By Kate Fincke
Over the years I have asked many children how they get to sleep at night. I collect these stories. More often than not, when the children find out about my collection, they ask me to tell them all the stories I know. Secreted in the telling is a point: all children must find a way to put themselves to sleep. While parents may put them to bed, the children alone must drift off. As adults we know that insomnia is commonplace, and we do what we can to fend it off. Children, however, often rail at the realization that despite bedtime stories, snacks, lullabies or back rubs, they are, in the end, on their own. They are frequently bewildered that we cannot make them sleep. Even if adults offer suggestions (the famous sheep counting, or prayers or reading), children must actively choose to invest themselves in the strategy. Often they rebel, refusing all suggestions, insisting they have tried them all, and they just don't work.
Their recalcitrance lies in the alone-ness of sleep, the isolation, and the self-reliance. The solution lies in turning away from whomever is tucking them in — away from the hope that they can be accompanied across the threshold of sleep—and turning toward their own creativity. I believe, in the end, that drifting off is a solitary creative act.
Toddlers, we know, cannot be given their security blankets; they create them. And for a time, the security blanket soothes and will ferry the child from sleepiness to sleep. As children mature, however, the blanket no longer suffices, and the life of the mind takes over, opening the door to both imagined fears and imagined remedies. At night children commit themselves to the power of imagination. Eight-year-olds find themselves believing in monsters that during daylight hours are ridiculed. In my profession, help often comes in the form of stories —sometimes stories that are made up on the spot by child and therapist together. So when the kids ask to hear my collection of sleep stories, it often goes something like this:
I knew a boy once who was afraid of burglars at night. He was particularly worried about his window — a natural entry point for bad guys. So when he went to bed, he had his mother tuck him in extra tight so no one could get at him. Then he had her line up his twelve polar bears all around him with the biggest one at his feet and all the rest facing in, watching over him.
Once settled, he began to boot-up his imaginary computer with all sorts of burglar-catching paraphernalia. It grew to be a vastly intricate computer, loaded with invisibility functions and burglar-seeking missiles. As I understand it, he would lose himself in the details of his programming and fall off to sleep.
However, once a night, he would wake up to pee. To insure his safety, he had to run to the bathroom as fast as he could while stopping to hop twice on each hall rug. If he hopped right, sleep was guaranteed. If not—worry. If worry, then the laborious computer programming began all over again.
I knew another boy once who put himself to sleep by telling himself a continuing story. Every night, he began where he left off the night before. When I met him, he was nine and had been at it for at least two years. The story took place in outer space, and by the time I heard it, several generations had come and gone discovering new plants, inhabiting them and moving on. The hero, who lived on through all the generations at the constant age of eight, was now at home on a water planet. He could dive in at the North Pole and emerge soaking wet at the South Pole.
I have told these stories and talked about their function in the child's mastery of the dilemma of sleeplessness to demonstrate that creativity, narrative, and imaginative constructs are central to the child's mastery of the fundamental tasks of living. I would now like to tell a story of a little girl I knew once who illuminated for me the way in which metaphor could express the inexpressible and vastly enhance the child's ability to reflect upon tragic experience.
Loni was almost three when I met her and three and a half when we said goodbye. She was enrolled in our therapeutic preschool because her language was delayed. The fact was, she had more language than she would use. Her story was a sad one and her sorrow silenced her.
Loni had been born with drugs in her system and so was placed immediately in foster care. She had the good fortune to have a very loving, calm, devoted foster mother who wished to adopt her. At one year, her birth mother gave birth to a drug-addicted baby boy, J. J., who was placed with Loni. Loni and J. J.'s foster mother was a woman in her sixties with several grown children who had families of their own. Loni and J. J. were accepted into this large extended family. More than that, they were adored and fussed over. The grown siblings competed with one another to see whom Loni and J. J. liked best. Tragically, when Loni was two, her foster mother died suddenly. In the family's grief, there was a tug-of-war over Loni and her brother. During the eight months before I met her, Loni and J. J. had been split up. Loni had lived first with a foster sister, then a brother. Finally in the sibling feud that emerged out of their mourning, accusations of child abuse were made. Loni was pulled out of her “uncle's” home in the middle of the night by the authorities and sent alone to live with a stranger.
