Sunday, February 05, 2012


Robert Coles was practically a family industry for decades, examining and reflecting on the lives and thoughts of children or people in poverty, and reporting on them in what was taken to be their own words, or at least their own thoughts as edited and reorganized. This was just before the Great Deconstruction -- a period when investigators could still feel romantically virtuous about such research in spite of a little niggling doubt here or there. At least he wondered what the kids thought, though he tended to be what I would call patronizing sometimes.

In the first chapter Coles considers Freud’s antipathy to religion, then talks about the “object relations” “teddy bear” psychologists like Winnicott. The meat of the chapter starts on page ten where we meet Connie whom all the adults are finding balky and arrogant. When Coles begins to pay attention to her, it turns out that she has some very definite ideas about what is “religious,” meaning institutional and dictated, and what is “spiritual” meaning a kind of inner inspiration. She wants to weigh what she does in these terms and choose how to proceed. They aren’t giving her enough time, space or respect. She was a little ahead of the cutting edge of the questioning and demanding individual choice we know now.

Coles says he’s different from the other clinical psychologists because he goes into the field (he is a “field worker” like Dorothy Day, and, yes, he did work with her), he simply asks kids what they think, he is working with kids of many countries and many class levels including the VERY poor, and he is including his own family who have the ability to “set him straight” if he goes off the tracks. They are of a privileged and educated class, who feel their obligation to others.

What I see when reading this book is that he’s still very much into the humanities assumptions of the Fifties and Sixties when he trained, which is to say he’s an authority figure (often refers to himself as “doctor” -- he’s a psychiatrist), he doesn’t mind mentioning his friendships with major figures (Anna Freud and William Carlos Williams), he thinks that “spirituality” is a kind of elementary theology -- only reaches what I consider “spiritual” when he gets to the Hopi. Until then he’s tied to institutions. The kids constantly repeat what their parents, teachers, priests have told them and, in fact, Coles found the kids through those people. The kids are addressing the world on the terms of adults, but doing some excellent footwork in accommodating it. He does see that. The issues they address are the classics: why doesn’t God intervene in tragedies, where is the justice when it comes to heaven and hell, how to reconcile God with Jesus, why is there suffering?

The Hopi girl needs to be explained to Coles by another Hopi, because the kids shut down when they come to school where he contacts them. They feel that they are obligated to do this, because it is a public place. They are not hiding but exercising decorum and appropriateness. When he goes to the girl’s house and sits on her front stoop with her and her dog, gazing at the thousand-mile landscape, things are different. In fact, often reversed. The ten-year-old girl tells him “The sky watches us and listens to us. It talks to us and it hopes we are ready to talk back. The sky is where the God of the Anglos lives, a teacher told us. She asked where our God lives. I said, ‘I don’t know.’ I was telling the truth. Our God is the sky and lives wherever the sky is. Our God is the sun and moon, too, and our God is our [the Hopi] people.”

It is not possible to not have a culture. It is simply the accumulation of what one knows about how things fit together. We speak of the cultures of animals and that is truthful. Pre-adolescents, which are the age group Coles is talking to, are just figuring out how to accept what has been presented to them. They can get very impatient, angry, and irritated about it all and then the adults want “therapy” for them.

Coles never interviews a truly enraged child, I thought. But then I remembered the girl in a Rio de Janeiro favela, who was particularly indignant about her priest courting the rich. The towering status of Jesus (No one in this book ever says “Christ.”) seemed a particular provocation. “I wonder what He is thinking. He can see all of us and he must have an opinion. I try to talk with Him when I am most upset. He is all I have.” Coles was concerned about the girl’s mental health and consulted a colleague in Rio who filled him in on how tough the girl’s life was. The girl demands, “Why does the fat priest sit down there with rich people eating too much for his own health while my little sister cries from hunger.” The father was long gone. The mother was dying of TB. To Coles’ credit, he got the mother to a doctor but it was too late. Margarita demands, “Why doesn’t God knock down that statue? Why does he keep Jesus locked up in it?”

Coles is aware that he ought to be listening and trying to get under the layer of bullshit pre-determined stuff, so he does that by presenting a lot of art supplies and asking the kids if they would like to draw. He doesn’t tell them WHAT. Naturally enough, since they are theist (except the Hopi) they go straight anthropomorphic and draw God’s face, though the Islamic kids cannot and do avoid it. One of the most moving accounts is of a boy who draws a big circle for God’s face, a smaller circle for Jesus’ face, and then puts a rainbow canopy over them, which he suggests might be the Holy Spirit. Coles describes all this gravely and elegantly. He presents the sense of the kids but I don’t think he’s using their rhetoric. Some of the drawings are in the book and are pretty interesting.

He does not press the thing about God being a version of one’s real life father for which some readers will be grateful. Nor does he address the issue of a bad father or a missing father. All parents are movie-ready wise but a few priests come in for hard knocks by outraged kids like Margarita.

One chapter each is supplied for Islamic Pakistani kids, Jewish kids, and secular kids. Time has affected their impact greatly, particularly the one about the Pakistani boy living in England. His account of what it would be like to be a pilot -- all about control, power, correctness, punishment, obedience to authority, and the enveloping dreamtime of night -- can’t be anything but terrifying after 9/11.

To end this book -- which was pretty confrontive for its times, Coles goes back to Dorothy Day. He calls the children pilgrims -- actually that was his wife’s idea, but it fits with Day’s outlook. He says, “These children don’t need sanctification, but they deserve an accounting.” The NYTimes yesterday carried a story about the bulldozing of the favelas where Rio is clearing land for a new Olympic stadium. No one made a list of the people living there, much less how many children there were.

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