Vermont Library Conference
VEMA Annual Meeting
May 26, 1999
The Bogeyboys by Stephen King
When I speak in public, a thing I do as rarely as possible, I usually don't speak from a prepared text and I hardly ever try to say anything serious; to misquote Mark Twain, I feel that anyone looking for a moral should be hung and anyone looking for a plot should be shot. Today, though, I want to talk about something very serious indeed: adolescent violence in American schools. This outbreak has become so serious that a bus driver from Conyers, Georgia, interviewed last week on the CBS Evening News, suggested that the slang term "going postal" may soon be changed to "going pupil." I suggest that a great many parts of American society have contributed to creating this problem, and that we must all work together to alleviate it...and I use the word "alleviate" rather than "cure" because I don't think any cure, at least in the sense of a quick fix--that is what Americans usually mean by cure; fast-fast-fast relief, as the aspirin commercials used to say-I don't think that sort of cure is possible. This is a violent society. Law enforcement statistics suggest it may not be as violent now as it was fifteen years ago, but it's really too early to tell; we may only be witnessing a blip on the graph.
America was born in the violence of the Boston Massacre, indemnified in the violence of Bull Run, Gettysburg, and Shiloh Church, shamed by the violence of the Indian Wars, reaffirmed by the violence of two world wars, a police action in Korea, and the conflict in Vietnam. Most of the guns carried in those armed actions were carried by boys about the age of the Littleton killers and not much older than Thomas Solomon, the Conyers, Georgia, shooter. These wars-as well as the Star Wars of the future-can be fought at the local mall's video arcade for fifty cents a pop.
History aside, we suffer from road rage, fear home invasion, and enjoy watching Jerry Springer's guests mix it up on afternoon TV. Once the burglar alarm is set, that is. We like guns, and too many unstable folks have access to them. Some, we are learning, aren't even old enough to shave yet. It is these young killers-- these young guns, to use the title of a popular movie of about twelve years ago--who trouble us. And they trouble us a lot. Hundreds of kids kill themselves on America's highways each month, but even when a large number of them die together, it rarely makes national news. We understand the underlying causes, you see--usually these boil down to the same lethal mix: inexperience, alcohol, and that adolescent belief, both endearing and terrifying, that God put them on earth to live forever. When the deaths come as a result of gunfire and explosions, we either don't understand or tell ourselves we don't. Our fear spawns a creature with no face, one I know very well: it's the bogeyman. When kids die on the highway, it's sad but not nationwide news. When the bogeyman strikes, however...that's different. Then everyone, even the politicians, take notice.
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were eighteen and seventeen respectively when they blew their dangerous, unhappy brains out, neither one old enough to buy a legal sixpack, or rent a car, or get more than simple liability coverage on an automobile of his own. Not old enough to be bogeymen, in other words, but they are genuine frighteners, all the same. They have closed schools in many states and caused massive absenteeism in others, where not even an outright threat of violence is now needed to unsettle children, teachers, and parents; vague rumors ("a guy I know heard about a guy who's got a gun...") or an anonymous e- mail is enough.
As the most recent incident in Georgia so clearly illustrates, Harris and Klebold will continue to participate in the American educational process between now and the end of the school year. Harris and Klebold, too young to be bogeymen; call them bogeyboys, if you like. I think that fits them very well.
That I feel pity for these bogeyboys should surprise no one; I have been drawn again and again to stories of the powerless and disenfranchised young, and have written three novels about teenagers driven to murder: Carrie (1974), Rage (published in 1977 under the pseudonym Richard Bachman), and Apt Pupil (1982). In Carrie, a girl who is ceaselessly tormented by her classmates murders most of them at the senior prom after one final, gruesome trick pushes her over the edge. In a sense she was the original riot girl. In Rage, a boy named Charlie Decker brings a gun to school, kills a teacher with it, then holds his algebra class hostage until the police end the siege by shooting him.
In Apt Pupil, a boy named Todd Bowden discovers a Nazi war criminal living on his block and brings the old man back to a dangerous vitality. On the surface, Todd is the perfect California high school kid. Beneath, he's fascinated by the Holocaust and the power wielded by the Nazis; a member of the Trenchcoat Mafia, in fact, without the trenchcoat. After a long (and increasingly psychotic) dance with his pet Nazi, Todd is found out. His response, not shown in the movie which played theaters briefly last year, is to take a high-powered rifle to a nearby freeway, where he shoots at anyone who moves until he is killed. His death is, in fact, what police now sometimes call "blue suicide."
