Teen-agers—even to adults not so far removed from adolescence themselves—are inscrutable. Why the obsession with popularity? Why the inability to plan for the future? Why the big, baggy pants? Each generation of teens is an enigma, and even dedicated hours of MTV-watching won’t begin to unravel the mystery.
In My Room: Teenagers in Their Bedrooms doesn’t demystify the youth of today, but it offers a glimpse into the lives of 61, um, young adults. The concept is simple: Syracuse University prof Adrienne Salinger met teens “in malls, restaurants, at the gym,” and asked if she could photograph them in their bedrooms. Conditions: no tidying up, “no parents allowed.” Those who agreed posed for the pics and submitted to personal interviews with Salinger. The results—a single color photo of each participant, paired with quotations from the interview—were displayed in galleries around the country, including the National Museum of American Art.
The results are engaging, though the capsule biographies are brief. The voyeuristic glee of getting one’s beady little eyes on the rooms of total strangers is twofold: First, readers will rifle through the pages in search of the equivalent of their own teen-age abodes (mine is in there: a pad festooned with rock posters, cassettes, and guitars by metalhead Jeff D.). Second, a closer look at the bedrooms’ decor and the kids’ personal statements brings out the armchair psychoanalyst in everyone. Anne I. sits beneath two near-identical posters of Jim Morrison, and next to a fuzzy white teddy bear. “I do as much drinking and drugs as anyone does,” she says. Fred H., looking not the slightest bit sheepish, sits surrounded by dozens of pictures of models and of Michael Jordan, all clipped from magazines. And David N. explains how he assisted his physician father with an amputation in Jamaica. He sits beneath a “Superman” poster, and Room‘s suitably American Graffiti-esque “Where They Are Now” afterword notes that he went on to attend Harvard.
To her credit, Salinger resists the (doubtless enormous) temptation to make Room a cavalcade of teen-age freaks, and cautiously admits that some subjects may have exaggerated (“The anecdotes that the teenagers tell me may be at odds with what really occured in their lives”). There are a few extreme cases—“[My father] hit me with a hatchet once,” notes the conspicuously nipple- and nose-pierced Auto C.—but a sizable number of Room‘s subjects are, well, ordinary. Joe H. loves to play guitar, Latrelle B. wants to become a pharmacist, Alex V. complains about her social- worker parents. Peering into the lives of the average kids, though, is almost as satisfying as spying on the disturbed ones. Besides, it’s presumptuous to guess at what constitutes “normal” in a group so distant from their peers of 10 years ago.
And, of course, readers aren’t given enough details to draw real conclusions. Salinger says she spent about two hours interviewing each person, but her book’s constrained format makes even its most pitiable subjects seem glib. Furthermore, Room‘s flashy typography stresses certain quotes: When Brad S. says, “We just live and we die,” he does it in a point size twice as large as the rest of his comments. These qualities define Room more as a coffee-table art text than a work of journalism. Ultimately, it’s less monumental than Salinger might have hoped.