Sure, It Gets Better, But Don’t Tell 14-Year-Old Me to Wait
James Han Mattson on Just How Hard It Is to Survive Your Teen Years
Ever since the It Gets Better campaign started, I found myself having the same conversation. It’s not that I didn’t understand its position—or that I didn’t agree with its overall aim—but its lack of complexity and nuance made me ambivalent.
People, unsurprisingly, found my push-back alarming: how could I, a kid who’d experienced bullying, who’d grown up isolated, who’d escaped, who’d led a life like the one Dan Savage envisioned for the teen youth he purported to help, how could I ever find such an enormous public outpouring of support a bad thing? Didn’t I want to help struggling kids in places like Grand Forks, North Dakota (my hometown), and keep them from spiraling into self-violence? My criticism seemed counterintuitive and irrational. What was wrong with me? Was I just being difficult?
The campaign itself—spearheaded by Dan Savage, originator of the much read Savage Love column—started in 2010 while I was living in Korea. I remember, at first, thinking, Yeah. This is good. We need this. From my tiny studio apartment in the Gangnam district of Seoul, I watched and watched and watched. The videos were undoubtedly moving: all those adults with stable, normal lives arising from the ashes of their adolescent pain—you’d have to be heartless not to feel something. So yes, I felt moved. I felt grateful. I felt beautiful, beautiful progress. The world I lived in wasn’t the world I’d grown up in, and that meant things were going well—that meant progress was inevitable.
At first, then, I didn’t critique. I just felt. But soon, as the initial wave of emotion shrank and flattened, my thoughts took over. And my thoughts were: If this campaign had happened when I’d been growing up, if technology then had been as it was now, would I have been inspired? Would watching this give me a new outlook on life, make it somehow more hopeful?
The answer, simply: no.
My fourteen-year-old self would’ve watched the video with Dan Savage and his husband and would’ve seen a couple old white guys congratulating themselves for getting through tough times. He would’ve seen adults engaging in various versions of, “When I was your age…” and “I can’t wait until you’re older…” and “You’ll see…” Mostly, my 14-year-old self would be thinking about the hours before he’d have his books dumped in the school hallway, or before someone wrote on the back of his shirt, or before someone overturned his desk when the teacher wasn’t looking. He’d be hating Dan Savage and all the others for telling him he needed to wait another minute, let alone years, for it to get better.
In Korea, I was simultaneously writing a memoir (which speedily went nowhere) and a novel loosely inspired by the Tyler Clementi suicide. The latter project came easier: Korea, overall, isolated and unnerved me—everyone, it seemed, was in on something I wasn’t. (I spoke and understood very little Korean.) I hadn’t felt so alienated since middle school. Embracing Ricky Graves, the character around whom all the others orbited, then, was not difficult because in Seoul, I became, for a while, an adolescent again.
I didn’t, of course, act like a teenager—I had a job, an apartment, a 30-year-old body and life. But at the end of each work day, I wrote a small diary entry, first as an adult, then—citing the same events—as a teen. What I realized through this exercise was that my teen self viewed adults as an opaque, unsympathetic mass. While my adult self thought everyone was judging my terrible Korean, my teen self thought everyone was actively laughing at my terrible Korean. My adult self understood that the day and the week would end, that he could have a drink and a laugh on Friday night. My teen self saw a continuous, unending stretch of humiliation, the weekend not a respite but a time when bullies roamed the street untethered to formal decorum.
Of course, no Korean people actually bullied me. On the contrary: many tried helping me speak more clearly. But I still imagined it, especially as I reflected through teenage eyes, and retrospectively and comprehensively understanding that tumult led me to the story of Ricky Graves.
In my novel, The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves, Ricky commits a heinous act of violence before shooting himself. Ricky is a bullied boy who snaps, a casualty of cyber-embarrassment who is unable to cope with his outcast status, a fed-up teenager who goes on a vengeful spree. If Ricky were a real-life headline (something sadly fathomable in today’s America), he and his actions would inevitably spark passionate discussions about bullying. We’re not doing enough, people would say. Ricky could’ve been saved if he’d had a role model. Where was his mother in all this? Where were his teachers? Didn’t anyone see the signs?
On the surface, the story seems simple: there are two distinct, inflexible sides; the bully and the bullied. Ricky is the victim, Wesley and Mark the perpetrators, and when Ricky snaps, the roles reverse. A deeper look, however, shows that it’s not that simple: Ricky, at times, is wholly unsympathetic and Mark, at times, exhibits grace. The bully, in short, sometimes evolves into kindness and the bullied into mean-spiritedness, and even those reverse designations vacillate—convictions strengthen and collapse based on context. The “It Gets Better” campaign doesn’t quite address this complexity, and I understand why (a message of hope is undoubtedly a good thing), but I think now, armed with what we know about adolescent behavior, we can add a little more nuance to the discussion, understanding that a key ingredient in fighting bullying is realizing that behavior is fluid, not static, completely dependent on context, and that the most influential group to a teenager is other teenagers.
For Ricky, unfortunately, it did not get better. Had he not committed suicide, there’s a chance his life might’ve ended up as Dan Savage had envisioned—a husband, a child, a supportive network, a mother and sister who showered him with love and attention, financial security, trips to Paris. There’s also the chance that that trajectory would never have transpired for him, that the circumstances of life combined with his own emotional fragility would’ve arranged themselves such that he would commit suicide anyway, just at a later date. In any case, had he lived, he would’ve been given a chance, and that, I’m sure, is what Savage longed for—for struggling teens to be given a chance to become remarkable adults. And I want this too. Who wouldn’t? Strife (hopefully) moves us to compassion. But when I ask my 14-year-old self if this is what he wants, an adult life with adult freedoms, he says, “Yes, sure, but that’s forever away. What I’m worried about now is today. And tomorrow. And maybe the next day.” And because these are his worries, they must be mine as well.