A few guidelines usually govern my activities when I conduct case study research: (a) permit the person who is the object of my investigation to take the lead as far as he or she is able to go, (b) suspend any notions regarding how the study will work out, (c) be open to surprises, (d) use the problems that arise as opportunities to learn about and welcome developments in surrounding disciplines, and (e) estimate how much time it will take to complete the project, triple it, and be prepared to triple it again.
I didn't think I would need to consult my guidelines when I embarked on a study of James M. Barrie. I intended it to be a simple investigation with a specific focus on the possible Oedipal origins of Barrie's famous story about Peter Pan. My original purpose went no further than to locate and organize some new material for a course in personality psychology that I have taught for many years. In the context of a field deeply rooted in the tradition of psychometric science wherein variables instead of people are the preferred units of analysis, I felt it would do no harm to expose my students to "old" ways of thinking about personality development, even if only used it as interludes or breaks between lectures on scale construction and research designs.
I was particularly interested in finding an example of Freud's idea that the unconscious knows no time; that childhood conflicts remain active in adulthood and that the contents of dreams and fantasies are often shaped by their unrelenting search for expression. The more vivid and familiar the example the better, and although time had eroded some of the details, I recalled that James Barrie's earliest construction of Peter Pan had some Oedipal components in it, so I set forth to refresh my memory.
Brushing up on Peter Pan
Consulting some notes I had written years before led me to re-discover that the book titled Peter Pan1 was published 9 years after another book written by Barrie, The Little White Bird. The latter contains a story within a story about Pan named Peter trapped on an island in London's Kensington Park. This was Peter Pan's first appearance in print. Bear with me as I summarize a portion of the story.
The opening chapters of The Little White Bird introduce readers to the mysterious Captain W., a retired military officer in his mid-forties, and his six year-old playmate, David. During one of their outings, The Captain points out the island in the Kensington Garden on which all the birds that become boys and girls are born. He informs David that no one who is human can be on that island, except for Peter Pan, the forerunner of the more familiar Peter Pan. Peter can reside on the island because he is only part human. Peter is “ever so old” and “always the same age,” and still possesses every one of his baby teeth. He was born long ago and is one week old, having never had a birthday, "nor is there the slightest chance he will ever have one." The reason for this, one presumes, was parental carelessness. Adequate precautions had not been taken to prevent Peter from escaping through a window in his nursery and flying back to Kensington Garden.
Peter was an enigma
on the island. Fairies ran away from him when he approached them.
Birds ignored him, thinking him to be quite odd. Every living thing
shunned him. He did not consider himself to be a bird for he had
no feathers, only itchy places on his shoulders where his wings had once
been attached. And not for a moment did he think himself to be human.
One friendship, however, did develop. That was with an old codger of a bird, Solomon Caw, whose primary responsibility was to direct other birds to the mothers who would rear them as children. Solomon referred to Peter as “poor little half-and-half.” When Peter spoke of his urge to return to his mother, wise Solomon simply said “good-bye,” words bringing to Peter’s attention the fact that he had no means of returning. “You will never be able to fly again, not even on windy days. You must live here on the island always,” Solomon informed Peter. “You will always be Betwixt-and-Between,” Solomon said, and the narrator observes, “that is exactly as it turns out to be.”
Solomon was wrong about one thing. In fact, for a time, Peter was able to fly again. The fairies warmed up to Peter in response to his providing them with some special service, and the Queen fairy granted him two wishes. His first wish was to go to his mother, but to return to the Garden if he found her disappointing. The Queen said that she could give him the ability to fly home but she couldn’t open the door. Peter assured her that his mother always kept the window open in the hope that he would someday return. Thereupon the fairies tickled him on his shoulder blades and rejuvenated his ability to fly. He intended to head directly to his mother’s home, but as he flew over the housetops, Crystal Palace, Regent’s Park, and other notable landmarks, it occurred to him that his second wish might be to remain a bird. Upon ending the detour and reaching his home, Barrie writes: “The window was wide open, just as he knew it would be, and in he fluttered, and there was his mother lying asleep. Peter alighted softly on the wooden rail at the foot of the bed and had a good look at her. She lay her head on her hand, and the hollow pillow was like a nest lined with her brown wavy hair. He remembered, though he had long forgotten, that she always gave her hair a holiday at night. How sweet the frills of her nightgown were. He was very glad she was such a pretty mother.