When I first met Loni, she was a tiny, listless, quiet and joyless little girl, who was hungry most of the time. Sitting in my office for the first time, she showed very little interest in the toys there. In a dull lethargic way, she picked up the Playmobile family figures and placed them in the palm of her hand. My office tends to be a bit of a mess, and I was unaware that there was a rubber band on the floor. Loni picked it up and struggled to wrap it around the figures. It was a hard job, and I bent over to help get them all to fit snugly in her palm.
When it finally worked, Loni laughed. She held on to the figures, excited and smiling, showing them to me. I said, “Look, Loni, you can keep your family together.” With a sense of dawning recognition and growing excitement, she said, “Show Frieda.” Frieda was Loni's much-loved teacher. Loni raced back into her classroom, hand extended, saying, “Look Frieda, look Frieda.” I said, “Look at the family…and the rubber band, Frieda. Loni can keep the family together.” I really didn't need to say anything because before I spoke, I noticed Frieda sitting there on the rug in her flowered straw hat, smiling to greet Loni's smile, but with a tear in her eye. The words were helpful to Loni because they revealed that we “got” it. What excited her was that she had made herself known. Because she could not put her feelings into words, she had to create the symbol, the story, and wait for an empathic narrator.
Not long after this event, Loni started coming to session wanting to draw her family. Now, she could not draw—she was just too little. So we played a game. She would scribble and then she would name the scribble. First J. J., then Mommy (her dead foster mother), then an aunt, then the uncle. I began also to draw pictures for her — J. J. in his crib, Loni in Mommy's arms. These she took back to her cubby and hoarded. But Loni liked it best when she could sit in my lap, and I would draw circles for faces. Then she would take the marker and scribble on the circles for facial features and tell me who it was.
One day we started to play our same game: lapsitting, circle drawing, scribbling, calling out names — J. J., Mommy, Aunt Alice. Slowly she got sadder. She frowned. She grabbed the marker from me. She scribbled. I said, “Who's that?” She said, “Nobdy.” She turned the page. She scribbled. I asked, “Who's that?” “Nobody,” she answered. Then again. And again. The pace picked up. Scribble, nobody. Scribble, nobody. Soon she was weeping—not sobbing, just tears falling down her face–because she had to keep saying “Nobody.” It was a horrible moment. I did not know how to comfort her. It was true. She had nobody. Her recognition was awful. She was just three. How could she bear it?
I was at a loss as to what to do. And I cannot say that I planned what I did next. I looked at her most recent scribble. I took her marker from her and drew a hat at the top of her scribble, saying lightly, “Mr. Nobody.” She chuckled and said, “Again.” I did it again. She laughed and got excited. Getting up out of my lap, dancing, she said, “Show Frieda.” We skipped to her classroom, holding hands, and she ran in, saying, “Look, Frieda, Mr. Nobody.” We all laughed.
The next time I saw her, Loni wanted to play the Mr. Nobody game. This time she wanted me to draw Mr. Nobody on her leggings. Suspecting that inked-up leggings might not be appreciated by her foster mother, I declined. Loni grabbed and marker and drew Mr. Nobody on her arm like a tattoo—“Show Frieda,” followed. For days, she drew a new Mr. Nobody tattoo after her nightly bath washed the old one away.
I have often wondered what happened in these nobody/Mr. Nobody sessions. On the one hand, Loni's symbolic world could not adequately contain her feelings. As adults, we are familiar with times when language fails us, and we are, as they say, overcome by nameless dread or unspeakable horror. Since language so often fails children, perhaps these moments occur as well when personal metaphor breaks down. These sessions affirm, on the other hand, that a new image can be both given and received—one that holds the feelings, contains them—one that can lift the mood and soothe.
