I Don’t Know What You’re Expecting of Me*

Stress On Young PeopleA few days ago I was having a conversation with an acquaintance who has young children. We were talking about the many stresses there are on today’s young people, and how that may impact them. And there is certainly a lot of pressure out there. To begin with, growing up isn’t easy. If you add to that the major societal changes of the last decades, the influence of the Internet and other social media, and the lightning-quick pace of life, it’s easy to see why so many young people are so stressed.

But the truth is, there’s always been pressure of one kind or another on children. A certain amount of it is more or less inevitable. And there’s a strong argument that it’s important to learn to take responsibility, cope with a certain amount of stress, and even experience failure sometimes. All of those things help us to be capable, confident adults. But there is definitely such a thing as too much pressure, and it can have damaging effects. We’ve all read such stories from real-life news; it’s there in crime fiction as well.

For instance, in Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory, we are introduced to twenty-eight-year old Gideon Davies. All his life, he’s had a rare musical gift, and has become a world-class violin virtuoso. One terrible night, he finds that he can’t play. Desperate to discover the source of that block, he starts to visit a psychologist. In one plot thread of this novel, he explores his past, which includes the tragic drowning death of his younger sister when she was a toddler. As he does, we see what the impact has been of the pressure put on him to make the most of his gift. It has profoundly influenced his thinking and his self-image.

Wendy James’ The Mistake features the Garrow family. Hannah Garrow is a healthy, psychologically normal (whatever that even means!) teen. Her parents Angus and Jodie love her and care about her. They’ve sent her to the ‘right’ school and are doing what they can set her up for success. But Hannah faces quite a lot of pressure. For one thing, there’s the matter of fitting in with her peers. She doesn’t identify with the socially popular students, and has little interest in ‘social climbing.’ And there’s the fact that her father is being spoken of as the next mayor of Arding (New South Wales). In order to be considered for that position, his family life has to bear up under scrutiny, so Hannah feels considerable pressure to be a successful politician’s daughter. Then one day, Hannah is involved in an accident that sends her to a Sydney hospital. As it turns out, it’s the same hospital where, years earlier, her mother Jodie gave birth to another daughter – one no-one’s ever known about before. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption, but when the nurse checks into that, she finds no formal record of adoption. Now gossip begins to spread about Jodie. Where is the child? If she died, did Jodie have something to do with it? As Jodie becomes a social pariah, it all has a terrible impact on Hannah. As parts of the story are told from her perspective, we see how all of this pressure affects her.

There’s plenty of pressure on young people in Ross Mcdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar. Seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman has been sent to Laguna Perdida, a boarding school for troubled young people. When he disappears one day, Dr. Sponti, who runs the school, hires PI Lew Archer to find the boy. They’re in Sponti’s office discussing the case when Tom’s father Ralph arrives. He says that Tom’s been abducted, and that the kidnappers are demanding ransom. Archer goes back to the Hillman home to help locate the boy before anything happens to him. Soon enough, he begins to notice some strange things. To begin with, Ralph Hillman and his wife Elaine don’t seem to have the frantic, panicked reaction to their son’s disappearance as you’d think. There are hints, too, that Tom may have gone willingly with the people who took him from the school. Then, there’s a murder. Then, there’s another murder, this time of one of the people with Tom. As Archer gets closer to the truth about what happened to Tom, and about the killings, we see that the pressure on young people doesn’t get any easier when parents and others are in denial about it.

Serena Freeman faces different sorts of pressure in Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. At fifteen, she’s got a great deal of academic promise, and her teacher Ilsa Klein has real hopes for her. But it’s not easy for Serena. She comes from ‘the wrong side of the tracks,’ and her home life has been difficult. It doesn’t help matters that her mother has the reputation of being somewhat promiscuous. Still, Serena works hard and dreams of a better life. Then, she begins to lose interest in school. She stops attending regularly; and when she is there, she doesn’t participate in class. Now Ilsa is worried about Serena, and alerts the school counseling staff. That doesn’t do much good, as Serena’s mother isn’t co-operative. One day, Serena disappears. For three weeks, not much is done to find her. But when her older sister Lynette ‘Lynnie’ finds out her sister is missing, she is determined to learn what happened. She travels from Wellington, where she lives, to the family’s home in Alexandria to find Serena. Her search leads her in directions she couldn’t have imagined.

Kanae Minato’s Confessions shows, among other things, the intense pressure on young people during the middle school years. Yūko Moriguchi is a middle school teacher who has suffered the worst loss any parent can imagine: the death of her four-year-old daughter Manami. What’s worse, Manami was murdered, and Yūko knows who was responsible: two of her students. She announces her resignation in a speech to her class, making it clear that she knows who killed her daughter. She’s well aware that the juvenile justice system can’t be trusted to dispense an appropriate punishment, because the offenders are juveniles. So she has developed her own plan. While she doesn’t spell out her scheme in so many words, her students quickly pick up on her intentions. After her resignation, Yoshiteru Terada takes over as teacher, and superficially, life goes on. But things soon begin to spin out of control, especially for three of the students. As we follow their stories, we learn what happened to Manami and what the plan for retribution really was. More to the point of this post, we get a look at the intense pressure for high grades, the bullying, and the other stresses that many of today’s young people have to face.

