Rebels with a cause

Rebel without a cause, by Nicholas Ray (1955).

Adolescents are those languid & gawky creatures who move around showing off but also looking insecure & fearful at the same time, displaying their weaknesses without noticing it. That’s how pure & honest they are, as they don’t know how to fake anything or even protect themselves properly. They simply are what they are, living each day as it comes, getting the most out of it, intensely, graduated in the present moment as there is nothing else than that to them; or maybe there is. Maybe they can think about next Friday, when they will go out again with their friends, feeling free after spending a whole week restricted within a reality that is mainly set by the dominating adults.

Not many people understand teenagers. Not many people want to, even when all of us has been one of them not so long ago.

The World Health Organization defines adolescence “as the period in human growth and development that occurs after childhood and before adulthood, from ages 10 to19”.

The word ‘adolescence’ comes from the Latin verb adolecere, meaning ‘to grow’ or ‘to develop’. From its present participle, adolescens-adolescentis (meaning ‘the growing one’) were formed the French ‘adolescent’ & ‘adolescence’, the Spanish ‘adolescente’ and ‘adolescencia’ and finally the English ‘adolescence’. It is not a coincidence that the world ‘adult’ comes actually from the same Latin verb, more specifically from its passive participle adultus, meaning ‘the grown up’. So, the one who is growing and the grown up hold hands through etymology and natural evolution, following both their own rhythm.

Adolescence is a complicated phase of human development. It is a transition time for the person to discover her own identity and autonomy. In order to achieve that, the individual must start a separation process from her parents and this is itself a very difficult thing to go through. The teenager feels a natural instinct to jump but at the same time has the need to be protected. She is not a child anymore but neither an adult. She is growing but still hasn’t reached the maturity needed to fly by herself. So she is in a constant conflict between a strong dependence on her parents & her need of freedom. This inner struggle can end up in arguments & issues with the parents and with any other authority figures, as teenagers see in them their inner dichotomy: letting go or holding on, rejection or security. So if she used to be obedient & indulgent, now she can show her nonconformist & rebel side. This is a move that parents don’t tend to understand and definitely one that they don’t know how to deal with, very possibly because they forgot already the adolescent that they carry inside, the one who completed her transition from childhood to adolescence not so long ago. They also use with their children the tools that their parents used with them, those that they probably cursed once: reprimand, punishment, orders & mandates. They all worsen the situation. Teenagers need right the opposite: communication, active listening, empathy, negotiation, flexibility, agreements. They want to be looked & seen. They want the attention that we might give to children but with the space that we honour to adults. That's how they will conquest their place and that is actually the great challenge to face by everyone involved.  

So there we have a natural & spontaneous adolescent going through her transition, and also her puzzled & disconnected parents, unable to put themselves on their child shoes. They feel insecure and see the teenager as a rival who is challenging them, testing them. As they know about her dependency on them, they end up pushing their authority, leaving to one side the concession of progressive responsibility that the young one needs, together with a space for understanding, trust & dialogue.

What scares us so much about adolescents? What is it that moves us into rejecting them? Many of us dedicate disregarding words to teenagers. Of course they feel misunderstood & lonely! They have enough with their own feelings, not being able to digest what is happening internally to them and, on top of that, they must deal with the fears & insecurities of those adults that are not really mature enough and who are projecting their own frustrations unconsciously on their youngsters. Because an adult that feels challenged or threatened by a teenager and who doesn’t know how to get closer to her is a tied up adolescent himself. 

When I was a teenager myself I met many of the familiar adolescence’s topics. I might share some thoughts another day. The thing is that I loved reading, listening to music & watching films and I was also completely fascinated by James Dean. He was nearly an adolescent himself, a symbol of that natural phase. His life, like everyone else’s, was a reflection of what he experienced as a child (he was very close to his mother, who died of cancer when he was 9 years old; his father could not take care of him and sent him with his aunt & uncle to be raised in a farm; there, a Methodist pastor –another mistreated child, for sure- who could see the tenderness & state of neglect of this sensitive child, loves him the only way he possibly can, which is abusing him sexually… The end of the story: a tragic & sudden death at 24, driving his fast car, just as a unaware child playing, enjoying what used to give him more pleasure & made him feel more free).

James Dean was at the time one of the youngest actors who could access the mythical Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio. He snatched from the superb Marlon Brando East of Eden leading role. Following his free teenager spirit, he used to let himself go with the flow of the moment so his improvisations were famous and his directors were filming non stop to catch the tremendous talent & connection that he was showing. An example of this is the scene where his character Cal is rejected by his film father; according to the script, after the argument between them, Cal was supposed to leave the room showing anger & disgust. Instead, Dean broke into tears & hugged his father creating a very emotionally intense moment that is part of cinema history now. That son was seeking for love & acceptance. He was looking to be seen & longing for his father’s acknowledgement. But the father cannot see him and still questions him. What a shame that he only had time to leave us 3 memorable interpretations… 

In Rebel without a cause he plays the tormented Jim Spark (I don’t think the name’ connotations are irrelevant at all), one of my favourite films when I was young. I couldn’t understand the ‘without’ in the title because to me he had all the reasons to be a rebel: immersed in a home where his parents were constantly arguing, a manipulative mother who was using him as a weapon against a father who Jim needed as masculine support but who couldn’t even support himself in the first place. And Jim was only longing for their look & their love. Nearly at the end of the film there is a scene that still breaks my heart: James Dean as the loving strong father, the gorgeous Natalie Wood as the caring mother & sweet Sal Mineo as a child, playing what their roles saw as the ‘ideal family’. It is also heartbreaking this scene at the beginning of the film where he literally shouts at his parents that they are tearing him apart:

But parents are not listening, they are just hearing the shouting, seeing the trouble he is causing. They cannot see what lies behind their son's excess of alcohol. They cannot fulfil his need of attention because they are also mistreated teenagers themselves.

I was fascinated by James Dean and in love with The Smiths. One of their beautiful songs was connecting with Nicholas Ray’s rebels. It talks about young people going out in the evenings, driving cars, feeling free, not wanting to go back home as they didn’t feel it as such, not fearing death if it was coming while they were driving next to their beloved…

Years after I was reading about the also fascinating character that Morrissey is, when I found out that he was actually a big James Dean fan and that he even wrote a book about him: James Dean is not dead.

I love causalities… And I love claiming adolescents’ authenticity, strength & potential. They are engines for the future and they have the right to be. Many times we talk about our inner child, saying that we must rescue her, look after her. That task could also be carried out with our teenager self, that creature in transition that probably stayed there hanging somehow and who felt alone & not appreciated in many occasions. It is time to pay her all the attention that she deserves to avoid having more adolescents who look into death with desire or who use violence to make themselves being seen.

Enough of all that now, please.



“Take me out tonight
where there’s music and there’s people
and they’re young and alive.
Driving in your car
I never never want to go home
because I haven’t got one
And if a double- decker bus
crashes into us
to die by your side
is such a heavenly way to die.
And if a ten-ton truck
kills the both of us
to die by your side
well, the pleasure, the privilege is mine.”

Morrisey, There is a light that never goes out)

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