I want to thank author Terri Bruce for stopping by on her tour and giving us this wonderful blog post and giveaway. Enter for your chance to win a copy of her book Hereafter in your choice of formats, including print, and a wonderful swag pack to be given away internationally.
Warning: some mild spoilers ahead!
When Flora and I were arranging this guest spot, I knew that I wanted to talk about bullying and teenage depression/suicide because, indirectly, these are two of the main themes of Hereafter. I had seen her daughter’s review of Twisted and was happy that she had broken the ice on talking about bullying on her blog. However, in trying to sit down and write this post, I’ve gone around in circles in my head about exactly what I want to say. Certainly, many, many other people have weighed in on both youth bullying of the kind that kids experience at the hands of their peers and adult bullying, such as that which goes on between authors and bloggers in the bookish community, and most of them have done it much more thoroughly and eloquently than I could.
I’ve talked on other blogs throughout this tour of the pressure I faced to make big changes to Hereafter—to make Jonah older (or in some cases younger) or to introduce a romance element to the story. So I finally decided that what I want to talk about today is why I resisted giving Jonah a horrific back story.
Most readers get a sense that Jonah is so interested in the afterlife because he’s contemplating suicide. While it’s never explicitly stated, there are many clues as to Jonah’s mental state—I tried to make it clear that he feels like an outsider, that he is picked on and bullied at school, and that he doesn’t really relate to or get along with his family. Having been in Jonah’s shoes, I can honestly say that these factors alone can be enough to lead a teen to contemplate suicide. Hereafter is meant, in part, to make a bit of a statement about bullying—Jonah is a wonderful kid. He’s kind, honest, smart, funny, brave, and chivalrous—and he hates life and wants to die. How awful that it should be so! Even worse, Irene knows this—or, at least, she suspects it—and what does she do? How does she handle it? I’ll let you discover that yourselves, but I would like to ask you to consider this: is it enough? Could she have done more? Honestly, I don’t know. But I think it’s worth discussing.
So, if I wanted to write a story about bullying and teenage depression, why, then, you might ask, did I make this whole element sub-text, rather than bringing it to the forefront? That’s a very good question. Certainly, there were those arguing for changes that would have brought more of a focus to the element. The main reason is that, ultimately, Hereafter is Irene’s story—it’s told from her point of view—and so she (and the reader) only knows about Jonah what he tells her or what she can find out on her own. And though she suspects the truth, she doesn’t manage to fully pry it out of him.
In addition, I’m the kind of person who greatly values subtly; I love puns and clever word play, sly double entendre, and punch lines that creep up on you (such as the revelation that Bruce Willis a ghost in the Sixth Sense or the revelation of the woman’s identity in Immortal Beloved). As a writer, I would never go for the cheap thrill, the easy and obvious answer. I prefer a more subtle approach, because I think that’s how life is—in real life, the answers are rarely obvious—and I like my stories to be realistic (even if I’m writing fantasy). Or maybe it’s just that I like to make my readers work a bit. Either way, in real life, those who are struggling with depression don’t usually wear a big sign around their necks saying “Depressed person here!” Instead, we have to be aware and we have to use our empathy. Too often we form an invisible wall that cuts others off emotionally. “Sticks and stones…” we say. “Pick yourself back up.” What we really are saying is “be strong” (handle this yourself) when perhaps what we should be saying is, “How can I help” or maybe even “Let me help.”
Now, because I’m so much better at comedy than drama, and because so many others have presented wonderful, impassioned pleas or thoughts on how we deal with both bullying and teenage depression/suicide, I thought I would end this post by presenting three alternative endings/scenarios for Hereafter and the reason(s) why I rejected each (these were real suggestions, by the way). I hope you will agree that I made the right decision in each instance.
