We’re All Mad Here
A speech delivered by Natalie Babbitt for the Zena Sutherland Lecture; Chicago, June 30, 2004.
It’s a genuine privilege to be invited to Chicago to help celebrate the fact of Zena Sutherland. Everyone in the children’s book field owes her a great debt. I wish I’d had the chance to get to know her personally. I met her only a very few times. But the first time was especially memorable to me. It was in the late ‘60’s, and I was making my first speech – at a convention of some sort somewhere in Maryland. Zena was in the audience, and I was delivering myself of some very severe words about there being too many bad books for children. As if I knew anything! Funny how we are always surest that we know things at the times when we really know the least. I must have tried the patience of a lot of people in the audience that day, but not Zena’s. When I was finished and was walking up the aisle, I came abreast of her, and she gave me a smile and a thumbs-up sign. That was a generous thing to do. It would be nice to think she might give me another thumbs-up sign for what I’m going to say tonight.
I don’t know if Zena was a fan of Lewis Carroll, but my guess is she was. So am I. Children often ask me to name the book that was my favorite when I was their age, and I always tell them it was Alice in Wonderland. The real title is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, of course, but nobody calls it that. I don’t know why, except that it takes longer to say, but I guess it doesn’t really matter. In any case, when I tell children about Alice, I don’t go into all the reasons why it was my favorite. I do say the pictures were important. It was the pictures that made me decide to become a children’s book illustrator when I grew up. I made this decision when I was in the fourth grade, and I never really changed my mind. But there was more to it than the pictures, and that’s what I want to talk about tonight. After all, it’s spring at last, and what better time to go out on a limb?
The fundamental reason why Alice in Wonderland was my favorite book was that it confirmed my long-held suspicion – long held even by fourth grade – that grown-ups, and the world they have created, are mad. For the most part, they operate on systems that have no basis in rationality. Children are rational, but their elders are not, and can’t explain anything. (As in the question “Why do I have to do that?” to which the answer is “Because I said so.”) Is it possible to reason irrationally? Certainly. The grown-up characters in Alice reason irrationally at a great rate all through the book. There is only one rational character in the Alice stories, and that character is Alice herself.
I became aware of the madness of adults, and puzzled over it, long before I was familiar with Alice. It began when I was a preschooler. In order to demonstrate that, I will have to tell you four brief stories. For those who’ve heard all my stories before, and there’ll be a few of you, I recommend an alphabet game that I often play when there’s time to pass. Starting with A, try to think of one foreign and four American major cities for each of the twenty-six letters. No fair using some dinky town nobody else ever heard of. And I promise you I’ll be finished with these stories long before you’ve fought your way through to M, let alone Z. All right. Back to the fact of the madness of adults.
To the best of my recollection, my awareness of irrationality began when I was four. It began small, but it began memorable. My sister, who is two years older than I am, was at school, and I was alone in the kitchen, sitting on some kind of a highchair, where I’d been told firmly by my mother to stay until I finished my lunch. I’d been there for quite a while, because there were canned pears for dessert, and I was putting off the necessity of dealing with them. I didn’t like canned pears. Still don’t. Canned pears, unlike fresh ones, have strings in them. My mother knew I didn’t like them, but served them to me anyway. Her plea, in such situations, was that I think of the starving Armenians. But since I didn’t know who the Armenians were, or why they were starving, my patience was short. On this particular day, it finally ran out. I climbed down from my highchair and threw my pears in the sink. And then I went down the hall towards the front door, passing my mother who was headed in the other direction. I was stopped with my hand on the door knob by my mother’s voice from the kitchen. She called to me and said, “Whose pears are these in the sink?”
Now, at the age of four, I was probably not familiar with the word “irrational.” Nevertheless, I clearly recall being puzzled by this question from my mother. At that particular moment, she and I were the only ones in the house, with the exception of our bulldog, Big Mike. But Big Mike had a weak stomach and was therefore never given pears to eat, canned or otherwise, and even if he had, it’s unlikely he’d have thrown them in the sink. And, of course, my mother knew she hadn’t done it. So when she asked whose pears they were, I decided to answer in the same vein, sing-songing back from the front door, “I don’t know!” And got spanked for it. Well, I’m not sure if I got spanked for saying “I don’t know” or if it was because I threw my pears in the sink in spite of the starving Armenians. But that’s not the point. The point is, why did my mother ask such an irrational question?
