrid barrage of information seen daily by so many growing minds.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Shame on Andy, leaving you girls in the rain! But it's a great anecdote now.
Every once in a while I try to remind myself of the moral slippages of my past so I don't believe whitewashed memories. I love that quote about massaging the self-image. I think it's also a necessary tool of self-preservation or else we'd go through life crippled by guilt and shame. The tricky part as writers is to show it real but with conscience, I think.

walk2write said...

I have always considered most government intervention into human behavior to be a sad state of affairs. A legal drinking age merely encourages rebellious behavior, which is the nature of the beast (teenager). For intervention to really be effective it must come with a steep price. Hit the "bad" behavior where it will hurt the most--the pocketbook. If the tax on alcohol were high enough, say 25% or more, then we might see a drop in the binge rate, at least for the kids not smart enough to figure out they can make it themselves. You made an excellent point about the importance of modeling good behavior. The main reason your two teens are so terrific is that you are the parent. You're involved with them. You take the time to talk with them, get to know them, and let them know you. Youngsters naturally pattern themselves after adults or at least someone older they admire. If left to their own devices or in the company (even virtual) of bad examples of adult behavior, the odds are they will follow the crowd over a cliff. You hit the nail on the head with this observation: "Our mind may rearrange events to bolster our ethical self-image, but society also shifts our definition of moral behavior."

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

You know, I never wanted to drink. Between you and me, I've never even tasted beer. (Champagne, or sherry, for me now) I was an odd-ball all the way, always thinking to myself.... "I'm not doing that! It looks dangerous!". When I turned forty, I sighed and said, "This feels so right!"

septembermom said...

Interesting post Sarah. I also find myself reflecting back to that teen mind of mine when writing my poetry. Looks like a lot of my angst from that time carried along with me :)

Unknown said...

I never enjoyed the high school social life at school very much, but I remember it all vividly. I did not like to be controlled and it seemed that all society wanted to do was to control me. However I enjoyed myself then and more so every year as I get older. If I had to do it over, I would take more risks. But discernment and forethought are always good. Please visit my blog and leave a comment. Thanks!

troutbirder said...

Interesting and thoughtful post. Especially on the connection between memory and our evolving self image. I think teaching and writing helped me move from the awful shyness of those teenage years. I hardly ever think about it now....

Rose said...

One of the biggest problems in teen culture today is abusing alcohol. Parents seem to be so worried about their children using drugs that they don't seem as concerned with alcohol. Yet when I was teaching, I was astonished to learn about the number of kids who routinely got drunk every weekend, including a lot of "good kids" I wouldn't have suspected. Somehow we're not getting the message across to young people how dangerous alcohol abuse can be.

Sarah Laurence said...

Edith, is it binge drinking or drunkenness? The worst type of binge drinking here leads to hospitalization and even death. I got the sense during the years I lived in England, that more Brits drink more regularly and many teens over indulge, but not to the dangerous extremes. You are right to point out that there are long term health consequences.

Dave, your response begs for elaboration.

Bonnie, it’s interesting to hear your take on this as a therapist. It sounds like there are similarities between fiction and psychotherapy. Fascinating!

Tina, thanks for your multi-national perspective. The drinking age might be lower but the driving age is higher in Europe, which helps.

Carol, my work for young adults is full of hope. The teen years are all about self-discovery and figuring out what is right as well as wrong. The best writing for teens avoids sounding moral or preachy, but allows the reader to make judgments.

Tricia, I recall thinking “this will make a great story” at the time. My journals allow me to remember, although even that narrative has its own slant.

w2w, a survey of the cans in the woods behind my house show that underage drinkers prefer cheap beer. I hope we’re a good influence on our children, but teens focus more on their peer group than on family. Luckily our children have sensible friends.

Pamela, I didn’t like beer until I moved to England and experienced pubs. I’ve never been a heavy drinker. You bring up a good point that as we age, it’s easier to be comfortable with our own choices.

Septembermom, is there a genre of young adult poetry? I could imagine that poetry tackling teen issues or from a teen perspective would be more accessible to younger readers.

David, welcome to my blog! So much of being a teen is pushing limits. I agree that life gets more enjoyable, but there is a thrill to those earlier years. Nice to connect with you.

Troutbirder, I find it hard to believe that you were once shy. I can imagine that teaching would draw a person out. Writing, though, is quite the introvert’s profession.

Rose, I think teens are getting the message about the dangers of alcohol abuse but choosing to ignore it. One good thing about fiction is it allows teens to explore risky behavior without suffering the real consequences.

I Wonder Wye said...

I did not binge drink. But when I think back on the things we did and got into when I was a teen (I graduated high school in '76) I am frankly amazed and not a little surprised I didn't end up in some hassle...

cynthia newberry martin said...

it's so interesting where our stories take us and what we have to take into consideration in the retelling.

A Cuban In London said...

Great post that sounds even more poignant as I'm celebrating my '40-1' birthday. Thanks for your good wishes. This was a fantastic read.

Greetings from London.

Booksnyc said...

I enjoyed reading your stories about growing up in Manhattan and it is interesting to consider how our minds manipulate time to enhance our moral memory!

Elizabeth said...

How attitudes shift about 'bad things'
through time.
Our parents smoked like chimneys and boys (in particular) swilled beer.
Grown ups had gin and tonic A LOT.
I hate drunk people with a passion.
I hate stoned people too because they are different from their regular selves.
How horrible it would be to have a drunk/drug addicted parent.....
Now I sound priggish and boring....just what I feel.

Sarah Laurence said...

Wye, welcome to my blog! The 70s must have been something else. I was too young for much of it to register.

Cynthia, writing is a fun journey.

ACIL, Happy Birthday!

Booksnyc, the city has changed but the past is still there in my warped memory.

Elizabeth, I once found a boyfriend because we were the only 2 at the party who were neither drunk nor stoned. I didn’t find him boring at all.

Bee said...

I think that I have a strong guilt complex, because I tend to remember the bad/disappointing things I've done in life! (And I was a boringly conscientious teenager.)
An interesting angle, though, for why YA fiction has become so appealing to you. How about a mother/daughter story about growing up in NYC -- contrasting narratives from 1985 and 2010?

We are SO struggling with teenage issues of independence -- particularly at they relate to sexuality and drinking. As you know, the "cultural norm" in England is not one that I feel particularly comfortable with, but this is where I'm raising two teenage daughters. Compromises have to be negotiated on a constant basis.

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, how interesting that your memory works the other way! That is a cool idea for a novel. I do often ponder how different my 70s and 80s childhood in NYC is from my children’s experience in 21st century small town Maine. Another good book would be your story: Texas then vs. England now.