A Nationwide Journey I began a new nationwide journey to listen to boys' voices last summer in my native Massachusetts. In one of the very first interviews, I sat down with Clayton, a sixteen-year-old boy living in a modest apartment in Arlington, a medium-sized suburb of Boston. Clay introduced me to his mother and older sister, and then brought me to his attic hideaway, a small room with only two small wooden windows that allowed light into the room through a series of tiny slits. Clay decided to share some of his writing with me - poetry and prose he had written on leaves of white and yellow paper. His writings were deeply moving, but even more extraordinary were the charcoal sketches that, once he grew comfortable with my presence, he decided he would also share. His eyes downcast, his shoulders slumped inward, he opened his black sketchbook and flipped gently through the pages.
On each consecutive sheet of parchment, Clay had created a series of beautiful images in rich, multicolored charcoal and pastels. "You're a talented artist," I said, expressing my real enthusiasm.
"I haven't shown these to too many people," he said, blushing. "I don't think anyone would really be too interested."
Clay's pictures revealed his angst, and in graphic, brutal detail. There was a special series of drawings of "angels." They were half human, half creature, with beautiful wings, but their boyish faces were deeply pained. Soaring somewhere between earth and heaven, the angels seemed to be trying to free themselves from earthly repression, striving for expression, longing to reach the freedom of the skies. They evoked the mundane world where Clayton's psychological pain felt real and inescapable, yet they also evoked an imaginary place where he could feel safe, relaxed, and free.
In our conversation, Clayton revealed that his inner sense of loss and sadness had at times been so great that on at least one occasion he had seriously contemplated suicide.
"I never actually did anything to commit suicide. I was too afraid I'd end up in a permanent hell ... but that's how bad I felt. I wanted to end it all."
I thought to myself that maybe that's what these tortured angels were about - a combination of heavenly hope mixed up with a boy's suppressed "voice" of pain.
Clayton then revealed "The Bound Angel," a breathtaking sketch of one of his winged, half-man creatures bent over in pain, eyes looking skyward, but trunk and legs bound like an animal awaiting slaughter.
Clayton explained, "His hands are tied, and his mouth is sealed so he cannot speak. He's in pain, but he has no way to run from it, to express it, or to get to heaven."
"Your angel wants to shout out his troubles to the high heavens, but he is bound and gagged. He wants to move toward someone, but he is frozen in space. He needs to release his voice, but he cannot, and fears he will not be heard. That's why he's so tortured."
"Yes, exactly," he said.
"I guess if he's tied up long enough," I responded, "and can't release that voice, he'll want to die, like you did."
"I think so," Clay said.
There is no reason we should wait until a boy like Clay feels hopeless, suicidal, or homicidal to address his inner experience. The time to listen to boys is now.
Moments of Doubt
As devoted as our country is gradually becoming to changing things for boys, society remains ambivalent about giving boys permission to express their feelings. I was recently speaking at a Congregational church in a small New Hampshire town. It was a bright October Saturday morning and I was there to talk to boys and their parents about my Listening to Boys' Voices project. Gazing out at the rows and rows of boys and their parents, I explained that several research associates and I were going across the country to interview and capture the unique voices of adolescent males ranging in ages eleven through twenty. I told the audience, "I hope this project will be just the beginning, that we will all find a way to reconnect with boys, listen to them carefully, and get to know what's really happening inside their minds and hearts."
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