Nerd Culture As Suicide Intervention


I've been banging a lot of This American Life lately between bouts of Frozen Throne. (Yup, I still play. Ten years and running.) The most recent episode--"Show Me The Way"--documents "people in trouble, who look for help in mystifying places." I think the Horde should really hear the first act wherein a young man recounts his trans-American childhood trip to track down his hero--fantasy author Piers Anthony. 

I don't want to give the story, but suffice to say the kid found himself in a situation which many of us identify with--product of a divorce, hating his step-father, and hating high school. And so the kid just bounces. The story ends with a short interview with Anthony, in which he still sounds pissed off about his own treatment in high school. I don't have a transcript, but effectively Anthony says something like--"People are dismissive of escapism, but some of us need it."

I thought about that a lot yesterday. As much as I was into nerd things--comic books, video games, D&D etc.--I think my relationship was a bit different with the culture. I spent a year dwelling in escapism, but Baltimore has a way of snatching you out of your dreams and into the real. Besides, whatever my manifold problems, despite my total lack of cool, I was generally well-liked by my peers. I was not great with girls, but neither were most of the dudes I knew. Like one out of every ten of us had game, the rest of us just kind of bumbled around. Moreover, very few of us were obsessed with the head cheerleader. It was more complicated than that.

I think for those reasons, nerd culture's sense of alienation never quite registered with me. I had a relatively brief period of middle-school alienation, but I liked living in Baltimore. I would have stayed, had my parents not forced me out the city. But listening to this piece I got the sense of how fantasy/comic books/video games can be life-savers. 

Children have no real sense of how life can flip. School perpetrates an illusion of stasis. If you are 15, and mostly hating the social world of your high school, it is incredibly easily to conclude that your life will always be that way. Childhood is so closed-off and institutionalized. It is a prison. Self-esteem, in the main, comes from three places--school, sports, and the opposite sex. If you fail at those things you are likely to have a harder time. Worse, it's easy to conclude that this is your life, that whatever you're experiencing is somehow a sign-posts for the rest of years. If that is the case, why not end it? 

The tragedy is that childhood--and specifically young adulthood--is such a slender, ridiculously small sliver, of the human lifespan. It's sad to think of people who only get to see that. Anyway, just a few really quick thoughts. Check out the episode. It is deeply moving.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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