For adults, childhood is perceived as a time of full potential. At the end of the film Adaptation, Susan Orlean, awash in a druggy love affair with her subject, John Laroche, calls out that what she wants most is to start over, before things got all messed up. “I want to be a baby again,” she whimpers, “I want to be new.”
It’s a seductive fantasy, one less about childhood itself than about our adult ideas of what childhood represents. In a 2005 Pitchfork review of Neutral Milk Hotel’s album, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea," Mark Richardson commended Neutral Milk Hotel for capturing how “dark surrealism is the language of childhood”: the newly developing body, newly awakened stretches of feeling, the inherent strangeness of sex. Childhood is the time when everything in us cracks open, when we see the world as it really is for the very first time.
Directors like Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach and Spike Jonze often obsessively highlight the combination of tenderness and terror that comes from being a small, new person in the world. In The Royal Tenenbaums, the child versions of Chaz, Richie and Margot are wide-eyed and solemn, wiser than their parents and wiser still than the grown-ups they end up becoming. In The Squid and the Whale, the kind of childish acting out that Walt and Frank demonstrate seems like merely gentle thrashing in response to a grown up world that is not necessarily beautiful or true. In Where The Wild Things Are, Max’s wildly yearning heart is consistently coming up against giant monsters manifesting adult suffering. And in Moonrise Kingdom Sam and Suzy’s love for each other is steadfast and true, a kind of love that the adults surrounding them have a terribly hard time replicating in terms of either intensity or purity of heart.
If childhood is presented as a time of great potential, it is also presented as a time of incredible loss. Female children in particular are poised to lose something—their innocence, their virginity, their baby-faced youth. To my mind, the most touching moments in Mad Men occur when Sally makes tentative steps towards adulthood. Betty’s icy maternal speeches highlight how restrictive the adult world ultimately is, how full of suffering by comparison. After Sally kisses a boy for the first time, Betty warns her, “The first kiss is very special.” “But I already did it,” Sally tells her matter-of-factly. “It’s over.”
It’s unclear whether Sally feels the kind of sadness an adult viewer experiences when hearing those words. Children learn that first times are important primarily because adults tell them they are. Our sense of nostalgia for our childhood comes less from the knowledge that our experiences of the world were more fulfilling when we were young than from the acknowledgment that these moments were the only chance we ever had to experience something new for the first time.
Recently I assigned a personal narrative assignment to my college writing students, most of who are between 18 and 20. They all wrote about things that 18 to 20 year olds normally do—first kisses, first deaths, first loves. I was surprised at how many wrote about nostalgia for their childhoods, since for me, 18 is far enough away to feel like a piece of my childhood. It’s far enough away that the pain I felt during the time period doesn’t feel all that painful anymore, and the joys I felt feel stronger. I don’t remember the eating disorder. I can laugh at the heartache. But the concerts, the parties, the music, the classes, the first moments of falling in love: everything is swaddled in nostalgic hues.
I turned 30 this year, and my therapist, who is probably my mother’s age, just smiled at me every time I mentioned how afraid I was to hit this year. I know that my older friends and teachers probably view me with the same sort of mild amusement I feel when my students tell me similar fears about turning 20. “I feel so old,” one tells me. “I haven’t figured anything out yet.” “You have plenty of time,” I reply.
Of course we only have as much time as we think we do. The inevitable aging process is exacerbated by a kind of media that is constantly trying to sell us a version of ourselves we can never entirely attain. My students want to be older and more respected, to be seen as adults with real feelings and ideas. They long to be respected and heard, to prove they are actually people, walking through the world. I felt that way forever too, but somewhere around your late twenties you get a memo that tells you that you will never be as sexy or wonderful or perfect or free as when you were young.
When Betty tells Sally that every kiss she is going to experience from here on out is a shadow of her first kiss, poor Sally is afraid she already let it slip away. Consumer culture, of course, is not just about capturing that shadow, but also actively creating it. This is happiness, we are told. This is freedom. This is love. We bought it since the inception of television and we buy it even more today. Activists don’t even try to tell us to turn off our televisions and to unplug from the Internet. Today we know what other generations didn’t- that the media world is the real world and, just like in childhood, our very identity still hinges on someone more powerful than we are, telling us how we ought to think and feel.
“What I came to understand is that change is not a choice,” Susan Orlean says in Adaptation, shortly after seeing the elusive ghost orchid in person and realizing the quest was more exciting than finding the actual plant itself. “It’s just a flower,” she tells John Laroche flatly. Our greatest fear is always that the things we love are merely illusions, smaller and less important than we imagine them to be. Every time I’ve felt anything that mattered I thought I would never feel anything that strongly ever again. But I did. I did and I did and I did. And each time wasn’t some shadow of something I felt before. Each time something new woke inside me, something I hadn’t experienced yet and something I wouldn’t ever experience ever again.
We are built for transformation, even though we have a culture that doesn’t encourage us to live that way, a social media-infused landscape where identity is seen as something fixed, where our very identity is a brand.
In Moonrise Kingdom, when Sam and Suzy run away together, Sam asks Suzy what she wants to be when she grows up. “I don’t know,” Suzy replies. “I want to go on adventures, I think. Not get stuck in one place.” Escape is, of course, the heart of any love story, because when we fall in love we live the best parts of childhood, with every atom in us open and alive.
Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed four times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story
contests. She is currently writing her first book.