Why did this particular image, “Mr. Nobody,” help Loni? I sat with her sorrow and felt helpless by it until I made a three-year-old joke. Could it be that even three-year-olds need black comedy to diminish something unbearable? To capture it, bind it, boss it around, toy with it? Loni was overcome by grief. Her echoing, “Nobody, Nobody, Nobody…” was a moment of terrible isolation. I believe Loni recognized that she had no one; that we were all, much as we loved her, transient. During this session, I urgently sought to offer her hope and at a loss as to where to find it. Loni's reality seemed to have little to offer. Like a conjurer, I strove to make something out of nothing. In the end it was “Art”—a hat, a funny name, a joke that came to hand
In creating that joke, I seemed to feel a need to give loss a body, to animate it, to characterize it, to embody “nobody.” Having done this, I then wanted to interact with that body so that it might accompany Loni, like a security blanket, so that she might converse with it. I wanted her to go all out, to argue, cajole, enjoy, fight, manipulate, depend, sympathize. I wanted her to do with Mr. Nobody all the things that we do in relationships. I thought that then, perhaps, this terrible sorrow would no longer be held solely within the confines of the self, isolated from solace.
Despite my ambitions, Loni had her own use to make of this embodied nobody. What she wanted was to have Mr. Nobody tattooed on her body, indivisible, inseparable, skin to skin. What are we to make of this notion? For me what comes to mind is the lost mother of her infancy.
As the months went by, the arguments between Loni's foster siblings got ironed out. The authorities worked toward Loni's reunion with J. J. and their placement together with Aunt Alice. One Friday, Loni went for a weekend sleepover with J. J. at Aunt Alice's. Much as Loni missed J. J. and her fmaily, she had grown to love her temporary foster mother. The multiple separations involved in leaving her foster mother to go to Aunt Alice's and then in leaving Aunt Alice and J. J. to go back to her foster mother were yet again beyond Loni's capacity to bear.
When I came to school on Monday, Loni was sitting in the hall, her down coat puffed out all around her, staring into space. She wouldn't get up. She wouldn't go to class. I sat next to her and tried to reach her, but she wouldn't look at me. Instead, she turned her head away and averted her gaze. I felt quite helpless–not to mention erased, extinguished by a three-year-old.
Later that day, I came to pick Loni up for her session, and she was herself again. In the playroom, we sat far apart and rolled little cars back and forth between us. Aunt Alice, I hasten to add, lived an hour's car-ride away. In our game, the cars went and the cars came back. Unlike her life, whatever left, returned. I put words to the story. “The car goes, the cars come back. The car is so happy to see you again.” Abruptly, Loni interrupted, pointing her finger with a quizzical air about her and said, “You're like a mommy.” “Yes,” I answered, “because I love children.” Then she looked hard at me, and as if to explain her earlier actions, she picked up the car, held it out to me while simultaneously turning her face away.
Meaningfully, she averted her eyes and said, “Sometimes I do this.”
When Loni explained to me in word and deed that because I was like a mommy, she had been unable to look at me earlier in the day, she demonstrated a sophisticated ability to reflect upon her experience. She conceptualized that her behavior was motivated by feeling. She recognized that feelings about her dead mother could be transferred onto another person and determine her actions in relation to that person. It is difficult to know what contributed to such a sophisticated capacity for self-reflection in one so young. The car-play set the stage for Loni's epiphany. In general, narrative may be one of the ways in which children arrive at conceptualizations, explanations, and understandings. In the fables of old, after all, there is a moral at the end of the tale. The moral is not a prelude. Neither is it an interlude inserted midstream. No, moral follows denouement. In fact, without the narrative, the moral is easily dismissed as a fatuous platitude or a boring cliche. In the end, the story alone gestates, rears, and educates the moral, thereby anchoring it firmly in the heart.
I end this story with a final vignette. The time came for Loni to be reunited with her brother and go live with Aunt Alice. While this was what we all hoped for, Loni would have to leave school and say goodbye to all of us. Every step of the way, this child's life was about loss. Over the months I had known her, we had developed a farewell ritual. Every time I took Loni back to her classroom and handed he over to Frieda, I would say, “See you later, alligator,” and Loni would reply, “In a while, crocodile.” On the last day I saw her, Loni came into my playroom crying. She said she did not want to say goodbye to her school. We played with the dollhouse that she turned into her school. Finally I drew a series of pictures for her, pictures of her days with us, with Frieda, with her friends. Pictures of her new home, of Loni in Aunt Alice's arms. The last picture I drew was of Loni asleep in her new bed. She grabbed the marker from me and scribbled under the bed. I said, “What's that, Loni?” And she said, crying, “Alligator.” I asked, “What's the alligator doing?” She answered, “Screaming.”
