The Seeking of Self: Voices of the
by S. Scot Smith
Abandoned in the Work of Brock Cole
"Whenever I drift into view, I seem to induce in Catherine profound existential anguish.
What my old friend and Godpapa Jean-Paul calls nausea. She watches me closely for signs of fading
around the edges, indications of growing insubstantiality, the first symptoms of deconstruction."
--Celine in Celine
"I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You. All actual life is encounter."
--Martin Buber, I and Thou
Erik Erikson (1968) described adolescence as a time of crisis from which a child may emerge for the better or the worse. Mary Pipher (1994) compares the maturation process for girls to a hurricane; an adolescent girl is like a young sapling caught in a driving wind storm (28). Adolescence can also be described as the stage during which we attempt to locate our inner voices. Here "voice" means more than the mechanical ability to produce sounds. Voice is "our channel of connection, a pathway that brings the inner psychic world of feelings and thoughts out into the open air of relationship..." ( Brown and Gilligan, 1992, 20 ). From an Existential perspective, the adolescent in search of self must enter into a relationship with the Other, a person capable of listening to, comprehending, and validating the inner voice.
In the young adult novels of Brock Cole, this phenomenological quest for self-identity breaks the traditional pattern often found in YA literature, a pattern where teens are able to make progress in their search for self with the help and guidance of adults. For Cole, a former philosophy professor and a noted illustrator of books for children, adults are often prettied up for young adult consumption (Rochman, 1989). The grown-ups in Cole's works are anything but idealized. In his three young adult novels, The Goats (1987), Celine (1989), and The Facts Speak for Themselves (1997), adolescents show strength, responsibility, and maturity. Conversely, the adults are depicted as egocentric, immature, indifferent, and otherwise seriously flawed. Rather than helping the three female protagonists in The Goats, Celine, and The Facts Speak for Themselves, the adults, particularly the parents, physically and emotionally abandon the teen female protagonists, Laura, Celine, and Linda (respectively).
The theme of teens being abandoned by their parents runs throughout YAL. The Luther family in the Cleavers' Where the Lilies Bloom (1969), Gilly in Katherine Paterson's The Great Gilly Hopkins (1979), the Tillerman children in Cynthia Voigt's Homecoming (1981) and Dicey's Song (1982), Summer in Cynthia Rylant's Missing May (1992), and Woodrow in Ruth White's Belle Prater's Boy (1996) represent different examples of this theme. Yet perhaps nowhere else in YAL does abandonment play a more prominent role than it does in Cole's The Goats, Celine, and The Facts Speak for Themselves.
Without the aid of their parents, the three female protagonists must strive to find their inner voices on their own. Laura and Celine are, by the end of their respective novels, able to lay claim to identities all their own. They find, in the form of male friends, what the Existential philosopher Martin Buber (1970) called the Other, the one who will in turn validate their "I" (54). Linda, in The Facts Speak for Themselves, is incapable of finding either her voice or her Other. For Linda, a series of abandonments and abuse lead only to negative consequences for her emotional development. Yes, she does come away a survivor--physically alive, but emotionally damaged, and without a personal voice.
In this article, I will examine Cole's three protagonists and their efforts toward finding answers to the question central to adolescent development: "Who am I?" I will point to evidence of how abandonment affects their growth and influences their inner voices.
Gender plays an integral role in how teens seek to define their self-identities, and the methods boys use to find their adolescent voices seem to differ dramatically from those techniques employed by girls. According to Carol Gilligan ( 1982, 1992 ), a boy will define his identity by looking at himself and seeing what he does or what he has accomplished. He sees himself as autonomous, self-governing, and free. For him, morality, as an important part of self, is linked to the abstraction of Justice. A girl, on the other hand, will usually describe herself in connection to another, be it her mother, a peer, or a sibling. For her, morality is best determined by relationships of caring by and caring for others (55). Gilligan (1982) writes "Women not only define themselves in a context of human relationship but also judge themselves in terms of their ability to care" (17). Jean Baker Miller and her colleagues( Dacey and Kenny, 1996 ) call this phenomenon "self-in-relation" (247); they posit the theory that a clear understanding of relationships with others defines the self, in that women ask themselves not only, "Who am I?" but also, "Who am I in relation to others?" Gilligan (1990) notes that the issue of "self-in-relation" presents a difficult dichotomy for teen-age girls. Just as they are trying to define their identities and become independent, they realize that they and their identities are linked to others, especially to their mothers (25). For a female teen to make a successful transition from adolescence into adulthood, she must--in Existential terms--enter into a relationship with the Other. She must connect with someone who sees her as an autonomous voice. As she learns to care for others, a female reaches an understanding of the world and her place in it and thereby discovers her own voice and, in turn, gains her autonomy ( Gilligan, 1988, 16 ).
