Reconnecting with My Dead Son

Jaeden Lieberher as Bill Denbrough in "IT"

Jaeden Lieberher as Bill Denbrough in “IT”

Thursday

I had a shock of recognition while teaching Stephen King’s IT in my American Fantasy class yesterday. The approach to life that saves the day for the protagonist is the approach that got my eldest son killed 16 years ago. Yet I don’t think King is wrong. In fact, I was comforted once I saw the connection.

The novel is an uneven but ultimately smart and sensitive exploration of growing up. I’ve written before how the book is a version of Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality—which is to say, the poem is both a lament about how adults lose their childhood connection with the spiritual world and a meditation on how to reestablish that connection. King believes that we must become children again and at one point directly writes, “the child is father to the man,” a line from Wordsworth’s “My heart leaps up” that also serves as the epitaph of Intimations.

The villain in IT takes multiple shapes but it often works its will through adult dullness and cruelty. The two are related. On the one hand, pragmatic adults cease to believe in fairies (there are Peter Pan references in IT) and live lives of quiet desperation. The underlying anger they feel as their condition, however, results in periodic bloodlettings. Every 27 years–which is to say, once a generation–a homicidal clown reappears in the town of Derry, Maine and a series of horrors follows, usually culminating in a particularly awful event. The horrors include child killings, violent incidents of intolerance against vulnerable groups, and the like.

A group of seven children band together to fight and defeat IT in 1958. Then, 27 years later, they return to fight IT again. Since their major weapon is their childhood belief in magic, however, these now 38-year-old professionals must tap into the childhood selves to defeat IT the second time.

I was drawn to the scene where Bill Denbrough, the group’s ringleader and a character clearly based on King himself, must save his wife, who has been kidnapped by one of IT’s surrogates. While he has retrieved her from the clutches of IT, she is suffering from catatonic shock. His cure involves putting her on the back of his childhood bike and riding as he did when he was a kid.

This works metaphorically as follows: King believes that we become dull as we get older because we become overly cautious and forget our childhood dreams, entering the world of the “deadlights.” King sets this up as a tension between disquiet and desire. Here is Bill early in that fateful bike ride:

Downhill. Picking up speed. He felt a tremor of fear at the image, and a disquieting thought (old bones break easy, Billy-boy) ran through his mind almost too quickly to read and was gone. But…But it wasn’t all disquiet, was it? No, It was desire as well…the feeling he’d had when he saw the kid walking along with the skateboard under his arm. Desire to go fast, to feel the wind race past you without knowing if you were racing toward or running away from, to just go. To fly.

Disquiet and desire. All the difference between world and want—the difference between being an adult who counted the cost and a child who just got on it and went,, for instance. All the world between.

 Earlier in the book, when Bill is a child, we have an extend description of how Bill used to ride a bike. Here’s an excerpt from it:

He raced on, bent over his handlebars; he raced to beat the devil.

The three-way intersection of Kansas, Center, and Main was coming up fast. It was a horror of one-way traffic and conflicting signs and stoplights which were supposed to be timed but really weren’t…As Always, Bill’s eyes flicked right and left, fast, gauging the traffic flow, looking for the holes. If his judgment was mistaken—if he stuttered, you might say—he would be badly hurt or killed.

He arrowed into the slow-moving traffic which clogged the intersection, running a red light and fading to the right to avoid a lumbering portholed Buick. He shot a bullet of a glance back over his shoulder to make sure the middle lane was empty. He looked forward again and saw that in roughly five seconds he was gong to crash into the rear end of a pick-up truack that had stopped squarely in the middle of the intersection while the Uncle Ike type behind the wheel craned his neck to read all the signs and make sure he hadn’t taken a wrong turn and somehow ended up in Miami Beach.

The lane on Bill’s right was full of a Derry-Bangor intercity bus. He slipped in that direction just the same and shot the gap between the stopped pick-up and the buss, still moving at forty miles an hour. At the last second he snapped his head hard to one side, like a soldier doing an over-enthusiastic eyes-right, to keep the mirror mounted on the passenger side of the pick-p from rearranging his teech. Hot diesel from the bus laced his throat like a kick of strong liquor. He heard a thin gasping squeal aso one of his bike-grips kissed line up the coach’s aluminum side. He got just a glimpse of the bus driver, his face paper-white under his peaked Hudson Bus Company cap. The driver was shaking his fist at Bill and shouting something. Bill doubted it was happy birthday.

