The Uncanny Child

On Linda Boström Knausgård’s novella Welcome to America and the end of childhood.

Still from Village of the Damned (1960)

Every night when I was a child, my mother asked me to set the table before dinner. I came to believe that if there was anything odd among the four place settings—a chipped plate, say, or a knife from a different pattern—the one I gave it to would die. My habit in the beginning was to give it to my brother; later, my mother, and later still my father. I can’t explain these decisions. Night after night, no one would die, but my belief in this power, my fear of this power, persisted. By the time I was twelve or thirteen, I’d mostly outgrown the belief. I had talked myself out of other secret, compulsive behaviors, like counting things pointlessly, never stepping on a certain corner tile in the foyer. Still, when setting the table, I began to take the doomed object, the portent, for myself—superstitiously, just in case.

Ellen, the eleven-year-old narrator of Linda Boström Knausgård’s recently released novella Welcome to America, believes she has similar powers, but life has provided her with more evidence that they’re real: “My dad’s dead. Did I mention that? It’s my fault. I prayed out loud to God for him to die and he did.” In the aftermath, Ellen has stopped talking or even writing—communication is dangerous, any crossing of the barrier between inner life and outer world. “You should never ask for what you want,” Ellen says, or maybe thinks—the transmission of this confession somehow bypasses her silence.

It disturbs the order of things. The way you really want them. You want to be disappointed. You want to be hurt and have to struggle to get over it. You want the wrong presents on your birthday.

Ellen does not feel remorse about her father, whose moods were erratic and threatened violence; he made her mother and everyone unhappy: “I never felt guilty about wishing he was dead.” She reasons it was murder in self-defense and, further, she is not fully responsible, since she achieved the killing through prayer. God is her coconspirator: “It was me and God who’d killed my dad. We’d done it together, once and for all.” But she is afraid of her own power, “the power there was in me speaking.” She quickly realizes silence is another kind of power—the power of withholding what other people want (“It was so easy. Just stopping. From one moment to the next my life was changed”). It’s a power she must have the strength of will to maintain: “Sometimes I’m scared I’ll talk in my sleep. That someone will hear me and hold it against me at some future time.” Ellen has spent so much of her childhood in fear. In her silence, finally, she becomes frightening; a threat and not the threatened.

Horror movies are full of silent, glaring children—the demonic little blondes in Village of the Damned; the twins at the end of the hallway in The Shining; tiny telekinetic Drew Barrymore in Firestarter. Part of the creep factor of the silent child is that we don’t know what they’re thinking. Are they judging us? Scheming? A truly silent child stares like a doll. In his definitive essay on the uncanny, Sigmund Freud mentions a woman patient who “even at the age of eight” was still convinced that “her dolls would be certain to come to life if she were to look at them in a particular way, with as concentrated a gaze as possible.” What’s uncanny about a living doll or a doll-like child is not the realization of a childhood fear, Freud argues “the child had no fear of its doll coming to life, it may even have desired it.” Rather the doll reminds us of “an infantile wish,” the wish to make something true just by thinking it—desire as a power in itself.

Freud goes on to tell an anecdote about another patient who had an excellent stay in a spa owing mostly to his room, “which immediately adjoined that of a very amiable nurse.” When he returned to the establishment,

he asked for the same room but was told that it was already occupied by an old gentleman, whereupon he gave vent to his annoyance in the words “Well, I hope he’ll have a stroke and die.” A fortnight later the old gentleman really did have a stroke. My patient thought this an “uncanny” experience.

Freud calls this type of experience “omnipotence of thoughts,” a “narcissistic overestimation” of the influence of our desires. Irrational narcissism is natural in children, but we unlearn it in adulthood. When a flash of it returns, there’s recognition. The uncanny, for Freud, is the eerily familiar, “something familiar and old … estranged only by the process of repression.”

In The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman argues that the construct of adulthood is based partially on shame. Children, he writes, “are immersed in a world of secrets, surrounded by mystery and awe.” Adults make the world intelligible to children by teaching them “how shame is transformed into a set of moral directives.” Adults know the rules, what can and cannot be said, what words and acts are shameful. “From the child’s point of view, shame gives power and authority to adulthood.” According to Postman, the gap between childhood and adulthood was a side effect of literacy. In the Middle Ages, childhood ended at seven “because that is the age at which children have command over speech.” The chasm widened in the age of print because there was so much more to learn: “A new kind of adulthood had been invented. From print onward, adulthood had to be earned.”

