It started with bedtime. A coldness. A formality.
October 23, 2015 10:05 PM   Subscribe

"Cold Little Bird," a very good and very disturbing story by Ben Marcus. [SLNYer]
posted by gottabefunky (77 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Before anyone else tries, there are no entries on Amazon for a novel called "The Short."
posted by infinitewindow at 10:32 PM on October 23, 2015 [10 favorites]

A potent story exploring the ways a child can shape into an efficient emotional terrorist.
posted by SinisterPurpose at 10:49 PM on October 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

He could indulge a great anger toward her that would suddenly vanish if she touched his hand.

Beautiful. So much more, such a compact writing style. I'm left unsatisfied with where it ended. So deliciously uncomfortable.
posted by yesster at 11:16 PM on October 23, 2015 [5 favorites]

It's like the child was possessed one day by an older person's ghost. And now he's biding his time, waiting to grow up.
posted by Kevin Street at 11:52 PM on October 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

And calling him "a cold little bird" certainly reinforces the idea that he's a cuckoo chick.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:03 AM on October 24, 2015

I've read The Age Of Wire And String, The Flame Alphabet, and now this - and they're all sharply different in formal structure, and they're all talking about exactly the same things. It's a curious way to write.
posted by solarion at 12:09 AM on October 24, 2015

Trying to imagine how deeply mortified I would have been when I was 10 if my father had insisted on kissing and cuddling me, and gone on to tell me I'd wither and die without his love, but it's too far off the scale, really.
posted by Segundus at 1:10 AM on October 24, 2015 [6 favorites]

Jesus, this should have had a Not Safe for Parents of a Toddler warning.
posted by lastobelus at 1:24 AM on October 24, 2015 [5 favorites]

infinitewindow: "Before anyone else tries, there are no entries on Amazon for a novel called "The Short.""

There are, however, quite a few 9/11 truther books.

“Sarcasm? Maybe you don’t much like it, but we don’t treat sarcasm in young people. I think it’s too virulent a strain.”

posted by chavenet at 1:53 AM on October 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

This is interesting to me. I think that we are all at least one remove away from the inside of each other, more usually two removes. Most of us spend our lives struggling against these removes, God help us, for good or not-so-good reasons. This story reminds me that there are some, thankfully few, who decide to forgo the struggle, and its concomitant pain, guaranteed mistakes and embarrassments, and possible ultimate futility, and just sort of become willfully ensconced in their remove. Move in a nice comfy chair or sofa, reading lamp, etc., and just reside there the rest of their lives. No humility or empathy, just ratiocination and a sense of superiority that can't be bothered to be hidden. What to do, what to do, indeed! Brilliant writing to cast this notion in the guise of a child, one's own child. Terrifying, really, like something from Shirley Jackson.
posted by Chitownfats at 3:11 AM on October 24, 2015 [5 favorites]

A preternaturally adult child that in some ways reminds me (remotely) of J. D. Salinger's Teddy...
posted by jim in austin at 4:44 AM on October 24, 2015

I'm reminded of We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver.
posted by carmicha at 4:54 AM on October 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

I thought this story was mean-spirited and kind of a klunker. But not very long prior, The New Yorker also published his story The Grow-Light Blues, which I thought was excellent.
posted by newdaddy at 5:33 AM on October 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

What, a kid who doesn't like being slobbered over, and who resists anti-depressant medication that the doctor light-heartedly agrees was unjustified by any symptoms (what is supposed to be up with that?) is similar to Kevin, who tortures, maims, lies to destroy his kindly teacher's life for no reason and executes unmotivated mass murder?

Oh, and the kid read an anti-semitic 9/11 truther book. I never saw an author's thumb descend on the scales so clunkingly.
posted by Segundus at 6:31 AM on October 24, 2015 [6 favorites]

Holy cow I love me some Ben Marcus. Is this where I can admit that I, an English major, had no idea how to read him until I heard him read at a bookstore? I was struck dumb by "Age of Wire and String" until I heard all the laughter.
posted by nevercalm at 6:51 AM on October 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

But surely at least part of the point of the story is to poke holes in a certain kind of upper middle class parenting, right? It's not just a report about a Kevin/not-Kevin; it's about the way the kid sort of distortedly mirrors a set of parenting truisms, showing that the parenting truisms themselves are flawed. Like, it is conventional to say that no one should touch a child without permission, but do we really mean that? How much bodily autonomy does a child get? We say we want honesty, but what do we do when we get it?

it seems like it's also about the torments of certain types of self-awareness, and the collision between them. The father and mother have really different assumptions about parenting, neither of which is adequate, and even though we see the father's kind of loathesome interiority only, it seems likely that the mother's is similar.

It's like, the kid is...practical. He's the family reduced to reproduction and to truisms. He's a perfectly good kid except for the 9/11 thing, right? I don't think the story really suggests that he's going to axe-murder anyone, or even try to get Lester to stop loving the parents.

And I feel like the 9/11 thing is to make an argument about identity-as-truism. If anything, I think that's the moment when the dad is really real in a way that makes sense, when he says that he's Jewish because Jewishness is this identity that has been created for him by a violent outside world. I'm not Jewish, so I don't know how to feel about that, but I think that in the story it continues this theme of hollowness, that an identity is only explained by external forces. There's also this idea that each person is a kind of ideological island - that there's no such thing as a self or a way to be that isn't decided in the moment by the individual - why can't Jonah believe this [stupid, wrong] thing? It's just an opinion, right, and everyone has one?

For me, this story is about a certain kind of bourgeois logic of the self (that we see to a lesser extent in internet advice culture) where there's this immediate turn to the idea that we need to enforce boundaries, that we need to be autonomous of others' feelings, that being emotionally messy (drama!) is the worst thing and a sign of immaturity.

The thing about The Fifth Child is that it is also an indictment of the parents' hubris, thinking that if they just get their heads right (and be little Thatcherite drones with retro values) they can have perfect lives. They think they're immune to chance. Instead of seeing themselves as lucky and being humbled by it, they spin the wheel again and get a monster child. But at the same time, I think it's difficult not to see yourself as similarly deluded. And honestly, the disability politics of that book are screwed up. But she wrote another one later that is about the child, Ben, and takes him seriously as different but not monstrous.

