An important point in the characterization of Paper Stars is that each character has one very important characteristic that defines them as a person and influences their day to day lives. Each of these traits are supposed to be both the character's greatest asset and their greatest flaw. They both build the character up and destroy their progress. And in this journal, I wannted to share with my readers an in-depth analysis of Benjamin Jastrow.
Easily the antithesis of Sara, Benjamin's defining characteristic is his altruism, and all of his other traits are influenced by it or are a result of it. His mild, gentle nature is centered around his carnal fear of causing others discomfort, which, in turn, becomes his own discomfort. His kindness is not limited to only those he cares for--it stretches to all those he meets, even when they are cruel to him, and he willingly shoulders the blame for any and all grievances around him. He is a human scapegoat, an alacritous martyr willing to give up his life for almost anyone around him. His mild, shy nature makes him avoid conflict at all costs, and he rarely, if ever, wins an argument, for fear of causing the aggressor disquiet or insult. He never lives in the here and now: he is a navigator of the future, of philosophical ponderings on the nature and destiny of humanity, and he always has his head in the clouds. While he is a sensitive soul, he has a healthy appreciation of humour in all forms and is quite nearly the master of self-deprecation, though often these sorts of jokes are a reflection of his own damaging self perception. And despite his emotional softness, he has an extremely high tolerance for pain, having built it up from years of physical abuse.
While his affection is often expressed through tender, soft gestures, his love, once won, is extremely passionate, even though it often seems subdued by his general clemency and shyness. His selflessness also ties in with his violent empathy towards others: he will often go so far as to feel the very emotions that others are going through, which gives him a unique understanding of the good and the bad of the human psyche. He connects with children much easier than people his age or adults, because of their lack of judgement, their ambivalence, their acceptance. They don't judge him or have any bias, and they possess an innocence that was lost in him at an extremely young age, an innocence that he desperately wants to preserve. Children are also drawn to him because of his safety, his gentleness and his kindness.
Then again, the negative aspects of this selfless nature are almost as prevalent, if not more so, than the positive. Probably the most damaging aspect of his altruism is contained in the idea that Benjamin is so wrapped up in living his life in accordance to other's needs that he actually begins to lose himself: he stops living his own life and he becomes a shell of other's emotions. Any unhappiness that people around him feel, he immediately internalizes and twists into something that he caused.
Now, some have asked me, as the author, if Benjamin suffers from any of the mental conditions that many modern teenagers suffer from, and the answer is yes. While these conditions did not have labels in his time, Benjamin does indeed suffer from chronic depression and anxiety, the latter of which is the most detrimental to both his physical and mental health. His depression, while hindering, doesn't completely alter the way he lives his life, and it's more mild: while on his worst days, he wishes he were indeed dead or nonexistent, his depression has never caused him to self harm or desire to. It's usually this perpetual sort of melancholy that seeps into his life when he is alone with his thoughts and causes him to be rather lethargic or tired. No, the most damaging aspect of his mental state is his anxiety. Anxiety is the reigning force that dictates his life and shows itself to be the dark side of his assets, turning his selflessness into self-destruction. It causes him insomnia, it causes him constant distress and pain over seemingly inconsequential things, and the only way he can relieve himself of this emotion is to replace it with guilt: blaming himself for the faults and actions of others no matter how irrationally removed from him they are.
This frame of mind is modernly called, "The Martyr Complex", Benjamin being an extreme but unique case of it. The average person with a martyr complex usually complains, blaming themselves without seeing the good being done. Benjamin, on the other hand, lets it build up inside. His self-sacrificing tendencies make it literally impossible to complain, because he feels that complaining would insult others whose circumstances are worse than his. He prefers to turn a blind eye to other's flaws, instead thinking their negative traits as faults of his own. A prime example of this is his relationship with his father. His father, Kurt, was essentially a good-natured man: very stern and serious, but well-meaning. And that was all Benjamin ever thought of him. Benjamin never thought his father's emotional and physical abuse towards him was unnecessary or mean-spirited. He simply took it quietly because he felt that he deserved it: that his father was right, and was only hurting him because Benjamin had tried his patience. "I never had any [spirit]—people walked all over me, so Father always made me mind my brothers. I don't blame him, of course; if I were him, I would be ashamed of me, too," says Benjamin once, "[...] My father hated me for [losing Caleb], I think. Sometimes I do, too" (pg. 132-33). This reveals Benjamin's skewed and self-destructive view of himself as well as his willingness to take on other's flaws as his own. Now, his father wasn't violently abusive--the worst he did was a slap or an occasional beating with the belt, which were actually quite common punishments before the 1950s. And Kurt did love his son, just not as much as he loved Caleb and Daniel, and unlike most parental favouritism, he didn't try to conceal it. Matching this with a spirited, though submissive mother started moulding Benjamin into a martyr before he was even old enough to know what a martyr was.
Another contributing factor to his complex was also one of his assets: empathy. While not a pessimistic person, Benjamin is absolutely incapable of looking away from other's pain. While he sees and acknowledges the good in the world, the bad is all too prevalent in his life to be ignored. So instead of numbing himself to the traumas around him, which is a defense mechanism for many, Benjamin instead opens his eyes and actively takes notice and internalizes the pain in the world, which increases his anxiety and depression all the more. It gets to a point where he literally cannot be happy when others are suffering, especially children. He has this compulsive need to protect them and foster their innocence, for it was something stripped of him when he was extremely young. First in small bits, when he was responsible for a handicapped little brother and in turn took care of his brothers when his mom worked as a teacher, and then in large leaps: Kristallnacht, the shooting of his friend, his brother's and parents deaths and his separation from his remaining family. It is also hinted that he has undergone other abuse by Sara's descriptions of his scars: "[there was] a dark mark that ran along his hairline, mostly hidden beneath his fringe, a slightly crooked finger on his right hand and a long pink line, about as thick as my thumbnail, that went from the top of his wrist and wound round to the side of his elbow. He never explained those, and I never dared to inquire upon their sources" (pg. 206-7). In addition, after the confrontation with the soldiers in the ghetto, Benjamin admits that, "this isn't the first time someone's done this to me. I can deal with this sort of thing. Your tolerance for pain builds up if you're hurt enough" (pg. 277), which suggests that he has undergone physical abuse a number of times before meeting Sara's family, which is further cemented by his initial fear of kind Mr. Fleischer, especially when Sara jokes about her father "punishing" him and he takes it extremely seriously. To keep the mystery, I am only divulging that he underwent abuse at the hands of not only his father and soldiers, though I will let the rest be up for speculation.
In any case, Benjamin's selfless way of life can be a beautiful trait, but his personality as a whole cannot be looked upon as "perfect" or "ideal", because it's not. My readers tell me they think he's a sort of "perfect guy", and I just wanted to make it clear that I did not create him to be that way. In his own words, "No one our age should be like me. Too young to be so sad and tired."
Listening to: Let Me Love You - Ne-Yo
Reading: Quiet: The Power of Introverts [...]