Lord of the Flies in Los Angeles: The terrible logic of uncivilized boys

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

When I was a teenager I read a disturbing fantasy about a group of boys stranded on an island. Without any adults to enforce the rules, the characters in William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” turned against each other. Their vicious behavior made me wonder, “Could civilization really fall apart that quickly?” Recently I found a chilling answer in the memoir “True Notebooks” by Mark Salzman. At the urging of Sister Janet Harris, founder of a program called the InsideOut Writers, Salzman volunteered to teach creative writing to a class of juvenile offenders. Not only did “True Notebooks” remind me that boys murder each other right here in American cities.

By telling them to write he allowed them to express things they would never have spoken. When the boys read their work, they engaged in some remarkable exchanges that showed me how they think and feel.

It looks like William Golding made some realistic assumptions about the brutality that boys are capable of, but the mental process of the Los Angeles gang members was more sophisticated than I expected. The gangsters maintained fierce loyalty towards their group, passionately defended their honor, and loved their mothers. Rather than being outlaws, they were actually doing their best, even risking their lives to follow the code of their neighborhood tribe.

However, while they were obeying the laws of one tribe, they were breaking the laws of another. When they murdered the kids of the wrong color, they crossed a line. Now that they were murderers, society could look at them with disgust. They had become the enemy.

When Salzman dragged my mind to the other side of the razor wire fence, I was at first horrified. But the more I listened, the more I saw real children with feelings and dreams and minds. A sob welled up in my throat, caused not by their failure, but my own. We all know there are kids out there being led down these paths.

Can’t we reach out and help them, before they veer too far off the path, the way another memoir writer, Erin Gruwell, was able to do? In Freedom Writers Diary she tells of using writing and literature to help high school kids see each other as human beings rather than enemies. (For more about Erin Gruwell’s memoir, the Freedom Writers Diary, see this link.)

As I broke past my reluctance and started looking at the world through the eyes of these murderers eyes, a light started to dawn. I realized their behavior was more civilized than it first appeared. I grew up watching war movies, during which I cheered every time an enemy died. It was part of my training as a civilized person. Any enemy holding a gun must be shot before they shoot you. The boys in prison had learned the lessons of civilization too well. They had joined their neighborhood army to defeat the enemies in the other neighborhoods. They were doing their best to follow the laws of civilization.

Once a rival was defined as an enemy, his life lost all meaning, making it easy to pull the trigger. My first impression was that these boys were learning some awful, primitive, tribal custom. Now I see that in their youthful enthusiasm, they were playing at the same “kill thine enemy” approach that I grew up admiring.

An even more horrifying observation comes to mind. I’ve been doing the same thing with these boys as they did to each other. I’m perpetuating the situation by my willingness to throw their lives on the garbage pile. If I want to stop them from dehumanizing their enemies, I have to stop dehumanizing them.

William Golding’s book “Lord of the Flies” created a sense of terror at the Shadow Side that lurks within the human heart. Salzman did the opposite. He showed me a glimpse of compassion where I least expected it.

When each of Salzman’s boys read his stories, the other boys responded with empathy. They began to see each other as real people instead of enemies. This willingness to open up and see their enemies as people is similar to what happened to me. Before they told their stories, they were outlaws and murders, consigned to the other side of an impenetrable line. After listening to them, the line moved, and I discovered they are people. As I watched their hearts open to each other, and mine open towards them, I am reminded of a much deeper lesson of civilization than “kill thine enemy.” The ultimate way to defeat enemies is to turn them into friends.

Writing Prompt
Have you ever felt like “The Other” for example when visiting a cultural center where you felt like an outsider? What emotions, vulnerabilities, or other human elements would you like to let these people know in order to convince them you are a real person.?

Writing Prompt
When have you felt entitled to remove the rights of others? By hating them, what aspects of that group’s members must you ignore?

