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Ms. Magazine
Sunday, May 13th, 2007
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Nineteen Minutes

by Jodi Picoult

Empathy Denied

A review by Jessica Stites

In the opening sequence of Nineteen Minutes, a detective rushes into a high school in the midst of a Columbine-style shooting, directing terrified students toward the exits. The last scared, shaking 17-year-old he rescues turns out to be the killer -- a killer indistinguishable from his victims. This is the moment when any chance for a simple good guy/bad guy crime narrative evaporates. Instead, the way opens for Jodi Picoult, a writer of psychological and ethical dramas, to probe how the explosions of violence we call "asocial" and "abnormal" can stem from the "normal" socialization of boys.

We meet the shooter, Peter, as a child. He is a sweet, wouldn't-hurt-a-fly kind of boy, a lightning rod for bullying. Teachers and parents tell him that he needs to stick up for himself, underscoring the problematic lessons he is already learning from his tormentors: Proper masculinity entails violence; kindness is a weakness to be punished. Meanwhile, his father introduces Peter to guns. With the shooting, Peter feels he has finally, appropriately, managed to defend himself. His first question for his lawyer is, "How many did I get?"

The ingredients here -- a cutthroat social hierarchy, unjust authority figures, the torturing of effeminate boys -- should be familiar to anyone who attended middle school. As too should be the casual cruelties inflicted by the swaggering male athletes at the top of the social heap -- woe betide the boy (or girl) who shows weakness in their presence. With the accumulation of so many banal, everyday violences, blame becomes diffuse. Which of many perpetrators can be held responsible? And what about the adults who failed to intervene?

"Maybe it was our own damn fault that men turned out the way they did," muses one character, a mother. "Maybe empathy, like any unused muscle, simply atrophied."

If empathy is an inoculation against violence, then Picoult's own compassion for her characters goes beyond good storytelling to political statement; she models the deep sympathy that might have averted the tragedy. She takes us inside prickly adolescents whose every action screams "Keep out!" and inside the adults afraid to brave their children's barriers. She even takes us inside the bullies, revealing that they too are constantly nervous about their own place in the hierarchy. After all, when masculinity is a zero-sum game -- when asserting it means undermining someone else's -- everyone's status is uncertain.

There is only one place where Picoult's own empathy fails. We never see the killing spree from Peter's perspective. We never learn why he shot a teacher who had been kind to him or why he stopped midspree to eat a bowl of Rice Krispies. Perhaps the radical failure of empathy at these moments is two-way. Once we lose boys, Picoult seems to imply, they go somewhere that we cannot follow.

Jessica Stites is assistant editor at Ms.

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