The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

I’m writing this post a little ‘cold’ and unprepared because I’m unexpectedly going to see The Avengers tonight!  To say I’m excited is a ridiculous understatement.  I’m a Joss Whedon super fangirl.  As far as Perks is concerned, I’ve had a month to soak in the after reading funk and have come out on the side of – not a a huge fan.  And I’m entirely unapologetic about this unpopular opinion. (Spoilers below)

Chbosky’s debut novel presents itself as the universal tale of awkward teenagedom, especially that first year of high school. It was published in 1999 and follows Charlie as he writes letters to a ‘friend’ describing his freshman experiences as the ‘wallflower’.  Going in, I had reservations and expectations.  So many friends have lauded this book for its emotional revelations and ability to capture some truth of adolescence.  People who I trust have explained how the book saved their lives or got them through those turbulent years.  So. Much. Hype.  I avoided it like the plague despite the book being published during my freshman/sophomore years of high school.  I continued to avoid it during college and most of my twenties.

To put my expectations into perspective, I feared I’d feel about Charlie the way I now feel about Esther from The Bell Jar.  Reading The Bell Jar in college felt life altering.  She and I were the same person with the same problems.  I felt so much in common with her that I began to fear I was bat shit crazy and would end up with my own head in an oven (I know I’m mixing up Esther with Sylvia here, pretend it’s for effect).  But upon a reread a couple of years ago – in my late twenties – my perspective had completely changed.  All I wanted to do was shake the shiz out of Esther and yell at her that all this shit won’t matter in 10 years.  What if I was too far removed from high school to relate to Charlie?  What if I had missed my chance?

But my fears were misguided.  I liked Charlie from page one.  I enjoyed his voice, loved the execution of the epistolary storytelling, and found myself in several of his thoughts.  One particular feeling really registered with me even as an adult – the idea that you could be happy and miserable at the same time.  I happily flew through the first 100 pages before I began to get uncomfortable.  Something was off about Charlie – and not just in an awkward 15 year old way.  His emotional responses to things were not normal.  I put the book down and got in bed, ruminating on what could be Charlie’s real problem.  When I awoke, I felt positive that he was autistic and read the rest of the novel under that belief until all is revealed in the end.  And even though he’s not autistic, he is the victim of sexual abuse/molestation which leaves him physically, emotionally, and mentally crippled.  I was enraged.

Not at Charlie or his particular story.  I still adored Charlie and was so happy I had gotten to know him.  Instead, I was mad at all the people who explained how much they related to Charlie’s life and all the marketers who touted this novel as a ‘universal’ teenage story.  Are you kidding me?  What is universal about being sexually molested unless you have actually been molested?  For those kids who have unfortunately experienced this kind of trauma, then yes, this book is ‘universal’ and probably so incredibly cathartic to read.  But for the rest of us who were simply awkward wallflowers in high school, band geeks, sci-fi nerds, etc. – how can we possibly pretend to relate to Charlie?  How disrespectful to the truth of his life and his experiences.

I just got really angry.  I knew kids who had gone through that kind of ordeal early in their life.  Or who were autistic.  And to walk up to them and say – hey, I know just what you’re going through because being a teenager sucks and sometimes I feel so sad I can’t even cry – what a holy fucking mess.

Again, I’m angry at the readers – not the book, not Charlie, and not Stephen Chbosky.

My second and far more minor problem with Perks is the misleading title and idea of what being a ‘wallflower’ is.  Charlie is not a wallflower.  He approaches Sam and her brother to befriend them, he tells Sam he likes her, and he has a handful of friends he spends lots of time with.  How is this being a wallflower?  I don’t even consider myself a true wallflower and I didn’t have the nerve to tell my crush I liked him or randomly befriend strangers all of a sudden at football games.  And just because you aren’t the most popular kid at school or have the biggest social circle doesn’t make you a wallflower either.  I had a handful of awesome friends – we weren’t popular; we weren’t unpopular – and most of my high school experiences were great.

