Adolescence under the shadow of sexual abuse forms the epicenter of “The Stone Boys,” renowned family therapist Michael Gurian’s first young adult novel.
Highly respected and recognized for his expertise in the field of male and female neurobiological research and variation, Gurian has authored more than 30 books, including multiple New York Times bestsellers, published in 23 languages. He contributes years as a marriage and family counselor and abuse survivor to his writings.
The book’s Amazon page summarize its plot as: “When Ben Brickman and Dave McConnell learn of each other’s hidden sexual abuse trauma, they decide to confront their demons by abducting a dangerous high school bully. After their plan for revenge takes a shocking turn, the boys must grapple with good and evil and what it means to be a man.”
“The Stone Boys” has been 40 years in the making. It began to form around the time of Gurian’s entrance into college at 18—the same time he revealed to his parents the sexual abuse he had suffered at the hands of a psychiatrist eight years earlier.
The novel is graphic and painful, dismantling any disillusionment about the trials of boys’ coming-of-age as wholesome and benign. Gurian’s characters spotlight the toxicity of abuse and its cyclical, powerful hold on the psyche, perpetrating violence, depression, and bullying.
Told from the point of view of Ben, a sexually abused youth in the grip of a deeply disturbed, abused peer, David, “The Stone Boys” is an intense journey depicting alternate paths for traumatized youth and the choices that ultimately lead to redemption or defeat. Here is an interview with the author that has been slightly edited for space.
This book has been years in the making. You began writing it around the age of 18.
Yes. I had just started college and that was exactly when I had disclosed to my parents that [my abuse] had happened. So it took me 8 years. I started to write an early version of this. I felt like it was a good thing to do because I’d always had the gift of writing in me, the music of words in me. This is a much better book. But I started it then. Then it went away and came back. It was a 40-year story.
You made it a fiction story, starting at an age when you were revealing such painful experiences. Were you able to achieve what you wanted and make it a cathartic process?
This plot came to me… and two things emerged. A larger novel was emerging in which there was this plot but larger and more point of view, not just Ben’s point of view but David’s point of view. It was going to be the Great American Novel and an adult novel. I wasn’t thinking young adult. It would be cathartic for me, I knew, but I never wanted the book to be therapy, I wanted it to work as a novel.
I was evolving and growing in grad school and becoming a professional and working with people. I had already published three books to help men and women. They were based on my clients.
I could see how difficult it was for males to disclose and to work through this stuff so then I started looking at whether we could get this in the hands of teens before the trauma so overrides their development. Then it started to become two books, one was for young adults and one was that big novel I wanted to write. As the big novel got put aside, I started concentrating in the last few years on making this a crossover for young adults.
So that is where your work led you? As you worked with more and more families who had dealt with this sort of trauma, it led you to make it a young adult novel?
I think it was a combination. I had been a therapist for over 35 years, so definitely working with women, men who had been traumatized, women and men who had been sexually abused, and then knowing that I could speak a story best from a male point of view on sexual abuse and having the goal of writing a novel that wasn’t just a novel, but could also serve people in some way. These clients, if they had this 20 years ago when I was working with them, it might have helped them.
You have Ben and Dave confronting another character. They are not just working through their own trauma, but they pinpoint someone who they feel is another predator in some way. That deviates from the idea of therapeutic help for trauma and moves into these boys’ actions.
First, writer to writer, it just came to me. This plot and this Allen character, who is a bully, that all came to me at 18. That basic concept, the vision of the plot came to me in college.
Allen has evolved. When I was 18, in the late ‘70s, there wasn’t much talk about bullying. Now, we all talk about it. But there wasn’t much talk then. It didn’t come to me in order to be contemporary. In the last 20 years or so I have understood how valuable it is to have this plotline because it’s real. It’s real that these guys who have been so abused and bullied would think about trying to get revenge or confront the bully. That is realistic.
I am hoping that schools will use the book and talk about bullying and see how realistic this is. When boys are bullied severely over a long period of time there are a number of biological reasons they become violent and they are wired to become violent. It’s a real plot with realistic stuff and it’s a morality play.
