After writing his last letter, Charlie fell asleep outside in the snow where policemen found him and brought him to the hospital. Charlie has a history of wandering off when his mental health declines, and his family worries. The doctor suggests Charlie see a psychiatrist again. Charlie’s family watches him carefully, his mom speaks softly to him and his dad gives him “love pats,” which Charlie describes as “soft punches of encouragement administered to the knee, shoulder, and arm.” Charlie’s sister helps him fix his hair, which he apparently cut off in chunks during his foggy state, and Charlie decides never to take LSD again.
Admitting to his history of blacking out and wandering away, Charlie gives the reader additional clues as to how severe his mental health issues have been in the past, and are starting to become again. Charlie’s family’s behavior around him now is similar to how his 8th grade teachers behaved: they’re extra nice to him because he makes them nervous. Charlie attributes the blackout to the LSD, but his descriptions of his history of similar episodes suggests that the LSD only contributed to his already fragile mental state.
Several days later, Charlie is still experiencing some hallucinations, and he worries that they’ll never stop. He tells this to Sam and Patrick, and Sam gives him a cigarette to calm his nerves and help him regain his focus. The cigarettes make him feel relieved and encouraged to “put his life back together.” After class, Bill calls Charlie’s essay on The Catcher in the Rye his best yet and praises Charlie’s rapid development. He gives him another book, On the Road, as a reward. Charlie starts smoking more regularly.
Though perhaps not Sam and Patrick’s intention, Charlie is learning to self-medicate with various substances, now including nicotine. Bill’s praise also serves as a soothing balm to Charlie’s mind and a boost to his self-esteem. While other students likely would have seen the extra work as punishments, Charlie understands that the extra reading and writing are bonuses for him and even views books as rewards.
Charlie feels encouraged as he shares memories with his new psychiatrist, who has music magazines in his waiting room. In conversation with his friends, he ties something he read in one of the magazines to a quote from one of Bill’s books, This Side of Paradise: “This is not a time for heroes because nobody will let that happen.” As they sit talking at Big Boy, Charlie thinks about how other people likely have had the same conversations in the past and are having similar conversations around the world right now. Those ideas and his experience sitting and chatting with his friends make him feel more positive, and he writes that he had a great day.
Feeling like he has something to bond with his psychiatrist about helps Charlie feel more positive, and the things he reads both in music magazines and in books become relevant to his everyday conversations. Whereas he used to just listen to everyone else talk, Charlie’s reading encourages him to participate in conversations and helps him to form opinions. The experiences Charlie has talking with his doctor and to his friends demonstrate how much better he feels when he actively partakes in discussions rather than passively taking in information.
Charlie also has a good conversation with Bill about On the Road, during which Bill makes him feel “like a grown-up.” He lets Charlie smoke in his office, although he urges Charlie to quit. Bill says he might leave teaching to write plays in New York, and he gives Charlies another book to read, Naked Lunch, which Charlie finds confusing. Though he tries to find ways to distract himself at home, his family members don’t seem to want to talk to him and they send him away.
Unlike other adults in Charlie’s life, Bill doesn’t condescend to Charlie, and this is perhaps why Charlie feels so comfortable sharing almost as much with Bill as he does in his letters. By allowing Charlie to smoke while they talk, Bill allows Charlie to make his own decisions while also expressing his care by urging Charlie to quit the unhealthy habit. While Charlie’s teacher finds the extra time to talk to Charlie, his family members don’t seem to notice that he needs someone to talk to.
After a Rocky Horror Picture Show performance, Mary Elizabeth asks Charlie to the Sadie Hawkins dance. Craig didn’t show up to play Rocky, so Charlie had agreed to step in. Although he was nervous at first, he writes that he had the best time he’s ever had. He describes the scene where he and Sam (playing Janet) playfully touch each other, which was the best part, according to him. At the end of the show, Patrick shoved Charlie in front for his own bow, and everyone applauded him. Charlie feels simultaneously happy for the applause and glad his family wasn’t there to see him, especially his dad. Later, Charlie tries to ask his sister for dating advice, but she is distracted and tells Charlie she needs to be alone.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show gave Charlie an opportunity to be vulnerable in front of an audience but with the comfort of having his friends around him. Like when Patrick toasted to Charlie at the party earlier in the book, Charlie realizes again how good it can feel to be seen. The performance also allowed him to play flirtatiously with Sam without the sexual tension because they both understood it was just part of the show. Charlie’s relief that his dad isn’t there to see him perform indicates that Charlie can't imagine being vulnerable in this way in front of his father and perhaps fears his father’s reaction. Usually inclined to eagerly impart advice to Charlie, his sister’s behavior implies that she’s going through some personal problems of her own.
