On October 15, 1969, the day the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam took place, two 17-year-olds who had attended one of the events killed themselves by diverting exhaust fumes into their car. They left 24 suicide notes, and in the only one that was made public they explained that it was in protest of the war and a sacrifice to make others see the value of peace and love.
Craig and Joan had not been the only suicides due to the war up until this point, but they had been the only teenagers and were described as so “normal” and “wholesome”, that their deaths received national attention. This book looks at the lives of Joan and Craig by speaking to the people around them, by examining the environment they grew up in, and by embedding it into a broader political and social context of the US during this time. What Asinof created through this is not only a very moving picture of the two teenagers and their struggles to make sense of an often cruel and unjust world, but also a psychogram of a post-war suburban America that was steeped in patriotism, conformism, and conservatism, and that stifled creativity, critical thinking, and any kind of “otherness”.
The book is now almost 50 years old, but it has timeless relevance in at least one aspect, and that is that being a teenager is incredibly hard, especially if you are different in some way, for instance in your way of thinking. Growing up and seeing the world for what it is can be terrifying, and finding your place is not an easy feat. It is clear that the more Joan and Craig understood of the world the more disillusioned they became, but as one friend of them said, maybe they only would have needed one adult to listen to them and their questions and ideas, their sorrow over the state of the world, and maybe then it would have ended differently. There was, however, no one like that, because every adult around them conformed and any ideas outside narrowly defined parameters were shut down as radical or unpatriotic. Still, no blame is put on anyone specific, and there shouldn’t be. It was a collective failure, brought on by many factors.
Overall, I think the book is respectful and generally objective in its depiction of the events, and it is an informative read although I think it loses its focus in the last third. I also felt that I learned much more about Craig than Joan which bothered me a bit. That may not be the fault of the author, because Joan’s family refused to contribute to the book, but even in the interviews with the friends it seemed to me that the spotlight was more on Craig. Minor criticisms aside, however, it is a good book and worth the read, even if it is an incredibly sad story that’s often hard to take. As one of their schoolmates said, “I think they died in vain. It was a waste.” What a waste, indeed.