I’ve Always Been The Easy Kill

When I Was Five I Killed Myself

by Howard Buten

After dinner we practised a little economy. Instead of drinking the coffee which remained from breakfast, we kept it for our tea with the cream and cakes which they brought with them; and, to keep up our appetites, we went into the orchard to finish our dessert with cherries. I climbed up the tree, and threw down branches of fruit, while they threw the stones back at me through the branches. Once Mademoiselle Galley, holding out her apron, and throwing back her head, presented herself as a mark so prettily, and I took such accurate aim, that I threw a bunch right into her bosom. How we laughed! I said to myself, if my lips were only cherries, how readily would I throw them into the same place!

— Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions

The French middle class is to blame, especially Jean Jacques Rousseau, for the thousands of books released each year reflecting on the lives of children. It takes huge imaginative leaps to make children interesting. In Rousseau’s little piece of erotica, The Confessions, the idea of economy is to dream of violating Mme. Galley while allowing her to somehow keep her cherry. Tonguing Galley is the ideal means of keeping the hymen intact while extracting what young Jean-Jacques needs to go with his creams and cakes. Only a teen at this point in the time-line, Rousseau knows only to seek small sexual profits. Due to his influence, every modern literary novel descends into the nostalgic passages of autobiographical tween sexual longing. Some people credit Rousseau with normalizing childhood sexuality, making it less monstrous — something I find ironic given that Rousseau himself was consistently a monster from birth onwards.

Howard Buten is big in France. This reputed bigness comes up consistently every time When I Was Five I Killed Myself is discussed. In fact, the mystery of Buten’s appeal to the French literati is bigger than the mystery in the novel itself. I blame Rousseau. The title itself is a winner, but what about the structure and style of the book?

We start with eight-year old Burt Rembrandt being forcibly strapped down in an institution for autistic and disturbed children. Burt has done something horrible. Chapters flashback to the chronology of events that led him to institutionalization while they lead into his present-day treatment. SPOILERS: After much suspense, we learn that his horrific crime was to be caught in bed with a grieving girl (Jessica) whose father has just died. She’s riding him. I wasn’t getting erections at eight and I can’t imagine many boys were, so I presume that Jessica’s mother caught Burt with his thumb up Jessica’s ass. This part isn’t spelled out in the novel, but is the only possible interpretation available to readers possessed of deductive reasoning.

The advantage of writing in the voice of a child is the writing challenge of not being able to resort to overly sociological terminology. The difficulty of it is to avoid the precocious voice of the ‘wise child.’ Wise children are a bane in popular culture. The wise black child destroyed Magnolia for me as well as countless other cultural productions. Buten ably avoids this some of the time by having the child mention where he got a term and, often, misusing it. The successful claustrophobic effect this yields reminds the reader of the terror of early learning. While he ducks the ‘wise child’ hurdle, he trips and falls when it comes to subjecting readers to the random musings of the moronic child.

At breakfast everything is very silence because it is early in the morning. I can hear the clock in the living room. It says tick tock. My mom always has a cup of coffee. She stares at the wall. She zups it. Then she holds it in her mouth for an hour. I wait. Everything is quiet. Tick tock. I wait. Then she swallows it. It sounds like a tidal wave. Then she gives me my lunch to take. It is in a bag which is brown. It is a new bag. I have a new bag every day. She folds it over three times and staples it. Some of the other children, like from the Home, bring bags that are all wrinkly. Some other children have lunch boxes with cartoons on them which I feel are for sissies.

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There are some areas of achievement in the novel, though I’m unclear on Buten’s tone in them. One of the contrasts he draws is between the more traditional Dr. Nevele who treats Burt, and the Jungian psychologist, Rudyard Walton, who takes a liking to Burt. Nevele’s notes (which Burt steals) paint Dr. Nevele as a close-minded square who is ready to report on and persecute a hated rival from a heretical theoretical school.

Interest in this case is now being shown by Rudyard Walton, first-year intern, working in the Upper South Program here, dealing primarily with autistic and mentally retarded children.

Walton’s work, much praised thus far by his department, is supposedly of the “wounded healer” type, dealing with the patient one-to-one, and actually assimilating that patient’s symptoms himself, thus, I suppose, establishing an empathetic relationship.

The novel appears to sympathize with Walton who, in turn, sympathizes with Burt, telling him terrifying stories to demonstrate their similarities, such as their common fear of the dentist or their shared desire to defecate in the swimming pool. Walton eventually loses his job due to the “ignorance” of Dr. Nevele, after he makes the impassioned claim that what Burt did (which we later learned was simply thumbing Jessica) was neither a crime nor an act of violence. The “wounded healer” is painted as a dissident in the medical system.

I don’t really know a lot about training of Clinical Psychologists. From what I’ve seen there’s a huge emphasis on the scientific nature of case work. “Transference” is thrown around as a category where the psychiatric profession blankly muses on the possibility of its own lack of objectivity. I remember a similar sort of thing appearing a lot in 80s and 90s ethnographies, where Anthropologists would spend a portion of their articles considering their “place in history,” probing their guilt about the newly realized colonial guilt of their profession. Whereas transference seems to be a huge problem in the theory of psychoanalysis, my sense of it in American Social Psychology is that it’s brought up mainly as an injunction against having sex with patients. Buten’s book has an anti-Psychiatric edge to it inasmuch as he embraces the Jungian principle of identification and transference as the engine driving a productive therapeutic relationship. The novel’s “tragedy” is that Burt is left in the hands of parochial clinical psychologists who are practically ready to lobotomize the poor kid.

My sense is that the impractical embrace of anti-Psychiatry in the Parisian literary world has made Buten out to be a hero while they lament that positivists Americans simply don’t “get” the values embraced in his work. Possibly this is due to translation issues wherein the childlike voice Buten attempts to approximate in American slang simply rubs readers in the states the wrong way. Narrating therapeutic persecution through the romantic focalization of a kid’s voice looks a lot like talking down to readers. Readers resent failed illusions. Take the example of Opal Whitley whose “mystical diary” was celebrated in the 1920s and became a best-seller until critics claimed that it was an adult-written hoax. The hoax-revelation effect turned the public against the book, disgracing the diary. It’s now believed that Opal’s book is a genuine child’s production, but to me the incident shows the angry ressentiment that can come when readers feel like their being manipulated or taken for chumps.

I suppose that resolves the mystery of Rousseau’s appeal: he avoids the chump-effect by never pretending his reader is anything more than a chump.


2 Responses to “I’ve Always Been The Easy Kill”

  1. Matt Says:

    Failed illusion? Hardly. This book has one of the most convincingly rendered child narrators ever written, certainly one of the most convincing I’ve ever read. What contributes to the authority of the narrating voice is precisely those “moronic ramblings” that you (and, evidently, Prince) find unnecessary. In the passage you cite, though, we see breakfast — in particular his mother’s appearance at the breakfast table — as something stupendously alien. This is thematically resonant with the rest of the novel, where we find an enormous gap between adults and children, how each group perceives the world and one another.As far as your comment about Burt’s thumb up Jessica’s ass or deficating in the pool, I have no idea where you’ve come up with these details. If you cared about getting them right, you would have, but this carelessness fits quite snugly with your smug, dismissive tone here. I love this book, which is the only reason I’m bothering to write a response to your nothing blog.

  2. darknessatnoon Says:

    I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.

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