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.

Freedom Writers Diary Turns Journaling Into Activism

by Jerry Waxler

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

The Freedom Writers Diary is a collection of diary entries written by inner-city high school kids in Los Angeles. When I first heard about it, I thought the book would be too scattered and too youthful to have anything to do with memoir writing. After I started reading, I discovered these authors were doing essentially the same thing any memoir writer does; telling stories about their lives, and sharing them with the world.

I was stunned by the intensity of their circumstances. In the classroom, the kids separated themselves into racially defined groups – Hispanics, Blacks, Asians, and Whites.  Out on the street, many were members of rival gangs, killing and being killed for the color of their skin. Most of them had been shot at, and almost all had lost at least one friend to gang violence. The cultural tension portrayed a more complicated view of the American Melting Pot than I ever knew, and highlighted the terrible tendency of human beings to group together with their “own kind” and to exclude and misunderstand “the other.”

This particular classroom was designated for the throwaway kids, the ones who would never make it. Their home life was racked by poverty and drugs, and broken families. Some had been evicted and a few had even been homeless. When Erin Gruwell, a new teacher fresh out of college, walked into her English class, two things seemed obvious to everyone but her. First, these kids would continue their murderous hatred for each other, and second, none of them would graduate high school.

Through her innovative use of literature and journal writing, the young teacher defied both of these predictions, offering her students opportunities to escape their apparent fate. They raised their test scores, crossed racial lines to form deep friendships, finished high school and went on to college.

Uses of Journaling

To try to overcome their initial hostility to her and to each other, Erin Gruwell asked them to write about their personal lives. She had no idea she was turning on a spigot that released a flood of revelation and sharing. Through the writing, members of the class opened up to each other, breaking out of rigidly defined racial identities.

The journey to tolerance was helped by Gruwell’s use of world literature, especially the recollections of the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of another diarist, Anne Frank. After reading Anne Frank’s diary, the students realized they were not the only ones persecuted. The Holocaust’s impact on the kids was so strong, Gruwell wanted to teach them more. She took them to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, and she introduced them to several Holocaust Survivors. By visiting these horrors of recent history, they began to open their eyes to the futility and horror of racial hatred.

Shakespeare helped, too. The kids thought it was stupid that the two feuding families in Romeo and Juliet would kill each other merely for being born with the wrong name. Then Gruwell pointed out the similarities to their own situation. They made the connection and learned another lesson about prejudice.

After four years of sharing their stories with each other, working together to raise money for educational projects, and becoming avid students of the literature of tolerance and survival, these kids traded in their hatred for harmony. Over and over they use the word “family” to describe their feelings for their fellow classmates.

The Power of Sharing Private Experience

Now that their diary entries have been published, the rest of the world can share their moral journey, too. Like the shape-shifters in magical myths, they tear off the masks of gang bangers, of druggies and anti-social kids who will never amount to anything, and reveal real people, with real dreams for family and a safe society. Their experience makes me dream of the possibilities.

After they graduated, the book ended but the kids kept pushing their agenda. Using the public awareness generated by the book, Gruwell and the Freedom Writers formed a non-profit organization, the Freedom Writers Foundation, to bring the message of hope to other schools.

Their public relations campaign shifted into high gear when the Freedom Writers experience was produced as a movie starring Hilary Swank. The production moved me as deeply as the book did, and will extend the reach of their message even farther, proving this amazing lesson about memoir writing. By telling the story of our own lives, we reach beyond ourselves, sharing experiences that potentially help other people grow, turning private lives into a public act of social change.

Writing Prompts
Write a situation in which you felt empathy for someone who was on the other side of some wall, contained behind the boundaries of your pre-judgment. Write what it felt like before the connection was established, and then what it felt like as the wall started to crumble and you saw the real person beyond it.

Consider some interaction you have had with a person from the “wrong” race or religion. Tell a story about your interaction. Stretch your imagination and try to tell the same story from their point of view.

Write about a period in your life when you felt stuck behind a façade, in which others saw you differently than you saw yourself. Write a story about taking off that mask.

Write a story about a book that made a difference in your life.

Write a story about a teacher who made a difference in your life.
Notes

The Freedom Writers Diary : How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them, by Freedom Writers, Zlata Filipovic, with Erin Gruwell

Freedom Writers Foundation

Read my essay “The Terrible Logic of Uncivilized Boys” about Mark Salzman’s creative writing class inside a juvenile detention center for gang members in Los Angeles,

More memoir writing resources

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.

To learn more about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

Check out the programs and resources at the National Association of Memoir Writers