Then there was the time when Mildred, a friend who lived next door, stole some doll underwear from my sister when the three of us were playing outside. My sister and I both saw her do it. We ran into our house and complained loudly to our mother. But she, feisty as she was about most things, only said in this case that Heaven will punish sinners. You know how it goes – and I quote: “Leave her to Heaven.” For the next few days, full of expectation, I watched the house next door, but nothing at all happened. At last I decided that if Heaven didn’t care what Mildred did, it wouldn’t care what I did, either. So, while my sister was at school, I took out her brand-new scooter – which I had expressly been told not to touch – and rode it off down the sidewalk. But I hit a bump, fell over, and bloodied my nose. For a very long time after this, I believed that Heaven had put that bump there to punish me. But why punish me and not Mildred? I was just as good as Mildred. Maybe even better. I couldn’t make it out.
Two years later, after a move to another town, my sister and I were walking home from the public swimming pool that was only a park away from our house. It was the middle of summer. And all at once, out of the blue, my sister informed me that there wasn’t any Santa Claus. At first I thought she was pulling my leg, but it soon became apparent that she was telling the truth. I don’t remember whether she and I discussed the situation. What I decidedly do remember is being, first, angry about the deception, and then mystified. It was grown-ups who had made the whole thing up, that much was clear, but why? Yes, the Santa Claus story was jolly, but that wouldn’t have served as an excuse for any lie I might have told. I don’t remember ever asking my mother for an explanation. Perhaps I thought she would explain it with a reason that would once again leave me hanging.
One final example. In those days, when I was six or seven, my sister and I were each given ten pennies every week to put into the collection plate at Sunday School. But, having been cautioned, in a general way, to look out for the cost of things in everyday life, the cost as compared to the value, and not to waste money – we were not a wealthy family, and it was, after all, the Depression – I looked over the cost and the value of Sunday School and decided it wasn’t worth ten pennies. So week after week I only put five into the collection plate, and kept the other five in my Sunday pocket book. After a while, my pocket book got a little heavy, and my mother opened it to see why. She was horrified. Another spanking for me. And another mystification: When does a caution apply? When was I supposed to make up my own mind about the value of something, and when was I supposed to measure by someone else’s yardstick? But I don’t think I ever asked about this. I seem only to have stored it away to wonder about. I am still wondering.
These are only four examples, but they’ll do. I spent the next few years growing up without changing much, still observing irrationalities, still always asking “Why?” and still getting not much in the form of an answer. But at the same time I too was becoming irrational. Married, finally, and a mother myself, I, too, lied to my children about Santa Claus. I, too, said things like “Whose pears are these in the sink?” which often took a form just as familiar: You look at your child who is scribbling on the wall, and you say, “What are you doing?”
To top it all off, when my children asked why, about this situation or that, I seem to have chosen to answer, “Because that’s the way things are.” This isn’t much better than saying, “Because I said so,” but it’s a little better. It tells more of the truth. It just stops too soon. If said correctly, it would be: “That’s the way things are, because all of us grown-ups are mad, and you are in training.”
I grew up, as most of us do, surrounded by a lot of rules. They were all pretty basic, regulating behavior in private as well as public. Rules weren’t laws, exactly. The government wasn’t telling you not to kick your sister. But as soon as you were old enough to draw the attention of the government, it told you plenty. I observed all these rules and laws to the letter, because I didn’t like to lose the approval of my mother or the police department. I didn’t want to get spanked or go to jail. I became, at last, what you see before you: the kind of grown-up who always stops at stop signs and who never goes through the ten-item line at the grocery with more than ten items. I had learned to accept the premise that it isn’t up to me, an average citizen, to obey only the convenient laws put forward by the government. Laws are there to be obeyed, whether they’re convenient or not. If the government finds out that you’ve thrown your pears in the sink, you’re going to have to answer for it. A great many people throw their pears in the sink anyway, believing that the government won’t ever find out, and most of the time they’re right. In Providence, where I live now, someone has pointed out that red lights and stop signs aren’t laws at all to Rhode Islanders, but only suggestions. You have to wonder how things hold together. Somehow they do hold together. It’s just that there’s no rational reason for it.
Long before Rhode Island, though, as I was growing up in Ohio, I was becoming aware that parents and governments can make as many rules and laws as they want to, but none of it will make a particle of difference to the natural world.
