The Perils of Being “Thirteen”

Ross and I went to see the film “Thirteen” last week, and found it deeply disturbing, as I expected. At intermission (there is always an intermission in Italian cinemas), Ross said “It seems exaggerated,” and many of the critics agree with her. “Well, thank god I don’t have to worry about most of that stuff in small-town Italy,” I thought to myself.

Ross was most puzzled by the scenes of the protagonist cutting herself. I couldn’t explain it, so when we got home I looked up “self-mutilation” in Mary Pipher’s “Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Lives of Adolescent Girls,” which I probably need to re-read now. Pipher says that this is a new phenomenon (as of the 1990s), and postulates that it’s a way of releasing powerful emotions that teenage girls don’t otherwise know how to channel.

Then Ross told me she knows someone who does it. For privacy reasons, I won’t go into details, but I can understand why it happens in this particular case. I just wish I knew how to get this girl help.

Ross has an instinct to help people, to be kind, and to offer loyal and supportive friendship. She worries about people in trouble. I understand this: even when I was an outcast geek myself, I wanted to help other outcasts, make friends, be kind, show them that the whole world wasn’t against them – even when, sometimes, I didn’t particularly like them, either. But Ross is facing far scarier problems than I ever did. Was I just oblivious, or is the world really that much worse than it was?

There were drugs when I was a kid – my yearbook from the International School Bangkok for 1971 has an “In Memoriam” page listing about 15 kids, all drug overdoses. Some of my peers began having sex at age 13, though the American norm for my generation seems to have been closer to 15 or 16. So I’m not surprised to hear that some of Ross’ classmates who are dating older boys are feeling pressured to have sex when they’re not ready for it. Fortunately, the Italian average for the “first time” is around 16 or 17, and condoms are very much the norm in Italian culture.

But there’s worse. In 6th and 7th grade, Ross had a classmate who ended up on the street one night. Her parents were divorced, her mother had a relapse into some sort of addiction, and turned on her daughter, threatening her. The girl ran out into the street, snatching up (thank god) her cellphone, from which she was able to call another classmate for help. But that wasn’t the first time. She admitted that there had been several other incidents where she had wandered the streets at night for hours, but had been too ashamed to tell anyone. The mother of course lost custody, but the father didn’t want the girl, so she ended up in an orphanage.

Situations like this are heartbreaking; how is a sensitive, caring teenager like Ross to cope? How do I advise her to even try?

Interesting comment on “Thirteen:” “when i saw this film, i said ‘holy shit’. i’ve been an Evie since i was eleven, my parents were never around so i had to get my attention somehow, you know. god only knows how many girls i’ve ruined. the film is raw, everything in it is possible when you’re eleven or twelve. the only thing bad was that they didn’t show the truth about evie: girls like us always end up alone.”

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