“But she looked sad, and he knew why she looked sad. One of her arms moved as if it wanted to go round something, and he knew what it wanted to go round.”
As Peter fumbled through some of his old drawers, one of them creaked and his mother woke up and he thought she said his name. He decided that if she said “Peter” again he would cry “Mother,” and run to her. But she spoke no more. She slept once again with tears on her face. Her sadness made Peter miserable. So, sitting on the rail at the foot of her bed, he played a lullaby on his pipe and he “never stopped playing until his mother looked happy.”
Peter returned to his mother’s bedside at night a few more times and played her a kiss on his pipe. In time, he decided against his second wish, to be forever a bird, and told the fairies “I wish now to go back to mother for ever and always.” They tickled his shoulders and he flew directly to the window. But the window was closed. Bars had been placed on it. Peering in, he saw his mother sleeping peacefully with her arm round another little boy. “Peter called, ‘Mother! mother!’ but she heard him not; in vain he beat his little limbs against the iron bars. He had to fly back, sobbing, to Kensington Garden, and he never saw his dear again. What a glorious boy he had meant to be with her. Ah, Peter, we who have made the great mistake, how differently we should all act at the second chance. But Solomon was right; there is no second chance, not for most of us. When we reach the window it is Lock-out Time. The iron bars are up for life."
The story of Peter Pan's first appearance was a bit different than I had remembered. It would require some theoretical doctoring to make it into an Oedipal tragedy, though some of the critical elements were there.
The story was written when Barrie was in his early 40's and, from a psychodynamic perspective, the theme of a child being locked out of his mother's bedroom could be discussed as a product of early-formed memories finding an avenue for expression in a fantasy written by a middle-aged adult. I speculated that it reflected Barrie's experience of having been replaced by the birth of another boy depicted in the story as being held in his mother's arms as she slept peacefully in her bed. Little Barrie, Jamie they called him, had been replaced by a sibling and his suffering had festered over many years. It appeared that Sir James Barrie had written a story that would serve my purpose.
Some detective work enabled me to confirm my prediction. Barrie's mother gave birth to another child when Jamie was 3-years old. It was a girl, not a boy, but let's give the author some liberty with the details.
Bolstered by my success, I could now argue that Jamie had been in the phallic stage of psychosexual development when his sister was born. We know that during this period boys experience a renewed interest in their mothers and that this interest is now sexualized. It can be presumed him that Mr. Barrie had a competitive edge over Jamie in regards to having access to his mother, and just when Jamie is in the throes of fantasies of how best to get rid of Daddy, another child is born. The competition had become overwhelming.
The only question that remained was how to interpret the flying part? Freud answered that question directly in his psychobiography of Leonardo Da Vinci when he wrote, "The wish to be able to fly is to be understood as nothing else than a longing for sexual performance." So the boy flapping his wings against the bedroom window represents a flying phallus attempting to snuggle up close to its mother.
Having suitably penetrated the latent content of Barrie's story, all that would be needed were a few items of embellishment. For sure, I would mention that several years after the publication of The Little White Bird Barrie added several new characters, notably Captain Hook. Peter Pan repeatedly out-maneuvers and humiliates Hook and takes over his ship. With the introduction of the father clothed in a pirate's garb, the Oedipal triangle was complete.
A Psychobiographic Trap
Elsewhere I have written about the problem of being guided by theoretical inferences in case study research and then using these inferences as data to complete the analysis. Psychobiographers who set forth to analyze lives with the goal of providing support for their preferred theoretical positions are particularly vulnerable to this trap. That is what I had done. I sought evidence that the original version of Peter Pan expressed components of an Oedipal Dilemma, found some of the elements I was looking for, inferred some others, and edited the story to suit my aims. Not bad for an afternoon's work. My lecture was set in my mind…and was never delivered.
Back to the Beginning
I was thrown off-purpose when I looked for evidence to confirm the prediction that Barrie's mother had given birth to another child when Jamie was a boy. The library shelf I consulted contained many other books by and about Barrie and I lingered too long. I knew that my ideas regarding a short-term project were over when I read a book Barrie had written in memory of his mother titled Margaret Ogilvy by her son J. M. Barrie. It contained hints of an alternative interpretation of Peter Pan being barred from entering his mother's bedroom that, if pursued, could prove fatal to an Oedipal interpretation. Nearly two years of research resulted in a very different story.
