Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What It Takes to Steal Cars

Blue cover of How to Steal a Car shows a small red car followed by a pyramid shape of police carsKelleigh Monahan, the main character in Pete Hautman's young adult novel How to Steal a Car, is every parent's nightmare.

She's the kind of girl who's never gotten into trouble, who has good grades and long-term friendships, who believes her mother is a truly nice person and whose father has always been gruffly affectionate. They eat a family dinner together every night. She's even reading Moby Dick more or less of her own free will over summer break, for pete's sake.

Clearly, Kelleigh's brain has its share of what psychologists call "executive function" -- according to Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's fascinating book Nurture Shock, "Among these executive functions are the orchestration of thoughts to fulfill a goal, prediction of outcomes, and perceiving consequences of actions" (page 34).

Despite all this, when presented with an opportunity to steal a car after she sees a man drops his keys, instead of returning them, 15-year-old Kelleigh and her learner's permit take the car on a sedate joy ride.

Why? The first-person narrative portrays it as coincidental, but the act of keeping the guy's keys in the first place was not a coincidence. All we get about her motivation for that act is "I opened my mouth to tell him he'd dropped his keys, but for some reason I didn't" (pages 2-3). When her friend asks her why she's not returning them, Kelleigh replies, "I'm sure he's got another set" (page 3).

Soon after, she reviews all the reasons she shouldn't have taken the car:

"...imagining myself getting arrested and thrown in a jail cell with a bunch of skanky prostitutes and drug addicts and baby-killers... I thought about my parents looking at me through the bars of my cell. My dad saying, Why on earth would you do such a stupid thing?

I would tell him it had nothing to do with lack of intelligence.

You've got your whole life ahead of you!

Yeah, Dad, but it was one of those living-in-the-moment things.

The thing he would never understand was that it only had to make sense for about one decision-making nanosecond.... Anyway, we got away with it. Because for every time some kid like me pays the price for doing something incredibly stupid, there are a thousand times she gets away with it. (pages 18-19)
Kelleigh's narration reveals a girl who doesn't want to be pigeon-holed, and who represses her feelings until they come out in unexpected way. As she puts it, "I am such a total bitch inside for some reason, even though mostly I don't show it. But the things I think -- sometimes I'm surprised they don't just claw their way out through my skin" (pages 83-84).

After the first theft, Kelleigh has felt the adrenalin rush of the act, and a feedback loop begins. As she says, "There is no real difference between scared and excited. Think roller coaster. Think first kiss. Think stealing a car" (page 33). She does it again because a friend asks her to, then again to give another friend a ride, then finds out she can make some money by selling the cars, with the help of an experienced car thief named Deke.

She clearly knows what the right thing to do is and does not do it. And that's one of the things she likes about it:
There was no fuzziness about what Deke and I were doing. It was immoral, illegal, risky, and entertaining.... we each had a job to do, and until the job was over we were defined by what we did. What we had to do. I think this is why guys like football, and why they join the army, because as long as you are playing the game or following orders you do not have to figure out who you really are (pages 116-117).
Finally, Kelleigh almost gets caught in the midst of a theft (only escaping because she uses the car to assault the car's owner), and the reader (at least this reader) is having trouble maintaining any kind of sympathy for her. She has no remorse for almost injuring or killing the man ("what I felt then...was...anger and frustration that he had gotten in my way, that he had tried to interfere" page 150). When questioned by a cop, she lies smoothly and convincingly. She's turning into a polished sociopath.

Cover of Nurture Shock shows a broken egg put back together with a bandaidAll this makes for a chilling parental read, because Kelleigh could be your own seemingly well-adjusted teenager: she shows no outward sign of her inner amorality.

Hautman's story fits right in with Nurture Shock's chapter on the science of teen rebellion. Researchers, Bronson and Merryman write, "found that teen brains can't get pleasure out of doing things that are only mildly or moderately rewarding." While young children find any type of reward thrilling, and adults respond to rewards with predictable increases as the reward increases, teens do not respond except to the biggest reward of all, "essentially the same response curve of a seasoned drug addict. Their reward center cannot be stimulated by low doses -- they need the big jolt to get pleasure" (page 144).

And not only that, but when the reward center in teens was activated, the prefontal cortex (home of that executive function I mentioned earlier) showed less response: "it was as if the pleasure response was 'hijacking' the prefrontal cortex. At the very moment when experiencing an emotionally charged excitement, the teen's brain is handicapped in its ability to gauge risk and foresee consequences" (page 144).

I couldn't help wondering if Hautman was aware of this research, because his book exemplifies it so well. And whether he intended the book's open ending to make a statement, and if so, what it was. According to a story from Minnesota Public Radio,
Hautman says when half the adult reviewers are upset by the novel [as in the case of How to Steal], then he's probably hit the right note for his teen audience.

"I don't offer a moral coda at the end. And adults, especially adults reading teen books, they want that," said Hautman. "They want to think that this is somehow a useful tool for their child. But kids should get a lot more credit than they do for being able to figure things out."
I think it's appropriately uncomfortable that the book is left open-ended, with an unrepentant, unpunished Kelleigh. But at the same time, I have to reassure myself it's silly to wonder if her malfunctioning executive function might be contagious just from reading about it.


An afterthought: Here's one final quote from How to Steal a Car that shows Hautman's gift for writing: "Once you're a teenager, adults stop talking about the crazy stuff they used to do, and they start acting as if they were raised by the Amish" (page 54).


A second afterthought: I just discovered Kirkus Review's Dec. 1 write up of
Nurture Shock, in which they recommend that writers of children's literature refer to Nurture Shock in the interest of knowing their audience better. And maybe even for some story ideas.

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