And then there’s Sam.  When Charlie admits to liking her, she explains that he must not feel that away about her and that she doesn’t return his feelings.  And God Bless the boy, he respects what she says and remains her friend – doing his best to support her and her boyfriend.  When said boyfriend is revealed to be a total cheating douche, Sam has the nerve to berate Charlie for not immediately rushing in and claiming Sam as his own.  God forbid he just give her some space.  I mean, she has already told him she doesn’t like him.  And then to say he lacks the ability to take action and that if he likes her he should just ignore what she said and take her as his own anyway.  EXCUSE ME?  What lesson does this teach teenage boys?  Girls are stupid, don’t know what they want, never mean what they say, don’t want to be respected – and this is the kicker – No. Means. Yes.  Chbosky, what were you thinking?  Maybe we’re just supposed to chalk it up to teenage stupidity and lack of life experiences.  Sam and Charlie obviously still have much to learn.  But for a book that seems to be so validating to its young audience, I just think this path might have frightening affects on a teenage psyche that hasn’t reached full maturity yet.

Has anyone else read this and think I’m way over-thinking things?  I absolutely could be.  Did I entirely miss the point?  Please let me know.  Perks was my bookclub’s April selection, but our discussion won’t take place until the end of May so I’d love your thoughts.  I firgured I’d cool down the longer I was separated from the novel, but that hasn’t happened.  I don’t know why, but this book has affected me more than any other this year.  And garnered the longest post known to man.  Kudos if you made it all the way through!

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15 thoughts on “The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

  1. I also think it’s weird to market this book as a novel that all awkward teens will relate to, when the reveal is that Charlie was molested. That is just wrong, and it smacks of deception for the sake of sales, which really makes me angry too. I also don’t like some of the messages in this book, especially the “No means Yes” message. This is a real problem in society, and for the author to go with that really bugs me. Needless to say, I probably won’t be reading this book, but your review was excellent and very cohesive and impacting. Good job on this one. Too bad the book was so annoying.

    • I’m really interested to see how the movie interprets this novel. I can’t see Emma Watson playing the kind of girl to encourage a ‘no means yes’ world.

  2. I don’t think I would expect this back story for Charlie … the title seems to make you think it is a more universal story. And it does seem very wrong for people to co-opt this kind of story as their “own” when obviously it can’t be. I enjoyed reading your empassioned review … well done.

    • Thanks for reading! I was (and still am) really quite angry. We’ll see how the movie interprets Chbosky’s story.

  3. I haven’t read this book since 2006 maybe 2007 back when I was in high school. I always felt a way about that I just couldn’t describe until you pointed it out. This book is not universal at all. I got understood it very much because my best friend at the time had confided in me her story. Things like that consume your life entirely until one day it consumes it less. I was the only person who was told for a very long time, so just watching their actions and seeing the pain someone could hold in their gaze was life changing for me. We don’t know each other anymore, which was a choice they made and I understood. It just pisses me off that kids that haven’t been in that situation feel that they can relate to Charlie just because their parent’s took their iPod or laptop. I’m not above punching them in the face at all. I highly encourage it.

    • I’m glad someone else felt the same unease as I did. I also had friends who had gone through similar traumas and couldn’t have related to them in a million years, but I could listen and support them.

  4. I agree with some of your points, but I disagree with others. Charlie explicitly explains that he doesn’t hate anyone because it would lead to a nonstop chain of hate. He continues to explain that although he has found out what had been making him uneasy about his night with Sam, it doesn’t mean that his traumatic experience shaped his entire life and forced him to make certain decisions. He is still Charlie, and he is still an awkward teenager going through his exciting, emotional adolescent period, and people could and should still be able to relate to him. Different people are affected differently by molestation, and while for some, it completely consumes them and changes their entire perspective on life, for others, they are able to overcome the trauma and continue living their own lives. Just like Charlie’s father said, “someone always has it worse.”

    Regarding your “No means Yes” lesson, I don’t believe it exists. What Sam is getting mad at Charlie for is not participating (a theme throughout the book). She explains that he can’t just be there for friends, he has to make decisions and take actions. For example, he can’t just let Patrick make out with him just because he thinks that’s what Patrick wants. And Sam explains that when she said that Charlie should lose his feelings for her because it would never work out, it was 9 months earlier, before they even knew each other, and before she thought she could like him. I believe you are oversimplifying the very important scene.

