Books: Nineteen Minutes

A good friend of mine told me that her favorite author lately is Jodi Picoult. I’d never read anything by Picoult but decided to give her books a try. So I checked out Nineteen Minutes on audiobook from the local library.

It’s a thought-provoking book, exploring the circumstances and motivation of a school shooting by a boy who had been bullied since he was in kindergarten. It is told primarily from the perspective of the boy, the girl who was once his best friend but who rejected him in order to be accepted by the popular group at school, and their parents.

One is clearly expected to feel sympathy for Peter, who was, far from being overly aggressive, too sensitive and therefore a favorite target of the school bullies. And one does indeed feel sympathy for him – and for his mother, who feels terrible about what her son has done, and who feels that she has lost the son she thought she had as much as other parents lost the children he killed.

Yet over the course of the novel, one also expects to see some kind of progression showing how Peter became the kind of person who would open fire not only on the bullies who had tormented him but also on random students who had done nothing to him. From everything I have read, school shooters don’t suddenly “snap,” but develop their desire to kill and their plans to carry it out over a significant period of time.

Picoult has Peter steal handguns from a neighbor who is a retired police officer, though his motivation is not clear. To protect himself, or to get revenge? He has also apparently stockpiled materials to make pipe bombs, but no real explanation is given.

He becomes a sullen, withdrawn teenager who spends most of his free time on the computer, but in that he’s like a great many other teenagers. The defense offered at his trial is that he had PTSD from the years of bullying and that he was “disassociating” during the shooting. The prosecution paints him as a calculating, cold-blooded killer. Neither seems to match the picture that has been drawn of him.

I don’t know whether Picoult thinks that bullying leads to school shootings, but a lot of people do think so. From what I have read, however, it is not that bullying turns victims into killers as that there are children who are (for whatever reason) turning into killers, and they use their anger at having been bullied to fuel their desire to cause destruction.

A report summarizing findings by the U.S. Secret Service about school shootings states that “Bullying was not a factor in every case, and clearly not every child who is bullied in school will pose a risk. However, in a number of cases, attackers described experiences of being bullied in terms that approached torment.”

I can’t say that I ever witnessed, as a child, or even heard of the kind of bullying that Peter experienced at school. Nor did I ever get the sense, in high school, that most or even many of my peers were so driven by the need to be accepted by the popular crowd as Peter’s one-time friend Josie was.

Admittedly, I was perhaps more immune to peer pressure than most of my classmates; I was (much to my surprise) voted “class individual” as a senior. I had only one good friend in high school, but I had plenty of acquaintances, between orchestra and Math League and French Club and Flag Corps as well as my classes. And I never got the impression that there was a widespread sense of them feeling that being popular was essential or that their identity depended on the opinions of those who were popular.

Was my high school unusual? Was I just blind to what was going on around me? Or have things changed that much in thirty years? My own observations of how my younger son’s peers treat him is that things have improved in thirty years in terms of how someone who does not fit in well is accepted by others.

There are reviews of this book that call it eerily accurate in its depiction of high school culture. So I suppose there must be places as awful as Sterling High School, and no doubt there are teens as miserable as Peter. (I was plenty miserable myself at that age, it just had nothing to do with being bullied.)

So however realistic (or not so realistic) the novel is, hopefully readers will be more aware of some of the quietly miserable people who might be around them.

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