Experiencing Youth

Edited with introductions by George W. Goethals and Dennis S. Klos. Little Brown and Company $5.95.398 pages.

It's too early for most of us to mourn the passing of our adolescence. We may have to be well past it before we can mourn. Maturity picks out in memory the high points of youth--and leaves the low points to oblivion or rueful laughter. But who can deny that adolescence can be a hell-in-the-mind?

You may not have to remember very far back to see parts of yourself in Experiencing Youth. (If you're one of the Harvard students who helped write it, by writing a term paper for Social Relations 1910 or 1520, you have to remember only as far back as the academic year of 1968-69.) Unlike most of the current crop of youth market books about what it's like to be young, gifted, and relevant in the U.S. of A. today, most of the "cases" collected in this book are anything but sensationalizations of the unique characteristics of the current adolescent generation. Many of the 26 "cases" deal with the important experiences that most of us have to struggle through without ever being encouraged to talk--or write--about.

Do you remember going home for Thanksgiving for the first time and feeling intensely frustrated over the insensitivity of your family's ordinary conversations? Do you remember trying to break the ties of father-emulation or mother-dependence without breaking from your parents completely? Do you remember the growing fearfulness of watching a girlfriend or boyfriend fading away on the other side of a wordless gulf? Maybe not; but no one can read through these accounts without being thrown back into a re-examination of some almost forgotten personal episode. The accounts naturally evoke comparison from one's own past. This book has very definite side effects.

The instructions given the student-authors of the book were simple: "write an autobiographical account of a series of experiences over a period of time, or an account of a "two-person relationship" between yourself and someone else." Professor Goethals and Mr. Klos had no intention of publishing the accounts when the assignment was made; only after they'd read the results of their students' efforts did they realize how compelling a group of generally unpolished autobiographical accounts could be.

Only in a time when rough autobiography often passes as part in the pages of literary magazines can these stories be read with some of the expectations we normally reserve for fiction: it's possible to do just that, but the effect is only peripherally interesting. Aside from their importance as case studies, the real value of the accounts is as partially molded chunks of rough but searchingly examined experience. They may be the raw materials for fiction, but they're most interesting for their treatments of the complexities of the not-quite-understood problems that can sit uneasily in the back of anyone's mind until circumstances force action. Part of the appeal of these treatments is their style: the conscious methods of exposition and the unintentional slips of these student-writers say almost as much about their thoughts as do the retold experiences themselves. With occasional awkwardness and more than occasional effusiveness, the recollections are impressively successful in communicating how adolescence feels.

The editors (who suggest in one of their introductions that adolescence is an experience designed for those aged 10 to 30) grouped all the pieces under three main titles: "Autonomy," "Identity," and "Sexual Intimacy." Within each of these convenient classifications, though, the subjects dealt with--and the styles of dealing with them--are at least as varied as the individuals who wrote them. The cases printed were chosen as a representative sampling of those submitted in the two courses--meaning, among other things, that descriptions of behavior that many people would consider pathological or, deviant are included along with the majority of description that most would consider "normal." Under "Autonomy" is a case written by a woman who, as a result of the death of both her parents while she and her sister were young, develops an extraordinarily close relationship with that sister. Even after both are married, the author's sister tells her, "I would have married you if you had been a boy."

Some of the accounts in the section titled "Identity" are especially recognizable: a small-town midwesterner's fear of disappointing the expectations of family and friends back home by not becoming an honor student at the big eastern college; a black woman's struggle to reconcile her unique personality to the standards of her racial sexual role; a would-be radical's inability to make the decision of whether to enter University Hall or leave the front during the 1969 takeover. These are the conflicts we can sometimes sense all around us without ever being able to understand or examine them--unless they are our own.

If you liked Love Story, you may not love "Sexual Intimacy." True, many of the cases deal with very stylish and romantically inclined college students who carry on their affairs in all kinds of lavish and unusual settings. But none of them has the relatively uncomplicated progression of Ollie and Jenny's courtship. These accounts are most concerned with the unforseen conflicts of heterosexual intimacy in a country and time when ambivalent attitudes toward the morality of sex prevail and the connection between sex and love is only beginning to be openly explored outside the context of courtship and marriage.

Experiencing Youth has the makings of a very successful casebook-textbook--its addition (since its 1970 publication) to the reading lists of at least four undergraduate courses and to the courses of several graduate schools is a fairly clear indication of its usefulness. But it deserves an even larger success: uncalculatedly fascinating and refreshingly honest, the many voices of the book come as close as any other group of voices to capturing some of the much heralded but rarely revealed dilemmas of a maturing generation.