Jamie Barrie was born in 1860 in a small cottage in Kirriemuir, Scotland. For his first three years, he was the youngest of seven living children. Two other children, both girls, had died early in their lives. His older brother, Alick, was attending Aberdeen University. Four sisters lived at home. Mary was 15, Jane Ann was 13, Sara was 6, and Isabella was 2. David, age 7, had been sandwiched between the four daughters. Margaret, the final child in the family, was born three years after Jamie.
Jamie's father, David
Barrie, was a weaver who was successful enough in the trade to provide
for his large family. David, Mr. Barrie, had married his wife Margaret
when he was 27 and she was 21. Eighteen years later, Jamie was born.
These and many other facts are easy to obtain because J. M. Barrie has been written about so extensively. He was one of the most successful literary figures in Great Britain during the turn of the 20th century. He began his career as a journalist who wrote daily columns for several newspapers. Gradually the writing of books and plays, many of which were staged in both London and New York, replaced that routine. Peter Pan, the book and the play, brought him fame, but during his lifetime he also was well known for his other works.
As mentioned earlier, one of his books was titled Margaret Ogilvy. Margaret Ogilvy was his mother's name as it was customary in Scotland for wives to retain their maiden names. Ostensibly, the book is about Barrie's mother who had died one year before it was written, but it's primary focus is on Barrie's relationship with her. It is as much autobiographical as it is biographical.
Barrie begins by reporting that a set of six new chairs arrived at the same time he was born. The chairs were a big investment for his mother and he imagines her whispering to him that they were just the beginning. She had great things in mind and "what ambitions burned behind that face." In turn, Barrie imagines himself declaring that he is there to help. She was a happy woman in those days, "placed on earth by God to open minds of all who looked to beautiful thoughts." What he recalled of his first several years was all hearsay. Full consciousness of his mother did not arrive until he was six years old. It was then, in 1866, that news arrived that her son David, seven years older than little Jamie and barely known to him, had been killed in a skating accident. Barrie wrote, "I knew my mother for ever now."
Margaret Ogilvy never recovered from the tragedy. Although she had several other children, David had been special. He was handsome, ruddy, and possessed other qualities that brightened his mother's day, every day. Nobody could replace him. Margaret's grief became the focus of the family's attention and Jamie's oldest sister, Mary, stepped forward to nurse her mother. One day, shortly after David's death, Mary, desperate for a solution, went to Jamie and told him to go to his mother's bedside and tell her she still had another boy. Jamie entered the dark room and stood there fearful as no sound came from the bed. Suddenly he heard a listless voice saying, "Is that you?" The tone hurt Jamie, so he gave no reply. Again, "Is that you?" Convinced that she was speaking to her dead son, Jamie replied, "No, it's not him. It's just me." He heard his mother turn over and cry.
Over the ensuing days, weeks, and months (lifetime one could say), Jamie spent much of his time trying to make his mother forget David. A quotation cited earlier from The Little White Bird, "So, sitting on the rail at the foot of her bed, (Peter Pan) played a lullaby on his pipe and he never stopped playing until his mother looked happy" is transparently derived from this period in his life. He would do anything to lift his mother's spirits, then, and much later. As he declares in the book, everything he ever wrote, all of it, was for his mother. He was always mindful of the prospects of gaining her approval, of bringing a smile to her lips, when she read his works.
But six year-old Jamie was not yet writing. The way he tried to make her laugh was to go to her bedroom and re-enact something that he had done elsewhere that had amused someone, hoping his antics would make her smile. Barrie wrote that she did laugh now and then. On such occasions he would rush to his sister and beg her to come and see the sight, but by the time she came "the soft face was wet again." He could remember only one time he made her chuckle in the presence of a witness. The project was so important to him that he kept a paper and a pencil handy so he could keep a running account of the number of times he was able to amuse his mother.
Mary encouraged Jamie to try to talk with Margaret about David as she lay in her bed thinking of him. Frequently Margaret was willing to do that, so much so that Jamie sometimes interrupted her stream of fond memories by crying out, "Do you know nothing about me?"
He then worked on a different strategy and attempted to bluff Margaret into thinking that he was David. The character he played was born from Margaret's nostalgic memories of her dead son. She spoke of David's cheery way of whistling and described to the child sitting at her bedside how David would stand with his legs apart and his hands in his pants pockets when he puckered up his lips. Thereupon, after Jamie perfected his own whistle, he disguised himself by slipping into David’s ill-fitting clothes and entered his mother's room. "Listen!" he cried out triumphantly. He stretched out his legs, plunged his hands into the pocket of the trousers and began to whistle.