Moving from southwestern Ohio up to a suburb of Cleveland on the shores of Lake Erie was the event that began my education in this aspect. I was eleven years old. People who’ve never lived near the Great Lakes have never seen what is known in weather circles as “the lake effect.” But you here in Chicago know all about it. Great Lakes storms in all seasons are dramatic, violent, and beautiful. They also come along whenever they feel like it, and don’t give the least kind of a damn about humanity. All parts of nature are pretty much like that. Remember the lyrics to “Ol’ Man River” which ask, and please forgive my paraphrasing, “What does the Mississippi care if the world’s got troubles?”
So here, on the one hand, were the lessons I was getting about how human beings, especially mothers, Sunday School teachers, and policemen, are in control of just about everything, and yet there, on the other hand, were lessons showing that human beings, whatever their professions, were in control of almost nothing. There was and is no rational way to put these two things together. Nevertheless, put them together we must.
And of course, World War II was getting underway for America along about then. Europe was a complete mess, and Asia wasn’t much good, either. So here we were praising the Lord and passing the ammunition, as the popular song had it, and starting out to save the world, which meant having to end the world for huge numbers of Europeans and Asians, soldiers and civilians both. There’s no other way to fight a war. We did what we had to do. But none of it sat very well with what I heard in church. I was in real church by that time, not Sunday school, and I was observing that religion lives uneasily with war, in spite of what we’d been taught about the Crusades, and in spite of hymns like “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” A great deal of irrational reasoning is required. And yet, and yet, the sun came up every morning, and lake effect storms swept across northern Ohio in every season, just the same as always. Everything was utterly different, and everything was exactly the same, and there’s nothing rational about that.
What it all seems to come down to is that we humans have a very slim grip on the definition of what’s rational. The societies we have created here, and everywhere else around the world, are messy, unjust and dangerous. But each society believes those adjectives are descriptive only of all the other societies, while it itself is fair and square, tidy, and safe. We’d get along with each other a lot better if we could admit that we are all pretty much alike regardless of what society we belong to, but that seems to go against the grain.
Well, but when you remember how young this planet is, compared to much of the universe, what else can we expect of ourselves? A while ago, someone said that if you laid out the age of the Earth as a vertical as tall as the Empire State Building, you could place a thin dime on the very topmost part and that would be the total age of humanity. We haven’t been around very long. A moment ago we were cavemen, and a moment before that, we were apes. At least, if you believe in evolution, that’s what we were. So if we’ve still got a lot of ape in us, where’s the surprise? We are deeply and anxiously self-congratulatory and egotistical, but maybe we have to be in order to believe we’re in control. We do, after all, have to believe we’re in control, and that means inventing all sorts of reasonable reasons for our irrational behavior, which we spell out for each other gravely every chance we get. There is a lot of gravity during an election year, isn’t there? A great deal of reasoning – just as there is in Alice in Wonderland. Do you remember the story told by the Dormouse at the Mad Tea Party? Allow me, with a few cuts here and there, to refresh your memories, first reminding you, in case you’ve forgotten, that “treacle,” referred to here, is a blend of molasses, sugar, and corn syrup:
“Once upon a time there were three little sisters,” the Dormouse began,
“And their names were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie, and they lived at the bottom of
“What did they live on?” said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking.
“They lived on treacle,” said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.
“They couldn’t have done that, you know,” Alice gently remarked. “They’d have been ill.”
“So they were,” said the Dormouse. “Very ill.”
Alice tried a little to fancy to herself what such an extraordinary way of living would be like, but it puzzled her too much: so she went on: “But why did they live at the bottom of a well?”
The Dormouse again took a minute or two to think about it, and then said, “It was a treacle well. And so these three little sisters – they were learning to draw, you know.”
“What did they draw?” said Alice.
“Treacle,” said the Dormouse, without considering at all, this time.
“But I don’t understand,” said Alice. “Where did they draw the treacle from?”
“You can draw water out of a water-well,” said the Hatter; “so I should think you could draw treacle out of a treacle-well – eh, stupid?”
“But they were in the well,” Alice said to the Dormouse, not choosing to notice this last remark.
“Of course they were,” said the Dormouse: “Well in.”
And the charm of all this is that the Dormouse, the Mad Hatter, and the March Hare are serenely, and all the way irrationally, reasonable. It reminds me very much of a televised Congressional investigation.
