"How do children survive?"

Maurice Sendak’s question is quoted at the top of an article about Where the Wild Things Are, in The Psychologist, the journal of The British Psychological Society [of which I have been a member since the 70s], written by an American psychoanalyst, Richard Gottlieb, whose thesis seems to be that Sendak had a rotten childhood, so he writes about children having rotten childhoods, who nevertheless, against all odds, survive.

Predictably, I beg to differ. Some aspects of Sendak’s childhood [like yours & mine] were rotten. His genius has been to transform his tough stuff into images [visual and verbal] that kids receive with delighted recognition: “I know just how Max/Mickey/Pierre/Really Rosie feels, cuz sometimes I feel that way, too.” In Gottlieb’s tone, I detect the whiff of unacknowledged wolf. He even tries to make psychoanalytic hay out of Max’s wearing “his wolf-suit” [which, tonight being Halloween, I’m betting we’ll see more than one of, at our front door]. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a wolf-suit is just a wolf-suit.

Now, to introduce Ying Tong, the Worst Cat in the World, whom I credit with my childhood survival. Like little Maurice, I was a sickly child [although my parents didn’t “make a dog’s dinner” of their concerns about my health, unlike the Sendaks]. In the winter of 1961 I developed severe bronchitis, and my constant bouts of phlegmy coughing made it almost impossible to keep food down. When we had moved to the UK the previous summer, we had tearfully left our dog Alfred behind [because of the draconian 6-month quarantine rule], so on Christmas eve my father burst into the house [bleeding and swearing profusely], and pried a black & white, snarling Wild Thing off his neck, saying, “Merry effing Christmas!” My parents had secretly agreed that the family needed a local pet, to ease the loss of Alfred. The cat was a rescue from the RSPCA, supposedly female [and therefore named by my mother “Jingle Belle”]; but later assessed by the vet as Ever So Male: “Perhaps you would like to call him ‘Jingle Bill’?” We fell into the habit of calling him Ying Tong, after the Goon Show song, “Ying Tong Iddle I Po.” [Another gem of non-lexical vocables, suitable for lowering anxiety.]

The cat was the bane of the street, commando-raiding the neighbor children’s outdoor tea table and making off with their Marmite sandwiches; climbing another neighbor’s sapling tree and chewing off all the buds. Inside the house, he would lurk under my bed, snarling with menace. I would do the longjump from the hallway to under my bed covers, and he would pounce, trying to bite me through my many layers of duvet. Then [and this is the Beauty Part] he would curl up on my chest and fall asleep. My parents theorized [and I agreed] that the very credible threat of a woken up Ying Tong’s wrath would strongly motivate me to resist the urge to cough, thereby keeping my food down and my strength up. And, lo, I survived! And, despite his rotten disposition, I just loved that cat.

The week we were set to move back to the US, a worried neighbor knocked at our door, asking if we owned “that large back & white smooth.” My mother said, “Yes. What’s he done now?” “Well, I’m afraid, been run down by a lorry. He’s in our front garden,” said she. Cheer up. He didn’t die from his injuries, which were extensive: a broken hind leg, a broken jaw, and a gash in his side. In fact, he became [marginally] sweeter. Because he chewed off his plaster cast on the voyage home, his leg fused in a straight-out position; but that did not affect his agility or speed. When we got to our new duty station, we were [unexpectedly, but joyously] reunited with our beloved dog Alfred, and were also given a gray & white cat [whose markings were identical to Ying Tong’s]. That cat had 7 kittens [none of which was going to St. Ives], all of whom learned to sit with one hind leg extended, in apparent emulation of “Uncle Ying Tong,” who lived to the age of 18.

So, my answer to Maurice Sendak’s question is: Children survive by consorting with fierce creatures [both human and 4-legged; both inside themselves and Out There]. To make the wolf [or a vicious cat] your friend is sometimes the key to making it into adulthood, against all odds.

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