In this final session, Loni used the image of the sleeping girl and the screaming alligator to convey yet again the specificity of her grief — the color, the shape, its heft. While in daily life, many children scream frequently, Loni did not. In her resignation, she had lost the zeal for protest and she bore her fate passively. She still hungered but she did not scream. Yet in our last session, she found her voice finally in the mouth of the “see-you-later” alligator.
When Loni wept and did not want to say goodbye, I was greatly saddened. But when she made the alligator scream, I caught my breath and felt a painful lump in my throat; my eyes welled up with tears. This metaphor, with all of its history between us, cut through me laser-like, evoking the visceral, bodily sensations of grief. Loni and I shared that sensation for the rest of our time together. Each particular baby has a repertoire of cries that can touch the body of the mother, raise her hackles, race her heart. For Loni and me, the visceral/emotional connection so often felt between baby and mother was created through her metaphor. Can it be that this searing, penetrating power of metaphor, symbol, and story is used by children to reach grown-ups, to attune them? Loni's story illustrates how children use their imaginative life to grieve. She used symbols, narrative and metaphor to organize her experience, communicate, overcome overwhelming feeling, and lastly, to build feelings within the emotional lives of the people she loved.
Another story that illuminates how children's creativity can be brought to bear on tragedy concerns David, a traumatized boy. I met David and his father just after David's fourth birthday. A month prior to our meeting, David had witnessed his drug-addicted mother brutally attack his father. When the assault first began, David's father tried to run away to protect himself, leaving David behind to fend for himself. David's father, however, was unable to escape and was badly hurt. After the incident, David and his father left the home, David's mother went into a drug program, the couple separated, and David went to live with his father. In the initial stages of her recovery, David's mother went to live with her parents in a distant city. While David had no contact with her, the custody arrangement was unclear, and David became terrified of two things: one, that his mother would come and take him away from his father; and two, that she would come to their home and kill them both. It is worth noting that because of his mother's drug addiction and his father's confused and desperate state, David's early family life had been chaotic and frightening.
When I met David, he was a terrified child with recurring nightmares. One night, he was up fifteen times with fears tat a “Super Pig” was attacking his father, and his father was running away. Each time when he awoke and found his way to his father's bed, David insisted that his dad search his room for the sinister pig.
During the first four months of David's treatment, he was so frightened in my office that he could not cross the room to get a toy without asking me to hold his hand because he was too afraid to go alone. In every session, he build a “go-away” machine designed to his “scary and angry” feelings go away. In every session, the machine failed to work. Interestingly, while David was terrified both at night and in my office, at his day-care center, he became violent and assaultive with other children. On hearing of these episodes, I came to believe that they were traumatic re-enactments directly related to his mother's assault because David believed his father had run away and did no protect him. His faith that the adult world could shield him was shattered. He no longer believed himself safe anywhere or with anyone. Following this incident, David concluded that strength was equated with losing control of one's emotions and weakness was associated in turn with self-restraint.
A series of sessions occurred several months into David's treatment that give a picture of both David's distress as well as his attempts to understand and master all that he had suffered. In the first session, a terrible fire-breathing dragon kept telling David that it wanted to be his parent. He asked me to repeat: “David, the dragon wants to be your parent.” In response, David put his fingers in his ears, shouting at me to tell the dragon he wasn't listening, that his daddy would stop the dragon. He insisted on repeating this scene over and over with increasing intensity until he jumped off the couch. As he ran across the room, David said that the dragon was falling on top of his house and squashing it. Quickly he changed the subject. Now Superman and Mighty Mouse (his dad and himself) were operating on a witch. They were examining her brain to see what made her want to fight all the time. As Might Mouse, David screamed, “Ouch!” and he hid behind the couch, telling me he saw a vampire in the witch's brain. Returning again to the operation, Mighty Mouse found a monster in her brain and yelled, “Get out of there,” and he hid once again. At this point, he was so upset, he called his dad in from the waiting room to help him feel safe.
