Monday, October 26, 2009

We Both Go Down Together: The Savior Complex in YA Lit

Disclaimer: I have absolutely no background in psychology or analysis. This week, I am calling it as I see it from personal experience and from a teeny bit of reading on the subject.  Here goes:

We've all met someone with a savior complex.  You may also know it as a "Jesus complex" or a "hero complex."

In case you don't call it that, here's the standard SC profile (from my untrained, pedestrian perspective): at first glance, they come off as the nicest people alive.  Congenial, well-liked, polite to a fault.  The go-to guy/gal to escort you home from a party, give your sputtered-out car a jump, lend you a book/sweatshirt/iPod.  For a while, you may be fooled into thinking they are your best friend, that you can count on them for anything.

Well, if you are an independent, secure person, you cannot.

It's not that SC's are sociopathic serial killers.  Quite the opposite: they are generous of heart and eager to please.  Almost too eager.  They may or may not have their own personal demons which they have yet to overcome.  They are ALWAYS attracted to those on the fringes: individuals who wear their dysfunction on their tattered sleeves and require recovery by way of a professional.  People who many times realize that they themselves are trouble.  SC's, however, don't understand that.  They think that with enough love, understanding and tolerance, they can make anyone better.

And it always, always, always comes back to bite them you-know-where.

One of the the things I love most about contemporary YA lit is that it doesn't back away from the gray matter.  As in, protagonists you want to cheer for and scream at, sometimes within the same page.  Real teens with real faults that are relatable to adult readers as well.  In the past few months, I've read two fantastic YA novels by seasoned authors who don't get nearly the love they should, both involving compelling, complicated teenagers with one thing in common: the savior complex.  I give you: After the Moment, by Garret Freymann-Weyr, and Rage: a Love Story by Julie-Anne Peters.  (Don't worry, no spoilers ahead.)

If you've never experienced Garret Freymann-Weyr, get thee to Amazon or your local library post-haste.  Her protagonists may be youthful, but they are inherently old souls on the verge of a life-changing moment.  Don't mistake her extremely articulate writing and sophisticated urban settings for pretension: you'll miss out.  Freymann-Weyr's environments are the anti-Gossip Girl: the characters are semi-privileged, yes, but with an awareness of the considerable effort to maintain the lifestyle that is not without its share of guilt, and the constant reminders that no amount of money guarantees an immunity to disaster.

Seven years ago, one of my closest friends came out to me.  In an effort to understand what he was going through as best as a straight woman could, I did the first thing that came to mind: I hit the books.  At that point I discovered a host of phenomenal YA books with LGBTQ storylines.  Lesbian author Julie-Anne Peters is an absolute treasure in this regard: she takes us on the journeys of gay or questioning young people without ever once dipping into Lifetime Original Movie territory.  Her 2003 novel Keeping You a Secret is probably the best coming-out coming-of-age story written in the past twenty years.

In their most recent works, while tackling the savior complex, both Freymann-Weyr and Peters are also taking risks in their own writing.  In the case of After the Moment, Freymann-Weyr writes entirely from a male perspective for the first time.  And with Rage: a Love Story, Peters tackles an abusive relationship: where both the parties are girls.  Let's take a deeper look, shall we?

The SC's:
Leigh (After the Moment): your standard good guy.  Leigh is so good that he takes up running on the advice of his soccer coach, even though he hates it.  He's so good that his type-A girlfriend Astra handpicked him to be the recipient of her virginity. He's so good that when his little stepsister Millie asks him to relocate from New York to suburban DC for his senior year, to provide emotional support after the death of Millie's father, he says yes without a second thought.  That's when he meets Millie's girl-crush Maia Morland.  And the trouble begins.

Johanna (Rage: a Love Story): Like Leigh, Johanna has a family in a constant state of flux.  Her father passed away when she was twelve, her mother a couple of years later.  Johanna's older sister Tessa, who was in college at the time of the deaths, has only recently moved home with her husband.  Until that happened, Johanna was living on her own while serving as sole caretaker for her dying mother.  Now she frequents the hospice where her mom spent her last days.  Oh yeah, and Johanna's gay.  Her sister basically ignored Johanna's coming-out letter, and her mom didn't survive to hear the big announcement.  When the book begins, Johanna is asked to tutor the school Neanderthal--who happens to be the brother of Johanna's crush, Reeve.  And the trouble begins.

The survivors:
Maia (After the Moment): I really liked Maia--she's neither flighty manic pixie dream girl nor whiny victim. She's very upfront and matter-of-fact about her many issues: a beloved stepfather doing time for insider trading, bouts with anorexia and self-injury, and what looks to be OCD.  The self-professed "train wreck" eats dinner with Leigh and Millie's family every night and brings Millie high-quality bedding (for physical comfort) and romance novels (for emotional) after the sudden death of Millie's father.  She sports baggy clothes and always wears socks.  And bam, Leigh is sucked in.