What I always wonder in the story is why they don't ask the kid what's going on. We don't get anything about the kid's interiority - we get only what he says and how he's described. In the story, this lets the kid continue as a blank - monster? not monster? tiny accountant? And it avoids giving the reader an out by explaining him. I feel like it's part of the parents' general too-self-aware-yet-too-isolated way of life, where you issue these truisms and set everyone adrift to live by them.
posted by Frowner at 6:55 AM on October 24, 2015 [23 favorites]

now that Frowner's come in with such a fab comment I feel like I have to write mine properly rather than just spew words - back in a bit.

I'm wondering if the electricity book cover symbolism is obvious to anyone else? It isn't to me, but modern lit isn't my speciality.
posted by lokta at 7:08 AM on October 24, 2015

And then to me the story asks what family love actually is when you come down to it. Is it more than violence, delusion and isolation? Or is it that it takes will and thoughtfulness to amount to more than violence, delusion and isolation? Like, it's creepy when the dad grabs Jonah after he's said no. Or is it that we're all thrown together by chance and it's weird to expect us to love each other?

Get out as early as you can, I guess.
posted by Frowner at 7:14 AM on October 24, 2015 [4 favorites]

What I always wonder in the story is why they don't ask the kid what's going on.

It never occurs to them to ask, which is an indictment of its own.

The narrator has his head so far up his own ass he seems incapable of putting himself in the place of another, except for selfish, strategic reasons of his own.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:29 AM on October 24, 2015 [7 favorites]

I guess if the story is supposed to be "humor", there should've been a development wherein the parents come back to their little prodigy with:

"We've talked it over and We. No. Longer. Love. You. Either. To the extent that we can no longer accept our parental role. Using your beloved Internet, we've found a nice Albanian couple who've offered a more-than-generous 120,000 American dollars for you, sight unseen. Maybe you'll let them cuddle you, you ungrateful little mutant Truther."
posted by Chitownfats at 7:31 AM on October 24, 2015 [4 favorites]

I keep thinking about this story, which is funny because I didn't really get into it that much.

There are several moments where the parents explain love by saying that it "feels good". I have no theory, but this brought an immediate, bodily "ew" reaction both times. I'm not sure whether I can separate what the story is doing from what I feel; for me that brings up both all kinds of stuff about my own dislike of being hugged (it seems so much more demanding than the mere request for general compliance and tractability) and what I know to be a very eighties abuse-panic feeling that adults getting pleasure out of touching children is gross and wrong.

In terms of the story, I suppose "it feels good" is all that's left when you've made everything else into truisms about autonomy and the avoidance of drama.
posted by Frowner at 8:28 AM on October 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

Is the insinuation that The Short is responsible for the change in the boy?
posted by Omnomnom at 8:37 AM on October 24, 2015

One way I could see this turning out is the kid getting sent to Colorado for attachment therapy. He may be well-adjusted after all, but that wouldn't matter for long.
posted by reprise the theme song and roll the credits at 8:41 AM on October 24, 2015

Ben Marcus is great. The Flame Alphabet is amazing and terrifying. It's like the antidote to so much other contemporary fiction.
posted by still bill at 8:46 AM on October 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Is the insinuation that The Short is responsible for the change in the boy?

I don't think so. Weeks pass between the opening scene and the introduction of The Short, and when the book is introduced Jonas has only recently started it (since his goal is to get to p.100 before leaving for school).

But that's just my reading of it.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 8:56 AM on October 24, 2015

Yeah, I didn't think of that. But then why is it mentioned again in such a dun-dun-dun way in the last paragraph?
posted by Omnomnom at 9:37 AM on October 24, 2015

Maybe short as in short circuit, esp since the cover shows electricity. Jonah has cut the link to his parents, the current now only runs between him and his brother.
posted by mono blanco at 9:50 AM on October 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Martin would be a shithouse foster parent.
posted by flabdablet at 10:05 AM on October 24, 2015 [4 favorites]

One night Atropos Jr calmly explained to her father and I that our traditional bedtime routine was no longer to her liking and from then on she would prefer to dispense with the babyish kissing routine. Unlike the parents in the story, we honoured what we had always told her about how no means no even for kids. I won't deny though that I felt a little lost without that ritual to reassure me of her love.
(Does she love me? She says she does and she acts in a loving way. Is it genuine or is she going through the motions? I'm neither brave nor foolish enough to push for a definitive answer. It's one of the few things I'm willing to take on faith.)
I am a child who does not love her parents. I haven't since I was very young. There's just nothing there -- no connection, no warmth. I love many, many people, but not them. And to say that absent horrifying abuse makes you look like a monster. How can you not love your parents? And even if you don't, you're supposed to say you do and act like you do because it's just how things are.
This is a story about what happens when we stop acting like we feel things (love, respect, identity) because we're told that's how we're supposed to feel and what happens when that conflicts with the expectations and desires of the people around us. Love -- even if it's feigned, perfunctory love -- makes the world go round. Their little world goes haywire when one of them stops playing by the rules.
posted by atropos at 10:08 AM on October 24, 2015 [10 favorites]

Yeah, the electrical thing has undercurrents I'm just not getting; note that the first book cover has a lightning bolt and a title formed of an electrical cord with a plug on one end as well, and the book Lester is reading at the end has someone on the cover holding a wire in each hand.

One of the earliest widely publicized cases of autism was a patient of Bettelheim's who was described as an 'electrical boy' who saw himself as a kind of robot who needed to be plugged into a wall socket (and affected a plug!) -- but with such a heavy burden of 9/11 in the story already, it's hard not to see an overlay of the iconic blindfolded Iraqi holding wires in his hands in the image on the cover of the second 'The Short' book.
posted by jamjam at 10:09 AM on October 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, honestly, I like the story more after reading his comments about it. I still think the 9/11 trutherism is misplaced here though. I understand that it functions in a way he was needing it to, but it really drags the story in a different direction.
posted by newdaddy at 10:21 AM on October 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

What I always wonder in the story is why they don't ask the kid what's going on. We don't get anything about the kid's interiority

There is so much tension in the parental relationships between unconditional love and physical affection for the child and respect for his own personhood. This is something that must be resolved in every parent-child relationship at some point. I imagine that conflict comes before every parent is ready for it (my eldest is 6), but what happens when that conflict comes *much* earlier than a parent expects this? I'm not sure any of Martin's actions were any different than those of any concerned, overworked, and isolated from your peers by child rearing father's. I mean, you spend ten of your best years to raise what is essentially a little psychopath, and the only thing you get out of it is their unconditional love and total emotional dependence. What if that vanishes suddenly? Thank the gods they didn't force feed him antidepressants and therapy.

