Signal’s Banned Books Club: The Perks of Being Curious

by | Apr 17, 2023 | Banned Books Club

Here’s something I don’t understand.

Somewhere in Texas today, a child can walk into their school library and thumb through a copy of Mein Kampf. While you could argue that the antisemitic manifesto does carry some historical significance, it is also irretrievably true that it is nothing more than agitprop designed to turn human beings against each other in an effort to eradicate an entire people from our planet.

I will acknowledge, I’ve never so much as touched a copy of that fucking book. What lessons are contained in its pages, I do not care. Everything I need to know about it was conveyed with great impact in the 1998 cinematic classic, American History X, in which a reformed skinhead fresh out of prison tries to save his brother from his own hateful mistakes.

The fact that the publication remains in print decades after Hitler’s death is a moral outrage, in my humble opinion. For decades, hate groups have passed it among themselves, taught it as gospel, and poisoned generations of people into believing the worst things possible.

This is on my mind this morning because I’ve been in my head a bit recently about a different book, one that I first read in junior high school whose lessons helped me live a more curious, empathetic, and thoughtful life. It’s a beautifully written book about finding your people, falling in love, and learning to accept your friends for who they are, not who we want them to be.

I’m talking about The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a book Texas politicians think should be banned.

I will concede, there is some challenging material in the novel, which clocks in just over 200 pages but leaves an impact that lasts much longer. The book opens with its teenage protagonist, Charlie, writing letters to an unknown recipient as he begins his freshman year. 

It doesn’t take long to suss out that this kid is not alright. Charlie is trying to navigate twin traumas: the suicide of his best friend Michael, and the death of his favorite aunt, Helen.

We follow along as Charlie finds a mentor in his English teacher, who notices something special in the way that Charlie reads and writes and encourages his curiosity and talent by giving him additional books to read and write reports about. He happens into a friendship with two seniors, Patrick and Sam, and that’s where the learning really begins for Charlie.

First, he falls hopelessly in love with Sam, whose beauty can only be eclipsed for Charlie by her kindness. Charlie’s new friends are all weirdos, but they’re all fucking cool. They’ve built a little community for themselves that is inclusive and diverse, and Charlie falls into place simply by being present, listening to his new friends, and opening himself up to try new experiences.

And his friends do something very simple that is also quite remarkable. They notice. They see Charlie for who he is, and they celebrate it. When Charlie has figured out that Patrick is secretly dating Brad, a popular athlete, Patrick can tell that his secret has been compromised, but he knows he can trust Charlie to keep that secret in an early 1990s high school.

That’s where the title of the book comes from. Patrick turns to Charlie and says “He’s a wallflower. You see things, you keep quiet about them. And you understand.” 

It’s strange that I first read those words in the ballpark of 20 years ago, but they always stuck with me. The thing I’ve always wanted most in life is to understand people, and finally, someone found a way to put a few words together that showed me how important that truly is.

And Charlie gets to delight in some of the most beautiful scenes about coming of age that have been written in the last century, at least. Anyone who has read the novel will never forget an iconic scene where the group of friends cruises toward the Pittsburgh skyline while one of them stands in the flatbed of the pickup truck as it gains speed, the city whizzing past as they take in the lights and ride out the buzz. 

The first time Charlie does it, he has a feeling that finds a way to express himself aloud. Catching his breath he says to his friends “I feel infinite.” 

When I first read the book, I hadn’t had that moment. It would be a few years before I really found my people and had the formative experiences of my own life. But reading those words in my childhood home, I knew exactly what they meant, and I felt so happy for the character of Charlie to be feeling it.

And then there’s the scene where Sam takes Charlie to her bedroom, where she has an incredibly thoughtful gift waiting. Sam gifts Charlie a typewriter, and when he lifts the case he can see that she’s written a note on the otherwise blank piece of paper threaded into it.

“On that piece of white paper Sam wrote ‘Write about me sometime,’ And I typed something back to her, standing right there in her bedroom. I just typed ‘I will.’” 

For the rest of my life, I’ve wanted a woman to ask me to write about her sometime. That feeling will probably never fade.

But it’s not all rhymes and good times. There are small ways Sam makes a mess of his life, like the moment he gravely offends his first girlfriend during a game of truth or dare. Someone dares him to kiss the prettiest girl in the room, a layup of sorts to prompt him to kiss his girlfriend. Instead, he kisses Sam, creating a brief chasm in their friend group. 

And there are moments our fifteen-year-old protagonist bumps into situations he just doesn’t know what to do with like a passage in which he witnesses his sister’s boyfriend hit her. His sister swears him to secrecy, but when he lets it slip to his English teacher, the teacher promptly tells his parents.

It causes a significant rift in his relationship with his sister, who keeps seeing said loser of a boyfriend until she winds up pregnant.

And these scenes probably strike at why conservatives are so hot and bothered to ban the book. Charlie’s sister is pregnant and scared and decides that she needs to have an abortion. Despite the friction in their relationship, she asks Charlie to take her to the appointment and to keep her secret. 