Sam gives Charlie some advice for dating Mary Elizabeth, but afterwards Charlie just thinks about how he wishes he could stop being in love with Sam. At the dance, Mary Elizabeth does all of the talking and tells Charlie that he’s sensitive and she had a great time with him. Charlie is confused because all he did was let her talk. He told her he wasn’t ready to kiss yet, and she says she understands. Charlie admits to the reader that he doesn’t know if he will ever be ready. Charlie also sees his sister fight with her boyfriend and leave.
Just like she helps Charlie through other adolescent experiences, Sam provides an essential role in helping him navigate relationships, too. Mary Elizabeth and Charlie’s very different perceptions of how the date went illustrate how relationships can quickly start off on the wrong foot if both people don’t participate fully. However, Mary Elizabeth’s understanding and kindness when Charlie isn’t ready to kiss yet also provides a gentle, slow-paced entry into intimacy on Charlie’s terms.
After the dance, Charlie finds his sister crying in the basement. He keeps asking her what’s wrong, but she tells him to leave her alone. As he turns to go, she hugs him tightly, which Charlie finds weird because she has never voluntarily hugged him before. She eventually tells him that she’s pregnant, but when she told her boyfriend at the dance, he insisted that it wasn’t his baby and dumped her. She makes Charlie promise never to tell anyone, and he comments that she won’t be able to hide it for long. She tells him that she won’t “let it go that far.” Charlie agrees to drive her to the clinic next Saturday.
By clinging on to Charlie, Charlie’s sister indicates that she desperately needs support and comfort at this moment. Like her parents before her, Charlie’s sister experiences an unplanned pregnancy, but she makes a different choice than they did that allows her to preserve her youth rather than be burdened suddenly with parental responsibility. Though Charlie’s sister defended her boyfriend to her parents for hitting her and continued betraying their trust in order to see him, Charlie’s sister’s boyfriend again demonstrates a lack of respect and care for her.
Charlie waits for his sister at the clinic and starts thinking about how she’ll look after she comes out. He feels overwhelmed, starts crying, and goes to wait in the car. As he sits chain-smoking and crying, his sister comes out and scolds him for smoking, which makes him laugh. He makes her comfortable in the back seat and he tells her he loves her, which she says back. When they return home, they tell their parents that they went to McDonald’s and a movie. Charlie and his sister agree to keep her abortion a secret, and she tells him she really does love him.
Charlie recognizes this moment as one of the life-changing experiences people have during adolescence, thinking it could even make his sister “look different.” He laughs when his sister scolds him for smoking because it seems like a silly thing to focus on after having just gone through something as major as an abortion. Instead of making her feel ashamed or judged for her choices, Charlie shows his love for his sister by supporting her through a difficult experience, and this time, his efforts are successful, bringing them closer together.
After Charlie’s parents find out he’s dating Mary Elizabeth, Charlie’s dad has a conversation with him about safe sex and consent. Afterwards Charlie remembers that when he was little, his father was afraid that he was gay because he liked to kiss another little boy. Charlie goes on another date with Mary Elizabeth to see a foreign film and then to a record store. At the store, she buys him a Billie Holiday record, and they go back to her house to listen to music. They drink brandy next to the fireplace, and Mary Elizabeth tells Charlie that one day she wants to marry a man and live in Vermont. After confirming that he likes her and thinks she’s pretty, they end up kissing, and Mary Elizabeth lets Charlie remove her bra and touch her.
Though they tend to shelter him in other ways—like shielding him from strong language—Charlie’s parents are open with him when it comes to performing what they see as desirable masculine traits, such as having sex with women. Charlie’s dad’s homophobia becomes apparent yet again when Charlie explains his dad’s earlier fears about Charlie’s sexuality. Because she’s gentler when it comes to intimacy, Mary Elizabeth creates a space in which Charlie can further explore sexuality.
Although Charlie is feeling annoyed in his relationship with Mary Elizabeth, Sam thinks they’re great as a couple. He spends more time listing to Mary Elizabeth talk about the great things she has exposed him to like Billie Holiday records. When he invites Sam and Patrick to dinner with his family, Mary Elizabeth assumes she is invited, too, and his parents pay more attention to her than Sam and Patrick. He asks his sister for advice, who tells him that Mary Elizabeth has low self-esteem and feels that she is gaining a “superior position” by introducing Charlie to new things, which makes her feel better about herself. Charlie writes that he doesn’t want to be just something for Mary Elizabeth to be in charge of. Both Charlie’s sister and his psychiatrist tell Charlie to be honest with her, but he doesn’t know how to do that while also being nice.