The next session was even more direct. David came dressed head-to-toe in a suit of armor: sword, helmet, and breastplate. He proceeded to kill various sharks and dragons with me as his sidekick. Finally, he tried to put a mother in jail because she had killed her child. Abruptly, he broke out of the pretend play to tell me seriously that if his own mother came to visit him, he would “put a sword on her and kill her.” He wanted to show me what he would do to her, and despite y attempts to calm him, he panicked and ran to the waiting room to tell his dad that if his mother came to visit, he would kill her with his sword. There was a large pier-glass mirror in my waiting room, and as David was demonstrating what he would do, he caught sight of his reflection. To his horror, he realized that he was a little boy and not a larger-than-life heroic warrior. He at once became hysterical and could not be consoled.
The next session, equally volatile, ended with David standing in my doorway as he left, chanting:
What they gonna' do
When they come for you
When children are faced with a terrifying reality in which they are utterly powerless, sometimes all they have lift is wishing. In their desperation, they cling to fantasies as if they were real. Often, like David, they turn to the sudden solace of omnipotent daydreams that undo with their muscle all the helplessness. We see, however, that the arsenal David had at his disposal with which to engage his terror and triumph over it was illusory: go-away machines and plastic suits of armor. David was, in this regard, not unlike Loni who could become ecstatic because a rubber band could unite her family. In Both stories, it becomes clear how fragile these imaginary constructs are. For we see in both how towering emotion can destroy a child's valiant attempt to keep feelings within bounds.
Shortly after the series of session I discussed above, David became fascinated with magic spells. He concluded that his mother's attack was the result of an evil spell having been cast upon her. Sorcery alone could explain her split-second metamorphosis from loving mother to murderous mother. Sorcery alone could account for her powerlessness over her own behavior. David began to believe quite literally in spells. Unfortunately, such convictions opened up new horrors for him. If his mother could be put under a spell, so could a teacher, a friend—so could I, and so, worst of all, could his father. David determined that he must be vigilant and watch like a hawk for signs of demonic transformation in the people he loved.
As fate would have it, while I was working with David, I was simultaneously treating a middle-aged women who had been severely abused as a child. She too began talking with me about spells. As a young girl, she also had concluded that her mother's violent attacks were the result of spells. Even as an adult, my patient worried, albeit secretly and with much shame. With intense anxiety, she scrutinized every word I said, looking for clues hidden away in my grammar, my syntax, my tone of voice-in the very pauses I took between words. She watched and listened for signs that I was about to transform before her eyes. When I misspoke, or empathically failed her or made a mistake, she accosted me, throwing the language of spells up at me. “What has come over you,” she'd rage. “What could have possessed you to say such a thing.”
Often it was my patient's own feelings that dramatically shifted from one minute to the next as if a spell had been cast. Because she was always dumbfounded that I could have said the thing that upset her, I came to think that she herself experienced her own volatility as controlled by outside forces that defied her comprehension. My misspoken words seemed to be the magical incantation that set the spell in motion, thereby making her passions all my doing.
Because these two patients, one in her forties and one just four, were talking about spells in adjacent sessions, I was vividly reminded of how the narratives and metaphors brought to bear on childhood trauma can be carried forward to inform our adult lives. Early trauma and the accompanying mythological, childish, and fantastic ways of thinking are beaten into the mind by harrowing events. David, while genuinely frightened in my office, playacted so that he could control, try to alleviate, and lastly, so that he could engage me in understanding the specificity of his terror. My adult patient, while having outgrown the art of playing, re-enacted her childhood narrative in the transference/counter transference space between us. Perhaps there is some continuity. Perhaps a line can be drawn from the playacted metaphors and narratives of childhood that the child sometimes experiences as completely real and the revivification of children's mythological explanations and narratives—again felt as absolutely real and at times even brought to life through enactment in adult relationships.
Increasingly, I have become intrigued by the inner life of children who have language processing difficulties. I am interested in the ways in which their feelings, relationships, and experiences are represented when both the communicative and the conceptual processes are tangled and only erratically reliable. Much of what people verbally communicate to these children is misperceived. And of course, they themselves are quite literally chronically misunderstood.
