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by Patricia Hersch
Ballantine Books, 1998
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Apr 22nd 2003

A Tribe Apart

Patricia Hersch spent several years of the early 1990s talking with many middle and high school students in her hometown of Reston, Virginia, getting to know them and understand their experience.  She distils her experience down to the stories of eight young people and their friends and families, leading up to the high school graduation in 1994.  A Tribe Apart is an important book not because it contains new ideas –she herself points to many reports by government agencies and independent institutions whose analyses of the problems of adolescence she echoes – but rather because she makes her case so powerfully through her accounts of the teenagers whose lives she describes. 

At the end of her book, Hersch summarizes some of her main themes.  Not enough children participate in school activities, and they turn to dangerous ways of entertaining themselves.  Adolescents have formed their own culture that is increasingly distinct from the rest of culture.  Hersch argues that students need parents, teachers, and other adults to be more involved in their lives.  It is not enough to give them more lessons on the dangers of drugs, sex, or antisocial activities.  The fundamental problem is not that naïve teens are led astray by a few black sheep; most teens are quite capable of thinking for themselves, and they often do give their actions considerable thought.  We need a more sophisticated understanding of why adolescents make the decisions they do, and through her detailed pictures of their lives, Hersch gives her readers a good idea of how it goes down.  Drugs and alcohol are readily available, and many people they know use them.  Many children and teenagers are engaged in sexual activity, and most teenagers have ample opportunity.  Given their options and their social situations, there are great temptations for adolescents to experiment, and sometimes they enjoy their experiences.  Many of them have bad relationships with their parents and turn to drugs, alcohol and sex as emotional release.  They experience great pressure to succeed, but they do not receive strong social and emotional support from their communities. 

In setting out the lives of these eight young people, Hersch chronicles instances of risky behavior, drinking, taking drugs, skipping classes, driving while intoxicated, getting in bad relationships, selling drugs, arguing with parents, having sex when drunk or high and later regretting it, teen pregnancy, mental illness, and suicide attempts.  Our society increasingly medicalizes risky behavior by young people, treating it as symptomatic of mental disorder, and this may be a good way of helping those people at risk.  Yet it can also lead us to ignore the social causes of these problems, and one of the central problems Hersch identifies through her accounts are parents who neglect or abuse their children.  She gets her information from the children and teens and hears their side of the story far more than she hears the other side, and so one might be concerned that her account is biased towards their viewpoints, but it is nevertheless shocking how some parents treat their children as a burden or effectively ignore them altogether.  One often hears that young people have no sense of responsibility, and one might conclude from Hersch's study that they learn this from their parents. 

It is worth emphasizing that Hersch's study does not focus on families at the margins of society.  Her subjects are mostly from the large middle-class.  Most are white, although she does include African-American and Hispanic families.  She does not pretend that her findings are automatically generalizable to the rest of American society, but readers will probably find these stories fit with their own knowledge of their local communities, across the United States.  Hersch explains in the preface to the paperback edition that she found after the release of her book that she was in much demand to speak on television shows in the wake of the various well-publicized cases of shootings by students of their peers and teachers.  Her analysis does help to explain the moral vacuum students experience that could make such shootings possible.  However, A Tribe Apart will be more relevant to parents, teachers and researchers who want to have a clearer idea of what it is like to be an ordinary teenager in America today.  It does not supply any simple solutions to the problems of adolescence today, but it could be a valuable resource for those seeking to tackle these issues.  Highly recommended.


© 2003 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.