A Dance of Charades: Review of Screens and the Ego
Screens and the Ego is a collection of short-stories and essays by Jane-Marie Auret, a young author in her early 20s and a member of Gen Z. As a teacher, I was keen to read the book with the hope of gaining some insight into the struggles and everyday concerns of younger generations and also see how they might differ from my own experiences.
And boy do they differ. I am a Gen X'er, so I was young when the internet emerged and, later, when social media came about. But by young, I mean I was 21 when I engaged with the … actually, 'it' – the internet – didn't even have a name when I first engaged with it. I suppose I was a bit of a computer geek. It wasn't long, however, before the internet was ubiquitous. Now everyone is into computers to some degree.
MySpace and Facebook, the harbingers of social media, emerged as I was wrapping up graduate school, and I wasn't so young anymore.
What struck me about Gen Z is how social media is such a big factor in the lives of children and young people who grew up with it. Children and young people are impressionable, and those are formative years. Peer pressure for young people has always been a source of anxiety, but throw in social media – following each other's photos, videos, likes, memes, etc. – adds a whole other layer. The accumulation of social media likes and follows can be addictive at such a young age. Volumes of research demonstrate how detrimental social media can be in the mental health and development of young people.
The book is written in the first-person throughout, and I enjoyed the inner life of the main character in each story and essay.
The internet aside – though the anxieties of social media is present throughout – what I like the most is that the stories and essays come across as the author thinking out loud. Jane-Marie contemplates some big thorny issues of contemporary society, and she lays out evocative stories before reaching a conclusion on the matter at hand.
In My Brother the Fanatic, Jane-Marie explores how young men – in this case, a young immigrant from Uzbekistan – can get swept up into religious extremism. Her brother wrestles with the meaning of manhood as he was taught in a world where men must defend their families (and womenfolk) with their lives versus the equalities of gender(s) in the West. She juxtaposes the valor of her brother against the promiscuity of her boyfriend, who abandons her for another girl the second her brother confronted them.
In On Accepting Injustice with Age, Jane-Marie explores the link between moral living and mental health. In this story, a young girl's parents are divorcing, so she concocts a way to keep them together by faking a seizure. She is successful, for a time, but has to endure batteries of tests by doctors seeking to get to the bottom of her 'condition'. Whenever it seemed her parents were following through with their separation, she'd fake another seizure. They would eventually separate and divorce.
As the girl grows older, she becomes wracked by guilt and eventually tells her parents. A great burden is lifted. Later, she concludes that her doctors must have known that she was faking her seizures because they could find no cause, but also because she only flailed about – an obvious act. But they went along with the charade because they might be accused of … something . . . if they didn't believe a 12-year-old.
The girl, now a young woman in college, befriends another girl who, like her, suffers from low self-esteem. This girl attempts suicide more than once, and (fictional) Jane-Marie recognizes that the girl never actually attempts suicide; rather, she is faking much like she did when she was 12. All for attention. Jane-Marie points this out, and the girl unfriends her.
In this story and others, the 'victims' of low self-esteem, self-hate, and other anxieties seek medications and psychiatric care, or they self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. (Fictional) Jane-Marie recognizes that many of the victims are suffering from feelings of guilt or the consequences of behaviors that cause personal anxieties. Self-reflection, self-awareness, and corrective moral behaviors would, in many of not most cases, alleviate their conscious and relieve their anxieties.
The real and fictional Jane-Marie does not blame the victims. Rather, it is a culture at large in which doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, teachers, professors, journalists, and the like, are forced to play along in a dance of charades. A Meditation on Freedom cuts to the chase: freedom in the US has evolved away from a political meaning of freedom from despotic government into a social, do-what-you-want free-for-all hedonism. Truth is an affront to modern freedom.
Social media has only amped that up, and Gen Z is Exhibit 1. (Exhibits is an excellent series of vignettes on this very theme).
Jane-Marie Auret gives hope, however, that all is not lost as society becomes increasingly aware of the impacts of social media on younger generations and, hopefully, course-corrects.