Jamie was so desperate to capture the attention of his mother that he pretended to be someone else, his dead brother. Despite his heroic efforts then and throughout his mother’s lifetime, "I had not made her forget the bit of her that was dead; in those nine and twenty years he was not removed one day farther from her." Still struggling to remove the iron bars guarding the nursery, to obtain the unobtainable kiss that his mother hid from him, Jamie vowed to make his mother proud of him. "Wait till I'm a man," Jamie said to his mother, "and you'll never have reason to greet again." ("Greet" being the Scottish word for "grieve”).
The truth of the matter is that Barrie was terrified by the prospect of growing up. “The horror of my boyhood was that I knew a time would come when I would have to give up the games.” Look at what happened to David when he grew up. He gave up more than games. But what Jamie feared most was how he would be able to survive if he failed to remove those dreadful tears from his mother’s face. The tears and enduring sadness became objective evidence that his mother was unavailable to validate his existence, to confirm that he was a person of worth. The prospect of growing up under the shadow of being unworthy of his mother’s love was unthinkable.
Margaret and Jamie created a temporary solution to their problem. Together, they discovered a way to periodically escape the emotional turmoil that had been triggered by the family tragedy. Throughout the many days that Jamie spent at his mother’s bedside, an opening into a conversational safety zone emerged that involved Margaret reminiscing about her childhood. These conversations lightened Margaret’s mood and offered Jamie an avenue for becoming engaged with his mother…or at least engaged in the life of a little girl who later became his mother.
In addition to relishing
and making elaborate mental records of his mother's accounts of her childhood,
Jamie became an avid reader of books and poetry. He was so consumed
by this hobby that he began to collect photographs of poets. One
day he showed his collection of pictures to an old tailor friend of his.
Upon viewing the photographs, the tailor quoted these lines form Cowley;
What can I do to be forever known,
And make the age to come my own?
Inspired by the passage, Jamie hurried home, rushed his mother from the company of some visitors who had dropped by, and repeated the lines. In jest, he asked her if that is the kind of person she would like to be. Margaret replied, "No, but I would be windy of being his mother." Hope at last. Knowing that he already could weave stories well enough to please her, the die was cast. Jamie was to be a writer. "I would be windy of being his mother," she declared. Jamie interpreted that statement to mean I would be "windy" of being your mother if you were to become famous. A route to her heart had been discovered.
Barrie's pen replaced the pipe that Peter Pan used for the purpose of removing sadness from his mother's face.
Barrie's recollections of the reaction of his mother to David's death makes the event a candidate for what Todd Schultz has labeled a prototypical scene. Schultz views a prototypical scene as one that "anchors" a life.10 It is a scene that achieves a kind of "super-saliency" by virtue of its off-told status, embellishments, interpenetrations with other memories, and its packaging of core themes that both characterize and unify a person's life. A prototypical scene is a fundamental or primal scene that both sponsors and attracts other self-defining memories cohering to its basic form. It encapsulates personal concerns and provides a nest for other memories that seek meaningful places in the individual's master story. It centers most often on family conflict, and in some cases, according to Schultz, it may be as much fiction as fact.
As I let Barrie take the lead instead of allowing theory to shape my thinking -- a commendable practice for any psychobiographer -- he led me to consider the possibility that Margaret's reaction to David's death and the impact it had on Jamie's relationship with her may have provided the makings of a blue-print for his life. In this new context for constructing a psychological portrayal of Barrie, I also saw the prospects of altering the course of a tradition of reducing a life to a set of recycled themes by instead treating prototypical scenes as sources of innovative improvisations that carry traces of the past into the activities and passions of the "now," and vice versa.
It had been relatively easy to drop any further efforts to squeeze the episode of Peter Pan being barred from his mother's bedroom window into the Oedipal model. The dramatic shift in Margaret's relationship with Jamie and the degree to which she became the primary focus of his life had all the markings of a prototypical scene and that became a far more attractive avenue to explore. But I was aware that one of the major problems in case study research involves a loosening of the boundaries between an investigator and the object of his or her investigation. It sometimes comes down to the question of who, in fact, is the subject of the investigation? Perhaps I selected Jamie's predicament because it reflected something about my own experiences that might open the door to studying Barrie, as pretense for declaring "truths" that could be more pertinent to my life than to his. This is not an easy dilemma to guard against, but some steps can be taken. In this instance, it was fortunate that three other people who had written about Barrie had identified Margaret's shift in her relationship to Jamie as a major turning point in his life.