Reeve (Rage: a Love Story): Reeve is the product of a dysfunctional, often-abusive upbringing, and it shows. She's beautiful, highly sexual and is often seen with an entourage of LBD's (Les Beaux Dykes).  Many times, Reeve is the only one who can get through to her brother, who's been described as a highly-functioning autistic.  Reeve also hits--girlfriends, stepdads, and anyone who tries to help her.  From page 1, the readers knows that Johanna is screwed.

The relationships:
Leigh/Maia (After the Moment): It starts with Leigh walking Maia home.  (Because he is a good guy, as you recall.)  Then he starts doing nice things for her--distracting her while she eats, so she doesn't get nervous; driving her to the prison to visit her stepfather.  Eventually, however, something awful happens. Something jaw-droppingly awful that leads to criminal negligence charges and a ton of blood (this is foreshadowed on page 2, so I'm not spoiling anything).  Something so awful and disturbing that when the book begins four years after the incident and Leigh encounters Maia at a dinner party, he's at a loss as to what to do.

Johanna/Reeve (Rage: a Love Story): From the beginning, Johanna is head over heels in lovelust for Reeve, whom she's spotted around school wearing skimpy outfits and a rainbow of eye makeup reflecting her current mood.  And once Johanna discovers how damaged Reeve is, it only gets deeper.  Trust me, you will be screaming at Johanna to stay away--it's like the scantily-clad heroine in a horror movie who decides she's going to go down to the basement.  Reeve is that basement.  Not inherently evil by any means, but definitely not a place where an innocent young woman should wander alone.

What makes both of these novels so strong is that there's no inherent "bad guy" (other than, of course, the awful people who inflict abuse and havoc on Maia and Reeve).  Yet, you're never completely in love with the protagonists' actions--in fact, they're downright exasperating at times.  With Johanna, you already know about my "don't go in the basement!" reaction.  With Leigh, I would roll my eyes, like, "dude, do you really think that talking to her so she can eat cake in public is going to compensate for the years of therapy that she herself admits she needs?"

Because that's the thing about the savior complex: at the heart of it is a selfishness that the individual him/herself often doesn't realize until they are called on it.  Again, they are not bad people and they genuinely want to help; however, there's also a factor of "I can and will rescue this person single-handedly because I am awesome" at work in every situation.  And God help those in the SC's life who may worry about their tendencies or who really need love and guidance.  (I won't say anything more than this: you'll feel terrible for Astra in After the Moment and Tessa in Rage: a Love Story).  Because once the SC has deemed someone a victim, they WILL help them--at all costs.  Even when the victim themselves admit that they are beyond help.

Don't get me wrong: I think kindness is a wonderful thing, and a quality I constantly try to improve in myself. It's essential for individuals to reach out to one another--everyone's got their shit, no man is an island, etc.  That said, there are those who require assistance from someone who has been trained to do so.  The savior complex is alive and well in society, and brava to Freymann-Weyr and Peters for spotlighting it so skillfully in their novels.

Oh, and one other thing: Ms. Freymann-Weyr?  If you are reading this, can you please give Millie her own book?  So many little sister characters are one-dimensional brats, but she is intelligent and delightful in a way that only a 13-year-old girl can be.  *bows down to your Buddha-like nature*


  1. I've never heard of this author, but anything that's the anti gossip girl has to be good!

    And I think the savior complex is a good thing to write can get really old. And you're right--it's one thing to help and be nice. Another thing to "save" someone.

  2. Yay, someone read my obnoxiously long post!

    The thing that gets me the most about the SC is that SO many others in the person's life get screwed over as a result. Yes, I speak from personal experience here, but both books also illustrate this beautifully.

    And yeah, Freymann-Weyr rocks. First, no one's super-rich, they're just comfortable enough to go to private school--but usually, it's a single-parent household or both of them work. And the kids have a self-awareness about this, usually some guilt as well. They REALIZE how hard their parents have to work to give them a good life. Very refreshing.

  3. Dear Lauren,

    I think you are the only good thing to come out of facebook (a.k.a. time suck!) I knew Leigh had a save the world problem, but I hadn't put it into such an articulate thought process. Wow. I'm impressed. Millie can't have her own book if only because I think I've worn out my welcome in the YA world. But Millie was a sweetie if only b/c sometimes she & I were the only people who loved Leigh.

  4. Great post. I'm always looking for new YA authors!