I also felt that another important theme was the internet's effect on developing children. I have a deep fear that the Internet is creating an unbridgeable gap between generations. A world where 10 year olds can question authority figures with facts, like the risk of childhood suicide on antidepressants, but are also given access to ideas like the Truth About 9/11. I mean, he's not going out and promoting the conspiracy about the Jews, he's found it, he's considering it, he's testing its effect on his Jewish father. Coldly. Is the supposition that kids who have complete and total access to information that is not filtered and approved by parents will grow up emotionally detached? That they develop precocious intellectual maturity without being emotionally mature? And I like that the story treated this theme as though it's already out of the box, a foregone conclusion, and the important drama to be played out is how we parents react to what's happened to our children.

Creepy. Good description. Like the best spine tingling science fiction. One small fantasy element introduced into the lives of normal people. Watch what happens and draw conclusions about ourselves from it. I was affected enough by reading this that I woke my wife at 2 am and we had a whole conversation about it. Thanks for the post.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:21 AM on October 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

Whoa, Slarty, I had the exact same reaction (including the 2am spousal discussion) and thoughts. Very thought-provoking.
posted by Doleful Creature at 10:44 AM on October 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

And Jonah (swallowed by God's whale) is definitely plugged in:
“And how do you know about that?” the doctor asked.

“The Internet.”

The adults all looked at one another.

“How come people are so surprised when someone knows something?” Jonah asked. “Your generation had better get used to how completely unspecial it is that a kid can look up a medicine online and learn about the side effects. That’s not me being precocious. It’s just me using my stupid computer.”
A bit menacing, that. Is it too much to see him as rejecting the faith of his Fathers as well as his father in the flesh, and preaching something new with his brother as first convert?
posted by jamjam at 10:49 AM on October 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

I found Jonah a completely sympathetic character, far from an "emotional terrorist". I think he's just testing out the boundaries of adulthood, and having a third adult or adult-like person in the house has changed the way the family relates to each other. The parents can't smother their problems in their identity as the parents of a child anymore.

And indeed, every one of Jonah's supposed issues is, very neatly, one of Martin's own issues. He doesn't love his wife anymore and can't show her meaningful physical affection; he's horrifically depressed; he's insecure in his own Jewish identity; he lives in a world without emotional connections. He's letting his own problems influence his kids (as he's afraid Jonah is doing to Lester); he's hiding a vast amount of pain under an emotionless exterior (as he suspects is Jonah's reasoning); he's incredibly self-centered (as he thinks Jonah is being). The doctor is right--Jonah is fine.
posted by capricorn at 11:16 AM on October 24, 2015 [10 favorites]

I should say: Jonah is fine, but as the doctor suggests, the family needs therapy.
posted by capricorn at 11:19 AM on October 24, 2015

You know what? I went and did something, forgot to post, and by the time I noticed that, capricorn said it better. It's already typed, though, so ha ha.

I thought the 9/11 trutherism was perfect. Ten is maybe a little bit early, but it's a perfectly normal thing for kids just testing out and trying on their future adult personas to start to push away and rebel against their parents and to start noticing and questioning hypocrisy and inconsistency about their personal belief systems.

But they're still kids. They're still gullible and inexperienced, and sometimes they'll latch onto some pretty wacky stuff in an attempt to distance themselves from their parents. It is scary and sad for parents, but it read to me as just a slightly exaggerated version of pretty normal things kids do at that "just starting to think about being a grownup" stage. Hell, I'd argue that it's not only normal, but healthy.

The dad, on the other hand, came across as controlling and aggressive. Jonah let accidental touchings slide, and really only got his back up about an egregious and intentional violation, and he didn't threaten to report them for sexual abuse, but for unwanted touching, which is something most kids are taught to look out for. And a ten year old might take that sort of thing literally enough to think a hug from their father merits reporting.

(I grew up in the 70s and managed to find plenty of stuff to challenge my parents and other authority figures without the internet. The internet makes it faster and easier, but I don't think it's a new phenomenon.)
posted by ernielundquist at 11:25 AM on October 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Mr. Marcus talks about his story in the Page Turner column/blog/department of the New Yorker.
Yet another case where reading the artist's statement makes it a lot harder to enjoy the work.

Like others here, I read the story as an exaggerated parody of parental expectations, the way society treats children, and marriage as an institution. That both the interviewer and the author consider Jonah to be the frightening character here is quite surprising.
posted by eotvos at 11:56 AM on October 24, 2015 [5 favorites]

What, a kid who doesn't like being slobbered over, and who resists anti-depressant medication that the doctor light-heartedly agrees was unjustified by any symptoms (what is supposed to be up with that?) is similar to Kevin, who tortures, maims, lies to destroy his kindly teacher's life for no reason and executes unmotivated mass murder?

Jonah is a nightmare because he is both unloving and unlovable, which disrupts the natural order of parent-child relations and makes most readers uncomfortable; that's the similarity to Kevin. The implication that he has the power to turn the other sibling against the parents is also horrifying, as is his threat to have them accused of molestation. Kevin, you'll recall, turned his parents against each other and enthralled his sister, even after he destroyed her eye.

I don't like being around most children, because most are noisy, sticky and enthralled by kid culture, which bores me; the exceptions I enjoy. I do not sentimentalize them and I felt the same way when I was a child myself. Therefore I don't have any problem seeing Jonah as repellent.
posted by carmicha at 12:33 PM on October 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

This is really interesting! I found the kid so unequivocally creepy that I didn't think anyone would see it otherwise!
Maybe because while I've hated my parents from time to time I could never have redponded to them in such a cool, adult manner and I could never not feel anything towards them.
Though, now I think of it, I may have attempted to come across that way as a teenager and it's entirely possible that they may have seen me that way.
I guess I took Martin's interpretation of his son very literally when it says more about him than his son. Maybe.
Any way, the story, the way it is written from Martin's perspective is constructed in a classic evil-child-thriller-narrative and I read it that way.

Martin's violation, his refusal to accept his son's no, shocked me too, though.

All in all it is the ambiguity that I find most fascinating about the story.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:34 PM on October 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

Kevin was violent and an egregious liar; Jonah tells the truth and merely wants to be left alone. I'm not sure that repeated non-consensual hugging and kissing isn't molestation. Where's the suggestion he is turning his sibling against his parents?
posted by Segundus at 1:28 PM on October 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

> Creepy. Good description. Like the best spine tingling science fiction.