The three people include Denis Mackail, Barrie's principle biographer; Robert Sapolski, a biologist and neuroscientist; and Jackie Wullschlager, a British literary scholar.
At the request of Barrie's two literary executors, Denis Mackail was provided access to all the information about Barrie retained after his death. These materials included large boxes containing Barrie's note pads, diaries, rough drafts of and revised copies of his novels and plays, letters to his mother, correspondences with other authors, and the results of interviews with many individuals who had been personal and/or theatrical acquaintances of Barrie. Mackail organized this mass of information into a long and sometimes tedious biography, The Story of JMB that, in addition to describing landmark events in Barrie's life, included such details as the scores of cricket games, opening and closing dates of plays and who had been seen in Barrie's company at various social events.
In the mix of Mackail's extensive treatment of the events in Barrie's life, he created a profile of Barrie that includes the following personal characteristics. Barrie was a short and oftentimes desperately lonely man. Barely five feet tall, he was extremely sensitive about his size. He suffered prolonged bouts of depression throughout his life. Headaches were nearly daily occurrences and he rarely missed a seasonal cold. Mackail consistently describes Barrie as moody and anxious. At the same time, he could also be quite humorous, both in person and in his writings. He was a crowd pleaser, but shortly after the crowd was pleased, he would retreat to his smoke-filled residence and pace the floors. Through it all, through the depression, the headaches and fevers, particularly during his early to mid-adult years, Barrie applied himself to his trade.
Mackail attributes Barrie's devotion to his work to the aftermath of the shock of David's death. Mackail writes, "And Jamie would do anything -- anything on Heaven and earth -- to get that look off her [his mother's] face. Mackail frequently returns to Margaret's reaction to David's death and to the ghost that haunted Margaret Ogilvy. He emphasizes her living son's (Jamie's) vow that she must never again be disappointed. Jamie's early attempts to make Margaret happy marked the "beginning of 29 years of incessant and unalterable devotion" to her. Mackail repeats what Barrie himself had observed. Everything he wrote was for his mother and the primary purpose behind his writing was to make her proud of him.
Sapolski is a Professor of Biological Sciences and Neuroscience at Stanford University. He is one of the world's leading figures in the area of stress-related illnesses. It is common knowledge that stress can take a toll on physical health, but Sapolski understands stress/health connections in the context of what happens beneath the skin, at the level of brain centers, hormones, neurotransmitters, and enzymes. In addition to being an excellent scientist, Sapolski is adept at conveying state-of-the-art developments in science for public consumption without sacrificing the integrity of his scientific discipline. One of the keys for doing that successfully is to provide common examples of topics under consideration. It is in the process of doing just that when Sapolski refers to J. M. Barrie. This occurs in a chapter titled "Dwarfism and the Importance of Mothers" in the book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers.
The chapter describes
how growth can be inhibited during periods of stress. Examples are
given of stunted growth of children who received adequate nutrition but
inadequate handling in orphanages in Great Britain and elsewhere particularly
during major wars when there was an abundance of homeless children.
In some institutions, the children were fed healthy diets, but they were
rarely provided the kinds of creature comforts afforded by being picked
up and caressed. Sapolski also writes about more severe conditions
of child abuse and how in some cases it leads to a condition called "stress
dwarfism." In the context of describing that condition at the organic
level, Sapolski mentions having run across occasional references to Peter
Pan and Tinker Bell in books on growth endocrinology. Mystified by
these references, he found an explanation buried in a chapter of a textbook
on the topic of how severe psychological stress can trigger psychogenetic
dwarfism. Sapolski writes that the chapter "gave an example that
occurred in a British Victorian family. A son, age thirteen, the
beloved favorite of the mother is killed in a skating accident. The
mother, despairing and bereaved, takes to her bed in grief for years afterward,
utterly ignoring her other six-year-old son. Horrible scenes ensue.
The boy, on one occasion, enters her darkened room; the mother, in her
delusional state, briefly believes it is the dead son -- 'David, is that
you? Could that be you?' -- before realizing: 'Oh, it is only you.'