Scenario #1: Jonah and/or Irene gaslight Jonah’s tormenters
Certainly there are a lot of books and movies that chose this as the method for dealing with bullies (even Harry Potter uses his invisibility cloak to frighten and humiliate his tormenters), but ultimately this is always a very short-term and juvenile solution. While in theory it would be good for a laugh, in practice the idea of an adult woman traveling to a high school to frighten teenagers seemed both immature and, well…creepy. If an adult can only deal with kids’ misbehavior by sinking to their level, then something seems wrong with that. Plus, bullying is about power—the bully steals personal power from the victim, thereby assuaging his/her own feelings of impotence and powerlessness. It seems to me that scaring or humiliating the bullies would only worsen this underlying problem, not fix it.
Scenario #2: Jonah is hesitant to talk about himself because he’s hiding a deep, dark secret
Many people pushed for this—there was a general feeling among many of my early readers that Jonah’s reason for being depressed needed to be bigger, darker, deeper than just ordinary bullying, feeling like an outcast, being unpopular, etc. “Do you even remember being a kid?!” I asked in response each time. I certainly do. I remember how much it hurt every time someone called me “four eyes” because I wore glasses. How small and invisible I felt whenever a boy would lean past me to talk to the girl next to me. How hot my face felt whenever I missed the (soft/kick/soccer/basket/etc.) ball in gym class. I wanted to keep the characters very real, very centered, and I wanted them to be relatable. I think (I hope!) very few people experience physical, mental, or sexual abuse as a kid, but I think almost everyone feels alienated and alone and has been picked on or made fun of at some point or the other. The feelings evoked by this kind of “ordinary” abuse are very strong and when they happen on a daily basis are more than enough to create a sense of despair. I think piling on more would have pushed the story into farce.
Scenario #3: It is revealed that Jonah’s parents are dead and—gasp!—were killed by Irene in the same accident in which she died.
Okay, sure this sounds wonderfully (unbelievably?) melodramatic but how, exactly would this go down? Wouldn’t Jonah hate Irene? So why would he help her and how could they possibly become friends? And what redemption could there ever be for Irene? How would she “fix” this? Since she’d clearly be destined for hell she’d never want to leave earth. Maybe moving on would symbolize her willingness to own up to what she had done and her willingness to accept her punishment, but that would only help alleviate her guilt; it wouldn’t do anything to help Jonah, and would make the ending—knowing for sure that Irene was crossing over to face eternal torment—incredibly depressing for the reader (instead, I preferred to leave it up to the reader’s imagination what Irene faces on the other side).
So there you have it—three different ways I could have (and was encouraged) to deal with teenage depression/suicide and bullying. In the end, I choose to keep these issues more subdued because I felt a light touch would have more of an impact. Sometimes we don’t have to shout to get our message across. Already, I’ve seen a range of reader reactions to this element of Hereafter and I’m thrilled that people are talking these issues. If my story has done anything to make us more aware or moved us any bit closer to a solution or comforted even one person, then I am more than satisfied.
About the Book
Thirty-six-year-old Irene Dunphy didn't plan on dying any time soon, but that’s exactly what happens when she makes the mistake of getting behind the wheel after a night bar-hopping with friends. She finds herself stranded on earth as a ghost, where the food has no taste, the alcohol doesn’t get you drunk, and the sex...well, let’s just say “don’t bother.” To make matters worse, the only person who can see her—courtesy of a book he found in his school library—is a fourteen-year-old boy genius obsessed with the afterlife.
This sounds suspiciously like hell to Irene, so she prepares to strike out for the Great Beyond. The only problem is that, while this side has exorcism, ghost repellents, and soul devouring demons, the other side has three-headed hell hounds, final judgment, and eternal torment. If only there was a third option…
Publication Date: August 1, 2012
Publisher: Eternal Press
Number of Pages: 296
Genre: Contemporary Fantasy
About the Author
Terri Bruce has been making up adventure stories for as long as she can remember and
won her first writing award when she was twelve. Like Anne Shirley, she prefers to make people cry rather than laugh, but is happy if she can do either. She produces fantasy and adventure stories from a haunted house in New England where she lives with her husband and three cats.
For more information about this author check out these linksWebsite
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