Revisiting The Perks Of Being A Wallflower

In June of 2000, I was 15 years old and my family unexpectedly moved to a new town while I was in Spain. (That is a story for another time!) It was the summer before my senior year of high school and I was pretty much the quintessential loner. When roving the hallways, I was the kid with his head down and his hands around his backpack shoulder straps, and I consistently steered clear of any school-related activities (pep rallies, games, dances, etc). I spent a lot of time alone daydreaming about how great life would be and how smart and funny and popular I would be…someday. So, the thought of attending a new school chock-full of teenage mutant ninja peers who I had never met held a significant amount of gut-churning terror for me but also, strangely enough, promise. In an effort to escape thinking too much about the daunting plight awaiting me in September, I had my mother take me to a nearby bookstore so that I could surround myself with some new best friends: books. It was on one of those dusty, nondescript pinewood shelves that I found the novel that would affect me more than any book had up until that point or has ever since. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky was my true companion that summer and its 213 pages have never drifted too far from my heart and mind.

For those of you not familiar with the story, I will give you a brief synopsis. Perks is a novel written as a series of letters from a narrator, Charlie, to an anonymous “friend.” Charlie is a teenager who is about to enter his freshman year of high school and he describes various scenes of his life over the course of one year in these letters. The events Charlie describes in his candid and bare-faced letters involve a mix of the usual and not-so-typical teenage problems: sex, drug use, loneliness, suicide, homosexuality, pregnancy, and, overall, the awkward times of adolescence. Charlie is the titular “wallflower” of the novel and we see everything through his unjaded and trusting eyes. In his first letter, Charlie writes, “So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.” This simple confession is, in essence, what the novel is all about.

I reread Perks this past week as a sort of experiment to see if I would be moved in the same ways as a twentysomething as I was when I first read it; or if it would impress me in a completely new manner. Incidentally, as I read, I felt myself transported back to the time when I was that shy and unpopular 16-year-old kid wondering what was wrong with me…like Charlie:

I just wish God or my parents or Sam or my sister or someone would just tell me what’s wrong with me. Just tell me how to be different in a way that makes sense. To make this all go away. And disappear. I know that’s wrong because it’s my responsibility.

To say that Charlie and I had (have?) a lot in common would be putting it too mildly. The truth is, there are countless occasions throughout the novel where Charlie writes down what he is feeling or thinking and I would, literally, have to stop reading because it would freak me out. I can’t remember if I was just as overcome by these familiar instances and head trips when I was a teenager reading Perks for the first time. I don’t know if being a twentysomething has given me a new sense of engrossment or nostalgia or sentimentality. All I do know is that, at times, it felt to me like it was my life that Chbosky had broken down into a series of letters and simply substituted the name “Charlie” in for “Ryan” because the sense of deja vu was overwhelming.

Whether it’s the way Charlie broods over the lives of his peers:

And I wonder if anyone is really happy. I hope they are. I really hope they are.

Or the way he feels when he’s with the few people who truly like and understand him:

I feel infinite. Five minutes of a lifetime were truly spent, and we felt young in a good way. I didn’t know that other people thought things about me. I didn’t know they looked.

Or the way he feels when he looks at his reflection in the mirror:

think it was the first time in my life I ever felt like I looked ‘good.’ Do you know what I mean? That nice feeling when you look in the mirror, and you hair’s right for the first time in your life? I don’t think we should base so much on weight, muscles, and a good hair day, but when it happens, it’s nice. It really is.

Or the way he is too hard on himself and doubts his purpose:

It’s kind of like when you look at yourself in the mirror and you say your name. And it gets to a point where none of it seems real. It makes me think too much. And I am trying to participate. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt like that. That you wanted to sleep for a thousand years. Or just not exist. Or just not be aware that you do exist. Or something like that.

Or the way he allows the music he likes to affect his yearning:

If you listen to the song ‘Asleep,’ and you think about those pretty weather days that make you remember things, and you think about the prettiest eyes you’ve ever known, and you cry, and the person holds you back, then I think you will see the photograph. I am really in love with Sam, and it hurts very much.