On the rare instances when the mother interacts with the younger son, she
repeatedly expressed the same obsessive thought: the only solace that she
feels is that David died when he was still perfect, still a boy, never
to be ruined by growing up and growing away from his mother."
Sapolski argues that Jamie Barrie seized upon the idea that by remaining a boy forever, "by not growing up, he will at least have some chance of pleasing his mother, winning her love. Although there is no evidence of disease or malnutrition in the well-to-do family, he ceases growing. As an adult, he is barely five feet in height, and his marriage is unconsummated." With this example in hand, Sapolski describes the growth-stopping physiological mechanisms triggered by stress that can result in the rare condition of stress dwarfism.
A picture titled Barrie and Margaret Ogilvy in 1893 to appear about here
in the published version of this chapter
I am intrigued by Sapolski's hypothesis that Barrie was a victim of stress dwarfism as a result of having been shut out of his mother's life. Building on his knowledge of endocrinology, Sapolski describes Barrie as an exemplary case of persons who suffer from traumatic experiences severe enough to stunt their growth. However, I do not believe that there is sufficient information about the average heights of members of the Barrie and Ogilvy families to allow one to conclude that J. M.’s small stature was fully the result of stress. As shown in the photograph of Barrie and his mother, J.M. is taller than Margaret. Thus, a genetic explanation for J. M.’s size is hardly out of the question.
Wullschlager’s book, Inventing Wonderland, deals with the lives and literary works of several authors, Barrie included, whose books for children reflected changes in British culture occurring as the Edwardian era gradually replaced the Victorian era in the late 1800’s up to 1914, when World War I ushered in a new reality. Idealization of children marked both the Victorian and Edwardian eras, so Barrie’s portrayal of a lad who would never grow up was a perfect match for the Zeitgeist. Barrie’s observation that “nothing happens after we are twelve matters very much” was in harmony with the themes of childhood adventures contained in Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Tom Sawyer, and other late 1800 novels that featured boy heroes who easily out-witted adults. Barrie’s personal obsession with childhood and its fortuitous convergence with Edwardian fascination with playful boys paid off handsomely for the son of Margaret Ogilvy.
At age 62, in 1922, Barrie wrote, “It is as if long after writing Peter Pan its true meaning came to me -- desperate to grow up but can’t.” Wullschlager identifies the source of Barrie’s ambivalence, the desire to grow up countered by a desire not to grow up, to be the same episode spotted by Mackail and Sapolski. Sobbing on the stoop one day, he is sent to his mother’s room by his sister Mary to console Margaret by reminding her that she had another son. “Is that you?” Margaret asks in a listless voice when Jamie entered her dark room. He gave no answer. “Then the voice said more anxiously, ‘Is that you?’ again. I thought it was the dead boy she was speaking to, and I said in a little lonely voice, ‘No, it’s no’ him, it’s just me.’ Then I heard a cry, and my mother turned in bed, and though it was dark I know she was holding out her arms.”
In summary, all three scholars, each for their special aims, independently concur that events initiated by David's death had an enduring impact on Barrie. I consider myself to be in good company when I grant "prototypical" status to this episode in Barrie's life. However, it is not time to rest on one's laurels when one believes that a prototypical episode has been located. The next step is to root out the consequences of the event. Again, the best strategy is to let and Barrie take the lead.
At His Mother's Bedside
Earlier, I referred
to the hours upon hours, days upon days during his youth, when Jamie sat
at the foot of his mother's bed as she regaled him with stories of her
childhood. This had become her primary diversion from her dreadful
sadness over David's death, a way to suspend the shock that the tragedy
had delivered to her system. Margaret's stories offered an avenue
of escape for Jamie as well because they took his mind far away from the
time his mother had brought David back in his coffin. Her stories
were of a time 20 to 30 years before Jamie had been born.
Biographer Mackail writes that Jamie "feels safer in the past, where nothing like that (the tragedy and Jamie's sense of maternal abandonment), he feels, can ever happen. He doesn't only listen to her stories but...he struggles to enter into them until he virtually succeeds." Virtually succeeds says it well, a phrase elaborated on in the following passage: "The reason why my books deal with the past instead of with the life I myself have known is simply this, that I soon grow tired of writing tales unless I can see a little girl, of whom my mother has told me, wandering confidently through the pages. Such a grip has her memory of her childhood had upon me since I was a boy of six."