Boström Knausgård’s Ellen knows on some level that speaking and writing are connected to a transformation she resists. She doesn’t want to grow up. “I stopped talking when growing began to take up too much space inside me,” she thinks. Among the tallest in her class, she can’t control her growth spurts the way she can control her speech: “I couldn’t refuse food. My hunger was too great.” Growing up is noisy—her mother, a stage actress, teaches pupils how to scream in their living room; her older brother physically nails his door shut to play guitar with an amp and a drum machine—but childhood is quiet. In her silence she longs to go back, to go backwards—the repetition-compulsion, in Freud’s terms. “Was I trying to relive my childhood,” she asks, “only this time without dad?”

The unheimlich (unhomely) is tied up with nostalgia—the ache to return home. Ellen rarely leaves their home, though it hardly seems safe—her father still haunts it, or perhaps still haunts only Ellen. The uncanny child is closer to the membrane of the spirit world. His ghost turns up in her room one night, “sitting in the armchair whistling.” He lectures and taunts her. “How could I shut him up?” she thinks. The fish-boning knife she keeps hidden in her room is no help, she knows: “he was already dead.” Her only recourse is to write in the notebook that is otherwise verboten: “You’re dead. You can’t come here.” She gives him the notebook and watches him read. That does the trick. “Printing links the present with forever,” Postman writes. “It carries personal identity into realms unknown.” Writing makes thoughts more real; it creates reality, turns thoughts into acts.

The thought that “one day I might speak again” is horrible to Ellen, and yet she knows her will has limits. “This staying silent couldn’t possibly last a lifetime … No one could ask that of me.” The only logical, “possible outcome” of her silence is death, she decides, her own death, in youth: “the thought came to me from somewhere that I would have to die.” She’ll rewind to a time before her existence. She’ll undo herself, with God’s help—God can still hear her thoughts, and she is sure he will answer her prayers. But “how long would I have to wait?” Literal death is preferable to the end of childhood; to becoming larger, more conspicuous, more like her father; to being unable to hide: “The whole idea of growing up felt completely wrong … I saw no other way.” She avoids mirrors, “not wishing to see what growing was doing”—“afraid the transformation had already begun.” In leaving childhood, she becomes monstrous. She is afraid of herself, must hide from herself. She must subvert aging through death.

If books invented childhood, in Postman’s view, electricity led to its demise—“the telegraph began the process of making information uncontrollable.” The telegraph “altered the kind of information children could have access to, its quality and quantity, its sequence, and the circumstances in which it would be experienced.” Television in particular hastened the disappearance of childhood as we know it. Suddenly children had access to everything adults knew, in a format they could instantly grasp. I think of Carol Ann in Poltergeist communing with the TV set. (Postman quotes Reginald Damerell: “No child or adult becomes better at watching television by doing more of it. What skills are required are so elemental that we have yet to hear of a television viewing disability.”) Suddenly children had answers to questions they hadn’t asked. And that TV is real, or at least realistic, is what destroys childhood innocence. “To what extent does the depiction of the world as it is undermine a child’s belief in adult rationality, in the possibility of an ordered world, in a hopeful future?” Postman asks. What happens when children see adults don’t know more than they do? Margaret Mead called it a “crisis of faith.” If there are no adults, there can be no adults in the room.

I’m fascinated by fiction that depicts the end of childhood as an unheimlich moment of self-realization in the simplest sense—the moment a child realizes they are a self, a singular consciousness distinct from the world. “It happened” to Frankie, in The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, the summer she was twelve and had “grown so tall that she was almost a big freak.” What “happened” is so sudden she cannot understand it. Frankie’s brother Jarvis has come home from Alaska and announced he’s getting married; this changes everything:

“The world is certainy a small place,” she said.

“What makes you say that?”

“I mean sudden,” said Frankie. “The world is certainy a sudden place.”

“Well, I don’t know,” said Berenice. “Sometimes sudden and sometimes slow.”

Frankie’s eyes were half closed, and to her own ears her voice sounded ragged, far away:

“To me it is sudden.”