More often than not, adolescent girls learn these behaviors from their mothers and occasionally from their peers. Yet in The Goats, Celine, and The Facts Speak for Themselves, the girls' mothers are conspicuously absent at the time of the largest identity crisis. Their peers do no better, especially in Laura's case where her campmates strip her naked and desert her on an island as part of a vicious prank. Having been neglected by the adults and peers in their lives, the girls must find "alternative" Others who will see them as autonomous. Two of the girls--Laura from The Goats and Celine from the novel of the same name--succeed in finding the Others--Howie and Jacob--who will eventually reveal to them their individual "I." We as readers come away from The Goats and Celine convinced that Laura and Celine will make successful transitions into adulthood and are fairly certain that the two girls are well on their way, thanks largely in part to the events that take place in the two novels. As they leave the forest and prepare to meet her mother, Laura and Howie walk hand in hand down a path, symbolically refusing to allow a sapling in the trail to break their connection. Celine ends with Celine content to be sitting on the couch and watching TV with Jacob, the seven-year-old who she has been babysitting, and grateful that she has found someone who appreciates her for who she is.
From Linda, in
The Facts Speak for Themselves, readers get what the title suggests--just the facts, stripped of all emotion and subjectivity. In Linda's story, the facts--that her Native American father had committed suicide, that her mother had abandoned her in Florida, that she had been sexually molested as a child and raped as a teen, that she had just witnessed a murder-suicide--must speak for themselves. Linda has yet to find the Other who will, in relation, show her her "I." Linda illustrates what
David Elkind (1984) calls a girl "all grown up and no place to go," a girl so busy caring for others that she has had no time to care for herself. As such, she might well have missed that window of developmental opportunity during which she could have formed the psychosocial foundation of her self-identity. Because of abandonment, Linda has been unable to find her voice; unlike Laura and Celine, has never been able to make a connection to her Other. Given what the facts in her life have been, we can speculate that perhaps she will always have to use a voice largely devoid of a personal identity, a personal "I". When we compare Linda's story with Laura's and Celine's, we realize why Linda's experiences have prohibited her from finding her voice.
Laura in The Goats
In The Goats, Laura is taken to camp by her single mother, a woman apparently obsessed with meeting her daughter's physiological needs but not necessarily her emotional ones. Laura's mother does not so much as abandon her hypersensitive daughter as she forcibly pushes her out of the security of home and into the summer camp. Perhaps she wishes to sever the ties that bind the two and force Laura to mature at camp. There she expects Laura to make friends. Some "friends" she finds! Traumatically, Laura is taken to an island in the middle of a lake, stripped naked, and left there alone with a boy, where they are expected to make out like goats. On that island, Laura finds Howie, who feels unwanted by his parents, and who, because of his small stature and thick glasses, has become an easy target for the bullies at the camp. Rather than wait humbly to be rescued, the two adolescents embark on an adventure of self and survival as they leave the island and try to manage on their own.
As self-professed "social-retards," Laura and Howie are excluded from the cliques at camp. To be denied admittance into a clique of peers is quite different from being the object of their cruel prank. Elkind (1984) writes "exclusion is hurtful because it forces us to acknowledge that other people may not see us the way we see ourselves. The shock of exclusion is thus a painful but necessary process by which we attain a more realistic view of how we are seen by others" (73). Reeling in the bitter awareness that they are the goats, the lowest in the camp hierarchy, Laura and Howie grow to depend on each other. Together they form a powerful team, a Bonnie and Clyde duo capable of performing high heroics in order to stay together. The circumstances of abandonment dictate that they create this union of I-and-Other. Through this bond, Laura comes to see not only who she is but, more importantly, who she can become.
Although, or more precisely because, they are forced to make numerous dubious ethical decisions--breaking into a cabin and then into a motel, stealing money and clothes, hiding from and then escaping from the authorities, they grow together. Laura initially tries to establish contact with her mother, Maddy, after she and Howie escape from camp. However, instead of showing understanding and providing help, Maddy merely lectures Laura about "acting like a grown-up," "learning to deal with people who aren't nice" and "coping with the facts of life (that some girls get depressed when they get their periods)" (
Cole 36-38 ). Laura sees that she can rely only on Howie. As Laura grows, her identity changes. Indeed, Laura transforms so much that she actually signs her name as "Shadow Golden," her birth name. No longer is she the inflexible perfectionist. Instead, she becomes strong and independent, and yet also experiences a "self-in-relation" with Howie. The young woman who emerges from the forest at the end of the novel bears little resemblance to the child who was left by her mother at the camp and abandoned by her peers on the island, for Laura has found her Other.