Yes, that was my reaction as well. In the same "warning label for parents of young children" camp falls the brilliant story "Mimsy Were the Borogoves," by Henry Kuttner and Catherine Moore (writing as "Lewis Padgett"). When I was a kid I thought it was delightful; now that I'm a grandparent it terrifies me.

"Molestation"? Some of you good folks are bringing way, way too much baggage of your own to this.
posted by languagehat at 1:40 PM on October 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

I don't know who this Kevin is that people keep talking about, but it's creeping me out.

It's also a bit odd that so many people see Jonah as the normal character here. If he was always cold and the father couldn't deal with it that would be a different story, but this is a story where Jonah changes after ten years of relative normality. From Martin's descriptions it sounds like Jonah was both good and bad before. Basically normal. Then something shorted out and zzt! He's suddenly blackmailing his parents and reading propaganda about events that happened before he was born.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:48 PM on October 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

I don't know who this Kevin is that people keep talking about, but it's creeping me out.

You don't know about Kevin? Hey guys, get a load of this! This guy doesn't know about Kevin!

Seriously though, we need to talk about Kevin.
posted by leotrotsky at 1:57 PM on October 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

We need to talk about Kevin Street.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:04 PM on October 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

oh my goodness. I've had the day to percolate, and I've just read the author interview. I have quite strong feelings on this now. And actually — I don't have the cognitive capacity right now to craft an elegant post after all, so this will be disorganized — forgive me.

This story is gross. The neutrality of it is gross. I am being this forward because I just reloaded to see languagehat's comment and, wow, it is not okay to trivialise survivor experience like that. Yes, you didn't think that that's what you're doing, you didn't mean to. You still did.

And the thing about the story is that while you can spend a little bit of time good-faith wondering whose perspective it's written from, it clearly comes out on the side of "god, what a creepy little kid, eh?". And like, fine. I'm used to being thought creepy and wrong, I don't expect culture to change for me. But I am allowed to identify what systematically dehumanises me and call it out even though people will call me ~~too sensitive~~ and ~~overreacting~~.

Let me backtrack. I'm autistic. I saw the story through Jonah. I latched onto him from the start, because I understand his experience. There are two ways of reading the author's intention, broadly: either you're supposed to sympathise with the parent, or with the boy. There's a plausible ambiguity in the balance of how it's written, as the comments here show. But reading the author interview you see how the evidence stacks up for the narrative being completely antipathetic to Jonah, and it becomes glaringly obvious. What's gross about this is it's just a game for the author. He's playing with theoreticals. But what he's also actually done is unintentionally written a completely believable autistic character even though he took pains not to fill in the details. The reason that works is too complicated for me to be able to get a sentence out about it right now, but it's to do with the way that autistic people are systematically seen as cold manipulative non-persons by neurotypical people, and we're well aware of it. He's reproducing a cultural gestalt.

So there's that. I'm trying to remember how to write words, because this is suddenly a really horrible, disturbing experience for me.

What is gross is the way the narrative is written to provoke antipathy toward the kid, but that this is not in isolation. It's not just a "fun" literary experiment. It's culturally okay to hate your autistic kid. It's valorized. Nothing about the story itself makes a clear statement against this, because it's so literary – so ambiguous.

It's not a game. And I am not a lesser person. When I read the story identifying with Jonah, my reading is valid.

Reading from Jonah's point of view was the experience I originally wanted to share here. How I skimmed the descriptions of the parents' experience because to me it's just unimportant — it's emotional content, sure, I get that this is something that most people reading literature are interested in, but to me it's like a soap opera, and it's not interesting or sympathetic. I don't know if you remember being a young reader and loving age-appropriate books because it's all adventure and interesting stuff, and you're looking for more so you pick up something that looks good from the adult section and suddenly what a book has become is something weird and boring full of people talking about sex and relationships. You go back to the stuff that actually captivates you. It's like that. It really is the 'tantrums and emotional extravagances of other children... some strange form of street theatre' as the story says, just without the fascination in it. And let me be clear — I am a perfectly functional social adult with no problems with empathy when the stakes are real. I just don't share the taste for gratuitous psychodrama, and usually it's from being always on the sharp fucking end of it, like Jonah is here. It's too tiring. Martin is not just being a narcissistic shit, he's behaving like real people in your life, and everything's too real.

I wanted to describe a possible interiority for Jonah, why he's not feeling or playing love for/with his parents any longer, why it's... I don't even have an adjective to describe how I feel about him being described as 'manipulative' and an 'emotional terrorist' when a very real reading of the story is that the boy is living his own, real, balanced, autistic life and being punished for being who he is. People tell us we're doing things on purpose. Autistic kids endure years of abuse in the form of behaviour therapy, their autonomy systematically denied, and the same in daily life.

Yeah, I am too close to this. I am too upset. Reading this story identifying with Jonah put me straight into the subject position for the disgusting behaviour his parents lay upon him and parade around him, and that's not something I can handle very well. Combine that with the knowledge that the author did this for fun, and the way people react as if either this could never be a real story that actually happened (it did, it does) or it's justified and normal that his parents hate him so much, and I'm in a position where I can't write a well-structured post because it hurts too much to hold all in my brain.
posted by lokta at 2:43 PM on October 24, 2015 [14 favorites]

My son turns ten in March. He initiates most cuddling and has this musical way of saying "I'll be in your bed," on cold nights, each word an octave apart, going up. It is seductive and he's on me like a leech when I get in. I'm going to miss this when it ends, but I'm not going to put him on pills.

I see this ending soon. Couple years ago he no longer wanted to be held when he banged his elbow or otherwise hurt himself and that was hard for me but I left him alone and he'd come over and lean on me when he wanted to.

languagehat makes a good point in small font above. I'm going to get a fork in the neck for this.

