Teen Furies: Diagnosable-But Curable?

Right now, there are a billion people chasing their tails trying to find the cause and a cure for teenage violence. It is true that once upon a time we had a more sanitized Hollywood and a more polite TV. In the days of my youth, it wasn’t comme il faut to ooze blood on camera. Once upon a time, gun lovers went after birds of many colors or the mothers of Bambi and Babar. The words assault and rifle were not linked and neither were the words body and count, video and game. V was for victory, not chip, and clear was for air, not E.R. paddles; bags were for groceries, not bodies. But at the same time that our eyes were spared the literal gore (Lizzie Borden whacked her ma and pa offstage, so to speak), we lost millions of young men in World War I, and millions more in World War II. Long before Nintendo and Sony Playstation, live human beings (neither cartoon characters nor movie actors) willingly participated in gassing and murdering, burning and sacking, plundering and slavetrading.

From the very beginning of our history, long before digital TV or rap saturated our airwaves, certain families have wound up dead, throats cut or gunned down in their pajamas. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was about violent young men who had never seen Arnold Schwarzenegger in full arsenal blasting his way down the street. Our eternal, insoluble problem is with the violence within, the bloody bring-it-all-down violence that stirs in the heart of man and boy quite naturally, quite regularly, without prodding, without advertising–with or without religion in the homes or in the schools.

No question, we don’t have to feed our worst imaginations with the ultra-gooey dehumanization that we see on screen. It would be a good idea to tone it down, but that’s not going to help us very much. Gun control is a reasonable proposition, but it won’t save us, either. It’s like doing dental work long after a squadron of cancerous cells has slipped into the bloodstream and traveled to the brain. We have violent media, and guns under the bed, because we have violent hearts, not the other way round. I speak as a person who believes in instincts and drives, nasty ones sometimes. We are simply not born with sweet natures that turn corrupt the way pages yellow when exposed to air and time. Rather, we are born with a capacity for destructive rage that must be tamed, diverted, bribed by positive rewards, soothed by Eros, salvaged by human love. The fury of an infant denied is not prompted by images on the TV or hours playing Doom. Nursery rap is not the cause of the infant tantrum. It is the reflection of it.

If we assume that man has written the Bible to make order of his experiences historical and emotional, then we can look at the story of Noah and the Flood and see God bringing down a total destruction, not unlike what was in the rage-filled heads of the boys in Colorado. They, too, were disappointed in their world. They, too, wanted to reduce it to rubble. With just this rage, God of the Noah tale destroys all but his best friend. All this tells us is that the impulse to take it all down has been with us a long time, since before the Flood. It appeared in disguised form in Genesis; it appeared in reality in Columbine High School.

I have been reading Lionel Tiger’s provocative The Decline of Males . He is concerned that young men are by evolutionary design aggressive, restless and physically active and don’t do so well when confined to small spaces, forced to hold their muscles still. He says that our society is now endangering boys by taking these natural-born hunters and warriors and attempting to turn them into quieter sorts, obedient minds. He says our ever-present high school worship of the Jock is not an odd mistake but a hangover from primitive times when jumping, throwing and running were matters of survival and necessity. Poor humans: Our biological and social history has ill-prepared us for today’s needs for computer nerds and technicians. So many boys are on Ritalin only because they have behaved like the male animals they really are. This is interesting and, certainly as a point of view, broadens our perspective. We can’t reduce everything to biology and genes and evolution. But we can see the connections, observe the effects. We are products of more than our individual experiences. Evolutionary time past does live on within our personal cells. DNA may not determine our fate, but it has a plausible effect on our behavior.

Aggression can break its confines; a person can run not with the wolves but with Tyrannosaurus rex. This we call madness, cancer of the soul. It comes unbidden in the night. It grabs at random. It destroys the lives of young people sometimes, because their histories have brought it upon them, because mother or father were extraordinarily cruel or indifferent. Sometimes it arrives brought on by the bad fairy of genetics or accidental chemical combustion. Sometimes it appears no matter what good things the parent has done or good values the parent has expressed, or how many prayer sessions have been attended. It can be as random as tornadoes or floods or car accidents. We know how to diagnose, but we don’t know how to cure. Mental illness can render a child unable to switch off the violent fantasy, to recognize it as fantasy, to create a place for himself among the others without his rage spilling over into the lunchroom or the library.

Mental illness is not so easily defined as the product of one social ill or another. It exists in all societies among rich and poor, and in its more terrible forms it appears in the same percentage among savages and artists, in tropical islands and European castles. Our immensely complicated brains have a million circuits that may go awry. The rage at being frightened or hungry or abandoned that is the baby’s natural portion sometimes takes over and prevents normal love or affection, drives one crazy. Most often, this craziness first appears in the teen years when the weird is only a loud version of the normal.

We simply don’t know how to help the kid who is in real trouble just beyond our radar. The evil power of mental illness resists our best exorcisms at least frequently enough to make us all quake before its might.

Lionel Tiger reminds us that we are more complex than our optimistic self-help pop psychologists would have it. Alas, we carry with us more hard-wired, bubbling testosterone than is currently useful.