Amy Grossberg has pled to simple manslaughter and will spend 30 months or so in jail, as will her boyfriend, Brian Peterson-seed to her egg, partner in her disaster-jailbirds both, their lives dented, bent out of shape. The public shame and the deprivations of prison will be hard to transcend. Voices of righteousness (Peggy Noonan threw the first New York Times stone, in an Op-Ed about the death of another newborn) will cry that the New Jersey couple got away with infanticide and will roar that abortion rights have cheapened our view of life, have led to the corruption of values (smack of hand on head, ah, the corruption, alas, alas).
I’ve been thinking about Grease , and how it doesn’t always happen that summer days are so sweet. I’ve been thinking about this plump little girl who got confused, who didn’t know how to tell her mother or her physician what was happening to her. My maternal instinct burns. This is not a titillating scandal. This story punctures the heart.
I know what 18-year-olds are like the summer before they go off to college. Sure, they feel cool and grown-up, but they are scared of going away from home, of being on their own, of leaving their teddy bears, of making new friends, of being left out, of failing six different ways in the wide, wide world. They are not grown up. They are children who menstruate, little boys with urges. That’s why they are prone to binge drinking, to changing their names, to dying their hair a new color. That’s why they cling to the first friendly face they meet and think they’re in love, or run away from the first friendly face they meet and think that they’ll never find love. Their emotions are overflowing like the Mississippi at flood time. They are secretive about the wrong things. They are ashamed of the wrong things. Their self-confidence expands and shrinks with the speed of light. They need but don’t want to ask. They may rebel against one authority only to seek out another. That’s why they’re vulnerable to cults, to suicide, to big trouble, to experiments that backfire. That’s why they drink too much coffee and smoke and party when they should be reading books. They almost all have fires in their heads that they extinguish with loud music.
Whether they came from dubious parents or Mr. and Mrs. Perfect America, the children are excited about going to college, though in somewhat the same way you might be excited to enter the wartime Army. Of course, they don’t all end up stuffing newborns that might still be alive into garbage bags in motel rooms.
When you look at Amy Grossberg, you don’t see the high school vamp, the sexpot, the cheerleader. You see instead a little girl with a long way to go before she knows who she is and what life demands of her. She got pregnant with a boy she thought she loved, and now we wonder why she didn’t have an abortion. She did not want the baby. Why did she drive to an abortion clinic and then drive away? Peggy Noonan-could it have been something you said? Aborting a nonviable fetus is legal, and it does not lead to major jail time, nor to lawyer’s fees. She must have denied reality, ignored the unpleasant, hidden from herself what she didn’t want to know. The physical time clock made it possible for Amy Grossberg to be a parent and for Brian Peterson to be a parent, but the developmental time clock of our particular society didn’t give them the smarts for the job. They are simply too young. Anyone who can’t deal with real consequences of their behavior in time to prevent worse consequences is not ready for parenthood, maybe not even for love or sex.
Now, I’m not altogether sorry that Amy and Brian are going to jail. They did not behave with honor in a high-pressure situation. They panicked. They ignored the new life in favor of their own. They are absolutely old enough to have called a doctor, to have told an adult, never mind the omnipresent code that says you never talk to an adult about anything that matters. They will pay the price, and that seems fair enough-although who can bear to see Amy’s little-girl face without wishing for justice much tempered with mercy?
They thought they were in love, and their love lasted until the lawyers got involved. First love is pure puppy breath. Romeo and Juliet without opposition would have broken up before the first frost. But Amy and Brian crossed the line between the sacred and the profane. I wish instead they had gone to the movies and held hands, maybe a little heavy petting on the way home. I wish they had been less alone with the problem and more chatty with school nurses and friends. It’s too late for wishes. Now they will be in jail. They went from My So-Called Life to Crime and Punishment in one never-to-be-taken-back moment.
Sure, there are 19-year-olds who go through unwed pregnancy with flying colors. In other societies, 14-year-olds are married and have five children by the time they are 19. But something about our middle-class American suburban world creates this long, tender mallhood that allows our teens to play dangerous games. Over and over again, we are surprised when they are benched on fouls. They have driver’s licenses but, in the same way that teenage drivers cause road accidents, they cause life accidents. They haven’t quite got the hang of it yet, the responsibility part, the reality-sense part.
So here’s where Peggy Noonan and I disagree: Available abortion doesn’t cheapen life; it makes sure that life is cherished and chosen. But here’s where Peggy Noonan and I probably would agree: We don’t need to increase teenage familiarity with the facts of life; they get it. We need to put on the brakes. Hold off a while. It should not be normal in our suburbs for 15-year-olds to have sex in the back seat of cars. Wait till you’ve read The Scarlet Letter . Wait till you’ve left your mother. Wait till your grasp of truth and consequences is as good as your grasp of who is popular and who is not. Sex is for adults, and adults don’t hide pregnancies and they don’t deliver in motels.
Teenage sexuality is a normal part of our culture now. Only the born-again virgins in Christian counties are resisting it. Therefore, it’s probably strange for a New York liberal to call for a return to caution. But we need a timeout in all that heavy breathing. Middle-class children are welcome to their masturbatory dreams (ah, for the days of Philip Roth’s liver) but, in pairs, keep them out of the bedroom. If you doubt me, take a look at Amy Grossberg’s face. Isn’t that a child-one we should be protecting, not sentencing?
How do we roll back time? How do we restrain all those hormones and prevent all that (never mind calling it love) humping? If the cultural pendulum has swung in one direction, nothing prevents it from swinging back.