If you grow up puzzling about irrationality, and then if you begin writing stories, all these puzzling things are bound to turn up in what you write. I wanted to be a children’s book illustrator, and that meant, obviously, that I would need children’s stories to illustrate. I hadn’t ever thought about being a writer. But I discovered right away, when I began trying to write, that many puzzling and difficult moral and ethical questions insisted on cropping up, as they do in many stories for children. At least, they do in some kinds of stories, and those seem to be the kinds of stories I tell. After all, if you have any memory at all about your concerns when you were very small, you will know that this is when such questions first arise. I seem to have a particularly vivid memory of those years. In some ways, they were more interesting to me than many of the years that have come along since. Still, the questions themselves are scarcely unique to me. They are questions we all have in common. Some of us don’t give them a lot of head room, and that’s all right, but for those of us who do, stories can be useful. Well – useful up to a point. My stories don’t offer answers, because I don’t know the answers. Maybe there aren’t any. All I’m trying to do is present the questions.
We began, centuries ago, telling stories in an attempt to explain humanity’s basic mysteries. And then, science started to redraw our conception of things like the universe, health, death, and other natural phenomena. Take water, for instance. For hundreds of years, we believed it had magical qualities. I think this is because we knew it gave and maintained life. But now we know there is nothing magical about it. We learned from a British scientist named Henry Cavendish in the late 1700’s that water is only a combination of oxygen and hydrogen. And as for this planet Earth, it may be vital to the only kind of life we know, but at the same time it is nothing more than a meaningless speck in the endlessness of space.
Well, we know these things, but knowing them isn’t much help. The knowledge is simply not enough. Too many questions still remain. How can something be vital, and at the same time be meaningless? The word “endlessness,” itself, as a description of a dimension, is inconceivable, and therefore completely unsatisfying. My sister said once that trying to understand space brought her to the outermost extent of her intelligence. She came to a place, she told me, where she didn’t even know what it was that she wasn’t understanding. We all know that feeling. And even right here on our own planet, it is impossible to watch the raging water in our Great Lakes in the middle of a storm, and hold onto our self-importance by telling ourselves it’s only hydrogen and oxygen flinging themselves around out there. So – we go right on telling stories. We need to. It may be irrational, but at the same time it’s perfectly reasonable.
Most of the stories I’ve told fall into this category – the category of stories that deal with the questions left over after we’re told that all the questions have been answered. This kind of story isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. I know that perfectly well, and even if I didn’t, children often remind me. A letter I got last year from some boys in Boston told me that Tuck Everlasting would have been a lot better if it had some dirt bike racing in it. Maybe so, but I have to write the kind of story I write because it’s the only kind of story that, for me, anyway, is worth the immense difficulty of writing.
And into these stories of mine go all the questions about what’s right at any given moment – all the questions like the one about the ten Sunday School pennies. Years ago, not long after Tuck Everlasting was published, I was on a gig somewhere and was approached afterward by a young librarian who was genuinely disturbed by the fact that I had let Mae Tuck kill the man in the yellow suit. We talked about it briefly. I asked her what she would have done if she’d known ahead of time what World War II was going to do to the world. Would she have killed Adolph Hitler before it all began, if she’d had the opportunity? She was horrified by this question, and turned away without answering. Well, of course she was horrified. It’s not a pretty thought. But it’s a very important question. At least, I think so. And, of course, where Tuck Everlasting is concerned, there’s more than philosophy involved in the killing. I don’t like violence in any form, but I got right up to the point when the man in the yellow suit was dragging Winnie Foster away, and I knew what I would have done if I’d been Mae Tuck. I knew that if someone had broken into my house and had tried to drag one of my children away, I’d have grabbed anything that came to hand and bashed him as hard as I could. I wouldn’t have paused to think it over. And neither would any other female, two legs or four, in all of the natural world. This is the simple truth. And when you write for children, the truth is vital.
