Edited by Gayatri Patnaik & Michelle T. Shinseki
Harper San Francisco, 173 pp.
"The Secret Life of Teens" is the fruit of a call for letters issued by editors Gayatri Patnaik and Michelle T. Shinseki to Millennial teens--those who were born between 1979 and 1994, and got tagged with the moniker because they are coming of age at the turn of the millennium. For all their extremes (multiple body piercings and purple hair) and contradictions (born-again virgins and 12-year-old Lolitas), they are rewriting the rules for youth culture. In this book, a smorgasbord of snippets from letters reveal the thoughts and sensibilities of teens from all over the world on a wide range of topics, including messages to elders (i.e. baby boomers), friendship, love, family, death, divorce, sexuality, race, and religion.
In their introduction, the editors convey their amazement at this generation's "collective determination." Many letters they received, they said, focused on loss: "loss of innocence, loss of family through divorce or death, lost of trust through unreasonable and unhealthy society demands." Still, the young peoples' sentiments carry an undercurrent of optimism and resolve.
The letters, Patnaik and Shinseki say, show that the Millennials are a conflicted generation. When it comes to their view of adults, the Millenials feel let down, even disgusted by these divorced, self-absorbed, and irresponsible people who should have been role models. At the same, with child-like simplicity, they long for adult leadership and companionship and would gladly make their parents role models if adults would answer that calling. Seventeen-year-old Mia writes "to all future fathers": "Sometimes I wonder what's worse--never knowing who your father is, or knowing." Many teens have been abandoned by the adults in their lives, as Mia was, yet they seem to understand innately that adults are meant to be, well, the adults. Mia concludes, "The mother and father are the . . . example and standard. Think about what kind of example you set. . . . Your children need you."
The Millennials are putting their collective foot down when it comes to adult responsibility and they take more than just parents to task. Politics, too, is the target of their indignation. A thirteen-year-old writes to President Clinton: "Upon recent discussion with many of my peers, we the Children of America, have concluded that your conduct was unbecoming of an American President. . . . We don't pity you at all. You brought it all on yourself. Now be a man and take the blame."
The few letters the editors included that address God and religion reveal a resolute desire to believe. A young man with a heart defect writes, "My advice to anyone who's afraid or worried is to trust in God. No matter what happens, my friends, God always promises to be there for you." A doubter writes: "I would happily place myself in your hands and do whatever it is you want me to do. But I ask you, and I get silence. . . . Where are you?"
One is left wondering how this generation developed the maturity and optimism these letter reflect. And that is the book's weakness. Where does the Millennials' sense of moral indignation, civic duty, and longing for role models come from? These questions remain unanswered in "The Secret Life of Teens."
But there are answers, and they need looking at. The barrage of visual and digital stimulation in their world has created what some psychologists call a "noxious environment of overstimulation." Add to this a sense of disconnectedness from family and community. Add a loss of childhood as teens confront mature themes in a morally vacuous media culture without help from adults. Add their subsequent moral confusion. These forces together have aroused spiritual longings in this generation: teens want to believe in something greater than their appetites, and they want some authority that will draw clear boundaries around issues of right and wrong.
Patnaik and Shinseki assert that it is time adults met this generation halfway. As noble as such an appeal might be, these letters make clear that it is already too late for that. These extraordinary young people are stepping up, taking charge, and writing their own rules.