Parenting is a long stream of letting go.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 2:50 PM on October 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

FWIW, Lokta, I think a lot of us are reacting to the change in the kid. If he'd always been that analytical and blunt, the story and the father's reaction wouldn't have played out that way. And the second thing that makes him sound possibly manipulative rather than simply being that way is that he is that way only with his parents, while simultaneously being super social with everyone else.
I'm sorry for contributing to your hurt, though.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:54 PM on October 24, 2015

saying "I'll be in your bed," on cold nights, each word an octave apart, going up
That's some impressive range.
posted by Wolfdog at 3:48 PM on October 24, 2015

I didn't really see Jonah as evil per se (though one wonders, especially as a parent, if there was some sinister event that triggered the sudden change), what was compelling to me was identifying with Martin. Conscious parenting is such an all consuming role and you spend all of your time thinking about how to be the best person for your son that it would be completely disorienting to have the dynamics of that relationship change without understanding why. I like to think at least part of me would be able to preserve the unconditional acceptance of my child, as his mother seems to (and Martin seems to try at first), but I identify with having to struggle with it. And having all the unresolved issues of my life getting wrapped up in it, my own social isolation, depression, strained marital relations, regrets -- if there is any parent who doesn't have these, they're lying or else they're the ones that are truly creepy. I mean, being a middle aged father, the one thing in my life that is constant and I'm sure about is my relationship with my children. If that was suddenly called into question, well in some ways it would be more disorienting than a divorce or even the loss of a child.

As I was reading, I wasn't so much judging Jonah as doing something wrong or right, but instead going through something his father could not understand, almost as though he was discovering a non conforming gender identity or having a psychotic break (not to conflate those two things, but to use examples of things that cannot be easily understood unless you go through it).

Perhaps that is how Martin should have reacted -- to fight against the notion that his son was flawed, to work to accept him, and to try to understand what it's like to grow up in a family that you do not love. And all the while thinking, he *is* only ten and maybe this *is* just a phase.

A lot of mind bending things to think about. I'm not going to spoil the delightful ambiguity I drew by reading the interview.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 3:50 PM on October 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have to admit - I sympathized most with Jonah in this. I mean, I think he was still boundary testing in a bunch of ways that seemed... more sophisticated than I would expect of a ten year old (the 9/11 Book episode was epic trolling) but his desire to be autonomous, to be able to control who touched him and when - as a woman who got a lot of unwanted touching as a teenager, I have a ton of sympathy. Looking at it with my therapist monocle, I'd say Jonah is the Identified Patient, not the actual source of issues in the family.
posted by Deoridhe at 4:01 PM on October 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

So. A couple people have invoked the phrase I used in my short description of the story. None have asked for clarification, but that's somewhat expected. This is Metafilter and not saying the right thing means not being worthy to participate in the conversation.

My use of the phrase "emotional terrorist" was a little more about the power the people we love have over us, especially in regard to how they reciprocate that love or express a lack of it. I thought it would be safe or even understood that within this discussion of A FICTIONAL STORY I might use some less than literal language. Not so. Alright.

Jonah is not identified as a person with a condition. Lots of parents take their kid to see a specialist of some sort or another because they believe the child to be acting peculiar. I don't mean peculiar in a specific diagnostic way. I mean peculiar in a way that seems ominous or worrisome to the parent who may or may not have the life experience necessary to correctly interpret that behaviour. Because, flying much in the face of what the internet writ large seems to stand for, everyone cannot become an expert in everything by taking a quick search through AskMe or a FAQ.

What we have here is a fairly standard plot of unrequited love. It is a different kind of love that is unrequited. The principle character is either the unrequited or the unrequiter. One character wants something from a character that the second character is unwilling or unequipped to give. The funny thing is that Martin is unwilling or unable to give Jonah the type of care he wants. See it works both ways. That's what generates the spiral these two characters are fixed within.

It's an interesting use of a very well-worn plot structure. Made more interesting precisely by the fact that a readymade explanation for Jonah's behaviour is not utilized within the narrative. He is not made the villain. He's a force of antagonism and there's a fucking difference. Just as there is a difference between a priest who molested children and one that didn't. They look alike, but the differences are real and measurable.

Personally and not related to the story at hand, it wounds me deep in my psyche that not even this can go discussed on this forum without triggering someone's sense of victimhood. Why must everything here be mired by the now steadfast rule that every conceivable reader must, not only be validated, but be thought of when making any remark whatsoever about any subject whatsoever. Who will apologize for contributing to the aching in my skull at this discussion becoming about someone's wounds and who in the comment thread is to blame for being a reminder of the existence of those wounds?

Also, lokta, I feel you and that sounds rough. I'm very interested in your take on this given your perspective. I just don't appreciate being even somewhat likened to whomever or whatever has oppressed you previously.
posted by SinisterPurpose at 4:18 PM on October 24, 2015 [5 favorites]

I read this in the magazine last week and it kept me up at night for a while. To me this was less a story about a disturbed child and more a story about how having a child who doesn't respond in the ways kids are "supposed to" to normal loving interactions can really cripple a marriage. The parents aren't on the same page, even when they agree. The dad is clearly in need of therapy himself, is clearly making things worse, and worse yet, seems almost but not quite to know it. He wants to sacrifice the kid to save the marriage, and when that doesn't work, he seems destined to lose both. The mom wants to help, but not at the expense of risking hurting her kid.

Parenting is so damn hard, and the only thing that makes it bearable sometimes is how it solidifies you and your spouse as a team, even if it's just a team who shares a common enemy. When that breaks, blaming the kid seems a natural conclusion. But it can't be the kid. He's a kid. To me, that's the heartbreak.
posted by Mchelly at 4:34 PM on October 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think that there are a lot of different modes we can read this story in.

One of them is a realistic/medical mode, where Jonah is an autistic child [or a child with a similar condition] who is being grossly misunderstood by his parents and injured thereby. Basically, the story gets read as a description of a real person - we assume that Jonah is being depicted accurately, even though we only see him through his father's lens.

I'd say another is a mystery mode, where we assume that something concrete happened to Jonah that precipitated his behavior. Maybe his parents did something horrible before the story starts - either something obviously horrible like abuse or something emotionally destabilizing, like having a really series of really awful fights in front of Jonah. Maybe something else bad happened. The parents fail to ask, but we can construct theories.

There's Bad Seed mode, where something sinister is wrong with Jonah for no easy-to-pinpoint reason - not an illness, not an event, just something off.

There's "Jonah is a regular kid, basically, and it's the world that's mad" mode, where everyone but Jonah is assumed to have extremely unreliable perceptions. We sort of have to read this mode at a distance, because there's nothing reliable in the text at all to orient us.

And then there's, I guess, metaphor mode - something is wrong in the world, and it's being reflected in the complex of relationships among Jonah and his family. Nothing has happened to Jonah except the world.

I assume you could also read this in some kind of close reading way that I have trouble with, where you would pay much more attention to individual sentences and paragraphs and to how the story is written. I wish I were better at this kind of reading.