Previously, music has been shared between characters to forge stronger bonds and understanding, but it now functions more as a means for Mary Elizabeth to impose her tastes onto Charlie, and this pushes him away. Though Charlie is still fairly passive in all of his relationships, he notices the effects of his passivity the most with Mary Elizabeth and blames her for the situation rather than recognizing his role in it as well. As it becomes clearer to Charlie that he resents Mary Elizabeth, it also seems to get harder for him to be honest with her about his feelings. Because he cares so much about protecting other’s feelings, he doesn’t know how to balance honesty with kindness, and the relationship makes him feel even more out of control of his own life.
Charlie starts feeling more resentful of Mary Elizabeth, even returning a gift she gave him before immediately feeling bad and going back to rebuy it. He feels so bad that he tells her that he got her something nice while shopping with his sister, even though he hadn’t, so he buys her a new copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. She calls it “original,” and after Charlie explains how special it is to him she thanks him and says it’s very sweet. But then she goes on to tell him that she thinks the book is “overrated.” Charlie says that he “put [his] feelings away somewhere after that.” He tells his dad why he’s avoiding Mary Elizabeth, and his dad tells him to “be a man.” Charlie distracts himself by reading Hamlet, Bill’s latest assignment.
Returning Mary Elizabeth’s gift was Charlie’s impulsive way of trying to reject her efforts to exert control over him, though his sympathetic side ultimately gets the better of him. He tries to change the way they exchange their interests by trying to share a book that’s special to him with her, but she thwarts his attempt by once again dominating the conversation. His dad’s advice to “be a man” further illustrates his dad’s idea of manliness being synonymous with assertiveness, and even aggression. Once again, Charlie turns to reading to avoid dealing with his present moment.
After Rocky Horror Picture Show on Good Friday, Charlie and his friends go to an apartment to play truth or dare, and Charlie chooses dare to avoid having to tell Mary Elizabeth the truth. Patrick dares Charlie to “kiss the prettiest girl in the room on the lips,” and Charlie decides at that time to be honest, so he kisses Sam instead of Mary Elizabeth. This makes both Sam and Mary Elizabeth angry, and Sam says to Charlie, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” Charlie wants to apologize, but Patrick says they should leave and he drives Charlie home. On the way, Charlie tells Patrick everything that’s been going on. Patrick tells him that “it’s too bad” that Charlie isn’t gay, and Charlie tells Patrick that if he were gay, he’d want to date Patrick. That night, Charlie lies in bed and thinks that something is “really wrong” with him, but he doesn’t know what.
It’s rather ironic that Charlie’s dare prompted him to tell his carefully avoided truth, and the aftermath of his action demonstrates the serious consequences of choosing exactly the wrong way and moment to finally be honest. Instead of only temporarily hurting Mary Elizabeth by telling her he didn’t want to date her, he upset both her and Sam and made his entire friend group uncomfortable. Patrick and Charlie’s lighthearted exchange afterwards illustrates their mutual understanding and appreciation of each other. Charlie’s thoughts as he lies in bed that night show that he knows he messed up, but suggest that something feels wrong with him on an even deeper level.
Nobody calls Charlie for the rest of Easter break, so he reads Hamlet and relates to the main character, thinking that it “was helpful to know that someone else has been through it.” Later, he calls Mary Elizabeth to apologize, but she tells him that it’s “too late.” Patrick advises Charlie to stay away for a while. He writes that his sister has a new boyfriend now, and his brother and his girlfriend broke up when she found out that he was cheating on her. They all seem too busy for him, and Charlie feels like he deserves the isolation. He wishes he didn’t have to take medication and see a psychiatrist that his dad can’t afford. He just wants someone to tell him what’s wrong with him and make it all go away. After a week of separation from his friends, Charlie begins smoking pot regularly.
In addition to providing an escape from his real-life situations, the books Charlie reads also show him that other young men have gone through the messy experiences of coming of age. Though he tries to mend things with his friends, his actions have caused a rift. While everyone else seems to be navigating other relationships, Charlie feels desperate to find a sense of connection again. Charlie’s brother candidly admitting that he cheated on his girlfriend suggests that he doesn’t worry about other people’s feelings nearly to the same extent that Charlie does. Charlie’s worries about being a financial burden to his parents compound his conflicted feelings about needing help with his mental health.