|Judith Viorst, in Necessary Losses (1987), recalled Alexander Portnoy talking of “that extended period of rage that goes by the name of my adolescence...”, and the often murderous thinking that went with it. With a few notable exceptions the above statement could be seen as thematic of young men in detention. The main feeling seems to be anger, the main behaviours designed to scare away others, the main talk is “tough talk&3148;.
When asked about these ways of operating, young men talk of injustices perpetrated by parents, by friends, by the system and often by themselves in the form of not being who or where they would like to be, or were expected to be.
With no safe place to rage, explosions and implosions occur with understandable frequency and severity and the resultant imposed consequences and guilt becomes another pressure to bear. Adolescence should be a time for the safe testing of intense feelings, with appropriate guidance and appreciation for differences. Unfortunately the experiences of most young men in detention speak otherwise. Their expectation of violence from others is strong, as is their perceived right to perpetrate it.
But to have a separate category of these men as “violent perpetrators” is as wrong as having a separate category of people as “victims”. Sure, individuals may behave violently to others, or be a victim at some time in their lives, but especially in the culture of detention the context in which violence occurs is essential to the whole story.
Violence by definition is unacceptable, but these detained young men have an equal right to “speak the problem”. They are fully responsible for their individual acts but not for the culture of violence this is learned. To be allowed, to be given the freedom to express the frustration and fears of adolescence in an atmosphere of equity and validation of their knowledge of themselves must surely happen alongside the taking of individual responsibility. Young men, too, must be allowed the “politics of protes”.
By “speaking the problem” young men also inform us of what restrains them from acting responsibly and non-violently. A recurrent story is the lack of nurturing males in their lives, although usually not spoken of in this way. Frequently young men will glory in the tales of survival at the hands of violent stepfathers, mates or police, and outdo each other in their attempts to score valued points in the detention game. Rarely are the stories of caring, gentle men in their lives shared, and if they are they are done so in private. No rage with these stories, only a sense of loss for something missed.
The question is, how do they overcome the restraint of male miseducation and approach manhood with an alternative story? Later articles will cover some of the ways that have worked for some young men and how they have begun to reclaim their lives.
In short, if young men are to “speak the problem” then the groundwork must be laid for their disclosures. To successfully hear the stories of young men in detention we need to do so in a way that both honours and helps to make meaning for them.
Some of the ideas that honour their commitment are (with respectful acknowledgement to Zoy Kazan): transparency, equity, self-disclosure, validation of the person's expert knowledge of self, and understanding oppression. In my next piece, I'll talk more about transparency and how it helped one young man find an increased sense of respect and a diminution in his sense of frustrated hopelessness.
Some time ago, Dennis Potter said “The most beautiful part of being alive is our capacity to shape our lives by language, by stories. We cannot live without them”. If stories are predominantly about violence, abuse and the rage of adolescence how then are our young men's lives to be shaped?
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