Maybe the success of the story is that it has so many different and strong readings?
posted by Frowner at 4:37 PM on October 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Re: Segundus: Where's the suggestion he is turning his sibling against his parents?

What I said: The implication that he has the power to turn the other sibling against the parents is also horrifying, as is his threat to have them accused of molestation. Jonah's interactions with Lester show the latter falling under the former's spell. It's not the cuddling they do, even though that pierces the parents' hearts. Lester is shown asking Jonah questions and listening adoringly to the answers. And then there's this passage, which shows that Jonah has become able to influence Lester's behavior more than Martin and Rachel can:
Dinner was brief, destroyed by the savage appetite of Lester, who engulfed his meal before Rachel had even taken a bite, and begged, begged to be excused so that he could return to the platoon of small plastic men he’d deployed on the rug. According to Lester, his men were waiting to be told what to do. “I need to tell my guys who to kill!” he shouted. “I’m in charge!”

At the height of this tantrum, Jonah, silent since they’d returned from the doctor’s office, leaned over to Lester, put a hand on his shoulder, and calmly told him not to whine.

“Don’t use that tone of voice,” he said. “Mom and Dad will excuse you when they’re ready.”

“O.K.,” Lester said, looking up at his brother with a kind of awe, and for the rest of their wordless dinner he sat there waiting, as patiently as a boy his age ever could, his hands folded in his lap.
Jonah hasn't fully coopted Lester yet, but the implication is clear.

Re: molestation, I think that's an appropriate word, Language Hat, although it's not used in the story. The original exchange is:
“I’d rather not have to say anything about you and Mom. At school. To Mr. Fourenay.” Mr. Fourenay was what they called a “feelings doctor....”

“Jonah, what are you talking about?”

“About you touching me when I don’t want you to. I don’t want to have to mention that to anyone at school. I really don’t.”
Later, Martin tells Rachel: "[Jonah] threatened to report us for sexual abuse for trying to hug him..."

Re: Jonah and Autism - I disagree, because Jonah is shown having neuro-typical interactions with everyone except his parents (the teacher who doesn't think anything's wrong, the brother, with whom he has an affectionate relationship, and the doctor, who feels the prescription was unnecessary). Even his Internet research is downgraded from being unusually precocious to typical of the time; every kid has a computer and can use Google.
posted by carmicha at 5:21 PM on October 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

I knew Ben Marcus could do a lot of amazing things but I didn't know this was one of the things he could do.
posted by escabeche at 7:36 PM on October 24, 2015

The line "He wasn’t going to chase down everything unsaid and shout it into their home" is really the only moment where I felt ah there is the guy who wrote The Age of Wire And String.
posted by escabeche at 7:37 PM on October 24, 2015

Parenting is so damn hard, and the only thing that makes it bearable sometimes is how it solidifies you and your spouse as a team, even if it's just a team who shares a common enemy. When that breaks, blaming the kid seems a natural conclusion. But it can't be the kid. He's a kid. To me, that's the heartbreak.

So, the parents have had a dysfunctional relationship for some time and the kid's tired of living with it. He wants out, and he can't run away, and he doesn't want to talk to anybody about it. He's old enough to understand a "molestation accusation" as a threat, without really knowing what all's involved with that. The rest of his life is OK, he just can't stand being part of a fake family any more. The 9/11 thing is just retribution for his dad poking him after he said, "Don't touch me." The electricity thing is just a red herring.
posted by carping demon at 11:39 PM on October 24, 2015

Well that was suitably horrifying for Halloween season. Amazing how being a parent takes a strong acid to so many psychological defenses.
posted by fraxil at 7:07 AM on October 25, 2015

I'm autistic. I saw the story through Jonah. I latched onto him from the start, because I understand his experience.

For what it's worth: I'm neurotypical and a foster parent, and I saw the story through Jonah as well. I latched onto him as soon as Martin failed to comply with what struck me as a perfectly reasonable request:
“Please don’t do that,” he said, turning to face the wall.

They took it as teasing, flopped onto his bed to nuzzle and tickle him.

The boy turned rigid, endured the cuddle, then barked out at them, “I really don’t like that!”

“Jonah?” Martin said, sitting up.

“I don’t want your help at bedtime anymore,” he said. “I’m not a baby. You have Lester. Go cuddle with him.”
How clear does a kid have to be?
“Sweetheart,” Rachel said. “We’re not helping you. We’re just saying good night. You like kisses, right? Don’t you like kisses and cuddles? You big silly.”

Jonah hid under the blankets. A classic pout. Except that he wasn’t a pouter, he wasn’t a hider. He was a reserved boy who generally took a scientific interest in the tantrums and emotional extravagances of other children, marvelling at them as though they were some strange form of street theatre.

Martin tried to tickle the blanketed lump of person that was his son. He didn’t know what part of Jonah he was touching. He just dug at him with a stiff hand, thinking a laugh would come out, some sound of pleasure. It used to work. One stab of the finger and the kid exploded with giggles. But Jonah didn’t speak, didn’t move.

“We love you so much. You know?” Martin said. “So we like to show it. It feels good.”
At this point I am pissed off with Rachel and furious with Martin.

"It feels good". Yeah, it feels good to you, Martin. Screw what Jonah feels because hell, he's my kid and he'll damn well feel what I tell him to feel or by God there's going to be trouble!
Finally, Martin released him, and Jonah straightened his hair. He did not look happy.

“I know that you and Mom are in charge and you make the rules,” Jonah said. “But even though I’m only ten, don’t I have a right not to be touched?”

The boy sounded so reasonable.

“You do,” Martin said. “I apologize.”

“I keep asking, but you don’t listen.”

“I listen.”

“You don’t. Because you keep doing it. So does Mom. You want to treat me like a stuffed animal, and I don’t want to be treated like that.”

“No, I don’t, buddy.”

“I don’t want to be called buddy. Or mister. Or champ. I don’t do that to you. You wouldn’t want me always inventing some new ridiculous name for you.”

“O.K.” Martin put up his hands in surrender. “No more nicknames. I promise. It’s just that you’re my son and I like to hug you. We like to hug you.”

“I don’t want you to anymore. And I’ve said that.”

“Well, too bad,” Martin said, laughing, and, as if to prove he was right, he grabbed Lester, and Lester squealed with delight, squirming in his father’s arms.
It's a testament to Jonah's good character that he does not, at this point, just haul back and do his ten year old best to punch his father's fucking lights out.

One of the best things about foster parenting as compared to other forms of parenting is that with foster parenting you don't have your own biology conspiring to prevent you seeing the kids you love and care for as the people they really are.

