Book Reviews: Lost Boys and Real Boys

Reviewed by Mike Walker, Oasis Sciences & Medicine Editor

Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them
by James Garbarino, Ph.D.
New York: The Free Press
1999; hardcover - $25.00
ISBN: 0684859084
Purchase at Amazon

Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From The Myths of Boyhood
by William Pollack, Ph.D.
New York: Random House
1998; hardcover - $24.95
Purchase at Amazon

In the wake of the recent school shooting in Colorado, and similar incidents in other schools across the country, I felt that now would be a good time to address the topic of youth-perpetrated violence from several angles. Nearly every major newspaper and magazine has offered a supplication of editorials, special reports, and varied sundry interviews with the usual assortment of so-called experts on youth violence following the tragedy in Colorado last month. While I am sure these efforts are worthwhile overall, most such journalistic approaches I have read are frustrating in the sense that they seem to lack the detail required to understand youth violence as the multiform, complex, social illness that it truly is. Perhaps a newspaper or general interest magazine can do little more than provide a summary of ideas and opinions and a cursory overview of professional knowledge and perhaps what is really needed in the case of an issue so complex is a book-length examination of the issues at hand. Certainly, textbooks within the fields of adolescent medicine and psychology have been available for years with sections that cover violence and aggression among youth, but these books are geared towards a specialist readership, are not readily available, and tend to be a bit expensive, as well. Recently, in part as a response to this epidemic of youth violence, two books have been written that address the problems of being young and male in contemporary American society. These two books are the subject of this review, and while I typically tend to review books singularly, I felt that these two complemented each other so well that they would be best served by a combined review.

Before I get comment on these books in depth, I want to say something about the relationship between gay youth and youth violence. Violence has become a serious social and health problem among American teens over the past decade or so, period, but I believe it is an even greater problem in the minority population of gay youth. Certainly the tragic Matthew Shepard incident illustrates all too well that gay youth can be victims of violence that is targeted towards them primarily or even exclusively due to their sexuality. Gay bashing is well-recognized, at least among the population who read this magazine. What is less-recognized is the prevalence of crimes and acts of violence that may be committed by gay youth themselves as an outlet of sorts for the intense frustration and anger that many such youth feel due to the repression and marginalization of their sexuality by society. We don't have very accurate figures on the number of violent, non-violent, and other crimes committed by gay adolescent males, in part, because we often do not realize that the kids committing crimes may be gay, and because such information even when noted is not uniformly reported. One thing that I am sure is true, though, is that just as the sociocultural problems inherent to being young and gay contribute greatly to a higher rate of suicide among gay teens, these same factors also lead to increased rates of drug and alcohol abuse, and perhaps to increased rates of crime and deviant, destructive, activities. Therefore, due to the impact that youth violence makes on young gay people -- both as an external factor and an internal one -- it is especially important for gay youth to be aware of what kinds of conditions and determinants lead to youth becoming violent and how we, as a community of gay youth, can help pave the way to a brighter, less violent, future for all of us.

Lost Boys by Cornell University professor of psychology James Garbarino concentrates exclusively on the topic of male youth violence, the causative origins of such violence, and how such violence can be prevented. This book was just published, arriving in bookstores literally only days after the school shooting in Littleton, Colorado. It could not have been more timely, because school administrators, counselors, and other community-oriented professionals who deal with young people have not had a book this succinct yet thorough at their disposal ever before. While plenty has indeed been written concerning youth violence, its etiology, and how to prevent and remedy it, few books (if any at all) have taken more than an "here's what's broke, here's how to fix it" approach to a broad category of conditions and events that cannot be so easily "fixed". Lost Boys is very readable and relies heavily on both empirical research and Dr. Garbarino's own clinical experiences with helping violent and at-risk adolescent males. Even before I got past the first chapter, I realized that Dr. Garbarino has a deep and unwavering belief in the sanctity of human life and he extends that sense of morality to even the most deplorable of criminals among the youth he meets; serving as something of an honest and unbiased interpreter of the violence these youth perpetrate, Garbarino translates the language of their wanton acts into something that makes sense and often illustrates just how difficult and frustrating it is for these youth to speak up for themselves without resorting to violence.