I sympathize with the losers of the world and to some degree understand the blind hormonal rage and ratlike panic which sets in as one senses the corridor of choice growing ever narrower, until violence seems like the only possible response to the pain. And although I pity the Columbine shooters, had I been in a position to do so, I like to think I would have killed them myself, if that had been the only choice, put them down the way one puts down any savage animal that cannot stop biting. There comes a point at which the Harrises and the Klebolds become unsalvageable, when they pass through some phantom tollbooth and into a land where every violent impulse is let free. At this point, the societal issues cease to matter and there is only the job of saving as many people as possible from what seems to me to be actual evil, in the Old Testament sense of that word. Although the pundits, politicians, and psychologists hesitate at the word- -I hesitate at it myself--nothing else seems to fit the sweep of these acts and the wreckage left behind. And in the presence of evil, any pity or sympathy we feel must be put aside and saved for the victims.
This point of no return can almost always be avoided before the shooting and killing begins, and it usually is. Violence on the level of that committed at Columbine High School is still rare in American society, although it may well now become more common; there is a powerful reverb unit hooked up to the already- amplified teenage culture-politic. In that amp-cult, things like huffing, tattooing, and body-piercing spread almost at the speed of e-mail; the lure of the gun may spread in much the same way. And the guns are out there. As I said in The Stand, at some tiresome length, all that stuff is out there, just lying around and waiting for the wrong person to pick it up.
To some degree, what happened at Columbine happened because of what happened in Jonesboro, Arkansas (five murdered), Paducah, Kentucky (three murdered), and Springfield, Oregon (four murdered, two parents and two kids at a school dance). Similarly, the shootings and rumors of shootings in the weeks and months ahead will happen because of Harris and Klebold and Columbine High; because of T.J. Solomon and Heritage High. It's an amp-cult thing. Harris & Klebold may be dead, but they're going to be mighty lively for awhile. Believe me on this. I know a good deal about spooks, and more than I want to about boys who play with guns.
In the wake of the shootings, film and TV and book people have pointed the finger at the gun industry and at that ever-popular bogeyman, the NRA. The gun people point right back, saying that America's entertainment industry has created a culture of violence. And, behind it all, we are bombing the living hell out of Yugoslavia, because that's the way we traditionally solve our problems when those pesky foreign leaders won't do what we think is right. So who is really to blame? My answer is all of the above. And I speak from some personal experience and a lot of soul-searching.
I can't say for sure that Michael Carneal, the boy from Kentucky who shot three of his classmates dead as they prayed before school, had read my novel, Rage, but news stories following the incident reported that a copy of it had been found in his locker. It seems likely to me that he did. Rage had been mentioned in at least one other school shooting, and in the wake of that one an FBI agent asked if he could interview me on the subject, with an eye to setting up a computer profile that would help identify potentially dangerous adolescents. The Carneal incident was enough for me. I asked my publisher to take the damned thing out of print. They concurred. Are there still copies of Rage available? Yes, of course, some in libraries where you ladies and gentlemen ply your trade. Because, like the guns and the explosives and the Ninja throwing-stars you can buy over the Internet, all that stuff is just lying around and waiting for someone to pick it up.
Do I think that Rage may have provoked Carneal, or any other badly adjusted young person, to resort to the gun? It's an important question, because it goes to the very heart of the wrangle over who's to blame. You might as well ask if I believe that the mere presence of a gun makes some people want to use that gun. The answer is troubling, but it needs to be faced: in some cases, yes. Probably it does. Often? No, I don't believe so. How often is too often? That's not for me or any other single person to say. It's a question each part of our society must answer for itself, as each state, for instance, must answer the question of when a kid is old enough to have a driver's license or buy a drink.
There are factors in the Carneal case which make it doubtful that Rage was the defining factor, but I fully recognize that it is in my own self-interest to feel just that way; that I am prejudiced in my own behalf. I also recognize the fact that a novel such as Rage may act as an accelerant on a troubled mind; one cannot divorce the presence of my book in that kid's locker from what he did any more than one can divorce the gruesome sex-murders committed by Ted Bundy from his extensive collection of bondage-oriented porno magazines. To argue free speech in the face of such an obvious linkage (or to suggest that others may obtain a catharsis from such material which allows them to be atrocious only in their fantasies) seems to me immoral. That such stories, video games (Harris was fond of a violent computer-shootout game called Doom), or photographic scenarios will exist no matter what--that they will be obtainable under the counter if not over it--begs the question. The point is that I don't want to be a part of it. Once I knew what had happened, I pulled the ejection-seat lever on that particular piece of work. I withdrew Rage, and I did it with relief rather than regret.
If, on the other hand, you were to ask me if the presence of potentially unstable or homicidal persons makes it immoral to write a novel or make a movie in which violence plays a part, I would say absolutely not. In most cases, I have no patience with such reasoning. I reject it as both bad thinking and bad morals. Like it or not, violence is a part of life and a unique part of American life. If accused of being part of the problem, my response is the time-honored reporter's answer: "Hey, many, I don't make the news, I just report it."
