“People who get nostalgic about childhood were obviously never children.” – Bill Watterson
Mum and Dad were already at war before I arrived, and it just got worse. All of which was hidden from me on the surface, but of course we all have some kind of emotional sonar operating, even if you’re autistic.
On that note, the theory has been floated that autistic children are not grossly insensitive and thus closed from the world, but are in fact the complete opposite. Everything pours into them as a constant screaming medley of sensations, loud noise, lights and motion, and the autist must rapidly build defenses or remain permanently overwhelmed. I’m seen this first hand in my own son, who basically spent the first 3 years of his life screaming in terror. The book was called “The Crying Baby”, but there was more to it than that.
Like a camera loaded with hyper-fast film, the aperture must be progressively stopped down before any decent photos are achieved. Minimum interaction with humans and their emotional noise and signals (oft indistinguishable) prevents overexposed film and emotional burn-through. Close it out. Play alone. Immerse oneself in an obsession. Hide. Literally – hide. I did that. I often hid. Safe at last!
But is there more to us than just the five senses? (There are in fact many more than five, but another day, I think). Yes there is. To quote Philip Larkin. “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.” And my parents were no exception.
People unconsciously play out complex games to get their needs met, seldom directly. And if one’s primary needs find absolutely no source of succor, one’s efforts are diverted into a secondary gameplan. Example: any attention is better than no attention. Children learn to meet their needs by being little criminals. They’ll break things, they’ll break the rules, they’ll employ expletives – anything to get a rise out of mum/dad; teachers; authority figures. Very successful strategy. Prisons are packed with people reaping the ineffective consequences of this pattern.
Crime starts young. It is created by disengaged parents, and even more effectively by an absent parent. Sad & very fucked up.
But that was not the way of the Gedi.
My dear mother, trapped at home by a horrid controlling husband, without love and with one child already (hitting 2 and losing his charm), needed someone to give her any sort of love, and I became the designated saviour. The Wanted Child, perfect, serene, and unconditionally loving. Increment by increment my dear mum injected me with a complex venom. I needed to remain rescue-able. And she needed to be needed.
Dad, on the other hand, was merely waiting for me to grow out of nappies (none of which, I’m sure, he ever touched) and get big enough to kick a ball. And when that day came I began to prove useless as a son. I had no aptitude for sport. I was clumsy. I was left-handed. I was also a wimp, a blubberguts and a sissy. Physically fragile, and emotionally too. The most minor of setbacks would send me running to mummy, and my father soon enough took his place on the other side of that same circuit. His criticism, anger, and not-so-subtle remarks stung me again and again.
Worse: I absorbed them and made them my own. I am 63; he has been dead twelve years; yet they still remain operative despite the awareness I now have. Somewhere back then, at a very young age, I became determined to never succeed at anything. And so far I’ve been a roaring success at it.
They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had And add some extra, just for you. But they were fucked up in their turn By fools in old-style hats and coats, Who half the time were soppy-stern And half at one another's throats. Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can, And don't have any kids yourself. - Philip Larkin
Now I try to not hate Dad. He was doing his best. He was replicating what he learned from his daddy who was apparently a total arsehole. Alternatively I could describe him thus: ‘he was Scottish’. None of my Scots ancestry ever reached me, not one crumb, except the brutal School-of-Hard-Knocks lessons my grandfather dispensed to all his sons. I guess it evolved as a way to ‘toughen you up’ so you could survive a brutal working-class life. At home, school, on the streets, in the workplace. The Scots are renown for their pugilism.
But compared to my grandfather ‘Peter-Pop’, Dad was a kitten. He was kind, forbearing. But inevitably his disappointment would show, his impatience, his unpredictable anger (which was probably spilling over from elsewhere as his first marriage turned to crap).
Thus I danced between my two parents, savaged by my father then rescued (but never re-empowered) by my mother. It was a perfect circuit, but is hard to deduce exactly who was the battery & who was the lightbulb. Maybe it was just two batteries and the wiring (me) what got hot. Or was I a capacitor? Anyway – there was no off-switch.
HIT PAUSE. – I don’t want to fling you into a black pit of despair. There is a silver lining in all this – of sorts. Larkin was far from the only one to realise this, and far from the only person to treat it as a permanent cycle. Which it isn’t. Tune in soon to PART II: ‘Fung Aside’ and a truly remarkable story.
POSTSCRIPT I: That sequence in Calvin and Hobbs was the most intense, beautiful, tragic, heart-wrenching things I have ever seen in a cartoon. Watterson never flinched in his depiction of childhood, and here he was at his best. Nothing compares.
POSTSCRIPT II: Flung is one of my favourite words. It is a word that takes no prisoners. It is assertive, adamant, unambiguous. It evokes an action, either violent or done with disgust (or both). Intended. Forceful. As Yoda once said, “There is no unflung.”