Celine in Celine
Like Howie and Laura, Celine has also been abandoned but under different circumstances. Her parents have divorced and left her not once but twice. First, they leave the feisty adolescent with her grandmother in a small town in Iowa. With Celine managing the alternative all-girl band Baby Ooze, nearly flunking two courses at school, and behaving outrageously, her grandmother is so overwhelmed that she seeks refuge in an adults-only community in Arizona. Thus, she must return to the "care" of her parents. Celine's father, a college professor, skips off to Europe for a lecture tour while her mother is sailing the coast of South America with her new husband. Her mother's behavior is particularly hurtful to her, making her feel neither wanted nor loved. In the ensuing custody battle between her parents, Catherine--Celine's twenty-two-year-old step-mother--loses, as she becomes the sole caretaker of this difficult sixteen-year-old. Celine is thus left with Catherine and is told to show some maturity and responsibility by her biological parents who have neither. When Catherine then flees Chicago for an academic conference in Wisconsin, Celine is left alone for a weekend, absolutely abandoned by the adults in her life.
Yet she does not spend the weekend alone. On the other side of the hallway is seven-year-old Jacob Barker, who is likewise abandoned. His parents are in the process of a nasty divorce, and his mother has gone away for a business trip, having neglected to tell his father. Rather than spend the weekend with his father, Jacob elects to spend it with Celine. The results are overwhelmingly positive, as Celine comes to see her true Self as reflected by Jacob. Despite her artistic talents, her popularity at school, and her strong inner voice, filled as it is with humor, sarcasm, self-esteem, and cynicism, Celine is missing one essential element of her psychosocial development. Her boyfriend Dermot knows what is missing; Celine is afraid of love. By caring for and coming to love Jacob, she is able to experience her complete self-in-relation.
Why is Celine able to find her self-in-relation with Jacob and not her peers or parents? Like Holden Caulfield in Salinger 's Catcher in the Rye (1951), a literary character with whom she shares so much in common, Celine is surrounded by phonies ( Rochman, 1989, 440 ). Her stepmother, a native of New Jersey, speaks with a fake British accent and hangs out with pompous artistes. Her boyfriend, whom she views more as a disease than a sentient being, begs her to accompany him to a party. Once there, he abandons her so that he can make out with a college girl who calls herself "Death, Destroyer of Worlds." Her friend Lucy, the younger sister of the aforementioned Death, drinks herself into oblivion at that same party, vomits into her sweater, and then expects Celine not only to help her save face at the party but also rescue her from the wrath of her parents. Desperate for some positive attention, Celine falls for Jacob's father, who like her, is also an artist. Ever the cad, this man recognizes Celine's infatuation and does everything he can do to escalate it, including caressing her knee and inviting her to his studio. Her obsession with him comes to a crashing halt when she and Jacob discover the cause of the Barkers' divorce; he is seeing another woman--Celine's art instructor from school.
Surrounded by people like Dermot, Lucy, Mr. Barker, and Catherine, it is no wonder that Celine finds great solace in television. It is also no wonder that her self-portrait looks like this:
Celine paints this image--Celine-Beast--after she has stripped naked and stared at herself in the mirror. Jacob, however, gets angry when he sees the painting. He insists that Celine is neither fat nor crazy; he is right. Celine discovers herself as she cares for Jacob. Just as Phoebe in The Catcher in the Rye provides Holden with that link back to reality, so Jacob does for Celine. Without adults to nurture them, they learn to depend on each other. Gilligan (1988) describes this type of dependence in the following:
At the end of the novel, there is no need for the parents to rush back to Chicago in order to save their children, for the children have already saved themselves.
Linda in The Facts Speak for Themselves
In The Facts Speak for Themselves, Linda is repeatedly abandoned by her mother. Her father, a Native American, dies in a carbon monoxide accident, leaving her alone with her mother and her infant brother, Stoppard. Linda, even as a young child, must not only learn to take care of herself but she must also learn to care for her brother and her mother, a woman emotionally overwhelmed by the consequences of her own bad decisions. No sooner than some stability enters Linda's life than she is carted off to Florida to live her mother's new boyfriend, an elderly doctor. After Dr. Bloomberg suffers a stroke, Linda's mother deserts him. In the process of once again fleeing from responsibility, she leaves Linda, now twelve, behind. Abandoned in Florida, Linda drops out of school to care for the sick and deranged old man. Eventually, social services learn of Linda's plight and send her back to her mother in Minnesota.