I write fantasies, but draw from the world I see. If that sometimes hurts, it's because the truth usually does. John Steinbeck was accused of gratuitous ugliness when he wrote about the migration of the Okies to California in The Grapes of Wrath, even of trying to foment a domestic revolution, but most of his accusers--like those who made similar accusations against Upton Sinclair when he wrote about the corrupt putrescence of the meat-packing industry in The Jungle--were people who preferred fairy-tales and happily-ever-afters. Sometimes the truth of how we live is just ugly, that's all. But to turn aside from these truths out of some perceived delicacy, or to give in to the idea that writing about violence causes violence, is to embrace hypocrisy. In Washington, hypocrisy breeds politicians. In the arts, it breeds pornography.
My stories of adolescent violence were all drawn, in some degree, from my own memories of high school. That particular truth, as I recalled it when writing as an adult, was unpleasant enough. I remember high school as a time of misery and resentment. In Iroquois trials of manhood, naked warriors were sent running down a gauntlet of braves swinging clubs and jabbing with the butt ends of spears. In high school the goal is Graduation Day instead of a manhood feather, and the weapons are replaced by insults, slights, and epithets, many of them racial, but I imagine the feelings are about the same. The victims aren't always naked, and yet a good deal of the rawest hazing does take place on playing fields and in locker rooms, where the marks are thinly dressed or not dressed at all. The locker room is where Carrie starts, with girls throwing sanitary napkins at a sexually ignorant girl who thinks she is bleeding to death.
I don't trust people who look back on high school with fondness; too many of them were part of the overclass, those who were taunters instead of tauntees. These are the ones least likely to understand the bogeyboys and to reject any sympathy for them (which is not the same as condoning their acts, a point which should not have to be made but which probably does). They are also the ones most likely to suggest that books such as Carrie and The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace be removed from libraries. I submit to you that these people have less interest in reducing the atmosphere of violence in schools than they may have in forgetting how badly some people--they themselves, in some cases--may have behaved while there.
And still...for a' that and a' that, as Robert Burns says, the amp-cult atmosphere of make-believe violence in which so many children now live has to be considered part of the problem. We may like our Jackie Chan movies, Walker Texas Ranger on TV, and the ultra-violent survivalist paperback novels--not to mention the pseudo-religious novels in which the Tribulation Days promised in the Book of Revelations are depicted in gory detail--but we need to recognize that these things are hurting us, just as so many of us had to recognize that our cigarettes were hurting us, much as we enjoyed them.
Yet there are other touchstones of the bogeyboy environment, and many of them have little to do with books or films. Bogeyboys are profoundly out of touch with their parents, and their parents are likewise out of touch with them. They gravitate toward groups run by adults and along quasi-military lines: scouting groups, karate and martial arts clubs, military and paramilitary groups, collector-clubs. The biggest exception has to do with sports. Bogeyboys rarely win school letters...except of course, if the school they attend happens to have a rifle-shooting team.
Bogeyboys come from families where the other sibs have been singled out for recognition in sports activities, academics, performing arts, church, or community service programs. Parents or other close relatives are often career military personnel. Bogeyboys do not win foot-races, get kissed by the Homecoming Queen, or garner blue ribbons. They are profoundly inarticulate and don't date much (Eric Harris was turned down when he asked a girl to go to the prom with him). At home, they stay in their rooms. If pressed, the parents of bogeyboys will often admit that they were afraid of these children long before they broke out and committed their acts of violence. If they add that they can't say exactly why they were afraid, no one need be surprised; these parents, often bright, nonabusive, and community-active, are rarely skilled at communication within the family. One wishes such families would read together, let some writer who is reasonably articulate do their talking for them, but of course this rarely happens.
Bogeyboys make few friends, and those they do make are often as crazy and balefully confused as they are. Their mutual attraction, sometimes homoerotic, has its own amp-cult effect as the friends begin to harmonize their lives, duplicating each others' favorite clothes, records, movies, video games, and Internet chat-rooms. (Books, violent or otherwise, are rarely a bright color in the Bogeyboy entertainment spectrum.) These cultural touchstones, from Metallica ("Exit light/enter night," is how the chorus to one song begins) and Marilyn Manson to films such as Scream, create a language for those who cannot speak otherwise. For awhile it may suffice; it may suffice long enough, even, for something to change before terrible, irrevocable acts are committed. In some cases, however, the pressure becomes too great. Unable to internalize their feelings of anger and inadequacy, unable to externalize them by talking freely to anyone, the boiler finally ruptures and the steam shoots out sideways. Anyone in the way gets scalded. In Colorado, twelve of them were scalded to death.