I am reminded of Oliver, an eight-year-old boy whose speech was intermittently incomprehensible to others. In order to tell his st0ry, I will have to provide a translation. There is a reason for this. One might think that translation is necessary because Oliver's language was so bewildering in the original. However, that is not the case. Actually, when most adults listen to such a learning-disabled boy, they intuitively provide the coherence the child lacks in order to glean meaning. Almost without awareness, a kind of simultaneous translation takes place. Once having accomplished this, the adult can barely recall the child's original jumbled remarks. Adult interpretation becomes fused with childish meaning and intent. While adult misinterpretation of “knowing better” can frustrate language-disordered children, many of these children are actually quite dependent on adult “mind reading” because of their real difficulties explaining or clarifying what they mean.
Oliver had trouble both understanding and expressing language. As garbled as he sounded to those around him, that's how dismally confounding we sounded to him. To be specific, often the subject of Oliver's sentence was missing, and I had no idea what he was referring to. His syntax was skewed, his grammar idiosyncratic. Because he often could not recall words, Oliver substituted invented ones or used associated ones, always with the optimistic assumption that the listener would catch the meaning.
Oliver longed for friendship. Everyone sensed it, and while adults would accommodate him, children shunned him. From a kid's point of view, Oliver was peculiar and his timing was off. When kids told jokes or teased each other, Oliver would laugh along with them but always too loudly and for too long. Basically, he didn't get the jokes and couldn't follow the teasing. Desperately, by laughing the loudest, he tried to prove that he belonged.
Oliver had developed several strategies for managing his cognitive confusion. First and foremost, he simply limited what he talked about. At any given time, he had two or three topics of interest. He would learn as much as he could about these subjects, memorize set pieces, and then rigidly adhere to these scripts. While there was some give-and-take discussion if one stayed in his area of interest, mostly he lectured. In this way, Oliver tried to limit unanticipated input. Cognitive surprises could mystify him. He could and would engage people avidly in the areas of his expertise, knowing that they would have little to say that could confuse him because he already knew everything anyway. Because Oliver's rigidity was so alienating, there was a push at school, at home, and by me to get him to embrace the exchange of ideas by encouraging greater give and take.
One day Oliver came to session and began to draw his customary monorail (an abiding preoccupation at this time, second only to his interest in cruise ships). Like everyone else in his life, I had grown weary of monorails. Noting my fading interest, he tried to revive it with animated facial expressions and an added excitement in his voice. But for me everything he said, he had already said in virtually the same way, and everything he drew, he had drawn a thousand times before. It was mind-numbing, and my mind in rebellion wandered off to daydreams of landscape gardening, mountain climbing, and family meals. Because I found myself so distracted, I began to pursue the alienating effect of Oliver's perseverations. I tried to get him to shift gears, suggesting that perhaps we could share ideas, that I would probably be more enthusiastic if I had more input. Input, however, was Oliver's worst nightmare. It opened the door to all those potentially confusing surprises. I brought up the fact that I liked helicopters, pointing out that they had something in common with monorails. I suggested I draw one that could go with his monorail.
Forget that idea. Oliver became agitated and point-blank refused. My pressing him, however, did spark something unexpected. In his anxiety, Oliver began to invent new things for the sheer purpose of deflecting me. He dropped his repetitive, canned monologue and picked up a red pencil to draw bars on the windows of his monorail. With a professorial seriousness, he stated that it was a jail-monorail now (something I came to understand as akin to a prison train). This special jail-monorail had only one job, and that was to transport bad ideas to Idea Jail. He drew Idea Jail, which resembled a large elevator shaft with IDEA JAIL written hugely in capitals at the top.
He explained that he, Oliver, was the engineer on the monorail and it was his job to take bad ideas (like mine) to Idea Jail. Really, really bad ideas (like mine) he transported to something he called Die-Jail (by which he meant Death Row). Carefully, laboriously, he drew a large elevator-looking thing hanging somewhere around the fifth floor of Idea-Jail. This, he proudly demonstrated, would come crashing down and smash flat the really, really bad ideas, killing them instantly. Clearly, I was in trouble. Nonetheless, retaining my therapeutic curiosity, I asked him how he knew a good idea from a bad one. “That was easy,” he shrugged. Bad ideas all had one thing in common. They were all uniformly other people's ideas. So he loaded up his monorail with “other people's ideas” and carted them off to Idea Jail where the worst ones (mine) were summarily executed.
