Am I [Para]normal?
In the novels of Lois Duncan, teens grapple with parents, boyfriends and astral projection.
By Nadra Kareem, Bitch Magazine, Winter 2009
Karen Connors isn’t the type you’d think would be the weird girl at school. By conventional standards of beauty, the blonde, brown-eyed heroine of Lois Duncan’s YA novel The Third Eye (1984) is a catch. Yet, for reasons she’s never understood, Karen’s classmates have always treated her as if she had a severe case of cooties.
Karen might be suffering the consequences of your typical teenage snobbery, only there’s something different, something less comprehensible than bad adolescent skin and youthful awkwardness. She is starting to see things, primarily visions of missing children. As the visions increase, Karen finally grasps what sets her apart from her peers. She’s psychic!
This epiphany puts Karen in teenage hell. The other kids have always treated her like a freak, and her psychic ability confirms their perception. “The hidden strangeness had finally surfaced, as she had always feared in some dark recess of her mind that it someday would,” Duncan writes.
Karen is no anomaly among Duncan’s heroines. A slew of the novelist’s protagonists in books from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s find themselves in paranormal conundrums similar to hers. With a career that spans five decades, Duncan has made a name for herself by giving the female adolescent struggle with identity a paranormal twist.
Duncan doesn’t use such themes simply to thrill readers but to detail her characters’ liberation from oppressive forces, be they lovers, family members, or communities. Although Duncan clearly has personal interest in the paranormal—she has chronicled her experiences with psychics in two non-fiction books—she is primarily concerned with demonstrating how her heroines can tap into their powers to be independent and self-actualized.
“For most people, the teens are the beginning of the self actualization process,” Duncan said in a 2003 TeenReads.com interview. “That’s when we lay the moral foundation that we will continue to build on throughout our lifetimes. So…I believe those years are extremely important in establishing the kind of individuals we eventually become.”
Much of what Duncan’s characters experience touch upon their roles as young women in a patriarchal society. Domestic violence, abortion, and gender equality are all topics Duncan has broached in her works, distinguishing her from other YA novelists and often resulting in the banning of her books.
“In reading these novels, young women can find other young women to be proud of,” Deborah Wilson Overstreet remarks in “Help! Help! An Analysis of Female Victims in the Novels of Lois Duncan,” which appeared in the Spring 1994 edition of the ALAN Review. Writer and literary critic Jean Fritz has also praised Duncan for her portrayals of women. In 1981, when one of Duncan’s first books to grapple with the paranormal debuted, Fritz singled Duncan out in the New York Times for writing “stories with female protagonists…aimed at young teen-agers [that aren’t]… either spiked with romance or soaked in it.” Rather than center the novel in question—Stranger with My Face—on teen love, Duncan used the book to chart the young heroine’s journey to self-awareness.
The Paranormal Path to Self-Identity
In Stranger with My Face and The Third Eye, Duncan introduces two characters who initially travel the familiar path of many teenaged girls. The two are lonely, isolated, haven’t a clue who they are, and search for an outside source for self-esteem and identity. The source? A boy, natch: Both girls have untapped paranormal powers, but at the start of the books, they only feel worthwhile when a guy gets the hots for them.
Feeling isolated and freakish, The Third Eye’s Karen adheres to the age-old line of thought that if she can land a hottie, she will be transformed into a whole person. When Karen finally develops a relationship with Tim, Duncan notes that Karen feels she "had been transformed overnight…from a non-entity into a real person…She now had an identity."
As soon as Karen discovers her psychic ability, however, the honeymoon ends quickly. Tim wants her to use her gift to cheat in school. Karen refuses. Tim is turned off—not only because she won't use her gift for his benefit, but also by the fact the she has abilities that he can't quite grasp. “Beneath the façade of anger there lay another emotion, one Tim would never admit to, but one that she could sense. It was fear. Fear of the unknown—of the unnatural. Fear of something or someone who was ‘weird.’”
Karen and Tim break up, and for the better. Karen goes on to use her powers to gain self-esteem—and to save the life of a cop. She has become a her own person, a heroic one.
Just like Karen, when Stranger with My Face protagonist Laurie Stratton begins dating, she forfeits her sense of self to her boyfriend. "I had a place now, an identity,” she gushes. “I was 'Laurie Stratton, Gordon Ahearn's girl…'"
Of course, when a twin sister you never knew you had makes a ghostly appearance in your small seaside town, boyfriends suddenly seem much less important. It turns out, Laurie's sister, Lia, (from whom she was separated at birth) isn't dead after all, but using a technique called astral projection, in which a person's soul travels outside of her body.
Being contacted by Lia takes Laurie's focus off of her boyfriend and puts it onto her own life, for once. As Laurie realizes that she might also have the gift of astral projection, she tells herself, "If I could free myself from my body…I could do anything." And indeed, finding her supernatural powers, she uses them to vanquish her evil twin in an epic battle. She realizes her full potential through her paranormal powers.
Those powers translate into decidedly human strength as well: As her confidence grows, she gets a life, making friends of her own rather than relying on Gordon and his crowd for companionship. Her newfound interests lead Gordon to break up with her, but Laurie is too invested in her life at this point to care.
In comparison with an epic, supernatural battle, the pettiness of high school and affections of an immature boy prove silly. The analogy of Laurie’s newfound superpowers may be obvious—this is, after all, young adult fiction—but they are no less important a message: Those who put their stock in others—peers, boyfriends—to develop self-esteem are doomed to disappointment. Those who trust themselves will find the strength to grow and face the future, even if that future is unknown. Indeed, by the end of the book, Laurie is confident, strong, and even wise. “A new phase of life is starting. That is what I will concentrate on,” Laurie thinks in the final pages. “Life continues, and we all of us keep changing and building, toward what we cannot know.”
