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.