Jenny Briscoe talks about adolescent identity.
‘I don’t know what I am anymore,’ are the words spoken by 13 year old character Ariana in my new
book, The Child Left in the Dark, amid a transformative identity crisis. In her (rather exceptional)
case, she’s referring to the emerging genetically engineered powers she can feel within her and the
voices of darkness telling her to do bad things. Part of the strapline for the entire novel is that
everyone tells Ariana – everyone being the adults around her – that she is normal, but that they are
lying. Taking a step back from the realms of gritty soft sci-fi, the question of what exactly is normal
remains chronically unanswerable, going back to the noughties when I was 13, to now, a world
suffused with social media, new (to some) definitions of gender and sexuality on top of all the usual
hormones and uncertainties of adolescence. The word ‘minefield’ springs to mind.
‘It’s so stressful,’ replies year eight student Ash, almost before I’ve finished asking them the question of what it’s like to be their age now. ‘I don’t want to be nearly 13. I would prefer to be older. Sixteen, maybe eighteen. Old enough to drive, have my own money and control over which apps I can have on my phone. Being 13 is just… hard.’
Surely, though, in this era where different is celebrated, there aren’t the same levels of antagonism towards anyone who feels like they aren’t normal, like they don’t belong? Back in 2001, conformity was king; I went to a girls’ school where the popular crowd all wore their hair in the same style, spoke with the same intonation, took their PE kits to school in the same Jane Norman bags. They even stylised their handwriting to be almost indistinguishable from one another’s – bubble round letters, a with a curl instead of a circle. Swerving from this ‘norm’ – whether it was by being overweight, homosexual or (shock, horror) ginger – was most definitely not cool.
There are certain things I envy about the generations who came after – not just acceptance but celebration of nerdiness, diversity and difference. Ash, who identifies as gender-fluid, says that there simply isn’t the same stigma about being part of the LGBTQ+ community that there used to be. ‘Pretty much all of my friends are part of the LGBTQ+ community. I first began to think about my sexuality when I was about eleven, so year six. Gender came later.’
It feels shameful to admit that when I was their age, ‘gay’ was a term kids traded carelessly, to the point when the actual meaning was almost lost behind the perceived insult. Still, there are elements of growing up now that also feel all too familiar. ‘I don’t really get bullied,’ explains 14 year old Sam. ‘But sometimes I hear people talking about me or my friends, saying mean things. It makes me really anxious. I feel worried about what people are thinking or saying about me. Some days I can make myself not care what they think, but not all the time.’
‘There is a lot of anxiety,’ Ash agrees. ‘And sometimes I feel like just saying I don’t care about stuff,
which makes me wonder if I’m a good person or not. But then there’s another part that says it does
matter, I should do the right thing. It sort of depends on what mood I’m in.’
It occurs to me, talking to them, that as distant as those fears, struggles and questions sometimes
feel, there are some anxieties that seep through adolescence and make their way into our adult
identities too. I remember, like Ash, longing to be eighteen, to be ‘past this bit’ at 13. If only I’d
known that so much of it follows us – those decisions about doing what’s right as opposed to what’s easy. That self-consciousness about what others think. Always feeling a little on the edge of the
‘cool’ crowd who seem to just get it right. The being normal thing. It occurs to me that perhaps the
very fact of Ariana questioning her own identity at 13 years old is the most normal thing about her.