On Not Growing Up
Ben Marcus (Harper’s, August 2008)
—How long have you been a child?
—Who did you work with?
—Meyerowitz for the first phase: colic, teething, walking, talking. He taught me how to produce false prodigy markers and developmental reversals, to test the power in the room without speaking. I was encouraged to look beyond the tantrum and drastic mood migrations that depended on the environment, and if you know my work you have an idea what resulted. The rest is a hodgepodge, but I don’t advocate linear apprenticeships. A stint in the Bonn Residency. Fellowships at the Cleveland Place, then later a stage at Quebec Center. I entered that Appalachian Trail retreat in 1974, before Krenov revised it, but had to get helicoptered out. Probably my first infant crisis, before I knew to deliberately court interference. The debt to Meyerowitz is huge, obviously, if just for the innocence training. Probably I should have laid off after that, because now it’s all
—Unlearning as Kugler practices it? That radical?
—I skip the hostility to animals. I skip the forced submersion and the chelation flush. That’s proven to be a dead end. But Kugler is a walking contradiction in that respect, isn’t he? He keeps a horse barn. He does twilight childishness, and now he’s suddenly opposing the Phoenix baby-talk crowd, who I think are not as threatening as he makes out.
—They’re not registered.
—True, but they’re pro-family, and I still believe, when I’m out in the field, in a pro-parent regimen, in supporting those with maturity fixations.
—Which is admittedly contradictory, isn’t it, given how many adult families you’ve worked with, and how many of them have ultimately disbanded?
—The term “adult” is problematic, I think, and it’s too easy to say that my childwork is directly divisive to Matures, particularly Rigid or Bolted Matures. I may help accelerate a latent behavior, I may enable conflict vectors along the lines of the Michiganers, who fasted as a form of warfare, and I feign indifference to familial tension, but I think that success itself has been fetishized, and a certain nostalgia for growth has spoiled our thinking. I can be pro-family without coddling actual families. I can support familial fear-based clustering even if it involves admitting that we are most likely associated with the wrong cluster. There is that famous German phrase, which I can’t remember exactly, that describes a certain way to hold a gun to someone’s head. The literal meaning of the phrase is that you love that person deeply, just not at the moment. I argue for a love that functions perfectly in theory.
—But you have destroyed an unprecedented number of families.
—I don’t destroy anything. I do question the term limits of parents, and I’m not the first to promote child-driven power reversals. We have to remember just how much thinking Benner-Louis did on this subject, and how resonant her geological metaphors were. If prodding an object for flaws causes a momentarily resolved family to unravel, or, as Benner-Louis would have it, dissolve, then what you’re saying is that we should stay silent and paralyzed, the classic demand placed upon children. It is not my problem that families are hurt when we notice how they have hardened into stone, how they stoke each other’s failure instinct, and if Matures are not powerful enough to admit a stagnation, they are welcome to blame me, but that’s fairly evasive. I give choices to children, and I supply functional tunnels to those who have yet to become children. This is mapping as Parsons envisioned it: you don’t map a route that has been spoiled by the progress of others. Adulthood looks like an exhaustion farm. Who would knowingly purchase a ticket to that? In my work, I re-child certain people who have presumed a premature adulthood, and, most importantly, I question adulthood as a retreat from the power of infancy. I’m a supplier.
—Which brings us to Maryland.
—My tantrum work is still being fine-tuned, but you could reference an entire series of Chesapeake catastrophes that might seem now like open wounds, even as our daily perspective, as time passes and fewer of us can recall the perished, will refresh itself to show just how essential, for instance, something like the Lake Maneuver was. Assertive Submersion may not be pleasant, in the lived sense, but if the values of a social group are being collectively ignored, forcing Matures, through panic, to relocate their child-state, is an adequate way to broadcast a set of perspectives and beliefs that have been conveniently forgotten. Behaviors are advertised and promoted all the time. Why should we be penalized for making our case so powerfully that people nearly die from the overwhelming logic of it?
—But can you sketch for me a picture of your ethics?
—I think that fixed moral boundaries are harmful, even if they provide momentary comfort and save lives. I think our ethical duty is to eliminate the behavioral corsets that are cinched over children just as their explosive energy is at its most threatening. Is a tantrum disruptive or does it point to an emotional tunnel we’re afraid of entering? The doctrines of the tantras involve meditation, mantras, ritual, and explosive behavior. We’re talking about ancient ideas that are elementary and obvious to high schoolers. My ethics? I’d like to shed the strictures of adulthood and make maturity an optional result of a freely lived human life, not the necessary path to power and success, lorded over by depressed, overweight, unimaginative corpses. The twenty most central mantras have their roots in baby talk. No one is even disputing this anymore. A syntax comprising these mantras, which should not be confused with NASA’s failed language, can marshal the force of an entire infant society, but—and this is key—this syntax is not capable of instructional phrasings, so nothing can be taught, which keeps maturity and its death mask perfectly at bay.
—Has it been necessary to denounce such important figures in child development as Dr. Spock? Where has that adversarial approach benefited your child program?
—Dr. Spock reviewed existing children, but he didn’t promote new ones. His art was to survey the past and insure a predictable persona outcome. He devised solutions for the escape of childhood, very good ones, I might add. I think that some of his approaches are worth modifying, if only in service of a kind of dark science. We can bottle that kind of curatorial approach to behavior, but it won’t save anyone. These were tonics for escape, and they should have been marketed that way all along. I’ve simply asked for honesty. Spock’s entire approach presents infancy as a problem to be managed, to be grown out of, and I’m not alone in finding this condescending. Physical growth is (mostly) a necessity (although we’ll soon see about that), but emotional growth is something Matures crave strictly for others. Rarely is it satisfying to the person who accomplishes it. There’s a missionary zeal around this dirty word, development, and it’s exerted on otherwise defenseless people. A spell has been cast on all of us, and it leads to a spectacularly depressing failure we have come to call “adulthood.” The artwork of children is so often discarded because Matures cannot accept, let alone decipher, the chaos and disorder children depict after only briefly gazing at the crushed and gargantuan figures that supposedly serve them. Children’s art perfectly captures the sloppy, disordered, ugly world that awaits them if they choose the path of maturity.
—Many people would disagree with that.
—And I bet they’re old and “adult” and reasonable, accumulating comprehension as if it were food. It’s a laughable mistake, this certainty compulsion. Your entire line of questioning revolves around the notion that if not everyone agrees with me there must be something wrong with my ideas. This is a classic rhetorical tactic—I think it’s called the Consensus Chalice—for a Mature. The Fear of the Infant wasn’t just a successful film; it depicted a real aversion to kinds of discoveries that might be possible if Matures didn’t operate with such staggering fear. Baby talk has tremendous potential, despite its obvious dangers and its near total incomprehensibility. The only reason you don’t embrace it is your abject terror.
—What’s next for you?
—Meyerowitz, for all of his accomplishments, died as an adult, and it has shamed his entire family. His legacy, in the end, means nothing, because he left this world knowing and thinking too much, headed down the wrong road, with a body that weighed as much as six children. He attacked his own theories, in fear of the complexities and richness of innocence, and now he’s dead. I want to die as I am, as a child, looking out at a world that I can admit is too complex to know and far too terrible to join. I want to die. And I want to do it as a child: barely able to walk, careening through the fog of objects and people I can never know, wearing nothing at all but the tattered onesie my first mother bought me. This is my goal.