Thursday, March 03, 2016

"THE QUEER CHILD" by Kathryn Bond Stockton

One good book (and I’m not talking about narrative immersive fiction — I’m talking about ideas well-explored) leads to a whole shelf and possibly actual consequences based on insight.  Thus “Boyology” caused me to order two more books and put even more on a list that will cost me money later.

One was practically an instant read:  “Caleb’s Friend,” a picture book for kids that’s a gender-reversed “Little Mermaid.”  It’s not about sex (Disney never said that the reason the girl wanted legs was because of what was in between so she could “dance,” but you sort of knew that.)  Caleb is the “white man” in this “Broken Arrow” plot.  (In “Broken Arrow” a frontier white man befriends an indigenous man.  DVD from Netflix. Based on real life.)  That’s a second reversal, sort of like the story of the “The Little Mermaid” from the Prince’s point of view.


Caleb works on a fishing boat, meets a merBOY who is later caught in the fishing net.  In spite of plans to sell him to a freak show for a lot of money, Caleb sets him free.  Later the merboy saves the boat in a storm.  As thanks, Caleb gives him a rose.  The relationship endures and like Joe Dimaggio loving Marilyn Monroe and leaving roses, Caleb as an old man throws roses into the sea.  You can read this book several ways besides human relationship across barriers, including gay sex or simply boy faithfulness and trust.  The art is appealing.  Or you could note, rather cynically, that love is proved by gifts.

The other book that I’m only beginning to digest is “The Queer Child.”  It’s not the title but the cover photo that captured me, a beautiful boy just entering adrenarche (seven to adolescence) which Freud called “latency,” feeling that nothing was happening.  It’s one of his wrongest ideas.  EVERYTHING is happening at that age.

Kathryn Bond Stockton

Kathryn Bond Stockton is not just after what happens, but also about what was a potential in the child, a discarded memory, the kind of thing that in the art world is call “pentimento,” (a painting under a painting) or in writing a “palimpset,” (writing scraped off a parchment so it can be used for new writing).  With new technologies, these earlier works can be recovered.  Also, science tells us that the human brain generates a bazillion neurons and then erases most of them, esp. in the earliest years when it only keeps the binary frameworks of infancy:  warm/chilled, secure/falling, fed/hungry, interaction/abandonment that will persist always as basic unconscious assumptions about the nature of the world.  

Throughout life, humans and possibly other mammals, generate neurons and neurons and then discard the ones not used.  This is called plasticity and is one of the ways we grow and change to fit the world.  It’s one of the strongest strategies of nature — create a million, destroy all but a few thousand who have some advantage giving them persistence that we call “fitness” in response to the changing environment.

This boy is from an old album.
I don't know who he is, but I've not forgotten him.

A few of the frail, the fleeting, the precious, will exist long enough for people to love them. A British child’s story claims that all babies are birds on an island until they are called by parents, discard their wings, and are born.  It made a huge impression on me as a child, partly because of the delicate illustrations.  The point was that some birds didn’t want to become babies and somehow managed to keep their wings.  It’s the kernel for Peter Pan. 

This thinking is not just Stockton but comes from a body of shared thinking that for a few decades has publicly addressed our dysfunctional ideas about gender.  This body of LGBTQ conversation is unknown to me, because it usually takes place in cities or universities.  I must play catch-up as well as slowly learning the vocabulary she is creating to fit new concepts.

This is Brandon, Manitoba, 1946.  
A school to force euro-conformity on tribal people.

The main term I’ve learned so far is “Growing Sideways,” which responds to the dominating idea that one must grow “up” through predictable steps, the pattern assumed in public schools.  If through time there are blockages, brokenness, deficits, challenges, then one must find another way to go, sideways.  The line of development becomes a maze.  This book doesn’t survey possible causes — just the results, which we know about without directly knowing about them.

Fairy tern, small and delicate

Continuing the bird metaphor — maybe a little too long — we know atypical and sometimes troublesome people Nat Lauriat called “stormy petrels,” though some people might be “fairy terns” or even water ouzels who walk in and out of streams underwater.  They turn up in classrooms, churches, and brothels.  They are bought and sold, sometimes by literary agents and sometimes in prison.  Often death claims them early, esp. if they seem to be white crows.  Sometimes they become celebrities.

Stockton uses films as texts.  I haven’t seen them all, so I’ll get back to you, but the one that haunts me always is “AI,” the film about the robot child who somehow has an emotional life, an implanted limbic/autonomic system that people use but don’t acknowledge.  It’s the thing about becoming real.

My family attended movies quite a lot.  Rumer Godden’s “The River” or “Captain from Castille” or “The Red Shoes” are haunts in my shadow life.  Stockton talks about “ghosting,” the faint memories of lives unlived or unresolved or simply imagined.  In one of them I am a hanged child.  

In the Fifties I was told I was creative, a high cultural value among the judicious teachers whose task it was to sort us.  It was oxymoronic to learn to be creative since education then was forced conformity.  I still have the remnants of my shelf of books about creativity, which was defined as combining two dissimilar things into something new.  I think they really meant “metaphor,” which some propose is the most basic strategy of thinking or at least language.  Metaphor is the wings.  Today’s culture wants to tear them off and sell them, even if they have to suggest they will make the buyers able to fly.

Somehow I’m circling back to my undergrad concepts.  Those were the years I traveled with closeted gay guys and was assigned a roommate who was gleefully bi- and pan- and wore black underwear.  (I hadn’t known there was such a thing.)  She wrote poetry and edited a gynecological journal all her life.  I finally crossed her off when she kept demanding homage.  She was a person of community and I wasn’t in any of them.  But we shared the dubious sequence of ideas that creative means original and being original means “queer” -- not in the sense of some gender role but in being atypical, different, and therefore valuable.

Stockton says she sees metaphor as a “moving suspension,” which is to say she brushes aside the insistence on having the Truth, the Actuality, the Reality, which are essentially ghosts of public school where there is only ONE right answer, which eliminates all other options and possibilities, UNlike the explorations necessary for “sideways growth.”  She understands the contemporary cultural moment -- at least in the academic Euro-world -- as one with room to explore, partly because of dynamic confusion and partly because of new and more powerful lenses, which is the metaphor on the cover of this book.  I mean literal telescopes, microscopes, cameras, and computer screens that give us an avalanche of new evidence to reconcile.


So — animals, race (skin color), sex, murder and money will be the threads of the argument.  I am not impartial and cool.  I sit here blushing, remembering, getting angry, and occasionally leaving for a while.  I'm working my way through the long Poirot films.  In last night's mystery he advises "if one only shifts one's view a leetle, all becomes a different story."

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