I asked if anything else made ideas bad. Oliver stood up and began to lecture. “Yes, bad ideas don't listen.” This I could agree with wholeheartedly. It is true. Bad ideas generally don't listen. After some thought, Oliver added that bad ideas also talked back, wanted their own way, got fresh, and said the f-curse when they were told to cut it out. So smiling a bit, I said, “Sounds a little like a boy I know…” I went on to say that I thought Idea-Jail, and especially Die-Jail, was too big a punishment for such boyish behavior. Surely something else could be done that was less, well, final.
No, that was not to be the case. Oliver was, in the end, a hanging judge.
At the next session, Oliver was his most fascist self. Off my ideas went along with “other people's ideas” to Idea-Jail. He invented a whole new group of characters he called the “idea police,” which he played to the hilt—standing up, strutting, pointing, barking orders, commanding. He arrested ideas, one after another, and carted them off. After a while, I told him I was getting pretty tired of having my ideas killed off just because they weren't exactly like his ideas, and I asked what I could do to get out of this impossible predicament.
“Nothing,” he said, and made two more monorail runs to Idea-Jail. At a certain point, however, Oliver seemed to reconsider. Tentatively he said my ideas could get out of jail if they were willing to come and work for him.
I thought to mysef, “Oh great, a prison gang.” I pulled myself together by holding fast to the belief that Oliver's search for a solution lay somewhere in his wish to build a connection with me rather than in repetitive idea slaughter. So I told him he had a deal.
Oliver put on a new persona—sort of a young executive on-the-go. Trying to look very efficient, he pretended to take a heavy, 200-page rule book out of his pocket. “Go home,” he instructed, “and learn it.” Dutifully, I pretended to stay up the whole night studying. Exhausted, I got to work bright and early only to find Oliver already on his cell phone terminating people's employment. “What did they do wrong?” I asked anxiously. He shook his head in exasperation. “Broke the rules, of course.” He quickly turned back to his cell phone and yelling into it, fired some more employees.
“Look,” I said as obsequiously as possible, “I'm a little worried here. I'm new on the job. What do I know? I can't keep track of all these rules. And now I see you firing people right and left. I'm terrified. What are you going to do to me?”
Oliver became instantly solicitous and compassionate. “No, no, don't worry. I don't fire people the first time they make a mistake.” His phone rang. “Excuse me,” he said, picking it up and sacking some more people.
“Wait a minute,” I interrupted. “I'm going to make a lot of mistakes. There are all these rules I don't understand.”
“Don't worry,” he calmed me. “Want to learn how to drive the monorail?” This was an act of generosity on his part. Monorail engineer was his favorite job.
“But I don't know how,” I panicked. He comforted me. “Look,” he said, “I have a guy who'll teach you. He'll sit right behind you the whole time in case you make any mistakes so nothing will go wrong. And he'll tell you all the rules.”
I calmed down. It began to seem do-able.
The mood of our sessions had changed. We were having fun. While not a Method actor, I was getting into my character. And I was intrigued to see if Oliver could be shifted from his enraged, power-mad stance. Thinking back on our sessions, it seems that when I had initially approached him with an idea of my own, he panicked and had to murder it. However, when I began to speak in the voice of a disavowed part of him self, weak and frightened, cognitively confused, Oliver could take me in and begin to invent a new story line—one that revealed feelings that perturbed him.
A couple of sessions later, Oliver was onto a new game. In this one, he was the captain of an ocean liner and I was a passenger. After spending a good twenty minutes giving me the cruise line's endless “Rules of Conduct” as well as lengthy instructions on finding my way around the ship, he stopped in mid-sentence and informed me that being a captain was a hard job. In fact, he said he didn't have many friends because he was so busy. He wondered if I might be interested in getting a quick bite to eat. “Great,” I said, “where should we eat?” Oh,” he said, “how about on C-deck at the Idea Cafe. You know, the one with the great food and all the new ideas.”
In order to change, Oliver first had to be able to imagine new ways of being. This posed a great problem because Oliver's imaginative life was particularly calcified, repetitive, and self-referential. Alone, he just could not gravitate toward the novel or the creative. It became apparent that a catalytic agent had become necessary. Tried and true adult advice went nowhere. The teacher's helpful hints, such as “Why don't you two boys take turns sharing ideas?” fell on deaf ears. For although her pointers were neatly conceptualized, they could not be felt. Above all, Oliver needed to get the feel of the thing, the hang of it. And there was no room in this particular teacher's conceptualization for regret, venom, awe, or any of the other feelings that can animate an idea. So Oliver and I created his story together.
