Q & A with David L. Marcus
RESEARCHING THE BOOK
You've covered wars, coups, and famines around the world. What drove you to spend four years observing American teens?
My friends claim it was appropriate because I never grew up. The truth is, this is what I love about journalism: approaching a subject with an open mind, soaking up the details, writing a narrative, and leading readers to see larger meanings. It's why I interviewed Marxist guerrillas in Peru and survivors of Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia. In this case, though, I was writing about something we all assume we know the twenty-nine million teenagers who live right here in our midst. I tried to approach them with the fresh eyes of a foreign correspondent.
How did you get interested in writing What It Takes to Pull Me Through?
An editor at U.S. News & World Report asked me to write an article about kids who were sent away to schools that offer therapy. I thought it sounded inane: a bunch of brats who purloined daddy's Platinum AmEx. I reluctantly visited a therapeutic school. Then, whoa! The kids blew me away. They were charming and smart and introspective. They told me about snorting medicine that was supposed to be for attention deficit disorder, about selling Ecstasy during math class, about hacking into Web sites activities that my high school friends and I never heard of. Thank goodness.
Why do you believe the students were being honest with you?
They weren't. Several later admitted lying to impress me, a magazine journalist on campus for just six hours. It wasn't till I returned for a fourteen-month intensive stay that I realized it took weeks months, really to get to know the kids' real stories, their real feelings.
How did you avoid attracting attention as "that journalist" or "that author who's observing us"?
I became as ubiquitous as air while observing a group of sixteen kids as they went through the program. I started by camping in the woods with them, then attended group therapy three times a week. I volunteered as a writing teacher. I shot baskets with them and listened to them play guitar at night. I joined them in Costa Rica for the final, five-week community-service expedition before graduation. At first it was a novelty having a journalist around, but after a while I blended in with the counselors, teachers, administrators, and special-ed experts. I was just another adult. Even teenagers who rebuff their parents are pining to talk to an adult who wants to listen.
What about your gut feeling at the outset? Weren't they spoiled rich brats?
They quickly broke my stereotypes. My group ranged from white kids from wealthy suburbs to a black boy whose mom grew up in a Harlem railroad flat. A couple of parents were teachers, who were hardly rich. One dad was a small-town electrician.
Why did you avoid situations where kids revealed information to you in confidence?
For the first time in twenty years as a journalist, I didn't seek exclusives. I wanted things to come out just as they would without my presence. I told the kids not to disclose secrets to me; in fact, I warned that if anyone tipped me off to a plot to run away, we'd immediately go to a counselor. And so gradually I learned that girls had been beaten by former lovers and boys had come close to attempting suicide at home. I learned all kinds of frightening information, but I found out at the same time as the kids in the group.
You used to fly in Madeleine Albright's plane and hobnob in Washington. Wasn't it boring being around kids who have just sixteen or so years of experiences?
I loved the research playing ping-pong, hiking, having amazing talks. These kids are far more candid than politicians, and when things get too heavy they imitate The Simpsons. On Sundays I brought my son and daughter, who were six and three, for sledding and fishing.
Is the book about regular teens or the ones who are in trouble?
Both. By looking at kids dealing with heavy drug use or depression or family problems, I want to illuminate the larger story about adolescence in the twenty-first century. Most teenagers are doing great. But every kid sits in classes with someone who is struggling with depression or an eating disorder. Every kid goes to parties with someone who uses hard drugs, or considers taking a ride with someone who's been drinking.
Why did the sixteen families cooperate with you and open up?
It took a lot of guts. Quite a few of the parents felt alone: Johnny next door was heading to Yale while their son was on the brink of going to jail. I think they wanted other parents to know that they really weren't alone. They wanted strangers to learn from their traumatic experiences.
What was the most difficult part of the research?
We spent a month and a half camping and hiking in the rain forest of Costa Rica. The highlight for the kids the low point for me was the week-long sea kayak trip there. My back was in spasms for the next month. That was the physical part. The emotional part was hearing the horrible things that had happened to these kids, whom I'd grown to like and respect.
Why the title What It Takes to Pull Me Through?
It comes from a lyric by Drowning Pool, which was a favorite band of the kid I call D.J. Just think: I used to spend my free time listening to Earth, Wind and Fire.
In What It Takes, you discuss cliques such as stoners, geeks, and wannabes. Which clique were you in as a teenager?
I was one of those clique surfers, going from the nerds to the partyers. I was sort of a '70s wannabe. I wanted to be cool, but I was too shy and too goofy to pull it off.
When you were in high school, did you hope to become a writer someday?
I dreamed of being a stand-up comedian. I'm not kidding. I worshiped Woody Allen and Eddie Murphy. I always lost my nerve before going onstage, unfortunately. I still want to be a comedian; humor is the best shield from the terrors we deal with.
How could you relate to kids who got in trouble? Weren't you one of those do-gooder, nerdy kids who studied for the SAT day and night?
Like a lot of teens, I tried on several personalities to see what fit. When I was sixteen, I won an essay contest sponsored by the police department. And yet a year later my friends and I were drinking Jack Daniel's and shooting out streetlights with a BB gun. I felt a need to impress the popular crowd. Instead I ended up being summoned to the same police department that had given me an award. That shook me up. It was a blessing.
How strict were your parents?
That's the wrinkle. My folks were incredibly permissive. If I wanted to smoke pot, that was okay. That was oddly frustrating. I was one of the few kids in Westchester County in the 1970s who decided to rebel by refusing to do drugs.
Okay, what about your style as a father? Soft or hard parenting?
When you've been raised in the laissez faire school of parenting, you tend to be either very strict or very permissive. I was way too permissive. Researching the book taught me, belatedly, not to confuse being loving with being lax.
So what don't parents know about their teenagers?
Many parents and I mean even caring, involved parents don't have a clue about what the middle school or high school day is like: where the popular kids sit in the cafeteria, who is snubbing whom, the shifting sands of friendships. A surprising number of parents don't have a sense of what their kids do from 3 to 6 p.m., or who they're with.
Hasn't it always been difficult to be a teenager?
Teens naturally separate from their parents, often stumbling along the way. But there are so many more ways to stumble now. Anyone with some cash can find illegal drugs, even far from New York and L.A.
A fourteen-year-old can get on the Internet for pointers about how to purge food. Then there's the toxic media. I'm not talking about Janet Jackson flashing flesh during the Super Bowl. I'm talking about 24/7 violence and hard porn on the Net or cable.
In the '70s, it was a big deal for a twelfth-grader to snag a copy of Playboy. Now lots of ninth-graders find Playboy tame. At the same time, kids don't have the support system they used to. Parents put in long hours commuting and working in order to live in good school districts. Families are so spread out that many children grow up without daily contact with aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents.
How did this book project change your life?
You could say I plunged into downward mobility. Four years ago, we lived in a big house in a desirable suburb of Washington, D.C. But I couldn't stand the traffic and the scarcity of open space, the frenetic pace and the rootless feeling. Everyone is from somewhere else. We relocated to a New England town where people know their neighbors they don't necessarily like their neighbors, but at least they know 'em. I want my kids to grow up respecting people for their values and personalities, not admiring them for their SUVs.
Your changed careers too, right?
I stepped away from a wonderful journalism job, a big-city salary and perks. Maybe it was a midlife crisis. I guess I needed a break from the nonstop nature of journalism and the follow-the-pack mentality of Washington reporters. I enjoyed volunteering as a teacher (while researching the book) so much that I accepted a fellowship at another high school. Now I'm teaching college, and writing. I'm still trying to find that magical balance of career and life. I'm hell-bent on finding it before my kids reach adolescence.