A Second Coming-of-Age Montage, With Wallflowers (and Spoilers)
Revisiting ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’
CW: mention of past trauma (sexual assault)
I decided to watch The Perks of Being a Wallflower (the 2012 film) on a crisp May night in the “pandemic year” 2020, and I remember it was a full moon because a wicked retrograde season was just kicking off, giving the barrage of “unprecedented” current events big and small even more of an auspicious edge. My boyfriend and I were having a lot of serious conversations about where our relationship was going; the monotony of quarantine had fully set in and put a magnifying glass on the minutiae of our life together, which was not a unique experience. (RIP to all of the relationships that fell prey to pandemic-induced cabin fever.) We had just had one of those talks, and while he went to sleep in our bed, I stayed up to decompress with the familiar salve of a coming-of-age story.
It had worked before: Freaks and Geeks, Girl, Interrupted, Heathers, Big Mouth, and countless others had helped me lean into my soul-searching journey, the process of peeling away layers of unhelpful conditioning to unravel the person I never received permission to be. The person who became smaller and smaller to avoid confrontation, win approval, survive one customer service job after another. Again, I don’t think this is a very unique experience, and neither does Melissa Febos, author of Girlhood. In her author’s note she writes, “During [girlhood], we learn to adopt a story about ourselves — what our value is, what beauty is, what is harmful and what is normal — and to privilege the feelings, comfort, perceptions, and power of others over our own.” I was 31 and still detoxing from complex childhood trauma, years of being used and manipulated by grown men, even more years in toxic work environments, and now two years of grad school. For many women, coming of age is the moment they fully lose themselves; their transformation adapts them to an environment that objectifies and ignores them. And you can forget the makeover montage.
But in my favorite cinematic bildungsromans, the protagonist wins the rights to their own feelings, their own ability to rationalize and explain, in a pretty decisive and clean transfer of power. I suppose, given that the alternative is the sweet release of a steamy makeout or fairytale wedding just before the credits roll, we could say that this is a fantasy genre. I’ve worked hard in my adult life to win myself back, and underneath everything else, the admittedly one-sided question I was wrestling with when I curled up on my futon to watch Wallflower in 2020 was whether or not I had the room to keep chasing myself while maintaining this relationship. I still had some growing to do, and if it was “meant to be,” I hoped we could do it together.
From the beginning, we know that Charlie (Logan Lerman) is recovering from the death of his favorite aunt, facing some tougher-than-average bullying, and as we learn later in the film, his best friend committed suicide less than a year prior. He’s introverted and awkward but relatable, adorably thrilled to have found his tribe of “wallflower” friends in high school, the time when we are expected to find ourselves. Charlie speaks the language of mental illness from scene 1, in each letter to an unnamed “friend” he pens at his desk in his room. He doesn’t want his parents to worry that he’ll “get bad again,” and he is determined to “turn things around.” With each risk he takes, I found myself wondering if (and when) the other shoe would drop.
In an opening scene, Charlie solidifies his new friendship with some fellow offbeats at a post-homecoming high school party. His anxiety is palpable until he eats a pot brownie — and starts spouting off hilariously biting observations about the “bullshit” high school experience and even some of the people in the room. Watching him scarf down the brownie while his peers exchange knowing glances, my heart ached with anxiety for him. But his new friend Patrick lovingly raises a toast to Charlie, telling him, “You see things and you understand. You’re a wallflower.” It’s a badge of honor, earned with scathing wit — which only comes out in the course of unknowingly taking drugs at a party. You have to put yourself out there somehow, even to connect with the other wallflowers.
Charlie’s story forced me to think about this dichotomy between observing and participating. A big part of me has always been on the wallflower side: my emotions run strong and I’m sensitive to the feelings of others around me. I learned painfully early on that this heightened attention to feelings was a vulnerability, a weakness. As Febos writes, learning to de-prioritize your own perceptions and opinions “can lead to the exile of many parts of the self, to hatred for and the abuse of our own bodies, the policing of other girls, and a lifetime of allegiance to values that do not prioritize our safety, happiness, freedom, or pleasure.” At school and at home, the values that mattered were behavior, performance, obedience: participation. It was up to me to figure out the right thing and play along, no matter how it made me feel. The cognitive dissonance between the right thing and what felt natural to me was dizzying at best.
When the world and my relationship were falling apart in 2020, I was feeling relatively good in the aftermath of EMDR therapy (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) for my complex trauma. I was done with grad school and even breaking free of traditional employment as a freelance copywriter, un-learning a lot of the gendered expectations Melissa Febos writes about and warming up to the idea that my deep feelings could be a kind of strength. I was just starting to try on the role of being an active, feeling, authentic participant in my own life. I felt like I was this close to breaking out of survival mode, global pandemic notwithstanding.
During the last twenty minutes or so of Wallflower, I was ripped out of this moment in time and plunged back into a chapter of my life I thought I had finally left behind. Because he was the offbeat-cool freshman with all senior friends, Charlie has to face the reality that they are all going to college without him. He’s developed a whopper of a secret crush on Sam (Emma Watson) but keeps his feelings at arm’s length because, as the sage English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd) tells him, “We accept the love we think we deserve.” In what could have been a reasonably happy ending, Charlie kisses Sam and loses his virginity to her just before she leaves for Penn State. But the story isn’t over — because we aren’t seeing the whole story.