Violence goes against every rule and law in the land. Yes. But there are times when it’s justified. Well, aren’t there? Aren’t there times when we have to act as the occasion demands? Isn’t that what a war of defense is mostly about? I don’t know for sure. All I know is that it’s adults who are troubled by that scene in Tuck Everlasting. I get a lot of letters from children about the story, and if they mention that scene at all, they tell me that they didn’t like it, but they know Mae did what she had to do, and they are satisfied. They invariably say that the man in the yellow suit got what he deserved. This is not because children have been warped by television or any other outside influence. This is because we are all somehow born with a strong sense of justice. Why else say so often, “It’s not fair!” Why else wonder why Mildred got to steal my sister’s doll underwear while I got a bloody nose for borrowing her new scooter? We laugh at such things remembered from our early lives, and we laugh at them in the lives of our own children. But finally, at bottom, they aren’t really funny. They are our earliest attempts to find and examine reasons, irrational or not. Is it all right to go against the rules when you’re growing up? No. Rules are there for guidance and protection. Except sometimes. Is it all right to kill people? No. Killing is immoral and illegal. Except sometimes. And so, while we’re learning the rules as we grow up, we’re observing at the same time the contradictions, the exceptions, the irrationalities. There’s no way to protect children from all that, and a good thing, too, because they’re going to need the truth.
What a puzzle it all turns out to be! We would do better with it if we didn’t have so frantic a need to prove ourselves quick and powerful and in control, to prove to ourselves and others that we matter. It’s hard, though, because we do matter to ourselves. It’s just that we don’t matter to thunderstorms and oceans and time and the endlessness of space. I think, finally, that we are all mad because of being pulled in half between these two plain truths.
There are three ways to deal with it, I think. You can put time and space out of your head, and live only in and with the tangible world. Or – you can ignore the tangible world and go live on a mountain top where you can contemplate time and space. Or – you can say to yourself that it’s impossible to make sense of it all, so we might as well throw up our hands and have as good a time as we can manage in the time we’ve got.
I don’t know when I decided to adopt the third alternative, but I think I know why. Certainly my father had a lot to do with it because, once you got past politics, he knew how to see irrationalities and the ways in which they affect us, and he knew how to laugh at them. My mother was good at laughing, too, but the simple fact is that the marriage between her and my father was a first class example of living with two plain and opposing truths. My father was a very conservative Republican, and my mother was a very liberal Democrat, and at the end of every Election Day, he would say to her, “I suppose you cancelled my vote again,” and she would reply, “I certainly did.” But they loved each other anyway, and had what I truly believe was a very happy life together.
So – well – I think I grew up questioning the contradictions, as we all do, but finally admiring the way we human beings always manage, however clumsily, to build a footing out of not much, and then dance on it. Because we do dance on it, here and everywhere else in the world, regardless of science, religion, and politics. And we dance pretty well, thank you very much. It’s mad to dance on such a footing, because collapse is always imminent, but we do it anyway. There’s a lot to be learned from that. Somehow, in spite of everything, we manage to build. We have always managed to build, even right after we’ve managed to destroy.
What does this have to do with children and their books? Maybe not much, except that the fact is, children learn early to laugh and to reason; to recognize irrationalities for what they are, but at the same time work out reasonable ways to deal with this vital but meaningless speck of a planet they’ve inherited. Writers write the stories that ease their own uncertainties, of course, and that makes most of our work pretty subjective. But for people like me whose childhoods are so real and so ever-present, I think that for the most part what we have to say are things our readers have no trouble understanding.
And I’ve come to recognize one other thing: I believe I had a perfect right to throw my pears in the sink, that day so long ago. Not as a way of breaking the rules, but as a way of expressing my own views and preferences. I believe we all have that right today, now, whatever age we may be, as long as we’re willing to pay the consequences. We have the right to follow our own sense of what matters. I mean, I had the right not to put dirt bike racing into Tuck Everlasting. I wrote back to the boys who thought it would have been a good idea, and I told them that if they’d written the story, they could have put anything they wanted into it. But, I told them, by the time they wrote to me, it was way too late for changes. The book was already twenty-five years old, and rather set in its ways. But it has occurred to me since that maybe they’ll all get jobs with the Disney Studios when they grow up. At Disney, it’s never too late for change. It’s never too irrational, either. But, well, so what? Remember the scene in Alice in Wonderland where Alice comes across the Cheshire Cat sitting in a tree? She asks him, and I quote:
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where – “ said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“ – as long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
Alice felt that this could not be denied, so she tried another question. “What sort of people live about here?”
“In that direction,” the Cat said, waving its right paw round, “lives a Hatter: and in that direction,” waving the other paw, “lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”
“But I don’t want to go among mad people.” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here.”
Amen to that, my dears. We may be irrational, but we can be reasonable, too, and we can laugh. If we’ve forgotten about that somewhere along the way, children can remind us. Children can show us how.
Thank you for listening.