Hopelessness and consolation; growing up, willing or not
February/May 13, 2000
I am at home with my son Cornelius. His little sister is sleeping-over at her girlfriend's house and his little brother is already in bed. We have just been watching the news together and now it is also his bedtime. I ask him to go to the bathroom to brush his teeth. He does not react. He is sitting glued to his chair, engrossed in a conversation in either `Thuis' or `Wittekerke' (two Flemish soap operas, I can't tell the one from the other). Again I ask him to go and brush his teeth.
Again he does not react.
`Turn off the television,' I say, `that's not for children.'
These words arouse his interest. `Why not?' he asks. He is six and a half.
And then the conversation develops that parents have with children of six and a half. It is a giggly conversation, punctuated with cuddles. `But mum, why isn't it for children? I know that Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy are really you and dad.'
`Cornelius, my boy,' I say, as I am luring him along to the bathroom, `there are things you already know when you are six and a half. But that doesn't mean that there is nothing anymore that you don't know. There are some things you only find out when you are ten. And other things you only find out when you are fourteen.'
`Like what, mum?' he yells, jumping up and down in excitement. `Tell me! Tell me something I'll only find out when I am ten.'
`No, you have to be ten for that. Now open your mouth and brush.'
`I'm not brushing my teeth until you tell me a secret.'
`I was only joking, Cornelius,' I say. `There aren't any more secrets. You know everything already.' And that is true, he knows how people make love and make babies. He knows what I think happens to people when they die. I can't think of anything I have kept from him.
`You're only saying that,' he laughs. He suspects I am teasing him but he is not quite sure. `You're only saying that because there's a secret you don't want me to know.'
`It's late,' I sigh. `Brush your teeth.'
He clenches his teeth defiantly. He is doing what I so often do to him. He is setting his conditions.
`Okay,' I say, at my wits' end. After all, I am a writing mother. Children in bed means finally being able to go and sit at the computer; not much time in this household for bedtime stories and other such nonsense. I am still not sure what I am going to tell him, but at least I've got him to open his mouth. His eyes are sparkling, he knows I am about to come up with something crazy. `Well you know dad,' I say, `well dad is not really dad, he is really mum dressed up as dad.'
`That's impossible', he says. `I have seen you both together, at the same time.'
`Well that's because mum is not really mum, mum is really grandma dressed up as mum!' His laughter makes further tooth brushing quite impossible. His class teacher is really the school's headmaster. And the headmaster is really the goldfish of the football coach. It is quite some time before he finally falls asleep, he loves this conversation so much that he won't let me leave his bedroom.
Why has this conversation stuck in my mind? Perhaps because it took place more or less at the same time as I read an article by Katrien Vloeberghs in the newsletter of the NCJ, the National Centre for Children's Literature. Katrien Vloeberghs wrote this article after attending a congress in Illinois, in the autumn of last year, called 'Growing up (post-) modern'. What she wrote drew my attention to the following: the whole childhood and growing-up discourse is almost exclusively led by adults. Children do not define themselves, we do it for them. Children are the adults of tomorrow, they will succeed us, and more than that, they will supplant us, they will take our place. They will introduce innovations and acclaim those innovations, while they will implicitly or explicitly criticise our approach and reject our ways. They are a threat to us and to our position. (And then I quickly do a mental exercise: it would be nice if that six and a half year old son of mine turned out to have an artistic passion, it would be lovely if it turned out that his vocation lay in writing, but what if he turned out to be a much better writer than I am? What if he one day says: 'My dear old mum did her best, but what I do, that's the real thing'?).
If adults insist on keeping the defining of what it is to be a child exclusively in their own hands, they have to be suspected of incorporating a certain element of self-preservation into any definition. The hypothesis emerges that raising children is to some extent a matter of keeping them small, and that is precisely what children are raging against in the so called `conflict of the generations', the proverbial `generation gap' - youthful rebellion, disobedience and disrespect.
When my son wanted to watch that soap I told him `That's not for children' all the same, even though I am convinced there is not a thing I can not tell my children. I wanted him to go to bed. He dictates my life and he knows it. He has the power to keep me away from my writing desk, be it by clenching his teeth when I ask him to brush them. He is my jamming signal. That I coax him and pull the wool over his eyes at tooth brushing time is simply the realpolitik of a working mother, it has little impact, no harm done.
But what happened in some of the other conversations that I have had with him?
He watches the news. He sees footage of wars and asks me whether our country will ever be at war.
`Probably not,' I say, `our country is on friendly terms with most other countries.'
He sees footage of a flood and asks me whether Antwerp will ever be flooded. `That's very unlikely,' I say. `There's a tunnel under the River Scheldt, and thanks to that, the ground water level is very low and bla-bla-bla.'
But he does not give up: `What if we stop being friends with the other countries? What if it does rain very hard and very long?' He does not want me to doubt. He does not find peace until I say: `I am sure there won't be a war. I am sure it will never rain so hard and so long that our house gets flooded.'