Bogeyboys, it goes without saying, also always have access to guns. But in America, doesn't everyone, when you get right down to it? Isn't it fair to say that in America, one of the great religions is The Holy Church of the Nine-Millimeter? The gun people don't like to hear it, but I think it has to be said. And if we in the arts are willing to own up to the blood on our hands, I think they need to own up to the blood on theirs.
But I repeat that it is useless at this point to get into the whole bad-culture versus gun-availability argument; it has degenerated to the point where one almost expects to see bumper stickers reading GUNS DON'T KILL PEOPLE, AC/DC CDS KILL PEOPLE. And in any case, both camps are operating not out of any real thought but out of two powerful fears. The first is that they will be blamed...and that they will deserve to be blamed. The second is more primal, and that is the fear of ghosts. Bogeyboys, drifting through the hallways of Everyhigh, U.S.A., whispering to the disenfranchised and the spat-upon that there is a way to even things up, that there is a lot of potent get-even medicine in a Tec-9 or a pipe bomb.
May I be blunt? This fear is that the violence isn't ending but only beginning. It isn't completely rational, but I think I also understand that irrational fears are often the most powerful of all. In this case, the unstated idea is that we have lived well while most of the world lives badly, eaten well while too much of the world goes hungry or actually starves, dressed our children in the best, much of it made by children in other countries who have little but their dreams, many of which are the violent American dreams they see on TV. We have had all this, some of us--maybe a lot of us--seem to think, and there must be a price. There must be a payment. Perhaps there must even be a judgment. Then into our uneasy minds come the images of the bogeyboys, who shot so well because they had trained on their home computers, and on the video games down at the mall.
President Clinton has made a few feeble swipes at addressing this issue, but one can only gape at the unintentionally comic spectacle of this man chastising the gun-lobby and America's love of violent movies while he rains bombs on Yugoslavia, where at least twenty noncombatants have already died for every innocent student at Columbine High. It is like listening to a man with a crack-pipe in his hand lecture children about the evils of drugs.
There are solutions, and there is also a calming sense of perspective that needs to be brought into play. The perspective begins with realizing that most kids in school are not bogeyboys but plain old good kids, interested in getting educations and having pleasant social lives, not necessarily in that order. The long-term solutions lie where they always have, in family lives which emphasize love, communication, and a knowledge of what the kids are up towho they're seeing, what they're saying, and what they may be using to get high on come the weekend.
One immediate solution, or a step toward it, lies in the guidance offices of American high schools, where a better, stronger effort has to be made to identify potential Eric Harrises, Dylan Klebolds, and Thomas Solomons; there needs to be a quantum shift of emphasis from job guidance to psychological guidance (although sometimes they are the same). When such guidance is rejected, there needs to be a process to remove potentially violent children from school environments. The ACLU won't like it, but I don't imagine such Columbine High students as John Tomlin and Rachel Scott much like being dead instead of at the Senior Prom. And if we are going to restrict the right of liberal Constitution-watchers to get innocent kids killed, we need to restrict the right of the gun lobby to get them killed, as well; this country needs to restrict the sale of handguns much more strictly than it has up to now been willing to do. Background checks at gunshows is only a first step.
And yes, there needs to be a re-examination of America's violent culture of the imagination. It needs to be done soberly and calmly; a witch-hunt won't help. Never mind burning Marilyn Manson's records in great fundamentalist bonfires or removing Anne Rice novels from the local library because they might give a few unempowered dweebs the idea of donning Goth clothing and powdering their faces white; let's go beyond the question of whether or not the next crop of natural born killers are currently honing their skills in Arcade 2000 at the local mall. It's time for an examination of why Americans of all ages are so drawn to armed conflict (Rambo), unarmed conflict (World Federation Wrestling), and images of violence. These things are not just speaking to potential teenage killers, but to a great many of us. Their hold on the national psyche has progressed to a point where the Columbine murders dominate our headlines and possess our thoughts to the exclusion of much else, including the mass exodus of a million Kosovars and the world's most dangerous armed conflict since Vietnam.
Harris and Klebold are dead and in their graves, but we are in terror of them all the same; they are the Red Death in our richly appointed castle (where, as the twenty-first century approaches and the stock market daily bops its way to new highs, the party has never been more feverishly gay). They are our bogeyboys, and perhaps the real first step in making them go away is to decide what it is about them that frightens us so much. It is a discussion which must begin in families, schools, libraries, and in public forums such as this. Which is why I have begged your attention and yourindulgence on such an unappetizing subject.
Copyright 1999 by Stephen King.