Charlie doesn’t ask questions or pass judgment. He’s just there for her in a moment of genuine crisis, and after she ditches the bad boyfriend her relationship with Charlie begins to improve by leaps and bounds. 

And, of course, there is content that touches on what it was like to be a gay high school student in the early 1990s. The Patrick character is a sweet and thoughtful person who understands who he is, but also understands the pitfalls of being honest about it in a small school in a small city. 

When Patrick and Brad are caught in the act by Brad’s abusive father, it sets in motion a deeply upsetting series of events. Brad disappears from school for a few days, and when he returns he’s so mean about Patrick’s sexuality in public that Patrick snaps and attacks Brad. A group of Brad’s football teammates join in and start to beat the ever-loving shit out of Patrick until Charlie intercedes to break up the fight.

This wins back some respect and affection from his friends, who had been icy to him after his truth-or-dare blunder and leads to Patrick spending more time with Charlie. One night while getting stoned and driving around the haunts he used to hang with Brad, Patrick impulsively kisses Charlie. 

This is a decision that could severely destabilize a friendship, and despite his broken heart and clouded mind Patrick understands this immediately and apologizes. He understands that he confused Charlie’s empathy for consent, and they’re able to strengthen their friendship and move on without missing a beat.

A short time later, author Stephen Chbosky delivers a real gut punch. Patrick sees Brad fooling around with a stranger in the park, a heartbreaking reality of gay life in the early 1990s. It is heartbreakingly true that gay Americans, for decades, who couldn’t be open about what was in their hearts would have to hide to have sex, putting themselves at tremendous risk in a number of ways.

I took some important lessons from that, as a young person from a small town. The first is that there is a lot more safety in truth and love than in lies and fear. The second is that sensible people would never make their loved ones feel like they needed to hide to do anything.

As the novel reaches its conclusion, Charlie starts to worry about what will happen when he loses his group of older friends to college, especially Sam, who is fresh off learning that her boyfriend cheated on her and leaving for a summer-long college prep program.

Charlie confesses his undying love for Sam, and she’s angry that he hadn’t acted on his feelings sooner. And suddenly, Charlie gets the girl. They begin to kiss and touch, and while Charlie’s heart is bursting with love and excitement something is just…wrong.

And this is where the book delivers its most painful lesson. No matter who we are or how good our lives are going, our trauma is always just around the corner, and our trauma does not care if we’re on the verge of sleeping with the love of our life for the first time or going off to college.

Charlie is forced to stop Sam because he’s struck by the memories of being sexually abused as a child by his favorite aunt, Helen. Charlie leaves Sam and returns to his home, where he slips into a catatonic state that can’t be shaken, even when his father reluctantly hits him to try to snap him back to reality.

Our protagonist ends up in a mental hospital for two months, where he’s able to unpack the abuse he suffered and the psychological damage that it’s caused. He gets a visit from Sam and Patrick, and they take him for that iconic ride through the tunnel so he can face the Pittsburgh skyline again.

Standing in the back, Charlie shouts that he feels infinite. Confronting his trauma, accepting help, falling in love, and making friends help Charlie get his head on a little bit straighter. By the end of the book, Charlie leaves us with thoughts that are both simple and profound. 

“So this is my life,” Charlie tells us. “And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.”

You and me both, Chuck.

So, in summation, what author Stephen Chbbosky gives us in a couple of hundred pages is something far more profound. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a beautiful story about love and longing, loneliness and belonging, about trauma and triumph. 

And I would respectfully submit that the far-right movement in Texas banning books doesn’t want you to read this one simply because it teaches us that, if we’re willing to come face to face with our trauma and our pain, we will be okay.

You can be a weirdo, and still be loved.

You can be queer, and still be loved.

You can be mentally ill, and still be loved.

You can need an abortion, and still be loved.

If you’re willing to listen to people and take them for who they are, you will find your people.

If you’re willing to be a wallflower, you’ll learn an awful lot.

These are wonderful lessons to learn as a teenager, lessons that have helped me be the person that I am. I am a deeply curious person who would love to learn everything about you. I can talk for weeks, but I am truly dying to listen for much longer. I would much rather understand you than force you to “get” me.

Those are the true perks of being a wallflower for me. I hope you’ll take the time to read the novel for yourself and give me one good reason it should be banned while Lolita, a book about an old man sexually abusing a young girl over a long period of time, still sits on library shelves across Texas.

I hope you’ll take the time to read it and tell me why we should be more comfortable with our children picking up a copy of Hitler’s manifesto instead.

Senior Advisor | + posts

Joe brings over a decade of experience as a political operative and creative strategist to Texas Signal, where he serves as our Senior Advisor and does everything from writing a regular column, Musings, to mentoring our staff and freelancers. Joe was campaign manager for Lina Hidalgo's historic 2018 victory for Harris County Judge and is a passionate sneakerhead.

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