Because being stupid can be dangerous and teenagers are both dangerous and stupid. They’re also incredibly complex creators of their own political, social, economic and artistic world while simultaneously existing among ours—in our towns, in our schools, in our counties. To create your own world while living in an established world in which you only have moderate interest (and in some cases, outright contempt) takes bravery. It takes a narrowed form of intelligence. It takes a profoundly arrogant sense of right and wrong. It takes a sense of self-absorbed immortality. All of these are present in the teenager.
When I’m asked about how I arrived at writing LITTLE BEASTS (which thankfully isn’t often), I have to cast my mind back to a solitary memory I have of my younger years. My mother: standing in the kitchen while I was getting ready to go outside, telling me to avoid teenagers if I should happen upon them on the street corners of my neighborhood. Growing up in the working-class town of Mastic Beach, this command was not an easy task. Teenagers on street corners were as ubiquitous as stop signs.
“That boy would have been graduating high school by now,” my mother would say as I’d be heading out the door. “That boy’s” age would expand, contract, double, triple; I became convinced that my mother didn’t actually know the precise age of “that boy.” That boy, I can say now with certainty, would have been 47, had he not been murdered one spring day in 1979, by four teenagers, who suffocated him by stuffing rocks down his throat. He was 13. An impromptu search party eventually found his body, hastily buried beneath a log and some leaves near an elementary school.
His murder was somewhat of a regional sensation. It would evolve into something of a ghost story. A cautionary tale mothers told their kids to keep them from venturing too far from home. I was raised on it. Lived by it. Acted irrationally sometimes because of it.
I cannot tell you the number of times I redirected my course while en route to the deli, or the baseball fields because a group of teenagers were hanging around, smoking cigarettes, looking for something to do. I know now, that in all likelihood I was perfectly safe. But the fear this murder created in all of us ran deep.
It began that way. At my computer—28 years old—the image of four teenagers I personally knew from the neighborhood standing just behind what used to be a grimy deli, but is now a fairly successful hero shop in Mastic Beach.
My father had just died. I suppose my mind was retracing its steps. Where did it begin? Where did things unravel? Like looking for a set of lost car keys, I was suddenly looking for the key to how a family, a neighborhood, a community, can teeter on the edge of devastation, and how much more potent that edge can be when perceived through the eyes of a teenager.
This is an oversimplification. In this, too, there is danger, when we get far enough away from those adolescent years in our life to forget how strong we used to be in the face of violence, adversity, fear, poverty, the relentless messages we were expected to decipher. I suppose that’s principally why we’re so terrified of teenagers. We recognize, in their faces—in their actions—their fearlessness. They haven’t yet been anesthetized by the daily grind of adult life. They still think they have a puncher’s chance at beating everything.
It’s best to steer clear of those people.