Or the way he feels, at times, crippled by the loneliness that comes with being a social outsider:

I don’t know how much longer I can keep going without a friend. I used to be able to do it very easily, but that was before I knew what having a friend was like. It’s much easier to know things sometimes. And to have french fries with your mom be enough. I know that I brought this on myself. I know that I deserve this. I’d do anything not to be this way. I’d do anything to make it up to everyone. I feel like a big faker because I’ve been putting my life back together, and nobody knows.

Or, before anything else, the way he feels about love and heartbreak:

Sam looked at me soft. And she hugged me. And I closed my eyes because I wanted to know nothing but her arms. I wanted to ask Sam about the other side of ‘sometimes,” but I didn’t want to be too personal, and I didn’t want to know deep down. I wish I could stop being in love with Sam. I really do.

Charlie watches, listens, reads, and thinks way too much. And he blames himself for everything that goes wrong. And he thinks he is too strange for anyone to really get along with him. And he panics very easily and cries at the drop of a hat. And he comes on way too strong toward the people he loves and cares about. And, according to his English teacher, he has no idea how truly special he is. I have been described exactly the same way by the people who are closest to me and who I’ve let into my heart. They have made these same declarations to me when we’ve been out for a couple of drinks or sitting around a bonfire or driving in the car or lying in bed. So, I guess I’ve never really stopped being a “wallflower.” Of course, I do believe I have matured in many ways since I was 16 years old, but the underlying emotional timber and thread that make me me have stubbornly stayed intact. Loneliness still feels the same, insecurity still feels the same, failure still feels the same, hope still feels the same, the songs still sound the same, the books still read the same, and having your heart broken…well…maybe that one feels just a little bit worse actually.

In the end, I am happy that I took this past week to celebrate my ten year anniversary with Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It was a charming and enlightening experience that taught me a great deal about myself and where I have been and, more importantly, where I am going. I would like to leave you all with the intimate proclamation Sam, Charlie’s best friend, leaves him with toward the end of the book. Essentially, it is the preeminent lesson that I am hoping to take away from my visit with these long-lost friends:

I can’t feel that. It’s sweet and everything, but it’s like you’re not even there sometimes. It’s great that you can listen and be a shoulder to someone, but what about when someone doesn’t need a shoulder. What if they need the arms or something like that? You can’t just sit there and put everybody’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love. You just can’t. You have to do things. TC mark


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  • Courtney Goldy

    He didn't mention my favorite quote, which is “But even if we don't have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. and we can try to feel okay about them.” And that's probably the most relevant to MY life. 

    Love this book. It changed my life too.

  • SisterRay

    I'm glad this book helped the author and that he felt a connection to it. That's really great when you can find novels like that.

    But I fucking hated this book. I hated it when I read it at 14 or 15 and these poorly-written quotes remind me why I still hate it now.
    It was the biggest waste of time in my entire novel-reading career. It's like it tried SO hard to get readers to identify with being “different” that it was a huge, obvious cliche. Like yeah, I was “different” in high school, most people are (or feel that way). But I don't need a whole story like that shoved down my throat – writers can make readers feel less alone or give them experiences to identify with in more creative ways that don't involve telling a story from the point of view of an insanely uninteresting, predictable, and annoying narrator and his interactions with other one-dimensional characters. As many others have said, read “Catcher in the Rye” if you want a better-written and better-told story of being an (adolescent) outsider.

    • Brenna Haddan

      Catcher in the Rye was awful.

      • SisterRay

        Yeah, that Salinger really won't stand the test of time, unlike…Chbosky.

    • Aelya

      I don't think I'd go as far as to say it's a better-told story of being an adolescent outsider based simply off the fact that Holden is a complete nutjob and irritating as fuck and obviously a total phony. I haven't read Perks, but the protagonist in it seems to have a much better grip on life.

      That being said, Catcher is my favourite book. Salinger forever, thank you very much.

      • Rachel Butters Scotch

        So much yes. Agreed. Holden Caufield is my teenage angst.

  • Frank

    but what happens when the movie comes out?

  • CMYKate

    I bet you'd be surprised how many people felt the same about this book as you did. I read it in 1999 when I was 17 and felt exactly the same as you, “How did this guy get into my journal and steal my thoughts?” Then I got to college, more specifically art school, and met people again and again who had the same experience as me with this book. 

    It really does exactly what it should, makes an outsider teenager feel like someone else in the world knows what they're going through. 