Stranger with My Face and The Third Eye stand out among Duncan’s works in that females rather than males save the day. In Stranger with My Face, Laurie Stratton's little sister saves her when she is in danger. And in The Third Eye, Duncan made a concerted effort to subvert the damsel in distress model. During a July 2006 interview with BookLoons.com, Duncan said, "I wanted our teenage heroine, Karen, to save the life of this young police officer, rather than have him save her." With both Karen and Laurie, Duncan illustrates how easy it is for teen girls, especially those who are lonely and isolated, to define themselves entirely through their romantic involvements. As the novels go on, many of the supposed perks that arise from having boyfriends disappear once their relationships end. The notion that their boyfriends have the power to give their lives meaning is quickly revealed to be an illusion.
Alone on Strange Ground
Though they too feature teens who have paranormal abilities, Duncan's novels Gallows Hill (1997) and Down a Dark Hill (1974) are a departure from Stranger with My Face and The Third Eye in that the protagonists lose their identities when their widowed mothers pursue romantic relationships, uprooting them from their hometowns. In these novels, teen girls who have a healthy sense of identity experience feelings of alienation in their new settings. All the while, both girls are shocked at how the new men in their mothers' lives have manipulated their moms beyond recognition.
Gallows Hill protagonist Sarah Zoltanne is stunned when her mother moves from California to the small conservative town of Pine Crest for a married man. And Down a Dark Hall heroine, Kit Gordy, is arguably worse off. Her mother abandons her at Blackwood, a creepy boarding school, so she can spend her first year of marriage without the burden of caring for a child. Blackwood gives Kit the heebie jeebies, just as Sarah of Gallows Hill is instantly turned off by Pine Crest.
Evil thrives in the settings of both Down a Dark Hall and Gallows Hill, and, before long, the heroines of the books discover that their paranormal powers make them vulnerable.
In Down a Dark Hall, Kit finds out that she and her classmates have been admitted to Blackwood because they have the gift of extrasensory perception. Rather than allow the girls to develop their gifts as they please, Blackwood's faculty uses the girls’ bodies to channel the souls of dead artists. The goal is to have them recreate artistic masterpieces that will be indistinguishable from the originals, allowing the Blackwood faculty unlimited wealth.
When Kit sets out to run away from Blackwood, her paranormal ability allows her to receive guidance from her dead father. But Wilson Overstreet believes that the fact that Kit got help doesn’t diminish the heroine’s agency. “Kit Gordy is helped slightly by a male, but it is her own courage, determination and intelligence that sets the action into motion,” Wilson Overstreet writes.
At the novel's end, Kit emerges a hero who has helped her classmates escape and who has regained independence, but her mother remains out of reach in Europe. So locked in co-dependence is she with her new husband that Kit’s mother has no idea that her daughter's life was threatened.
Duncan had the women’s movement in mind when choosing the artists who would be depicted in the novel. “When I first wrote Down a Dark Hall, it was returned to me for revisions because the publisher feared that feminists would criticize it because the ghosts were male and the victims were female,” Duncan remarks on her site, loisduncan.arquettes.com. “I changed the male poet to a woman writer, Emily Bronte, but I couldn't seem to come up with any famous artists or musicians from a previous century who were female.”
Like Kit, Sarah of Gallows Hill must contend with her mother's dependence on a man. “The woman across the table from her…an interesting, energetic woman with offbeat viewpoints…was sounding more and more like a female version of Ted Thompson every time she opened her mouth,” Sarah notes of mother. What’s more, Sarah struggles to adjust to Pine Crest, where religion and hypocrisy flourish.
Being a newcomer makes Sarah a misfit, but she is further alienated when she unwittingly frightens her classmates by using her newfound psychic powers to tell their fortunes. Sarah's peers label her a witch and try to hang her. After Sarah survives the attempted hanging, Sarah's mother, Rosemary, kicks her controlling boyfriend to the curb and returns to California. "Just like flicking a switch, she's become the old Rosemary," Sarah observes of her mother. "It's like she just can't wait to take control of her life again.”
Down a Dark Hill and Gallows Hill are cautionary tales. They outline the consequences daughters bear when their mothers make poor decisions due to their dependence on men. While their mothers willingly relinquish their identities in order to pursue romantic relationships, Kit and Sarah make the opposite choice. Despite being uprooted and forced to relocate to hostile new environments, they refuse to conform. Instead, they hang on to what made them unique in the past—their hopes, interests and old friends—and what makes them unique in the present—their paranormal abilities.
The Psychic as Liberator of the Psyche
Despite their feminist streak, Duncan’s novels are by no means feminist ideals. Her heroines tend to be ridiculously good-looking. And many of them ditch their even better looking boyfriends to be paired up with yet another boy. Though the second time around, the girls find companionship with boys who respect them, the message sent to the reader is that male companionship is a necessity.
The redeeming feature of Duncan’s novels is that relationships with men are never the priority. In fact, male characters typically appear in her novels, along with the paranormal itself, to stop her heroines from giving into the idea that self-worth can be gained through romantic relationships or social status. Such worth can only be gained from self-exploration, a process the characters undergo when they learn of their paranormal powers. Seemingly the one desire that Duncan has for all of her characters it is that they experience healing.
Take a teenage girl, put her at odds with those around her and give her paranormal powers. If Lois Duncan’s novels have a formula, this is it. Of course, in the 1970s, Stephen King covered similar ground with his tale of a telekinetic teen in Carrie. But the paranormally gifted girls in Duncan’s novels use their special abilities in ways that don’t lead to a gym full of toasted prom-goers. Instead, the powers Duncan’s protagonists wield lead them on the road to self-development and female empowerment. They may not be normal, but they’re happily paranormal.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2009 print edition of Bitch Magazine.