Lost Boys is not a book about gay youth, indeed, it does not directly concern gay youth at all in its treatment of youth violence, however, this book is a paramount example of how violence can be examined as a social ill and workable, effective responses to prevent and curtail such violence can be devised. Dr. Garbarino is not an alarmist, but instead a pragmatic professional who has seen for years in clinical settings the sort of horrific violence and unspeakable acts that most of us are now finding so novel, so shocking, when they appear in the evening news. When Dr. Garbarino terms youth violence as an "epidemic", he is neither stretching the truth nor misusing this all-too-common (and often misused) term: Medically speaking, what Dr. Garbarino sees in youth violence is a true epidemic in that it is a health problem with a specific causative origin and discernible effects that has grown in terms of incidence and prevalence to the point that it is affecting an unprecedented number of people. The topical material in terms of causes of youth violence and the most effective means of preventing such violence are covered in detail and make very clear sense: Garbarino cites youth violence as a side-effect of the increased levels of violence seen in American society and the decreased levels of parental and familial involvement in the lives of children and adolescents. He calls for a greater sense of morality and a clearer place for youth within the overall fabric of contemporary society so that it is not so easy for young people to get lost in little worlds of their own where otherwise maniacal concepts of what is right and what is wrong can multiply and flourish.

William Pollack's book, Real Boys: Rescuing our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood provides a much broader range of social and psychological issues than Lost Boys does, which is neither evidence of any superiority on the part of Pollack's book nor any weakness of Garbarino's: These two books have different aims in their scope and depth although they cover similar material and in places overlap. Dr. Pollack, a clinical psychologist specializing in adolescent psychology at Harvard University and its affiliated hospitals, has written a comprehensive and highly coherent book that is designed primarily for parents, teachers, and others who are interested in the psychoemotional well-being of boys but who lack advanced psychological or medical training. This is a good thing, because the only other books that I am aware of that approach Pollack's level of sweeping coverage are textbooks on adolescent psychology and as mentioned before, these tend to be filled with jargon and are weighty in terms of both price and actual tonnage (biomedical texts seem to come in second-place to only engineering books in terms of sheer heft!). Dr. Pollack presents case studies from his ample experience in clinical practice as introductions to the material he covers, but he also allows plenty of room to examine the most current literature on various issues in male adolescence and boyhood such as depression and violence. He includes an excellent chapter on gay male youth and the psychological and social impact of being young, male, and gay. Here too, Dr. Pollack draws on his clinical experience and offers a very candid and illuminating retelling of what years of working with young gay men as patients (often brought to him by their parents, who suspected something was psychologically wrong with their sons) has taught him as a clinician.

Something I wish to stress about Pollack's book specifically (although it can also be applied to a degree to Lost Boys) is the importance of family relationships to the successful development of a young boy into a consummate adult man. Dr. Pollack describes the boy-mother and boy-father relationships in two separate chapters, detailing how the primary male and female figures within a boy's life are instrumental in his development. Sure, we've all known for years that a "good" father and a "good" mother are quite useful in the overall development of a child, but Dr. Pollack's perspective extends this premise and describes how the differences in mother-son and father-son relationships can have a tangible impact on the growth of the young boy. The question of the boy's sexuality --in the chapter devoted to gay male adolescents-- does not totally tie the points brought forth in the earlier chapters on parental impact together, but Pollack is quick to acknowledge that the whole field of academic and clinical investigation into the problems specific to gay youth is a very young field of academic and scientific inquiry.

Those of you who are regular readers of Oasis may realize that Kate Fordham and I (among others) have attempted to present the latest medical and psychological research findings specific to gay and lesbian youth, and that we have had a hard time gathering enough information in many cases to present a comprehensive overview on many problems facing gay youth -- the information is simply not all there. Much work remains to be done and I firmly believe that books such as Garbarino's and Pollack's will be helpful to researchers and should act as catalysts to get more researchers involved in youth-oriented problems. Less than a decade ago, youth violence was seen more as an educational (school-related) disciplinary problem to be solved by parents, teachers, and perhaps law enforcement authorities and not as a problem that deserved a great deal of attention from psychologists and other health sciences professionals. To be sure, some clinical psychologists were interested in youth violence, but it did not receive the widespread attention it deserved as a potential epidemic. I believe that we have the true epidemic of youth violence that we currently are experiencing in part because no one really looked at the warning signals that were starting to show up over the past twenty years or so. These two books will help us realize how grave a situation we're facing now as a society. To those of us who are concerned with helping gay youth in particular and those of us who are gay youth concerned with our own health and that of our peers, these books are nothing less than a shining light at the end of what's been a pretty long and dark tunnel at times.

Mike Walker has served as the Science Editor of Oasis since 1997, and has been a regular contributor of essays, reviews, editorials, fiction, and poetry to the magazine since 1996. In June 1999, he took over responsibilities as Medical Editor from Katherine (Kate) Fordham, M.D. Mike also has contributed articles, poetry, and academic research to a variety of scientific, medical, and popular publications. Mike may be reached at: MCWalker@hotmail.com

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