It’s never been easy to grow up. And there isn’t enough space in this one post to add in some of the other factors that only make things worse. For instance, there are many, many places where young people don’t get a chance to go to school (or to go for long) because they must get jobs as soon as possible. And there are places where those jobs get young people involved in the commercial sex trade and other extremely stressful work. It is important to learn to handle some pressure, to take responsibility for one’s own actions, and so on. It’s not very healthy to be overprotected. At the same time, research shows that excess pressure and stress can be toxic.

Finding a balance is the tricky part. Just ask Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. As well as the normal pressures of growing up, all four of her children have had to cope with the stress of losing a parent. And her youngest daughter Taylor faces the added pressure of being a gifted artist whose work is already getting her a lot of attention. Helping these young people bear their burdens without coddling them or taking over is one of the ‘family’ threads woven throughout this series.

Which novels and series have brought this theme home to you?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Linkin Park’s Numb.




Filed under Elizabeth George, Gail Bowen, Kanae Minato, Paddy Richardson, Ross Macdonald, Wendy James

16 responses to “I Don’t Know What You’re Expecting of Me*

  1. One that has stayed with me is Gladys Mitchell’s The Rising of the Moon, which features two schoolboys as the primary detective (with Mrs. Bradley, to be sure, hovering in the background). The book is narrated by one of the two schoolboy-detectives, a thirteen year old boy named Simon Innes. Mitchell uses this narrator very skillfully – in some ways, it is almost as much a coming-of-age novel as it is a mystery. In the small English village of Brentford, someone is murdering young women, the murders taking place each month at the full moon. Young Simon is drawn into the mystery surrounding the murders, along with his eleven-year-old brother Keith, when they begin to fear that their older brother may be suspected of the murders. It’s one of her better ones, I think.

    • Oh, and I admit, Les, it’s one I’ve not (yet) read. I can certainly imagine the pressure put on those boys, not only because of their age and so on, but also under the circumstances. It sounds like a great fit with what I had in mind with this post, so thanks.

  2. I agree with Les about The Rising of the Moon being one of her best.
    Such an interesting topic, Margot. Even if we don’t have teenage children, we have been one ourselves. The novel that comes to my mind is Rosellen Brown’s Before and After. The Reiser family move to rural New Hampshire with their 17 year old son and 12 year old daughter. Everything starts to unravel when the local police chief comes to question the son about the murder of his girlfriend. The story is told from several viewpoints, including that of the daughter and it is brilliantly handled.

    • Thanks, Christine. And thanks for mentioning the Brown. Moving is stressful for everyone, and I don’t think we’re always aware of how hard it is on young people. That’s a perfect example to show that. And of course, to be mixed up in a murder investigation, however innocently, just adds to that stress…

  3. A great topic, Margot, and those two suggestions above from Les and Christine sound very good.

  4. Margot: I thought of teenage Ben Solomon in Once We Were Brothers struggling in Occupied Poland during WW II to stay alive during the Holocaust. What the Jewish children of Europe faced during WW II is beyond my imagination.

    Some situations adults would consider stressful are adventures to children. Rudyard Kipling’s Kim savours life on the streets of early 20th Century India. Without family and resources he relishes using his wits. I am sure reality was harsher but I love the book.

    • I can’t imagine, either, Bill, what it was like for European Jewish children during WWII. We get glimpses of that in books like Once We Were Brothers and The Diary of Anne Frank, but the every day reality of it is beyond what most of us can comprehend.
      Interesting too that you’d mention the ‘adventure’ aspect of books such as Kim. Perhaps children can see some things as adventures, even if adults wouldn’t. There are plenty of books (I’m thinking of some of Mark Twain’s work) that have a similar ‘adventure’ feel to them.

  5. As I read this post I was instantly reminded of The Menendez brothers. I’m sure you know the case…the two brother who murdered their parents. If memory serves the defense claimed stress from the boys’ domineering and abusive father was motivating factor.

    • I do, indeed, remember the case, Sue. And that’s what I remember about what their lawyer said, as well. Of course, we may never know exactly what went on, but it’s a stark reminder that wealth and privilege don’t make a life anywhere near perfect or stress-free for young people.

  6. I’m glad you are highlighting the fact that childhood has always been stressful. As shown in a certain Agatha Christie novel, no title, but I know you will know which one I mean!

  7. Margot, the theme of this post reminded me of John D. MacDonald’s “Cape Fear” (“The Executioners”) where the young daughter of family man, Sam Bowden, and his wife Carol, is terrorised by a psychopathic killer because, years ago, Sam had helped send him to prison. Max Cady, the psychopath, stalks the Bowdens including their two sons to the extent that their happy family life is turned into a nightmare. I thought JDM handled this subject very well. The narrative was powerful and disturbing.

    • Oh, that’s a great example, Prashant, so thank you for reminding me of it. In this case, those sons have to cope with a situation that would be traumatic even to adults, let alone young people. Their responses show the powerful effects of this kind of pressure. It can be devastating.

  8. Col

    No examples to offer I’m afraid, great song choice though – I love that song and the album it appears on. Time to go and find it out!

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