`How do you know?'
`It's in the paper. Clever men and women worked it out. I learned it at school. The king said it.'
The most difficult question, of course, is the one he has been asking us since he was four: `What happens to us when we die?'
Now I don't believe in life after death, and neither does my husband. We simply started out by saying we didn't know. But he soon learnt to phrase his question differently: `What do you think happens to us when we die?' An honest answer to this question thoroughly alarmed and distressed him. We quickly arrived at a sort of compromise answer, something about building blocks that are constantly being reused, which more or less satisfied him.
Was I lying to him? Have I been condescending and patronising towards him. Or was this pure and honest consolation?
I am not just a mother, I also write for children. The first version of My Aunt is a Pilot Whale ends immediately after the main character discovers that her girlfriend has been sexually abused by her father. Tara tells it to Anna, Anna listens, the book is over. Rewriting it eighteen months later, I made a major addition. Part of it was the inclusion of the hope of some kind of a solution. The book now concludes with the message that Tara obviously will never be fully healed, but the final pages have a comforting tone
Why did I do this?
I assumed that a child needs comfort and consolation, that you can't give a child a knock without taking care of the bruises.
And why? Because some things are simply too much for children to cope with? Because they are not yet fully rounded, they still have to grow? What if I as an author reach a point at which I myself no longer believe in a happy ending? The literary landscape offers me ample leeway to write accordingly, but is that also true of children's literature, and I mean children's literature, books for kids my son's age?
I suddenly suspect that a curious process is at work here: the modern, politically correct writer of children's books gives the impression he wants the child to grow, but is actually being `deceptive' by determining in advance that whatever his message may be, it will be a message that does not leave the child in the darkness. Even after years of insistence that a children's book should not be moralistic, the notion that a children's book must not be without a perspective, that it must not be 'dark', still prevails (even the great defenders of non-moralistic children's literature question pessimistic and fatalistic children's books, particularly clear this is in Aukje Holtrop's interview with Wim Hofman about his `sombre' book Zwart als inkt (Black as ink). Literally she asks: `Isn't it horrible to be so pessimistic about how those stories will turn out?'
Does children's literature that systematically eliminates the 'dark' sufficiently stimulate the growth of its readers? Or is its main concern to keep them in line, to counteract rebellion and disobedience?
We seek to comfort children, but if we do that under all circumstances, how far away are we from being condescending? Doing away with all comfort and consolation would be painful, at a tender age, children would be confronted with just how much can go wrong and react against it. Young as they are they still are great believers in the idea that change is always amelioration. We have long ago lost that faith: we moralise change, to us it can signify progress, but just as easily loss and decline. Is it out of fear for the latter that we continue to comfort them, even those of us who at times feel that there is no bright side?
Clearly, there are moments children want to be shielded from doom and gloom. When my son asks me questions about flooding and wars, he indicates that he wants me to lie. Educators can be accused of trying to keep children small, but sometimes it is children themselves who ask to be kept small. However, what I am aiming for is progress and growth. As mother, as an artist, I can't always go along with this longing for the status quo. I feel the need to every now and then, in just a few of the many books that are available, close that umbrella of consolation, and to expose the child to the naked truth, the harsh reality, being: life is very often good, very often there will be comfort and consolation, but there are also such things as futility and misfortune. There is such a thing as outright, pitch-black, cold-hearted evil. There are lies. There is hypocrisy. There is a dark side to the things people do. This may mean that children become rebellious, subversive and turn against us, but that is a price I am willing to pay for them to learn.
Nobody will claim that there is a lack of books even for small children about negative emotions, about fear, anger, frustration, the urge to destroy and the urge to self-destruction. But do we leave enough room for books in which at the end the negative feelings are not bent to the good, the positive, the victory over fear, anger, frustration, the urge to destroy and the urge to self-destruction?
As a child, I didn't see a great many films, but I'm sure I must have seen a whole lot more than I now remember. Most of them have been wiped from my memory, is that because they made no lasting impression on me, who will tell? One film that is etched into my memory is the Indian B-film in the final moments of which - during the closing credits, so all those who had already rushed off to the toilets will have missed it - the fearless, magnificent tiger that was the pet of the Indian beauty, gets stabbed by the dagger of the villain, somewhere inconspicuous in a corner of the screen. I couldn't believe my eyes. I felt like smashing the television. I was about eight years old and I was furious with the maker of the film.
Haven't many of us said: We don't give children what they ask for, we always give them just that little bit extra. Well, if we are not just giving them what they ask for, why then must there still always be that hopeful ending, even in a so called open ending? Why are we so afraid of negativity, pessimism and morbidity? The dark side is reflected in all other art forms, I know it has been done in books for teenagers, so why then do we hardly ever come across it in literature for small children? Some writers do dare to express it, Henri Van Dale has his Maroefel, the fictional animal that missed Noah's ark and as a consequence became extinct. Wim Hofman does it in his retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, where Little Red Riding Hood escapes from the belly of the wolf, runs home, goes to bed and sits there with her eyes wide open because she doesn't dare to shut them. She is traumatised and that's that, nothing more to be said (or drawn, in this case, because it is a drawn story).
