By Julia Steiny
In one of my favorite plays, Carson McCullers’ Member of the Wedding, 12-year-old Frankie is frantic with loneliness. She calls herself “unjoined.” Her mother died in her childbirth; her father has little attention for her. She craves membership in a clique of older girls who shun tomboys like Frankie. The play aches with longing to belong.
Not only was my own coming of age plagued with such pains, but I felt them later in life too, when yearning for friends and a place to fit in at college, or in a new town. The holiday season can also kindle loneliness with images of other people’s warm loving hearthsides. Belonging to others is a basic biological requirement of our mammalian brains. Detachment hurts, or when sustained, it numbs. So this longing to attach is often McCullers’s theme.
Frankie’s companions are her 6-year-old cousin, John Henry, and Bernice Brown, their African-American caretaker. John Henry inhabits the childhood Frankie now wants to outgrow. And while Bernice has been her de facto mother, she’s not a peer. The story revolves around Frankie’s clueless fantasy that after her beloved older brother and his girlfriend are married, she can belong to them. In words that have haunted me for decades, Frankie declares that they will become “the we of me.” Along with Bernice, we sigh, knowing what’s coming.
Frankie packs her clothes and installs herself in the honeymoon car. So when the wedding ceremony is over, her father and uncle have to drag her from the car kicking and screaming. Without the “we” she imagined, she runs into the night with her father’s pilfered pistol. She doesn’t kill herself, but scares the daylights out of everyone, and returns home more humiliated and alone than ever.
But Frankie has attachments. In the last scene of the play, months later, Frankie’s looking forward to her family moving in with Dad’s relatives. And she’s made a friend named Mary.
Lizzie didn’t get so lucky.
A modern-day urban teen, whom we’ll call Lizzie, has those same yearnings, but lacks McCullers’ articulate dialogue. Lizzie’s language is acting out. Her maddening behavior is a perverted effort to connect, but it’s off-putting, to say the least. At 14 she’s over-aged for her grade, having been held back once or twice while shifting among various relatives and various schools. Like so many highly-mobile kids, her educational foundation is like Swiss cheese. And no one’s stopped the assembly line to fill in the holes.
Frankie’s complaints were legitimate, but she did have consistent adults in her life. Lizzie does not. Lizzie has a bed of her own, but chooses to sleep on a mat next to her current guardian’s bed, in a seemingly desperate gesture of belonging to someone. The guardian is a distant relation, now old and quite sick. Lizzie’s next step will be into the public child-protection system, where she’ll have slim odds of ever trusting that she belongs anywhere, to anyone.
Like Frankie, Lizzie wants to be accepted by kids much older than she. But Lizzie has found some who will take her, and give her drugs, a place to hang out, and promises of future “employment.” Hey, if it were me, I’d be thrilled to have enough freedom and choice to find my own “we.” God knows none other has presented itself.
We empathize with Frankie’s desperation. But no one feels warm and fuzzy about Lizzie’s aggressive language or disruptive antics. She gets in the way of traditional schooling. Public institutions are not designed to address her biological need to connect and stay connected. Through no fault of her own, she is truly unjoined.
Christmas raises questions about belonging.
Every year the press and dinner-party conversationalists bemoan the materialistic orgasm that our Christmas mornings have become. Now a major driver of the economy, the gift-giving originated from the ancient practice of leaving practical things for the baby’s newly-expanded household. Christmas fused that custom to the idea of light and love coming into a dark world via the baby Jesus. It’s a sweet tradition gone bananas, to be sure. But I don’t think the gifts are what make kids so nuts around this time, however much parents and charities try to ensure that poor kids get stuff just like the comfortable kids.
No, it’s about belonging. Some of the poorest families I know happily gather in numbers inappropriate to their small homes. Sure, kids like the stuff. But when asked what they look forward to, they enthuse about cousins coming, or that the clan is going to so-and-so’s house. It’s not the stuff; it’s the belonging. Sadly, in our fragmented society, adults often find families optional. They’re inconvenient, sometimes maddening. The kids don’t care. They’ll take the belonging, almost whatever the cost. That ache that Frankie articulates might seem subtle to adults. But if we’re honest, we have it too.
It might be inconvenient, but all kids deserve a “we of me.”