Note
Salzman was recruited to teach a writing course by Sister Janet Harris, of the Inside Out Writers program,

Note
Amazon Page: “True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall” by Mark Salzman

Note

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

8 thoughts on “Lord of the Flies in Los Angeles: The terrible logic of uncivilized boys

  1. A beautiful piece, Jerry. I’m drawn to insert an “a”, though, in the last line of paragraph 7 between “of” and “civilization,” because civilization is not something that exists independent of us. Civilization is something we create. It is a way of life that is subject to the influence of its human components. We should all acknowledge and accept responsibility for our individual roles in defining today’s version of civilization. We are it, even if that means merely becoming an informed voter and stepping into the voting booth, or changing the TV channel when a violent program comes on. Each of us is an involuntary role model, for every action we take is observed by others and becomes an excuse for them to repeat what they have seen us do. It adds up. We’re not the “ignorant masses” unless we choose to be, and we’re making those choices every moment of our lives.

  2. Hi Jerry! Your article brings back some memories in the past. I noticed my friends turned out like their parents and so did their children. I did not hate those friends, but when I got burnt, I started being distant from them. I realised they wanted me to be their friend because of my grades. They did not bother about poor people or so-called “untouchables.” A close friend of mine so-called “Brahmin” scolded me to cook with this so called “untouble.” And she would not accept the food. So ignorant, but that was the teaching she got from her folks, and that is the teaching she gave to her children. Society has to start from ground up, the school and the schoolteachers have to practice it ..at home and outside in society. Sometimes I feel it is a lost cause. smita

  3. Thanks so much for the comments Smita and Monty! I love how memoirs have given us a mirror to see ourselves and each other. We are all playing such important roles individually, and when we add up our stories, we do become civilization. We try to give back to the world the things we want the world to become. Jerry

  4. Thanks for this post, Jerry. I have a little trouble viewing murdering gang members with compassion and understanding, but I accept your points. It’s all worth greater thought. I know that one of the techniques used in Ireland to help stop the fighting was to get young people from opposite sides to get acquainted outside their urban battlefields. It was an effective program. I’m also interested in the power of memoir to bring some of this to light. It’s an amazing genre.

  5. Hi Kendra,

    Thanks so much for your comment. I’m always pleased to meet another memoir lover. That’s a great point about the Irish. The sides had the same color skin and spoke the same language, and they still managed to harbor murderous hatred towards each other. They generated their animosity through stories, so it makes sense that learning new stories could defuse the tension. Your project to understand how enemies could become friends will make an important contribution.

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

  6. The problem with both the gang members you have cited, and the boys in Lord of the Flies is not that they are naturally evil, or that they are oppressed by civilization, but that they adopted the idea of COLLECTIVISM: the idea that the GROUP is the unit of reality and the standard of values. When they began to see the world this way, it is easy to adopt the ‘us-against-them’ mentality of tribalism. In the novel, it was a mistake to organize themselves into a democracy, because democracies are also collectivist. A government that is ruled by the majority is rule of men, and men can be persuaded to do immoral things. The worst case scenario being Nazi Germany.
    Thankfully, United States government was built on the foundation of protecting INDIVIDUAL, inalienable rights, which people violate if they murder someone. Moreover, rule of LAW is much more stable for government, since it cannot ever change (the prime example being our Constitution and Bill of Rights). So yes, make those gang members see that individualism is a better way, for tribalism always does, and always has, resulted in destruction.

  7. Thanks for your observations, Josh. I love trying to figure out how individuals work together in society. I find that life story is a wonderful way to fully explore this interaction between the unique depths of the individual and the profound connections we have with other individuals, and society at large.

    While politics is important, obviously, I have also been diving deeper and deeper into the importance of “culture” – the movies, plays, novels, fiction, media, and all the other personal expressions of self that flavor our world.

    Jerry

  8. Pingback: Freedom Writers Diary Turns Journaling Into Educational Activism | Memory Writers Network

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