 Bill’s adult ride isn’t quite as adventurous, but it has enough risk-taking that it brings his wife back. Their marriage will not slip into a metaphorical catatonia because they can still access childhood magic.

Not all children survive these escapades, however. Justin, who was 21, was feeling particularly exuberant on April 30, 2000. It had been one of southern Maryland’s rainiest springs on record, but that Sunday was a perfect day. Justin went running down the hill in St. Mary’s City that leads to Church Point and, fully clothed, launched himself into the St. Mary’s River. A  rogue current grabbed him and pulled him into deep water, where he drowned.

When my kids were growing up, I told them I had two rules: “Respect other people and don’t ride your back on Mattapany.” Mattapany is one of two roads that lead to the college from where we live and, while it is the shorter, there are no shoulders. Basically, I was telling them not to do anything stupid.

So Justin did a version of Mattapany Road although, in his defense, Church Point is normally a safe place to swim. No one knew that the excessive rains had made it dangerous. But the bigger point is that he was living his life with youthful abandon. He was seeking a sensuous immersion in life and he lauched himself into the unknown. For a moment, he was flying.

This is all tied into a deep guilt I have felt about not doing all I should have to protect my child. I found King’s positive image of children throwing themselves into life to be reassuring. Justin was doing what he was supposed to be doing. A more cautious approach would have closed some of his avenues to joy. I am grateful to King for pointing this out to me.

King dedicates It to his three children (ages 14, 12, and 7), thanking them for teaching him how “to be free” and assuring them that “the magic exists.” Justin, along with his brothers, taught me how to be free. For 21 years he gave me a gift of inestimable value.

Further thought: It’s interesting that Bill Denbrough and I go through something similar with someone we loved. Bill loses his younger brother to Derry’s homicidal clown—Bill is at home sick and so can’t go out with George—and he carries around his guilt. He comes to realize, as I have come to realize, that we feel guilty because that allows us the comforting illusion that there is something we could have done. If we acknowledged our powerlessness, we would no longer feel guilty but it would also mean giving up our belief that we can control our destinies. I have come to accept my powerlessness and Bill does as well.

There’s another point of contact. After George dies, both of Bill’s parents retreat into grief, and Bill spends the rest of his life trying to be the good child that will pull them out of it. I remember resolving, on the night of the death, that I would not be that kind of parent, that my responsibility was to my living children. Bill’s battle with IT is an internal one where he must overcome those emotional scars. While we were all scarred by Justin’s death in ways that to this day we are discovering, I don’t think that Darien and Toby suffered as Bill does.

Two other Wordsworth sightings:
The line cited above–“Desire to go fast, to feel the wind race past you without knowing if you were racing toward or running away from, to just go”–sounds a lot like this passage from Tintern Abbey:

Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all.

Meanwhile, my student Lee Morgan picked up an allusion to Wordsworth’s “We Are Seven” in the following passage. Five of the seven group members have survived the second encounter with IT, and four of them are walking how of the hospital room after visiting the fifth:

They walked into the Town House on a wave of laughter, and as Bill pushed through the glass door, Beverly caught sight of something which she never spoke of but never forgot. For just a moment she saw their reflections in the glass–only there were six, not four, because Eddie was behind Richie and Stan was behind Bill, that little half-smile on his face.
In Wordsworth’s poem, a child, asked how many children there are in her family, doesn’t distinguish between the living and the dead. This is one of my son Toby’s favorite poems because he sees himself and Justin in it. Here are the last two stanzas:
“How many are you, then,” said I,
“If they two are in heaven?”
Quick was the little Maid’s reply,
“O Master! we are seven.”
“But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!”
’Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, “Nay, we are seven!”
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  • Susan Schmidt

    Another great post, Robin.

