An essential book for (the parents of) goths, gamers and other freaks

Reflections on The Columbine Effect by Beth Winegarner (2013)

Cover for The Columbine Effect by Beth WinegarnerAre you worried about your teenage child’s odd choices of clothing, culture and activities? Are you afraid s/he would do harm in her/himself or others? Then you need to read Beth Winegarner’s The Columbine Effect. It will help you understand some of the subcultures that can look terrifying from the outside, particularly because of how the mass media depicted them. This book will give you a deeper understanding of them and the nuances, origins, real and perceived effects on one’s behavior. You will still need to talk to your children to understand them, as the book emphasizes several times, but at least you will view these subcultures as manifestations of your child’s psyche and not as the causes of worry.

This book combines primary and secondary research and resources seamlessly. The author’s interviews and observations are supported by relevant quotes from the extensive list of studies, articles and books. If you have an academic background you will appreciate not just the bibliography at the end, but also how they are referred to throughout the book. One of the things I am usually annoyed with pop-science books is the lack of proper attribution of sources. This wasn’t an issue with this book. Furthermore the flow of the book remained fully enjoyable so I can recommend to those who are not interested in its sources only the proofs and conclusions.

I also command the author for her authenticity of not shying away from sources that do not fully support her position. She wrote intelligent, analytical critique of both the studies quoted that advance her view and those that might hinder it. I enjoyed how she pointed out methodological issues in the studies that involved human subjects. The writer’s Sociology training showed up well at those instances as well.

When I was a teenager I was on the fringe of goth culture and I still enjoy that kind of music. That was the closest I got to the five subcultures this book focuses on, although I enjoy some heavy metal music, played some video games, learned a bit about alternative religions too. Never tried role-playing games though. In short I have some affinity to the teens that the explorations are based upon here. As I was reading the book I often had more of an emic view, thinking back to my own teens years and nodding profusely at the discoveries and points Ms. Winegarner made. I wish I had the wisdom back then what she has now to be able to see why I was doing what I was doing back then. I think this book is useful not just for parents but for those very teens, who are involved in these subcultures. It can give guidance in their search for meaning and mental clutches when they feel alienated.

Other times as I was reading, I was thinking more as a parent because I have a five year old daughter, who already has a strong and rather nonconformist spirit. With this book I started the mental process of preparing myself for her teen years. It doesn’t matter whether she will chose to participate in these or other activities when the time comes, the book armored me with the tools how to handle issues that might arise. Step one: talk to her, understand her, love her. Step two: learn about the culture, its origins and particulars. Step three: participate with her as much as possible/she lets. Step four: don’t panic.

I was very surprised to learn how young some of the people mentioned started to listen to heavy metal or play videogames. Age 6…10. Either the process of growing up sped up or I started late. I developed my-long-standing interests only at a later age. Reading those numbers was a real eye-opener for me and caused a shift I me how I think about kids and teenagers and my own future as a parent.

My three favorite quotes:

  • This is an important sentence to understand for those who do not “like” the aesthetics of goth fashion sense or the sound of heavy metal music or the violence in video games: “Seeing beauty in death and decay is a way of reclaiming one’s own personal beauty.” If scared or angry parents can internalize this truth they will have a better relationship with their kids. They don’t have to change what they personally like, but this will help understand accept their “freak” kids.
  • Ah, this explains a lot “…youths are hungry for new experiences and new sources of motivation—particularly ones that allow them to try new things for themselves…” We, who have been teenagers in the past, all know about the “new experiences” part, but did you ever think of the “motivation” bit? I think a lot of us didn’t realize how the development of what drives us changes in the teen years. This is what “formative years” really mean, we form the rest of our live not just by what we do then, but the reasons we chose to do those things for.
  • What does this evoke in you? “Perhaps the greatest rite of passage of adolescence is finding a sense of self through an intense feeling of isolation.” If this experience is a distant memory for you then remind yourself of the intensity you felt back then. Empathy is a good adviser, try to put yourself not just into the shoe of the self-searching teens, but in their emotional, hormonal world. Everything seemed more intense those years, didn’t it? Understand it as that can lead to reclaim peace in your family.

I missed only two things from the book: a more detailed table of contents and more of the author’s own experiences. The first is an issue I had with several non-fiction books that I read on my Kindle. I am a visual person, I like to be able to navigate a book several ways. With paper books I can easily flip between sections and subsection, when I do a non-linear reading, especially if they have a detailed table of contents. [Side note: books on technology are great in this regards, books from social sciences not always.] With electronic books it is twice as important for me to have a table content that goes down to as small chunk of a text as possible, because my ability to navigate through them is more awkward. It might be might admittedly old, second generation kindle, or my skills, but I still find the process less than adequate.

I only know Ms. Winegarner through the internet and through a few common friends. Based on these limited impression I got the sense that she knows some of the things she wrote about here from personal experience, e.g. her heavy metal music inside out. I think the book have been even better had she included more personal references, experiences. She doesn’t transpire in the book as distant from its topic, but she could have made it more personable by sharing more personal reflections and perspectives.

But these are just minor caveats: I recommend the book wholeheartedly to teens, parents and social scientists. The author writes towards the end: “This book was written because so many parents, faced with the unthinkable loss of their child to suicide or violence, began looking for a cause. Something to explain–or even to blame… It’s crucial to find the true cause—not the one that make life easiest for everyone else but the teen.” Her goal of providing a guidebook in this process was supremely achieved. The blaming can stop now and the learning that leads to understanding can start with reading this book.

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Disclaimer: I received an electronic copy of this book for review purposes. I strive to write honest reviews independent from the above.

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