The "Twilight" of Our Culture

IN GREEK MYTHOLOGY, Cassandra (literally, "she who entangles men") was a woman so beautiful that Apollo granted her the gift of prophecy. But when she did not return his love, he cursed her so that no one would believe her predictions. Thus, the title Cassandra is given to voices in the wilderness that prophesy calamities that no none believes will come to pass. Until they do, of course.

Today, I will do a little prophesying myself. First, my bonafides: I am an internationally-published author whose books deal with spiritual and social themes. I am interested in the state of the heart and soul, and I have spent most of my adult life examining and pondering our culture and times, and then writing about them.

Over the past three months I've been promoting a new book in Costco and Sam's Club stores, where people buy everything from turkeys to televisions. And not a few books. My signing table is usually set up at the end of the book aisle, a great placement, as most shoppers pass me as they head for the food section. Behind me, in recent weeks, are pallets of Stephanie Meyer's four-volume hardbound "Twilight" series, priced at $45, a stiff price to be sure, but a steal when the suggested retail is $75. It's a steal all right, but I fear the theft is of the virtue and judgment of the largely female readership of these popular books.

The author, Stephanie Meyer, is following in J.K. Rowling's footsteps: an instant millionairess, having sold 40 million copies of the books worldwide. But Rowling's appeal was limited largely to young boys, while Meyer's Bella Swan is obviously designed to balance the equation and draw in young girls. Bella is a young, chaste girl who falls in love with a vampire, who acts as not only the object of her romantic yearnings, but as her protector and savior.

Vampirism, from its inception, has always had obvious sexual connotations. The drawing the blood of a docile or sleeping female through a "kiss" on the neck by a powerful male results in her falling under the vampire's thrall, and her own soul is now drawn into the darkness of murder and mayhem that delimits the vampire existence.

But not Twilight. In this artful remaking of the myth, the vampire (Edward Cullen) drinks only animal blood and so he's "safe" for Bella. This, of course, is another sexual euphemism: Ed and Bella don't go "all the way." Bella has no idea what Edward does outside of her presence beyond his assurances that he drinks only animal blood, and, like the young girl she is, she naively believes him. Of course, in the end, their "love" is consummated, as "love" always is. But it's done so cleverly that the readership -- primarily, pubescent girls and their mothers -- see it as "love" and not an act of sexual violence, as vampirism always is.

Perplexed by the books literally flying off the shelf behind me, I asked a woman in her mid-forties what her take was on the phenomenon. She said her two teenaged daughters read the series, and so she read it as well, "to get an idea what was going on." She looked thoughtful for a moment, then smiled: "I think it's a bit of the 'bad boy' thing . . . women are attracted to the bad boy. And since the young vampire doesn't drink human blood, he's not really that bad, is he? Plus, he's nicer to her than the mortal boys her age."

So here was a woman who seemed, for all intents and purposes, to be a good mother who was involved in her daughters' lives to such an extent that she even reads the same books they do. But she saw nothing wrong with vampirism, so long as Edward didn't murder (read: rape) Bella. And since Edward is "nicer" to Bella than the troglodytes on campus, Bella can be excused for succumbing to Edward's charms.

Horrified, I reflected on the state of parenting in the world today. Instead of guiding children toward literature that uplifts and instructs, parents now join their children in reading not only childish and soul-destroying books, but they assuage any resulting guilt by actually believing they are "involved" in their children's lives . . . that they are "sharing" something.

Something like a needle, I think.

But it's been thus for years. The Harry Potter phenomenon was no different. This children's book was also read widely by adults, who, fleeing the increasingly unacceptable violence and language of "adult" fare, retreated into the safe world of a child's story about magic. That itself is not alarming; most people understand that magic is pure fantasy. But the subtextual messages of Harry Potter are what concern me. Unlike the time-honored "hero's journey" of literary tradition going all the way back to Odysseus, Harry Potter was a new kind of hero: he started out a hero and shows little true emotional growth throughout the books. His in-born talents are apparent the first time he stretches out his hand and the broom pops up from the ground. He's a natural! Of course he is, his parents were remarkable wizards themselves -- it's genetic! Throughout the books, people meet Harry and exclaim, "My God! You're Harry Potter!" as if that explains everything about the lad. He simply has to "discover" his talent and use it. No growth (besides puberty) is thrust upon Harry. He is destined to be a great wizard because he already is.

I find this lack of personal development in a protagonist alarming. Our own lives are nothing but challenges that reveal our character; challenges that make us stretch and grow. But Harry is already a great wizard, and, magically, he will show himself to be such. This kind of magical thinking might save Harry's life in the books, but it's death for us in the real world. We mere muggles are doomed to have to learn and grow, to actually mold ourselves into something worthwhile. Our birthright is a mere potential; it's not an exclamation of divine right.

But it doesn't stop there: George Lucas, off to such a stirring start in the first three Star Wars movies, completely destroyed the Force itself when, in the fourth film, Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn informs Anakin's mother that tiny, microscopic organism -- mitoclorians -- are the real source of the Force, and Anakin has a remarkable concentration of them in his blood! No wonder he's going to grow up to be Darth Vader! It's inevitable!

So instead of Luke Skywalker's journey toward adulthood and heroism, where he grows by fits and starts, unable to prevent the remote from zapping him when he has the blast shield on his helmet lowered or failing to see Darth Vader in himself in the Dagobah cave, his father Anakin comes out of the womb fully prepared to be a Jedi Master and later, Darth Vader. Of course, those darned mitoclorians. Too bad I don't have any in my blood.

These shortcuts to power (Harry Potter and Anakin Skywalker) are dangerous lessons to teach our children, for those of us not living in the fantasy world of books and movies know there is nothing more crucial to success in life than achieving -- through our own blood, sweat, and tears -- actual competence, whether it be our ability with a light saber or a magic wand. (And thus far, no one I know on this planet has any talent with either!)

To the mix of incompetent arrested-adolescent adult males spawned by Rowling and Lucas, Stephanie Meyer is now adding young women infected with the dangerous notion that it's okay to date the Edward Cullens of the world, so long as he doesn't drink their blood. What Twilight says about sex is obvious to any girl who has ever been in the backseat with a boy: "It's okay," he coos, "we won't go all the way." What he's really saying is that they won't go all the way tonight. But eventually they will, and it will be she who bears the consequences of his "love": destroyed self-esteem, STDs, and perhaps even pregnancy, while he finds another victim down the road. More and more Bella Swans of the world will be left behind with shattered lives. Good job, Stef.

Congratulations, Mom, on reading Twilight with your daughter. When she turns thirteen, maybe you two can get matching tattoos.

Just call me "Cassandra."