As a child, the novel’s protagonist Charlie was molested by his favorite aunt. Following this trauma, for much of his childhood and adolescence, Charlie repressed his traumatic memories, as he lacked a positive example of how to release his tension in a healthy way. Most of the people Charlie knows have also experienced trauma and abuse, including many members of his family and some of his friends. And many of the victims of abuse Charlie knows also go on to perpetrate violence, accept abuse, or both, since this is the behavior they know. Through exploring the complex cycles of abuse and trauma that permeate families and society, Chbosky illustrates how unfortunately common trauma and abuse are, especially in the lives of young people. This challenges a common assumption that children and childhood are defined by innocence—in fact, as Charlie notices, it is during childhood that so many people experience unspeakable trauma and then grow up to inflict trauma themselves.
Charlie’s family, in particular, is prone to abuse and trauma—verbal, physical, and sexual—which leads to generations of abuse. Both of Charlie’s parents (and their siblings) were beaten as children, for example, and as a result, several of Charlie’s aunts spend their adult lives in abusive relationships with men, since they have been taught that abuse is normal. Furthermore, even though Charlie’s sister has never been abused, she finds herself in a relationship with a man who hits her, and she stays with him because she believes that it was her fault for provoking him—and because she believes that men are supposed to be dominant and violent. This shows the cultural logic of abuse, through which many people (often women) accept abuse because it seems normal or deserved. In addition to physical abuse, Charlie’s family exhibits cycles of sexual abuse. Charlie’s aunt Helen was molested as a child by a family friend. Not knowing how to productively cope with her experiences, Helen perpetuated the cycle of abuse when she molested Charlie, leaving Charlie—like her—with a morass of unresolvable emotions, ones that he spends his adolescence trying alternately to repress and accept.
Chbosky begins the novel with the suicide of Charlie’s friend Michael to show the stakes of unaddressed mental health needs: readers intuit that if Charlie doesn’t find a way to work through what has happened to him, it could also be life-threatening. While for much of the novel Charlie has repressed his memories of sexual abuse, this trauma still has profound effects. Charlie is often anxious and he feels isolated from others, as he is afraid of being close to people. Without being able to remember the source of his trauma, Charlie is stuck trying to manage its effects. Like his friend Patrick, Charlie turns to substance abuse to try to cope with his emotions, which only defers his feelings, rather than resolving them. More positively, Charlie copes with his trauma by making friendships. While sometimes he finds it difficult to bear his friends’ own emotional pain, his friendships generally help him feel valuable and embedded in a community, rather than alone with his difficult emotions.
Furthermore, Charlie’s friend Sam, who was also molested as a child, gives him an example for how to recognize and work through trauma. She realizes that, as a result of her abuse, she has a pattern of dating people that make her feel small. By the end of the story, Sam commits to a healthy relationship with herself and starts refusing to accept less than she deserves. Her example of recognizing an unhealthy pattern and committing to fixing it provides Charlie with a positive example of coping with one’s past. For Charlie, coping with his trauma through a mixture of substance abuse, close friendships, and personal resolve proves insufficient: he has a mental health crisis at the end of the book and finally remembers that he was molested as a child. Throughout the story, Charlie regularly states that others have it much worse than he does, but with the help of effective mental health support, he slowly learns to recognize that his problems are valid, too, and that he needs to address them.
During his two-month hospital stay with intensive counseling, Charlie comes to terms with his past and who he is now, both because of and despite his childhood trauma. At the end of the story, Charlie decides that it wasn’t productive for him to blame others for his abuse, both because “it wasn’t going anywhere” and because “it wasn’t the point.” Charlie explains that cycles of abuse often extend too far back into history to trace, and losing oneself in blame and anger does not provide relief or a productive strategy for moving forward. From his friends, teachers, and eventually even his family, Charlie receives the care and support he needs to begin to open up about his history of abuse, and to begin the work of learning to love himself. In this way, Charlie avoids the same fate as his friend Michael, who supposedly felt there was no one he could talk to about his own problems. In this way, Chbosky demonstrates the life-saving power of speaking out about abuse, confronting the traumas of the past, and seeking help from others in dealing with life’s difficulties.
Trauma, Abuse, and Mental Health ThemeTracker
Trauma, Abuse, and Mental Health Quotes in The Perks of Being a Wallflower
So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.
Charlie, we accept the love we think we deserve.
“He’s something, isn’t he?”
Bob nodded his head. Patrick then said something I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
“He’s a wallflower.”
And Bob really nodded his head. And the whole room nodded their head. And I started to feel nervous in the Bob way, but Patrick didn’t let me get too nervous. He sat down next to me.
“You see things. You keep quiet about them. And you understand.”
I have decided that maybe I want to write when I grow up. I just don’t know what I would write.
I had an amazing feeling when I finally held the tape in my hand. I just thought to myself that in the palm of my hand, there was this one tape that had all of these memories and feelings and great joy and sadness. Right there in the palm of my hand. And how many people got through a lot of bad times because of those songs. And how many people enjoyed good times with those songs.
“I can't do that anymore. I'm sorry,” I said.
“It's okay, Charlie. Just go to sleep,” Sam said.
But I wasn't talking to Sam anymore. I was talking to someone else. When I fell asleep, I had this dream. My brother and my sister and I were watching television with my Aunt Helen. Everything was in slow motion. The sound was thick. And she was doing what Sam was doing. That's when I woke up. And I didn't know what the hell was going on.
It's like if I blamed my aunt Helen, I would have to blame her dad for hitting her and the friend of the family that fooled around with her when she was little. And the person that fooled around with him. And God for not stopping all this and things that are much worse. And I did do that for a while, but then I just couldn't anymore. Because it wasn't going anywhere. Because it wasn't the point.
I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons. And maybe we'll never know most of them. But even if we don't have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them.