OUTCRY Magazine of August, 1996
Including interview with
Janet Bode author of the book Hard Time
Hard truths about our teenagers in trouble!
There is no story I've written as a reporter that is so disturbing to me than the one I'm about to report about our teenagers in serious trouble. I watched part of the gang initiation on a cable channel of television. Half way through I had to stop, I couldn't take it any longer. Like other stories of teenagers in trouble with the law, it was painful to watch. It's was a story filled with drugs and abuse, crime and violence, rape and gang activities, being "beat-in" or being "sexed-in." And far worse, incarceration of teenagers and life after prison time is a curse of the revolving door. As a parent of four youngsters I'm very sad about the state of conditions of some of the teenagers, especially in the inner cities. We need to stop fooling ourselves: There is trouble out there! If you think because you live in the counties or suburbs, this problem is not going to eventually affect you or your family members, you may not be realistic. Your kids probably go to school with some of these troubled kids every day.
Ten years ago, a woman was brought to the emergency room of the hospital where I worked. She was dead on arrival with her head blasted and brain tissue hanging out different openings of her skull while her body was drowning in blood draining from her head wounds. The story was heartbreaking! A good looking woman in her thirties was found dead in her shower; she had also been sexually assaulted. Earlier, her husband was locked up as the chief suspect because they couldn't find anybody. Later his cousin confessed to the crime. The husband's cousin who at that time was only sixteen years old had asked this woman for a piece of chicken. She wouldn't give him chicken seeing the way he was intoxicated with drugs. When the sixteen-year-old came back, his cousin's wife was taking a shower. He stole the chicken, went to the shower and beat the woman with a lead pipe till she died. After killing her, he raped her and left the house. The woman's body was discovered by her husband when he came back from work. How could a sixteen-year-old be that brutal? He was supposed to be under the influence of drugs.
A few years ago, a group of six young boys high on cocaine and crack grabbed a sixteen-year-old girl, gang-raped her and when she threatened to call police, she was badly beaten unconscious. She recovered in the hospital and identified her attackers.
In another unbelievable incident, a boy of seventeen high on drugs brought his friends into his house, tied his mother and sisters to the bed, and had them raped repeatedly. It was like a spectator sport.
A group of young girls arranged for a friend of theirs to be murdered because they thought she was too arrogant and got the attention of boys more than they did. They lured her to the woods, stripped her naked and beat her to death. Her body was found by the river the next day.
A young boy of fifteen had a bet with his brother he could kill their parents. He did and left a note for the brother; he wanted to be in the movies!
These are not the stories for timid minded people or those afraid to deal with realities. They are not for politicians whose rhetoric is so flamboyant they themselves can't see realities. Neither will it benefit society when we resort to blame instead of finding solutions to the problems of teenage violence. The stories are for bold-minded people ready to find solutions to this evil of teenage violence besieging our inner cities. If we don't take action, now and urgently, and design strategies for interventions, we may one day be held hostages by violence in our respective houses!
In St. Louis, when two bullets were fired into my car and I escaped death just by chance and due to the protection from above, I knew then the problems of teenage violence had completely gone out of hand. I was very angry and yelled all the way to the White House.
Anger will not solve this problem nor will building a prison as high as the sky. No matter how we want to make a whole town or a whole state into a penitentiary system, it may not work. We have to understand the underlying factors and find strict ways for prevention and rehabilitation. I'm not trying to cast blame, but when President Reagan cut a lot of social programs during his administration, it was the beginning of the creation of gangs across the country. This was a trend that I carefully monitored then, although I couldn't understand well the correlations between these two events at the time. Whatever the case may be, this is not an issue we can easily ignore. The causes are interwoven in a mesh of many correlative factors.
Janet Bode did an investigative report about the real life behind juvenile crime and violence. She wrote a book namedHard Time. She is also the author of Heartbreak and Roses; Real Life Stories of Troubled Love.
In the book Hard Time, written by Janet Bode and Stan Mack ( published by Delacorte Press, New York, 218 pages, $16:95) takes a careful look at kids doing hard time. Ms Bode went inside the prisons to interview these children who are like any other kids except they have committed crimes and are in prison. The stories are the realities we as a society don't want to face about troubled children. According to her, "The book could help call attention to the true dimensions of the problems in human terms. We've got to know whom we're dealing with in order to arrive at a truce."
I started my interview with Janet Bode by asking her a question about what motivated her to write the book. She told me how she spent a lot of time talking to kids across the country and as a journalist had written stories for and about children. When she saw these children in jail, they urged her to tell their stories that they are not as bad as society wants to believe. Janet saw children in jail who made wrong choices and could not afford decent attorneys to get them off.
She stated that kids in large cities are more prone and vulnerable to crimes and violence because they think they don't have any future. They consequently act out their anger and frustration through crime and violence. "For the past twenty years, the teenage death rate has been going up; other demographic groups have been going down," Ms. Bode said. She explained that many of these children are surrounded by violence at home and on the streets, violent video and television, and music and video games that cause them to be desensitized to violence. With regard to problems of life and frustrations, children become more violent than what they have been exposed to. As a result, young boys express themselves through sex and violence. Young girls turn to sex or shut down emotionally.