As my own kids have reached the stage of telling me that the time for cuddles and tickling is over, I have not felt at all discombobulated or rejected or let down. Far from it: watching a kid I've nurtured and loved discover that first genuine sense of self-ownership and personal autonomy is just fantastic.

It seems to me that the very first fundamental principle of parenting - all parenting, not just foster parenting - has simply got to be "it's not all about me". It's my job to help those little people I love so dearly acquire the ability to live in the world with a sense of who they are and what they need to do to achieve the things they want to. If I put that aside in order to treat them as sources of personal gratification for me, I'm doing it wrong.
posted by flabdablet at 7:30 AM on October 25, 2015 [7 favorites]

this passage, which shows that Jonah has become able to influence Lester's behavior more than Martin and Rachel can

That passage rang particularly true for me. The reason Jonah can influence Lester's behavior more than Martin and Rachel can is because Jonah is a person who takes his brother more seriously as a person than Martin or Rachel does.

When Jonah accuses Martin of treating him like a stuffed toy, he is 100% absolutely spot-on correct.

I've seen little ms. flabdablet treat her new cat the same way, with predictably bloody results.
posted by flabdablet at 7:53 AM on October 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

"You like kisses, right? Don’t you like kisses and cuddles? You big silly.”

You know you want it, you little tease.
posted by flabdablet at 11:19 AM on October 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

> I am being this forward because I just reloaded to see languagehat's comment and, wow, it is not okay to trivialise survivor experience like that. Yes, you didn't think that that's what you're doing, you didn't mean to. You still did.

Bullshit. I didn't trivialize survivor experience, I said some people are bringing way too much baggage of their own, and that's clearly true. It's not trivializing your experience to say that it's not relevant to analyzing a story. If you have PTSD from being in a war, you're probably not going to enjoy war movies, maybe even war stories and novels. You should therefore avoid such things; what you should not do, if you find yourself exposed to them, is go off on the people who made the movie and/or the people who enjoy it and accuse them of being indifferent to your suffering. I have the utmost sympathy for anyone whose life experiences make this story a difficult read and make them feel personally attacked or abused, as if they were little Jonah, but that's not the story's problem. That should be about as uncontroversial a statement as it's possible to make.
posted by languagehat at 11:56 AM on October 25, 2015 [6 favorites]

"You like kisses, right? Don’t you like kisses and cuddles? You big silly.”

You know you want it, you little tease.

Jesus christ. Nothing on this earth has ever made me so grateful for my family and my childhood as any Metafilter thread dealing with parents. I didn't even used to think it was any great shakes but there is literally no way I would *ever* have interpreted that sentence in that way, and it makes me feel like I must be an alien from another planet.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 12:57 PM on October 25, 2015 [5 favorites]

to clarify: I am not being critical of flabdablet or of anyone else. I just honestly feel aghast and pained that so, so, so many people see an expression of physical love from a parent immediately, primarily, and irretrievably through a lens of horrifying, abusive threat.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 1:00 PM on October 25, 2015

Yea if people really think this story is about molestation can they be a little more straightforward about it? I find the little tease type comment pretty off putting, and I don't really see the connection in the story but don't mind being shown it.
posted by zutalors! at 1:02 PM on October 25, 2015

Look, in a sense we know what the story is "about", because we know how the author describes it - it's about a kid who becomes creepy for mysterious reasons and the toll this takes on his family. Boom, the end.

I'd argue, though, that the power of the story lies in the way that it's susceptible to many plausible readings - many unsettling things run through it. Some readings may be stronger readings than others and we may be able to bring more "evidence" from the text into the argument. But in a more casual discussion like this one, I think it's perfectly plausible to say "there's a reading in which this story is about molestation" or "there's a reading in which this story is about physical but non-sexual molestation".

There's sort of a question about the method by which we read the story, and each person tends toward a different style of reading. How much do weight do we give to what's on the page, for instance? We don't actually see anything that clearly indicates that Jonah is autistic, or that the parents have sexually abused him - I think that it's difficult to pin those readings to the text. But there's what you might call a lot of space in the text, a lot of mystery. If your style is to fill in the blanks with plausible readings rather than totally pin your reading to the text itself on the page, you can quite plausibly say that what's behind the text is a story about autism or sexual abuse.

I'm reminded a bit of Ursula Le Guin's novel Always Coming Home - or really, it's not exactly a novel. But in it, there's a sequence where it's explained how the people of the story do theater. Each play is just a sketch - it has these lines, "peg lines", that should appear in all productions, but the dialogue in between can be written anew for each production, and the emphasis placed on each line can vary. So you might have a play that's organized around one particular set of lines and gives one meaning to the text, but the very same play might race through those lines in order to emphasize another set. Each production can be - far more than even the most experimental production in our world - a vehicle for an individual world view.

I feel like this story works a bit like that, where the story is very allusive, a sketch, and you can see any different part of it as a "peg line" that should be emphasized.

That is, I don't think that trying to find the meaning of the story gets us much forrader, especially since we have a meaning from the very lips of the author, and it seems to me to be the least interesting of the meanings that have been advanced. I think a lot of good writers write bigger than they consciously intend.
posted by Frowner at 1:16 PM on October 25, 2015 [4 favorites]

I think where people are getting into the weeds a bit is because it's unclear when commenters are saying that the *story* is kind of about molestation and when they're saying that *physical affection itself* (such as hugs) is fundamentally kind of about molestation.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 1:21 PM on October 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

(Both of these things may be true and are certainly discussable, but they are definitely not the same discussion, and so everything is getting somewhat muddled.)
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 1:23 PM on October 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't really see the connection in the story but don't mind being shown it.

OK, that was my comment so let me unpack it a little.

As I see it, Jonah has reached a developmental milestone: proper internalisation of the understanding that his body is his and that he gets to say who does and does not have the right to touch it and what kinds of touch are acceptable - and he's taking his first steps in exploring the consequences of that.

The parents not only continue to dismiss this understanding, but to treat it as if it were factually incorrect: they behave as if Jonah in fact does not have the right to set boundaries on acceptable touch. They deny to his face that he has that right, and they treat his assertion of that right as trivial: "You like kisses, right? Don’t you like kisses and cuddles? You big silly.”

The parents' view of Jonah on this matter, as I see it, proceeds from exactly the same error as a rapist's view of their victim: that what another person wants is simply irrelevant because that other person is not really a person but merely a convenient object from which to obtain some kind of gratification.