Though make-believe, he could try out various ways of being without undue risk. For example, no matter how outrageous his fascist behavior, it was all just a game. No adult would suddenly swoop down upon him and time him out for being unbearable. Moreover, when Oliver was vicious to my character, he was not actually mean to me. He could reject my pretend self in a way that was fun for both of us. For these reasons, Oliver could have what he long for (a playful relationship) while simultaneously repudiating the scary idea of mutuality. Only in fantasy could Oliver eat this particular cake and still have it too. Contradictions exist cozily in play. What's more, because pretend play, if one enjoys one's role, creates intimacy, Oliver could feel close to me while clinging to the reassuring pretense that he was having a hierarchical, not a reciprocal, relationship. While his need for control was met in fantasy when he strutted to and fro shouting his commands, in that wondrous way of pretend games, Oliver's need to grow and change was met contemporaneously in reality because we were horsing around.
If all our lives from birth to death are conflictual, and they seem to be, then all our lives are also endlessly about reconciliation wherein conflicting things strive for coexistence. Fantasy play gives us one of our earlier means for creating a world in which we can revel in the contradiction and fictionalize our way toward congruence. Hart Crane wrote, “There is a world dimension for those untwisted by a love of things irreconcilable.” And of course, fantasy play is notoriously a world without dimension. What's more, it is make-believe's fantastic twists and turns that give play its charm and startle. Lastly, in play, the makeshift quality, the cobbling together of oddities, beguiles conflict, settles it down, enabling children to invent themselves anew.
We can see this happen when, late in Oliver's story as Ship's Captain, he finally puts down the burden of his bossy ways. Noting that he is “too busy to have friends,” he seems to recognize that his obsession with controlling the flow of information isolates him. Because Oliver is no longer quite so terrified of his longing for connection, he creates the “Idea Cafe”: a place where new ideas are seen as nourishment — a wonderful meal convened to bring people together. Throughout his story, Oliver explained himself metaphorically. He could never in a million years have turned to me, fixed me meaningfully with his gaze, and announced, “Ideas are like food and I have been starving for want of them.”
In all the tales I have told, I have sought to describe the ingenious variety of ways in a child's imaginative life can grapple with the talks of living, from ordinary talks like falling asleep to horrible ones like grieving. I have striven as well to point out that the child's imaginative life exerts a power over adult states of being. Metaphor can quite literally touch the body—chill us to the bone. Or it can induce altered states of consciousness for the transmission of complex, unconscious amalgams of feelings and ideas.
As for the children themselves, I have sought to describe how they use narrative to gain feelings of power in adversity. Or how they use metaphor to come to understandings that would otherwise be beyond their cognitive comprehension. I have looked at just a few of the ways in which children use their imaginative life to fill a void, escape pain, get revenge, lift a mood, and finally, to challenge themselves to grow.
I have made a stab at exploring the murky realm of human receptivity where narrative's strange ability to loosen the constraints of an individual's personality by transporting him or her across time and space and into other persons creates greater personal reflexivity. I have, in turn, attempted to show how the adult who enters into fantasy play with a child can use narrative's elastic powers to offer the child gifts of adult knowledge translated into make-believe.
To immerse oneself in the narrative life of children year after year, one becomes consumed by metaphor. One loses track of the conventions of adult comprehension. Until suddenly, like a kid, one wakes to find that the story has become all. In some perplexing sense, only by the act of writing this very piece have I begun to know (in the adult way of knowing) just what it was I was up to with the children described. Perhaps I am trying yet again to get myself off the hook, but I think not. For I have noticed an odd phenomenon. Whenever child therapists get together to talk, we tend to forego the analysis, skip quickly over the discussion of dynamics and skirt formulations. Nodding to one another knowingly and with some growing excitement, we pull each other aside and begin by saying, “I knew a kid once who…”
Kate Fincke is a therapist in private practice in Brooklyn. She received her MSW from Smith College of Social Work and advanced training in child psychotherapy at the Jewish Board of Family and Children's services. She was worked in a number of clinics and nursery settings.