I think boys have a moral sense and all of that is explored in the book.
Trauma or sexual abuse can affect children who are very young. What age do you think would be able to handle this content and take away from it rather than being overwhelmed or intimidated by the content?
I put it at a mature 12 year-old and any 13 year-old. The School Library Journal gave it a good review and marked it as book for high schoolers.
I think 13 and older can handle it. There’s nothing in it that these young people have not seen on the Internet. It’s sad to say, but they are on YouYube all the time and they are seeing terrible things. My young adult novel was really scaled back from the adult novel.
We think 1 in 6 males are sexually abused, sexually assaulted in some way. We think around 1 in 4 females. We don’t know if those are real statistics but it’s still a lot…
Why is sexual abuse disclosure so difficult for males? Because males get pleasure from it. It is really difficult, especially because they are usually abused by another man although they are heterosexual. We hope this can be talked about as just a confusing part of the abuse.
Do you think that today’s gender fluidity makes children more confused?
Humans are male and female, and that’s not changing. We are binary. But that’s at the level of sex. Gender roles, masculine and feminine, those are fluid, but male and female—if we handle gender fluidity in that context, we can help males and females a lot.
I think if we say everything is up for grabs with gender and there is no male/female, that’s going to push more sexually abused males into the closet and they’re not going to talk about their abuse because their confusion is as males. When this happened to them they were confused because they were male.
I think that the majority of people are always going to know they are male or female even accepting this social concept, but I worry that these sexually abused guys, if they buy into the concept that everything is fluid they won’t realize they have a dysphoria after a sexual trauma and won’t seek help for that. When you’ve been abused in these ways ….you really need to disclose, get help and develop your authentic self.
There is a lot of morality in this book, even beyond the trauma of the two main characters when they seek this revenge. How did you work through, as a writer, that morality? What was the purpose of the morality of the plot and how did you come up with how it went forward?
The metaphor I use is when I’m writing the novel I’m using the right side of my brain, the artistic side, and I’m writing the nonfiction on the left side, the analytic, logic side.
How you can be moral, despite the fact that you’ve been so traumatized? I just believe that human beings are trying to be moral and I think boys are trying to be moral.
The Ben character—that was my story. Nearly everything that happened to him happened to me, verbatim—but not the last part, the final acts he had to be involved in. David, has a conscience for a while, but by the end he has become a bad person.
I think what I ended up doing was creating these two parallel moral paths and one person, Ben, in the way he gets support, the book illustrates unconsciously what has to happen to get help to these people. Ben ends up getting a lot of support, from mom, from dad, from his mentor on the reservation, but Dave remains isolated.
That is part of what happens to conscience in these males. The more isolated they are, the easier it is for them to act without conscience and to act in immoral ways and so that is how it ended up happening even though I didn’t plan that out.
It’s such a challenging thing to end a story. How did you come to your final, last pages of the book and completing it? How do you want the reader to walk away feeling?
The book builds to a climax and a climax in some ways ties things up. That’s the heart or the music or the symphony of a novel; it needs to build to a climax.
It’s a page turner. I also think that stories that are real, one can find the natural climax in them. I was lucky in that I did see the story when I was young and I had it building and knew what the climax was going to be.
That being said, it is somewhat different than what I wrote initially. The reader is going to feel some resolution for Ben. It’s still open-ended, but the reader is, at a gut level, going to feel that Ben is going to be okay.
If it’s a little open ended for Ben, it’s really open ended for Dave. The reader is going to have a lot of feelings about what exactly is Dave becoming and what’s next for Dave.
How do you feel after finishing this so many years later and so much of your early going into it before you went to career and all of your schooling?
I feel satisfaction. The catharsis of writing the story…that happened long ago. Now that the book is out there is a kind of catharsis that has to do with audience reception, because over the years publishers all basically said ‘You cannot publish this book. You are a public figure.’
I feel satisfaction that it’s getting out there. To me it’s helpful to talk about these things. I had to fight against a lot of adversity to get where I am, and I’d like to see other people do that too.