“A Totally Alien Life-Form”


Teens nationwide speak their minds with extraordinary frankness to the “legitimate heir to Studs Terkel” (Chicago Tribune)

“A fascinating look at teens. . . . Excellent!” —USA Today

In the fifties, stereotypical teens sipped Cokes at the drive-in. In the nineties, if we are to believe the talk shows, teens snort cocaine and do drive-by shootings. Oral historian Sydney Lewis gives us the real story in “A Totally Alien Life-Form,” where teenagers tell us, in their own words and with extraordinary frankness, how they see themselves.

Everyone has an opinion about teenagers, since everyone was one—or has one. The media both cater to and condemn them, yet rarely are teenagers’ voices heard in public forums—and more rarely still does anyone seek their opinion on anything other than sex, drugs, and violence. These are certainly looming factors in the lives of many adolescents, but teens have a great deal more to say about the increasingly complex territory they must negotiate on their way to adulthood.

Sydney Lewis, who worked for years with the legendary oral historian Studs Terkel, interviewed young people between the ages of thirteen and nineteen from across the country to gather the material for this book. Forty teens talk about sex in the age of AIDS, violence on the streets and at home, and the widespread availability of drugs. But they also talk about their concern for the environment, politics, race relations, education, their religious and spiritual needs, and how technology both excites and frightens them.

Most searing are emotional discussions of what’s really important in their lives: the people for whom they care and who care for them; parents and grandparents; love-hate relationships with siblings and friends; and their desire for acceptance and independence. In a book that simultaneously confirms and explodes all the clichés about life as an adolescent, they discuss plans, fears, ambitions, and even nostalgia for the not-so-long-gone simplicity of childhood. If we listen to their stories, we will learn not only about their lives, but about ourselves and the legacy we have left to them.

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