The idea of the wedding gives Frankie “a feeling she could not name.” “They were the two prettiest people I ever saw,” she says. “I just can’t understand how it happened.” Jarvis and his bride-to-be are receding from her, through the portal of “the wedding at Winter Hill,” into a charmed adult life (“I bet they have a good time every minute of the day”) while she is stuck in limbo: “Frankie was too tall this summer to walk beneath the arbor as she had always done before … Standing beside the arbor, with dark coming on, Frankie was afraid.” She tells Berenice, “I wish I was somebody else except me.” Once you know you are a person, you also know you are not, cannot be, anyone else. Other people’s happiness does not happen to you.

In Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica, a group of children are captured by pirates. Life on this pirate ship is surprisingly uneventful: “The weeks passed in aimless wandering … things ceased happening.” Until, that is, “an event did occur, to Emily, of considerable importance.” Emily, who is ten, “suddenly realized who she was.” While playing house in a nook near the bow of the ship, “it suddenly flashed into her mind that she was she.”

She began to laugh, rather mockingly. “Well!” she thought, in effect: “Fancy you, of all people, going and getting caught like this!—You can’t get out of it now, not for a very long time: you’ll have to go through with being a child, and growing up, and getting old, before you’ll be quit of this mad prank!”

Then Emily begins to wonder why she is her and not someone else, “out of all the people in the world who she might have been”—“Had she chosen herself, or had God done it?” Was the self a conspiracy with God? Is she a god? The “whole fabric” of life, now that she was “discrete,” a person with the treacherous power of consciousness, seemed “vaguely disquieting.” I had a similar moment in my life, at some point in adolescence—an apprehension of myself as a being with an edge, which I was inside. Uncanny.

Writing in 1982, Postman describes the emergence of “an adult-child”: “a grown-up whose intellectual and emotional capacities are unrealized and, in particular, not significantly different from those associated with children.” Ellen could be a “child-adult,” a child whose intellectual and emotional capacities are not significantly different from those of the grown-ups around her. In life, her father was as impetuous and unreliable as a child, and after his death, everyone in Ellen’s family believes that someone else is in control: “I thought about who actually decided things in our house and ended up realizing that we all probably thought it was someone else.” It’s a delicate system of projected responsibility to which “everyone needed to contribute, otherwise it fell apart.”

We learn this from Ellen herself of course, first-person, present-tense Ellen: “It was as if the calm that sometimes descended on us was dependent on such a fine-grained network of understanding and good will that no one felt inclined to break with the implicit order of things.” At moments like these, Ellen does not sound like a child. I wondered at times if this was sloppiness on behalf of the author or translator (Martin Aitken), but it could also be intentional, a way of showing that Ellen really is becoming monstrously adult-like, operating with the intellect not of an innocent but a latently criminal mind. “Through the miracle of symbols and electricity our own children know everything anyone else knows—the good with the bad,” Postman writes. “Nothing is mysterious, nothing awesome, nothing is held back from public view.” There is no shame.

Welcome to America is almost a horror novel; it arouses “dread and creeping horror,” as Freud writes of the uncanny and “all that is terrible.” That fileting knife in Ellen’s desk drawer is like Alfred Hitchcock’s bomb under the breakfast table, a machine of suspense. Ellen’s mother’s willful denial (“nothing wrong with us”), her brother’s almost flirtatious hints at violence (“Do you want me to hit her?” he asks their mother)—over 124 pages, there’s a ratcheting of tension that feels unsustainable. The reader becomes convinced something terrible will happen. But what? A rape? More “murder”?

Nothing happens. Ellen tries her mother’s cigarettes; her mother is unimpressed, offers her coffee. The child smokes and reads comics on the balcony. “It occurred to me that I might be happy,” Ellen thinks. Nevertheless, she expects an early death; she continues to conspire with God, “who was going to cut my life short.” The sense of threat, the threat of threat, is never resolved—is that then horror? If the question the fear asks is never answered? In The Weird and the Eerie, Mark Fisher writes, “the sensation of the eerie occurs either when there is something present where there should be nothing, or there is nothing present where there should be something.” Hence, an eerie silence—when you expected a Wilhelm scream.

Though readying for death, Ellen “could not” imagine her family at her funeral. Whether she tries and is unable, or simply refuses, to indulge in that fantasy isn’t clear. Either way, she knows she won’t be there. This is how the end of childhood prefigures death. At some undefined moment you cross over; you leave your child self behind. You can’t even say goodbye—you won’t be there.

Elisa Gabbert, a poet and essayist, is the author, most recently, of The Word Pretty (Black Ocean). 

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