    • I certainly respect your differing opinions, but still stand by my gut reactions as far as what side I land on, personally. I have no beef on how Charlie reacts and is affected by his abuse. Everyone feels things differently and has varying ranges of how specific events affect them emotionally and physically. My problem lies with so many people who have told me how their life is EXACTLY like Charlie’s and how they totally understand all he’s been through despite the fact that they have never experienced something as traumatic as molestation. While I do know that you can overcome trauma in the sense that you are able to healthily and happily move forward with your life, I also believe that such events never truly leave you having experienced some deeply traumatic moments myself. I once had someone tell me that because their loving pet hamster died they knew exactly how my family felt while dealing with my niece’s death – I think experiencing things like this affects my reading of the novel (true story).

      You absolutely don’t have to believe my reading of the ‘no means yes’ bit exists, but that’s how it strikes me – and even with much agonizing thought and deep discussions with other readers – my view hasn’t changed. I get the whole participation thing and how meaningful that discussion is, but I think it could have been handled better. And I personally don’t believe that someone’s thoughts, opinions, and expressions should be forgotten just because 9 months have gone by. Also, not a fan of someone moving from one seemingly terrible relationship immediately to another or that Charlie should have tried to come between Sam and her boyfriend. I loved that the movie didn’t have Sam telling Charlie she couldn’t like him or whatever – this made the all important bedroom scene must stronger in my opinion. Honestly, I thought this was one instance where the movie triumphed over the book in all aspects.

      Thanks for your honest opinions – I appreciated your candidness and analysis. I hope we can agree to disagree. Also, wanted to mention that I didn’t approve your comment on another visitor’s comment due to the negative wording – basically your use of the word ignorant. I like healthy, respectful discussion and never want one of my readers to feel attacked or afraid to comment. I hope you understand.

  5. This is pretty late, but I agreed with alot of things you said. The book didn’t feel like my life, (just some emotions) and it didn’t feel like anyone else’s except Charlie’s to me.

    But the reason he was called a wallflower is what Patrick said. He sees things, he keeps quiet about them, he understands. That’s what makes him a wallflower.

    • I guess in my mind a wallflower is someone who never leaves the wall, literally. And Charlie did. I just considered him more of an observer than a participator which doesn’t have to be negative in my book!

  6. I read this book about 6 months ago and I absolutely adored it. I know that you probably think I’m just another teen that thinks she can relate to Charlie when we have nothing in common besides high school. But when I was little I was targeted be a family member. I didn’t understand what had happened and I always wondered why we stopped interacting with that side of my family. In the past couple of years I have come to realize the full extent of how people’s actions can effect others. I never quite understood why certain memories were etched into my mind, but now I know it is considered trauma. I almost didn’t finnish reading the perks if being a wall flower because I was struggling to hold myself together long enough to get through the last couple of page. But im glad I did and I wish I could tell Charlie that I know for a fact, things get better.

  7. I know this post is from 2 years ago. I just have to respond in agreement and also on the abuse topic. Coming from someone who’s older and just finished reading this it was very difficult and not at all cathartic reading the abuse references in the book; for someone whose personally gone through that. I never really discuss that but it was upsetting and the result was as if he figured out a way to deal with it all poetically. It came off to me as a novel that was trying the a shock factor through a “real” perspective. It just made me a little nauseous and maybe shouldn’t so quickly be pursued by those who are actual victims.

  8. chbosky just used a formula to write this book. angst, tragedies, relatable awkward narration. He’s made millions off of ”social outcasts” who hate to try and fit in……. but make sure to go to the football games, the parties, etc… just so you know there brand. They’re the whiny outcasts who are socially extravagant. Always there with friends to show you how alone they are. What a cute non tragic story for the teens who have both parents working in a suburban household with 45000$ of college tuition being saved.

    true out casts are like this: me, 4 years old, father dead at 1. Mother a idiot dates violent men. 5 years old. molested. skip forward to middleschool. nickname ” the fucking faggot” beat up daily for being tall, gay, handsome, blonde, dorky, skinny.

    highschool, drops out sick of namecalling, beatings. Stomped face broken ribs. Enough was enough.

    End up on hard drugs, suicidal, hating myself. Now 28 I’m a fat jobless loser. Trying to get the courage to off myself. Alas I’m too weak.

    Not a sob story. Or looking for sympathy. Just hope someone see’s this. Reposts it. Media is crap. Reality and fiction are nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing alike ever.
    You don’t get molested and meet friends like these and enjoy your life. 9/10 times it permanently fucks your life and you die off but not before suffering immensely. And unless you’ve been molested for a long period of time most will never understand. Cutesy books like this are offensive and just a money media propaganda tool.

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