Janet Bode mentioned something plaguing society so much we have taken for granted. She explained how society glamorizes violence, rugged men, gun violent movies and using guns to solve problems by the outlaws in a shoot out. Some teenagers are sexually attracted to these male characters, and we all know the problems that follow. These rugged men will be expected to be soft, nice and perfect gentle men after marriage. Many of these women who find themselves in a hospital emergency room years later always ask themselves the same question over and over: Why did I chose to marry an abusive husband?
Searching for solutions is not easy either because parents are sometimes not cooperative. She cited one example in Maryland where a school declared a zero tolerance for fights. Kids caught fighting are suspended. The children walked out of the school demanding for their rights to fight and some of their parents supported them. Such parents I believe need psychiatric treatment. The school refused to back down, and violence in that school went down significantly. Responding to this incident Janet Bode said, "We can't expect children to be better than the parents or adults. When we have politicians screaming at each other, you can't expect teenagers to do any better. Teenagers are not oblivious to this madness."
In finding solutions, the author suggested many interesting ideas. She explained that we should stop the quick-fix approach of incarceration. Mandatory prison sentences have created more problems.
We should make efforts to rehabilitate instead of punishment. She would not want to meet a child who spent five years in jail without a rehabilitation program. They are usually very angry individuals. Guns should be made into safer products and taken out of the hands of teenagers. Society should work with the medical community to treat violence the same way they treat victims of heart attack by counseling and education.
Violence should be taken care of as a psychological and social problem and work should be focused on changing behavior patterns. She suggested good anti-violence programs by YMCA, churches, temples and synagogues for kids to participate in crime prevention will go a long way.
Reading the book Hard Time by Janet Bode is like listening to these children talking to you through their stories. The book should be recommended for all teenagers to read as a way of educating them about the other side of the world in the penitentiary and the consequences of wrong choices. ( Janet Bode's contact - Judith, 212-782-8626)
Trust & Betrayal; Real Life Stories of Friends and Enemiesis another book written by Janet Bode (published by Delacorte Press, New York, 161 pages, $15:95) discussing different stories about teenagers from her real life interviews. The stories deal with kids adjusting to life crises from peer pressure to problems of stepparents all the way to the agony of dealing with deaths within the family.
Ms. Bode vividly takes you back to the mindset of the teenagers today. Adults and parents often miss the mark in understanding the feelings, pain, ups and downs of growing up. The stories are in the teenagers' own words and language they can understand. Many teenagers can read the stories and see themselves, and adults can get a real life handle into what it's really like to be a teenager in today's world. If adults and parents can now see the trees and the forests, maybe they won't get so lost in their interactions with their kids.
Another book,Scapegoating written by Mike A. Males, (published Common Courage Press, Monroe, Maine, 329 pages, $17.95) takes a very different approach to the subject matter of teenage violence. He presents statistics to show us that the problems of teenage violence and crimes have been blown out of proportion. He indicates that adults are mostly responsible for the initiation of the problems by the social and economic environments created for these children to live in. Some adults have done damage by not caring about children as they do. Others refuse to pay child support as they are expected forcing many of these children to live in poverty. In many cases Males cited examples to indicate how adults' pathological behaviors have been responsible for the ways these children react to society. He alluded to the fact that children are the ones actually being abused by adults. The author mentioned examples of rapes and sexual exploitation of teenagers by adults, physical violence against kids and so many other evils adults have created for these children to survive in.
Mile Males says the government makes it worse by the way of strategies being developed and designed to deal with children as criminals. He stressed many of the promises were never kept and other programs developed to help kids have failed badly. In general the author believes children are unjustly persecuted by a system that blows issues of teenage drug and violence out of proportion.(Mike A. Males's contact- Greg, 207-525-0900)
Blame it on the Babyboomers!In response to Scapegoating I'm not convinced most of the problems with teenagers today are hyped up and blown out of proportion by the media. I myself have been victimized by gang violence. However, I agree with the author that adults carry the greater share of blame regarding the creation of these problems to begin with. I remember when I was in college in the 1970s, psychedelic drugs were considered a spiritual experience. Then we were asked to understand and be tolerant of the goodness of these mind altering street drugs in a book named The Altered State of Mind. Our professor then (I wish I could see her face now) told us there was nothing wrong with taking mind-altering drugs. We were supposed to accept this as another way people choose to express themselves after being bored with regular everyday life. I wonder if they knew then the damage drugs were going to do to society and especially our children.
I will not hesitate to blame most if not all these problems on the baby boomers and others that think like us. In early 1970s, we created the drug culture and rebelled against parental discipline and upbringing. We created the free sex of the hippie generation and brought all kinds of sexual perversions out of the closet. Women's liberation brought some good and added some other problems. Today the role diffusion we wanted to create has ignited a problem of gender confusion. On some day time television shows, some of the male transvestites believe God made a mistake for giving them male genitals. Now, we have a bunch of emotionally confused young males who don't know their front ends from their rear ends. We created the negativism of liberalism versus conservatism as if caring for others is a crime. Years ago, we argued strongly that television violence and pornography had nothing to do with people's pathological behaviors. As a result we built many of these evils into children's programs. Today, the same children sitting next to us while we were watching those programs are now over-desensitized to violence. God help us!
Articles and reviews by Rita Eubanks & `Yinka Vidal, OUTCRY Magazine, August 1996.
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