I understand and accept that this view will strike many people as bizarrely distorted and misconceived, given the automatic tendency to view parents as inherently good and rapists as inherently bad. But I really don't think it is. Most people are not the villain in their own story.
posted by flabdablet at 10:55 PM on October 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

I would also invite anybody who thinks that "physical affection such as hugs" belongs in a completely different category from sexual molestation to put themselves in the position of a small child hiding under a blanket and feeling completely helpless to prevent a physically much larger and socially incomparably more powerful person digging randomly at his body with a stiff hand - to be followed on with weeks of denial that such an experience could conceivably have been unpleasant. Not content with riding roughshod over their kid's physical boundaries, these parents then get stuck into a concerted gaslighting campaign.

Put aside your preconceptions about how a parent-child relationship is supposed to work for a few minutes. Go re-read the story again, and imagine yourself into Jonah's little body.

It's not a lot of fun in there.
posted by flabdablet at 11:04 PM on October 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

At the height of this tantrum, Jonah, silent since they’d returned from the doctor’s office, leaned over to Lester, put a hand on his shoulder, and calmly told him not to whine.

“Don’t use that tone of voice,” he said. “Mom and Dad will excuse you when they’re ready.”

I found this to be especially compelling. The interesting thing about Jonah is that he is acutely aware of the power dynamic between him/Lester and his parents - it clearly goes far beyond the "there are things I can't do because Mom/Dad said so." And while he does not like it, and does not like the ways in which his father tries to exert that power over him, Jonah copes by calling his father out on his shit every single time, or engaging his father on his own terms.

Martin cannot handle the fact that his child is racing ahead developmentally before he's good and ready, or that his child no longer needs him in a way that makes him feel secure. He cannot "excuse" Jonah from his rigid perception of what his child should be. So he pushes Jonah's boundaries until they can fit neatly into the little box he's marked "childhood," through ignoring the express wishes of his child and screaming at him. He tries to manipulate Jonah in a way not unlike the way he manipulates his wife. And it's fucking gross.

The creepy thing about this story is not Jonah. It's Martin.
posted by Ashen at 8:27 AM on October 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

I mean this is a common power dynamic that appears in a lot of other places, to be honest. Person-with-power has preconceived notions of how person-with-less-power should feel, speak and behave. Person-with-less-power is demonstrably Not That. Person-with-power refuses to accept reality and reacts poorly.

The normalcy of that is pretty creepy, also.
posted by Ashen at 8:31 AM on October 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

Put aside your preconceptions about how a parent-child relationship is supposed to work for a few minutes.

But this story is only partly about how it's supposed to work; it's also partly about how it DID work, for ten years. The child has unilaterally changed the terms of the relationship, which is his right, but he doesn't have the right to control how his parents feel about it. Frankly, as a small child, I was keenly aware of my ability to devastate my parents by suddenly declaring new, baffling rules about what I would and would not tolerate. (Maybe put aside your preconceptions of how children are supposed to be for a second and remember that they can be real assholes for no great reason?) The sudden withdrawal of love from a person who previously loved you is well recognized as a hurtful and bewildering thing--why would it be different in a parent-child relationship?

Martin doesn't respond well to the heartbreak, no, and I agree with Ashen that he is equally creepy--in the way that the person who, after a breakup, remains stuck in the "denial" phase is creepy. But I definitely don't read it as if the creepy part is the bedtime scene. I read that as parents who get pulled up short when something that was okay literally 24 hours ago is suddenly, bafflingly "wrong." I mean they're human parents, not robot therapists; humans need a minute to adjust sometimes.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:38 AM on October 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm late to the party, but I too ID with Jonah here, for different reasons. I don't have children myself, but I've been in relationships with people with children and spent tons of time with them and been subjected to the vagueries of children and sudden rule changes which go unexplained. I'm also not autistic, and my reading doesn't perceive any sort of behavior "on the spectrum" (many apologies if this is not the acceptable way to refer to that).

BUT what I did have growing up is behaviour from both parents that was strange and inconsistent and which didn't match what they said or how they talked about it. This might be slightly wandery and less than perfectly realized, I'm still unpacking it myself slowly in real time in my actual life...

So my parents would talk about how much they loved me and they knew all the social markers to display to give others the impression that they were affectionate and close and loving, but in reality all that was just a shadow play. In reality there was a coldness there, that was subconsciously exacerbated by the illusion of warmth. They were never more affectionate and "parenty" than when someone was paying attention. The whole thing was a mindfuck.

The thing was, I didn't KNOW it was a mindfuck until I got much older, so instead all I had was a vague notion of the fact that something was really not quite right and which caused me to be detached. I never said "don't touch me," but I definitely would flinch if someone came up behind me and touched me, and if my parents showed any affection I was always tense. I never said "I want my mommy," or "I need my parents." Further, I've never even thought it. They have been my "mother and father" for as long as I can remember, not my "mom and dad." And like in the story, I'm otherwise normal with people outside my family...very affectionate with other people, warm, very loving, just not to my parents. It doesn't exist for me with them. I see other people being warm and loving and comforted by their parents and am able to wish for that, but I just don't have it with those two specific people.

The true and final mindfucky step was when they started telling me that something was wrong with me, that I needed therapy, medication, to go away to a psych ward, whatever. For much of my life growing up, the intimation was always that there was something wrong with me, and not once was it even considered that something was wrong with THEM, that I was a normal person trying to figure out how to react to an abnormal situation. I was always the asshole, the mean one, too quiet, too alone, too "prickly," needing to be counseled and medicated in order to learn how to be in the world or regular people.

Even today, when I am 42, I still get the same treatment from them. And it's caused real distance, even more so than when I was young, and especially when I said "if you call me prickly one more time I will show you what true prickliness is all about."

So that's what I see in it. Perhaps he was raised badly in a weird environment and is a normal little kid who suddenly snapped to the realization that "whoa hey, everything I knew was way different than I thought," which I went thru when I "woke up." I too even went through a period of "if I was wrong about THAT then what about all the other stuff?" In my case this didn't rise to the level of trutherism, but definitely in that I looked for alternate narratives of things that had been previously settled in my mind in order to ensure that I hadn't been missing huge signposts about another reality everywhere.
posted by nevercalm at 11:44 AM on October 26, 2015 [6 favorites]

This is how I would feel if my child supported GamerGate.
posted by SassHat at 12:56 PM on October 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

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