    The funny thing is, they publicized this book on MTV when it first came out. It definitely wasn't as indie as I thought it was.

  • inflammatorywrit

    1. You were 15 the summer before you were a senior? Impressive.

    2. I liked this article, but the Perks of Being a Wallflower is a really awful book.

    • Catt

      I was wondering about that age thing…

  • Grant Sorenson

    “And at that moment I was infinite.” is my favorite quote to drunkenly yell while standing on top of things.

    • iz

      too bad the actual quote is “and in that moment, i swear we were infinite”.

      • Grant Sorenson

        Let me guess, you found “Perks” to be a book that “changed your life.” Did you write about it for your college application essays, too?

  • ben Raifsnider, jr.

    i have been contemplating the same experiment the past few days… i think i'll re-read this soon

    • Straycat

      I had the same idea a few days ago as well! Weird.

  • Diana Z.

    I only read the book a few months ago (I'm 22), and I completely regret not reading the book in my teenage years. It would have helped me so much, but for some reason I just didn't get around to reading it. Yes it can be cliched at time, yes it imitates “The Catcher In The Rye” at times, but  that doesn't make Charlie's words less meaningful.

  • MM

    i liked it
    more than Looking for Alaska
    but, it still sounded like a whiny teenager

    the key to not feeling lonely is to not feel sorry for yourself :) 

  • AD

    wish i'd read it in high school. still i found it to be an affecting and moving story. Charlie may cry a bit too much but he has more heart than Holden

  • Jen O'Neill

    I wrote my college essay about the similarities between Charlie & myself. 

    This article made my day — I'm glad there's still a little wallflower in you after all the years. Cheers :)

    • Gillian

      I wrote my final paper as a high school senior (7 pages) on this book and why i have read it 4 times since 6th grade and how important literature is to teens. This post made me so happy. It amazing to know that other relate to charlie the same way I do.

  • Rans

    lol another person that thinks they are Charlie/Holden

    • Sunsets

      Not really. More like relating to the characters than actually thinking the book is about them. Tss.

  • James Sveck

    If you liked this you should read “Someday this Pain May Be Useful to You” by Peter Cameron

  • Jessica

    I didn't like the was written in such a stilted way with very minimal use of contractions. That's not how teenagers talk or write. I should know, as I am one. Also, Charlie didn't really resonate with me. His whole personality was an empty shell, and honestly even though he was nice, he was boring. His voice an manner of speaking also seemed kinda Asperger's-ish to me. Not to mention that the book was unrealistic. I'm in high school and if you're popular with the seniors (as Charlie was) you're popular with everyone. It wasn't that way in the book – he was still unpopular with the other freshmen.

  • XP

    i was an outsider all through high school. i tried to not be, but i couldn't relate to the kids my age, so the book helped me not to get emotional about not being able to understand what they were going through, and what i was going through.

    perks basically allowed me to not give a fuck about whether or not i was going to dances, high school parties, or even making an attempt at conforming.

  • Brittan

    Many people say they relate to Charlie and this book as a whole, I think I’ve probably said it myself. What is strange is how we all neglect to say that the intent of this novel and reasoning behind Charlie’s unstable behavior is all tied to the fact that he was molested by his Aunt as a child and has repressed such memories, with emotional repercussions.

  • Mpiotro2

    Like a previous comment-er, I’m also 22 just reading this, and I’m trying to figure out how I would have felt about it had I read it in high school… mainly because, although I loved books and was no snob, I barely even remember reading The Catcher in the Rye (sorry to all the Salinger 4ever fans). I have drawn one conclusion, though: even though I didn’t have anywhere near as difficult of a time in high school as Charlie, I think it’s a great read for almost any young person… because whether or not they’ve felt as isolated and alone as Charlie, it’s important to know that some of their peers have, and are going through almost identical issues in their personal lives. I think one of the great things about this book is its potential for discussion, and although not everyone is a highly-intelligent, borderline autistic (?),overly sensitive male teenager, what quality person isn’t searching for those pure moments where you feel ‘infinite’, in high school and beyond? With that said, I’ve personally concluded that it’s a great book, and I think many people can really benefit from reading and discussing it.  

  • pennysquare

    Reblogged this on Fresh Flowers.

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