A lot of my close friends over-romanticize Charlie’s journey in Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” Part of me really loves that they not only read the book, as it’s one of my personal favorites, but also enjoyed reading it. But then there’s this other part of me, a little deeper down, that feels like they just don’t fully understand the story because they haven’t been through anything like that. All they talk about is how cool all of his substance experimentation was, or how cute him and Sam are together, and how much they secretly wanted Charlie to end up with Patrick. All of my friends talk about the love stories in Perks, but that isn’t all that’s there.
Charlie’s journey throughout the story of Perks is ultimately about reaching a sort of self-autonomy where he understands fully why he is the way he is, and he eventually comes to terms with it and seeks help. Charlie experiences very emotional flashbacks of his Aunt Helen, his favorite family member, which become worse around his birthday/Christmas since that’s when she died. Later in the book, Charlie and Sam are becoming physical before she leaves for college, and Charlie becomes anxious and panicky, and has to stop. It is revealed, after Charlie goes through medical assistance, that his Aunt Helen sexually molested him when he was younger. So when Sam touched his crotch, it was a very stressful and triggering moment for him because it brought him right back to that abuse.
Another thing that my friends overlook is the fact that Charlie blames himself for Aunt Helen’s death. When she was in her car accident, she had been driving to go get him a birthday present. Charlie believes for so long that if he hadn’t had his birthday on that day, she wouldn’t have gone to get his present, and therefore wouldn’t have died. It’s confusing to realize this especially with the knowledge that Helen sexually abused young Charlie, but Charlie had repressed his memory of it all since it was so traumatic, and was left only with the guilt.
People in my life don’t understand sexual abuse or that sort of guilt because they’ve never had it happen to them. Although I know it’s nowhere near the same situation Charlie went through in Perks, I have experienced this. My sophomore year of high school, I was dating this guy who I thought was the best person in the world. I was pretty sure I loved him, which is a pretty big deal since I usually get tired of people very fast. I was in a play that spring, and after the show was over he grabbed me by my wrist and led me to the empty gym on the other end of the school. Things escalated, I didn’t get a chance to say yes or no, and long story short my first sexual encounter was someone I trusted trying to rape me. It took me a bit to realize what was happening, and when the reality of that moment crashed down around my head, I hit him. I hit him hard, twice, and I made him bleed. He fell off me, and I grabbed my things and I ran. I didn’t stop running until I got back to my car and locked the doors. My parents don’t know, my brother doesn’t know, and I didn’t tell my then-friends until I came home for the summer after my freshman year at JMU. And you know what they told me?
"It was four years ago, why aren’t you over it by now?"
"Why didn’t you let him do it? There isn’t exactly a line of people wanting to fuck you, Sarah."
"You were his girlfriend, you should have let him. You owed it to him."
As if me feeling guilty about almost breaking his nose wasn’t enough, now I had my friends telling me I was wrong to protect myself from something I didn’t want to happen. Until I told someone, I had nightmares about it. It all but ruined my only two relationships after that, and I haven’t dated anyone since I got to school here. It’s incredibly hard to overcome something like rape, or even attempted rape, and for my friends to ignore Charlie’s struggle the way they ignored mine makes me wonder if there are any perks to being a wallflower.
You are lonely.
You are constantly on the outside looking in.
Your hardships are ignored and swept under the rug because you obviously are not as important as the people who step into the light and bloom.
You’re a wallflower. Your life is hard, and draining, but sometimes you’ll find someone completely unique, like Charlie found Sam and Patrick, and that person or those people will pluck you from your hiding place and make you feel special regardless of whatever else has happened to you. And there’s no greater fertilizer than that.
When Henry Forrester was shot down in his plane at the opening scene of the novel, my stomach churned a little. I had a gut feeling that this would be a hard text for me to get through. Henry is a nineteen year old young man, and a fighter pilot fighting in World War II. His plane gets shot down behind enemy lines and he has to eject, breaking his leg on the landing. Henry has to not only find a way to get himself back home, but he also must navigate the dangerous lands of a war-torn France and Germany.
Any novel set during the Holocaust and World War II is kind of difficult for me to read because of the fact that on of my great-uncles was a member of the Nazi party, and he was one of the people that assisted with operating the death camps. It hurts me to know that I am a descendant of someone so morally ambiguous that they could justify the mass genocide of millions of innocent people, and reading a Holocaust text provides a window into the suffering of those people.
I feel as though Henry and I share a similar position. We are outsiders to the suffering of these people, until we are thrust into that situation. Me, through the novels; Henry, through his injury. He witnesses firsthand the fighting on the ground and in the air, and he has to survive it all. I might not be on the ground with him, but reading his journey—especially the sections with the Gestapo camps—makes me feel like I am. And it really, truly hurts to be there. If it makes my skin crawl just to feel like I’m there, I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like to actually be there fighting for your life, struggling to survive day in and day out.
Henry’s story also offers a perspective that not many Holocaust-set novels share—that of the soldiers during the war. Many of my peers that I’ve talked to have told me they consider the Holocaust and World War II to be two separate events in history, but the Holocaust was a part of WWII, just like D-Day and VE/VJ Day. The soldiers in WWII saw the hardships from the other side of the fence, and it must have been so hard to want to help these suffering innocents but still knowing that they didn’t have a lot of options to do so.