Monday, January 9, 2012

Teen Writes: The Group that Opened the Box

“We want parents to understand. We don’t want to talk to them. It’s not like I don’t want to talk to them. I have this looming fear of disappointing them. When they were growing up, [what we are trying to do] was unheard of.”

Those words — spoken searchingly by a teenage girl in the new documentary “Teen Writes: The Group that Opened the Box” — occur during a relaxed dinner break. The girls in the group are wondering what their families think about their edgy project. They well capture the mixture of wisdom and honesty these girls are attempting to coax out into the open.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. So, what’s this Group that Opened the Box anyway?

Clinical psychologist Kathy Blohm, Ph.D., faced challenges with getting her young patients, especially often angry teenage girls, to open up. She and writer Karen Van Fossan decided to try an experiment. Get a group of girls together and encourage them to write about their concerns. And, just as crucially, get them to further open up by performing their words on stage.

They began by placing assorted objects — a book of matches, a guitar pick, a wrapped condom, etc. — in a yellow box adorned with flowers. The girls would then open the box, select an item, and write a free-associative poem or bit of prose. No rules, just honest feelings. And, before they knew it, the girls’ creativity and openness was proving boundless. They were expressing concerns ranging from sexuality and desire to harassment, the environment, war, cutting, and eating disorders.

And beyond the founders’ wildest dreams, the girls really blossomed in performance. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing two of their live shows, once with my older daughter and once with both my teenage daughters. (They both loved the shows.) The girls find such a beautiful way of approaching touchy subjects with humor and a wink.

“Teen Writes” does a fine job telling this story. It’s a breezy and engaging 56 minutes. Local area teens Michaela, Rachel, Megan, Alexis, Caitlyn, Ray (Rachel), and Breeanna — a diverse, creative, and charismatic bunch — are introduced and we get a feel for each personality. My only criticism of the movie is that I wish it was longer. I could’ve spent hours with this cast.

The movie also, necessarily, includes the group’s most controversial episode. Accused by some of promoting homosexuality and of brainwashing, the group was told by a Fargo radio station that they could only join a program on woman’s issues if a hostile counter-voice shared their air time. This violated Blohm’s and Van Fossan’s core principle, always make the girls feel safe to express themselves. The radio appearance was cancelled.

One thing I don’t hear mentioned enough is the crucial role the girls’ parents have played. It’s their open-mindedness and trust in their daughters that has made this whole experiment possible. I’m grateful that these girls and these parents are talking and setting such an example. And seeing how much the girls have grown and accomplished fills me with optimism. Everything is possible if parents and teens open their boxes together.

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