The stress and grief of losing his friends leaves Charlie vulnerable to a big cloud of guilt hanging over his head for something that absolutely wasn’t his fault. We see fragments of images from Charlie’s journey as if they are falling into a timeline of cause-and-effect, all the way back to the trauma that just wouldn’t stay buried in his subconscious. It’s implied Charlie’s Aunt Helen had molested him in his early childhood, and he had repressed it. Hot tears gushed up like a trapdoor in my chest had sprung open and shards of memory from my own high school drama streamed in my mind’s eye, charged with new meaning, in a reflection of what I was watching on-screen. Charlie’s trauma had gained strength when his aunt died in a car accident en route to buying his birthday present. And when the epic loss of his friends and his first love hits him hard, his displaced guilt comes rushing back to the surface — he believes he may have caused his favorite aunt’s death by secretly wishing for it to happen.
As Charlie’s life simultaneously comes together and falls apart, I grab my journal and start scribbling yet another sketch of my own trauma scene, from a new perspective. There are so many ways I could tell this story, have told this story, to myself, my therapists, and only a select few others. I had spent years with different therapists trying to manage my anxiety, depression, and panic attacks, but I only saw what was on the surface at the time: low self-esteem, the clinical explanations for why anxiety and depression tend to crop up in the late teen years, a thriving purity culture, the sea of Karens and Kens taking out their insecurities on me in my place of work. Survival. Coping. Fight or flight. Nothing really made a dent in my frequent panic attacks except Xanax, which I carried with me everywhere and reserved only for those moments when I really needed it to work.
As I strung the shards of my story together once again, this time they had a new element of cause and effect: I had had a few panic episodes earlier in my childhood, but oh — it didn’t start happening regularly until I was raped at age 17. The lectures and shaming from my mother hurt more in the moment than any of the times I shed tears while that college guy used my body. My mom had given me the chance to confide in her when she asked if I had given consent; if he really raped me, we were taking him (and, by extension, me) to court. And when I told her that I had consented, oh — it was that lie that drove the wedge between us, which became a tidal wave. I stood there while she berated me every time I came home after curfew and I stayed in that relationship because I didn’t think any nice boy would want me. And oh — I had decided that bearing that shame alone was better than exposing every sad, stupid detail of my failure in a cold courtroom, in front of Mom and everybody.
This shift in perspective felt like an out-of-body experience. In an instant, after more than a decade of struggling to heal, I could see exactly where I had abandoned myself and how my choice to stay silent affected everything that unfolded after the first assault. That’s not to say that I think I could have done anything differently. Until that moment, I had been consoling myself with the knowledge that I did my best with the resources I had at the time, which were slim and steeped in patriarchy. I clung to the sliver of truth I carried within me, that this young man was responsible for his actions; the blame and guilt for that first incident and the ones that followed were his to bear. But until that truth was expressed to others, it would grate against the reality my lie had created. Finally, I had a thread I could trace back to where everything unraveled, the site where I could hope to fully reclaim my subjectivity as the author and protagonist of my own story. I could clearly see what I could not through the cloud of anger and shame: my agency as a human being with my own thoughts and feelings, complete with the rights, responsibilities, and consequences of the actions I choose. A clean and decisive transfer of power.
Clearly, much about life is random and resists the trappings of plot structure and neat endings. But when it comes to that liminal space between self and society, I think stories are life, and in some ways, they can seem inescapable. Hence my obsession with coming of age narratives: I loved reliving my most rebellious moments on the noble quest of individuation, the beautiful ache for freedom that hadn’t yet collided with the harsh realities of adulthood. I reveled in the fantasy that finally winning my independence would feel uplifting, that sacrificing the master narrative of “that’s just the way the world works,” shedding every part of my identity that depended on it, wouldn’t cause me real grief. That the thin, ambiguous voice that called me to keep searching would become my only spiritual compass, and I’d have to strain to hear it in order to keep living.
The very next day, I called my best friend and told her about my epiphany, which meant telling her my assault story. Until now, no one but my therapists and maybe one or two of my exes knew the whole truth of what happened to set that awful chapter of my life in motion. She hadn’t known it, but she was there for the whole thing. All my friend could say was how “deeply disturbed” she was, but to me, it felt like a huge weight was being lifted. The secret I allowed to poison me for so long didn’t have to be a thing anymore. I did indeed deserve more love than I had allowed myself to accept.
But I still had a lot of work cut out for me, and within weeks I had the answer to the question I started this essay with: I needed more time alone to heal and rebuild. I broke up with my boyfriend in the middle of a pandemic and also decided to move to a less-decrepit apartment across town. Those choices had their repercussions too, which is another story unto itself. I was just beginning to learn about true healing: not just putting in the work of going to therapy, but changing my life. Making the switch from surviving it to becoming an active participant. More hard lessons would come, but I had everything I needed to find my way — thanks to all that touchy-feely soul searching stuff that I couldn’t shake no matter how hard I tried.