During freshman orientations, students are often asked to do the "Privilege Exercise." Standing in a long line as a facilitator intones instructions, they obey. "If your parents were unemployed or laid off, take one step back," the facilitator says. "If your family owned its own house, take one step forward." The script is widely distributed via the Internet. Its thirty "ifs" fall into two types: those implying childhood deprivation and those implying wealth, comfort, indulgence.
"If your family ever had to move because they could not afford the rent, take one step back. If there were more than fifty books in your house, take one step forward."
Finally the students are asked to turn and face one another, pondering their positions. Those whose flesh tone and parental finances deem them privileged feel guilty and ashamed.
"Privileged" is a putdown now. Privilege-as-plague. Mainstreamed, this same catharsis whips publishers into a who-suffered-most sweepstakes. Now no one wants to ever have been lucky. In Criminal of Poverty (City Lights, $15.95), Lisa Gray-García recounts years spent performing the "art of homelessness" alongside her mother, whose "story of struggle ... began with the systematic torture of a mixed-race orphan girl in a series of foster homes, a childhood so horrific that she suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. ... She was an illegitimate love child, the product of my Irish grandmother's liaison with an Afro-Puerto Rican high-stakes gambler." Her grandmother, an impoverished teenage immigrant, was the first in "an unending chain of poor women with no resources, no family, no support, and no luck."
Those with looser grips on misery vie to prove that even prom dates and Disneyland didn't keep dark forces from dragging them down. They spin sad anthems about their own pasts or siphon borrowed blood and tears. Mindy Schneider spent her thirteenth summer at an expensive summer camp but, as detailed in her memoir Not a Happy Camper (Grove, $24), she struggled too. Her dad was a lawyer, "but even so it seemed money was always tight." She "believed our family was extremely poor," thus felt like an "illegal alien" among wealthy kids. Nerdy, she wasn't "one of those girls who always got a boyfriend." Jewish, she belonged to a clan of "perennial underdogs."
Also Jewish, Petr Ginz began a diary at age fourteen in 1941 in Prague, writing even after his transit two years hence to Theresienstadt. "The world is a rumpus," he mused amid such notations as "Eighteen people have been shot, mostly for hiding unregistered persons" and "Large groups of Hitlerjugend are now forming in front of our house, so there is a lot of shouting" and "did my homework" peppered with paintings, linocuts, and poems. Recovered fifty years hence, the diary ended two months before Ginz was sent to Auschwitz and his death.
Childhood is the most vulnerable time, a Silly Putty of the soul. Every child is an at-risk child just by virtue of being a child. Readers have always clamored for sagas of kids in distress. The frisson used to be the sheer joy of not being Sarah Crewe or David Copperfield. But now such books wield an emetic thrill, as that instinctive not-me joy stokes your awareness of your luck. And lo, self-loathing.
Girls and boys, interrupted, abound in Stolen Voices: Young People's War Diaries, from World War I to Iraq (Penguin, $14), edited by Zlata Filipovic and Melanie Challenger to portray all battles as more or less alike in their pointless obliteration of hopes, dreams, and Hula Hoops. "SLAUGHTER! MASSACRE! HORROR! CRIME! BLOOD! SCREAMS! TEARS! DESPAIR!" Filipovic wrote, age eleven, in Sarajevo in 1992. "BOREDOM!!! SHOOTING!!! SHELLING!!! PEOPLE BEING KILLED!!! DESPAIR!!! HUNGER!!! MISERY!!! FEAR!!! ... Will I ever be a schoolgirl again? ... I feel sad, I feel like crying. I am crying." In Nasiriyah, Iraq, in December 2003, Hoda Thamir Jehad wrote: "We have nothing left but disappointed hopes. ... Life for us has turned into blood spattered on every road. ... Will the tears be wiped off our faces? This is all that we are asking for."
In All God's Children (Public Affairs, $26), journalist Rene Denfeld captures the raw, Lord of the Flies-like world of young homeless Americans: a world in which padlocks on chains, swung with intent, are called "smileys" and rumors can end in cerebral hemorrhage. Denfeld met runaways who had fled abusive and addicted parents. She met learning-disabled and mentally ill street kids. But she also met middle-class kids such as straight-A private-schooler Danielle Cox, the child of loving parents, a skilled classical pianist who, at eighteen, hit the streets in Portland, Oregon. Sleeping in shelters and outdoors, Danielle "got a butterfly knife ... and would flip it open during fights, waving the long blade threateningly." In 2003, she was one of several kids who beat, kicked, stabbed, and stomped to death a former friend, a 21-year-old woman with fetal-alcohol syndrome whose nickname was Giggles.
In Children of a New World (New York University, $22), UC Berkeley history professor Paula S. Fass probes the impact of globalization on childhood: the ways in which mass immigration and corporatization are morphing "this most intimate place, where culture as well as individual memories are created." In Judith Stone's When She Was White (Miramax, $23.95), we meet South Africa's Sandra Laing, born in 1955 to pro-apartheid white parents who swore that neither had been unfaithful and could never explain her café-au-lait skin and nappy black hair. Until age ten, Sandra attended a whites-only school, but was expelled under government orders and reclassified as "coloured," entering a strange new world of catcalls and estrangement. Running away with a Zulu lover, she was pregnant at fifteen. "When I was white, most things I didn't do, like cooking, washing," the middle-aged Sandra told Stone. "When I was black, I like doing all those things. ... I think that black people treated me better than white people."
These books pound away at your serenity, instilling like subcutaneous computer chips a perpetual panic, because kids are sobbing somewhere and do you want to just sit there and let them, you who went on field trips, you whose parents owned their house? These books make you feel like a sadist if you're not an activist. Not mere narratives, some are veritable tools by which to hate the State. Are they in earnest or just pimping poverty? Really? Take one step forward.
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