Life back in Minnesota becomes no easier for Linda, as once again the adults around her are too caught up in the complexities of their own lives to notice what is happening to the adolescent girl. She has entered a sexual relationship with her mother's employer, perhaps with her mother's tacit consent. After Linda witnesses the murder of her lover by her mother's "boyfriend," she must tell her story not only to the authorities but to us as well. Yet it is a story without a voice, tragedy told with facts, not emotion.
The traumatic and extreme events of Linda's life--sexual, physical, and emotional abuse in addition to abandonment--have had a profound effect on her psychosocial development. Linda lives exclusively in the physical world, a place nearly devoid of emotion. She is capable of caring for the physical needs of others, yet never makes an emotional connection to anyone. She changes the diapers and washes the clothes of her baby brothers, bathes and feeds the feeble Dr. Bloomberg, and satisfies the sexual desires of Jack Green. In one of the novel's most ironic and significant moments, she offers a bologna sandwich to the man who has come to repair the swimming pool. This man, having been struck in the head by the senile doctor and presently lying with a broken leg at the bottom of a near-empty swimming pool, could use anything but a bologna sandwich. This scene exemplifies Linda's shortcomings, her failure to comprehend the emotional aspect of human nature.
The opportunities for the development of self-in-relation arise from time to time for Linda, but the relationships are either broken or corrupt to begin with. Rather than find a Howie or a Jacob, she finds Dr. Bloomberg. Before his stroke and before she has entered puberty, they forge a strong relationship. However, the stroke leaves him demented and violent. Yes, Linda does take care of his physical needs but she can no longer emotionally connect to a man so mentally ill. As for Sandra, Linda's mother, she has been too busy trying to find the man who can rescue her from her life that she completely neglects Linda. At best, Linda's grandparents, with whom she lives for a short time, remain distant and uninvolved, perhaps prejudiced against her Native American father. Her friends at school, during the short time she attends, accept her but never nurture her. Linda joins a clique called the "Barbies," a group of girls more concerned with excluding others than they are at accepting one another. Once she has left school, Linda offers Myra, the least popular of the Barbies, food and money to be her "friend," another example of Linda's inability to comprehend the complexities of relationships.
Her Florida boyfriend wants sex, not connection. Jack Green, the real estate agent with whom Linda has entered into a sexual relationship, also values her as an object. For him, Linda is valuable for what she can give him--her body. Miss Paschonelle, her social worker, sees her as a case, not a person. The nuns at the shelter where Linda is eventually placed are unable to connect with Linda. Although Linda reaches out to the other girls in the shelter, particularly to Crystal who is HIV positive, she is never able to communicate with them. She expresses her feelings toward others largely through violent tantrums. Having been objectified by everyone around her, she views others as people she must care for, not as people who can help her.
As shown by her passion for neatness and order and her devotion to her younger brothers, Linda can take care of and thrive in the physical world. Moreover, she is quite capable of following rules. At the end of the novel, she understands the dangers of unprotected sex, promises never to do drugs, and wants to do well in school. She has come to see the outside world as things to be organized and rules to be followed. Linda has had plenty physical relationships, but the emotional ones have eluded her. Thus, she can tell us the facts but cannot tell us about herself. Linda does have an "I," an inner voice. We all do. However, she has been forced by the tragedies in her life to keep it hidden so deeply within her psyche that neither we, nor anyone else, including Linda, will ever see.
Erikson (1968) wrote that adolescence is a crisis during which one may emerge for better or worse, perhaps he had teens like Brock Cole's Laura, Celine, and Linda in mind. Despite the trauma of abandonment, Laura and Celine emerge from their identity crisis for the better. They have found their inner voices. Laura--four years younger than Celine--has started the process of finding her voice, thanks largely to her relationship with Howie. Celine finds the missing piece for her development in her relationship with Jacob. Unfortunately for Linda, the trauma of parental abandonment is but one of many catastrophes which with she has had to cope. Overwhelmed and overburdened by the dreadful facts of her life, she has been forced to deal with adult problems well before she has the means to do so successfully. With Linda, Cole has given us a painful glimpse of reality. Young adult literature has been traditionally filled characters that triumph against all odds. Realistically, our classrooms probably have many more Lindas than we often recognize or admit.
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Copyright 1999. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.
Reference Citation: Smith, S. Scott. (1999). The seeking of self: Voices of the abandoned in the work of Brock Cole. The ALAN Review, Volume 27, Number 1, pp. 55-59.