That son of mine who is six and a half will soon turn seven, and because a seventh birthday is such an important milestone in a child's life, my husband and I want to do something special. For some time now, I have been thinking of writing a book for him, just for him and not for publication, so I don't have to worry too much about originality - for my son, the originality will lie in the fact that he knows that I am trying out something different. Because I know him extremely well and know exactly how far I can go, I plan to experiment with the negative. I feel hesitant, I keep having that nagging feeling that I've started on something that is not quite proper. But I am persevering, I feel the need to give him a prod, after which I can leave him alone again for a while. I want to write the story of a little girl who lives together with a blind old man. One day the blindman accidentally steps on a glow-worm and as a result the light disappears, and I mean all the light. The little girl takes it upon herself to restore the light, but in order to accomplish this she has to pay a terrible price: first she has to give up her hair, then her hand is charred, and later still she has to swap one of her beloved friends for the light. The light is duly restored, she is even promised that the old man will recover his eyesight, but her anger for having had to give up so many things is growing. When she comes home, it is light and the old man can see, but when a glow-worm alights at his feet, the little girl stamps on it and the darkness returns. For the blindman nothing has changed, for her everything.
If we carry on doing what we seemingly can't resist, namely giving those negative emotions a positive twist for the benefit of children, aren't we in danger of scoring an `own goal'? By surrounding our youngsters with the constructive, aren't we actually in danger of eliciting a destructive response? After all, they will want to do things differently to us.
I am reminded of my fascination for a film like Natural Born Killers. In this film, the violence is central and perhaps even glorified. And yet I have the impression that the film is actually censuring violence. I have no idea how Oliver Stone succeeds in giving me that feeling, and I shall not rest easy until I manage to work it out. For the time being, let me just say this: if children's literature wants to continue to stimulate the child to grow, room will have to be made for the writer with that 'different' moral, for the writer who does not come bearing a message of hope and optimism, of faith in the triumph of goodness. Moral and social permission will have to be given to the first children's book with a nihilistic message, to a Generation X of children books writers. What is more: if children's literature wants to stand up to comparison with adult literature, then every form of self-censorship must first be forsworn. This may well result in the politically incorrect, in growing order of subversivity this may mean: a children's book that reacts against monogamous love, a children's book that repudiates self-sacrifice and mocks the keeping of promises, and - probably `worst' of all - a children's book that propagates intolerance. Why not a children's story about a heinous crime that gives rise to something good, quite unintentionally?
Just think of the storyline of Dennis Potter's Brimstone and Treacle, in which a young man pretends to be the boyfriend of a crippled young woman, and then rapes her as soon as her parents leave the house - as a consequence of this assault, the young woman recovers and is able to walk again. From an artistic point of view, relinquishing a work in which it is unclear just exactly where the evil stops and the hope comes in testifies to enviable daring. Nobody gets punished, nobody gets rewarded, characters are left in shock.
For the emancipation of children's literature, for the acceptance of children's literature as an art form, it is essential that we cast aside the reassuring tone we so often maintain. Can a book be written about a child that repeatedly steals and never gets caught? In the post-Dutroux era, is it conceivable that a book be written about a young girl who seduces a grown man? Don't misunderstand me, I am a supporter of the constructive and the optimistic, but does this necessarily mean that I am willing to submit to the dictate of the positive? It is not wrong to comfort and console children, but it is wrong to systematically shield them from futility and the feeling that some things are without any sense. Should some then say: we do what is good for the child, then we remain pedagogues instead of artists.
Should we insist on remaining pedagogues, are we then not withholding our children some things if at the end of our books we systematically offer them a ray of hope? I would not have been furious with the maker of that Indian B-film if the tiger had not been killed, I would not have rushed to my room to fight back my tears, I would simply have passed to the order of the day. The emotions would have passed me by completely, those remarkable feelings that had nothing to do with my own life, emotions that overwhelmed me but did not threaten me: emotional essays, so to speak.
And I do know: a child must not get too much of it, of that negative, of that painful, but then neither must an adult. But the occasional little jab, the occasional Little Red Riding Hood who does not manage to in time open up the belly of the wolf, can that be allowed? One step away from the comforting books, two steps away from the books that do not need to comfort because they don't disturb or alarm but simply entertain, the word chastening springs to mind, but in a post-modern age such as ours I do not dare to use it. Catharsis maybe.
Did not Herman de Coninck say: 'Optimism depresses me, all kinds of gladness, because it is so dumb. Pessimism never depresses, it is either legitimate, and that is what is mostly is, or it goes over the top, and then there is the relief afterwards of "I've had it now, from now on it can only get better".' Whether we are dealing with war, flood or death we should not forget: the consolation is not in what is told, but in how it is told. It is the aesthetics, the art form, which consoles. That is what is healing the story. And hence the story itself is excused.