    This discussion reminds me of a connection that was made on a site entitled “Dancing with the Elephants”, discussing Michael Jackson and his song, “Wishing Them Home.” (https://dancingwiththeelephant.wordpress.com/2016/09/01/wishing-them-home/)
    In the post, the conversation is about childhood, one of Jackson’s reoccurring themes. The song, Wishing Them Home, is a prayer for lost children, those who have run away from home, or been taken from home. In the chorus, Jackson sings: “This is for all the lost children, wishing them well and wising them home”.

    The conversation on the blog continues by picking out several other layers of meaning in the song. One of those is the loss of childhood. Michael Jackson felt this strongly, and speaks many times about the fact that he lost his childhood, entering the entertainment business at the age of 5. As he grew older, he looked for the “child” to continue to lead the man, and insisted on childhood as a basic right for children in a speech at the Oxford Union in Oxford, England. https://youtu.be/-TDMiRuhFPg

    Back to the blog. Stillwater and McDuff note that in the song, Jackson references an episode in the Twilight Zone entitled “Kick the Can”. In this story, an older man in a retirement home decides to relive his childhood by playing the game, Kick the Can. I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that tying into this energy creates a joyful turn of events.

    There’s also an amazing article about an experiment done by Ellen Langer, and the results of older adults recreating their youth which you can find here: http://www.businessinsider.com/ellen-langers-reversing-aging-experiment-2015-4

    It’s so interesting that King has his protagonist ride a bike – such a childhood thing to do. I remember myself the sense of racing and almost flying (and there’s the iconic picture of ET on his bike to the moon!). Our physical body memory can help us re-engage with our childhood selves. I often skip when I’m happy, and frequently go tubing on the creek behind our house. When I don’t do these things, I can get trapped into the “adult” mentality that things are tough and hard and I need to bear down and work harder.

    Somewhere there’s a balance – where we’re older and younger at the same time. Letting the child lead us, and guiding that childlike self with the wisdom we’ve acquired from all we’ve seen of life. Justin was in that in between stage, yearning toward wisdom, living in the exuberance of youth. You and Julia gave Justin life and, as you noted so beautifully, he (and your other sons) continue to give you beautiful gifts in return.

  • Natalie

    I am so very sorry. What a tragedy you live with every day. Wordsworth is a great healer. I will be thinking of you.

  • Robin

    Thank you, Sue! I remember bicycling around my own town as a child and imagining that I had long hair flowing behind me. (All of us had short hair in the 1950s.) A kind of flying. Yes, Spielberg picks up on that in ET.

    Michael Jackson, of course, named his compound “Neverland.” He was dreaming of being Peter Pan, who never grows old. The danger of holding on to childhood too hard, however, is that it can lead to perversion and abuse (think of Humbert Humbert). Wordsworth doesn’t talk about this aspect but King does, showing us figures turned into monsters by their rage over losing the connectedness of children. So yes, that balance is vital.

    Thanks for sending the song and video. My kids loved Michael Jackson when they were growing up.

  • Robin

    Thanks so much Natalie.

  • Why is it that we can endure guilt more easily than powerlessness? It is true–Justin was doing what he was supposed to be doing, but a parent would always imagine having control anyway. It sounds as if you raised a son with joy in his heart. Nothing to be guilty about there. Will be keeping you in my thoughts this week.

  • Robin

    This means a lot, Leslie. And I don’t know the answer to your question, why we are so afraid of acknowledging we are powerless. Thinking about it put me in mind of Lucille Clifton, a poet who constantly felt that she had the responsibility to carry the world on her shoulders. She almost seems relieved at the end of this poem, which means that she has been plagued by guilt over how blacks are victimized by racism. Which, again, doesn’t make sense, but it’s still a psychological phenomenon that needs explaining:

    poem with rhyme in it

    black people we live in the land
    of ones who have cut off their own
    two hands
    and cannot pick up the strings
    connecting them to their lives
    who cannot touch whose things
    have turned into planets more dangerous
    than mars
    but i have listened this long dark night
    to the stars
    black people and though the ground
    be bitter as salt
    they say it is not our fault


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