Prominent among the memories Margaret described to her son was the death of her mother when she was a mere child of eight, and how it fell upon her shoulders to cook, clean the house, mend the clothes, and manage the daily chores of a household that included herself and two David’s: her father and her younger brother. David, Sr. was a stonemason whose income relied on dawn to dusk devotion to his work. One of Margaret’s favorite and often repeated memories involved carefully preparing and hand delivering her father’s dinner to him at his work in her white pinafore and magenta frock.
Many of Margaret’s stories were told to Jamie inside the walls of her darkened room. On her better days, days when she was strong enough to get out of bed and venture outside, she would take Jamie to the cottage of her youth and introduce him to the sights, sounds, buildings, sheds, streets and paths that unleashed a host of seemingly endless memories. She spoke of her father’s church, ministers and parishioners, ushers and elders, and of social gatherings where legends of Specters and Spirits were passed along. Jamie learned a great deal from his mother about how his church was special, what distinguished it from at least three other splinter groups (all housed in different locations in the small town of Kirriemuir) that many years before had been united under the name of the Original Seceders. David Ogilvy’s sect was known as the Auld Lichts (Old Lights), two words that would become well known in Great Britain near the turn of the 20th Century as they were contained in the title of Barrie’s first triumphant book.
Jamie did not listen passively to Margaret’s stories. He lived them. He imagined himself to be the little girl in a clean and neatly mended frock skipping down the path with her father’s lunch container grasped firmly in her hand. In his mind, he was the girl who took loving care of her brother, who listened to legends and wondered about Specters that wandered through the hills and secretly performed miraculous services for people in conditions of pain or impoverishment.
At the age of 41, Barrie wonders what memories may sustain him in his old age. He concludes that it will not be his life that comes sweeping back, but his mother's, “a little girl in a magenta frock and white pinafore…singing to herself, and carrying her father’s dinner in a flagon.”
The stories Margaret Ogilvy related to her son over several years provided him with ideas that he would subsequently use in his quest to become "forever known." They escalated the career of a young, hard-working and oftentimes witty journalist to the level of book author whose works brought him early fame.
The first indication of what was to come was a failed initiative. A year before he went to college, Barrie wrote the better part of a three volume novel and sent it to a publisher. The fee for publishing the manuscript was much more than Barrie could afford. He handled the disappointment, later expressing relief that the novel was never published, calling it exceedingly “dull.” More difficult to justify, although the comment should have come as no great surprise, was the publisher’s statement of encouragement to the “clever lady” who had written it.
After obtaining a Masters in Arts at the University of Edinburgh, it was anticipated that Barrie would move into a career in teaching like his older brother Alick had done or become a Minister, a role that the Barrie family believed that David had been destined to fill. But J.M. never wavered from his promise to himself that he would become an author whose mother would be “windy” of his achievements. His college years at Edinburgh had been lonely ones and the most frequently appearing phrase in his daily journals was “grind, grind, grind.” All the grinding and the enormous amount of energy that went into his writing provided him with the discipline needed to cope successfully with the pressure of producing a minimum of two articles a day in his first staff job with the Nottingham Journal.
Despite his shyness and the severity of his headaches, Barrie followed up on the recommendation of his sister, Jane Ann, by applying for the position of "leader writer" for the Nottingham Journal. Soon after his arrival in Nottingham, he began a routine of writing at least twelve hundred words of prose a day, every day, without a break, for eighteen months. Keeping his pledge to his mother with a vengeance, the industrious journalist wrote fiction under the name of Hippomenes every Monday. A Modern Peripatetic authored Thursdays’ columns.
During this period, acquaintances had to be careful about what they said in his presence lest their words and comments appear the next day in the Journal. Barrie needed material for his copy and could weave the most mundane happenings into a clever tale. Accuracy meant nothing to him. Nor was he the slightest bit concerned about the sensitivities of people who triggered a story. It was the story that mattered and the boundaries between actual events and what might have happened were never fixed.
After a year and a
half devoted to writing fiction, commentaries, book and play reviews, the
24-year old Barrie was suddenly back in Kirriemuir. For cost savings
reasons, the Nottingham Journal had released its ambitious staff writer.
An accomplished author now with over a thousand articles in print but none credited to his name, J.M. Barrie remained unknown. He fought his loneliness, his headaches, his depression, and family suspicions that he would never become self-supporting in his chosen profession and continued to write, write, write. Most of his stories were composed as first person accounts of events of some elderly character that was drawing upon and sometimes mocking his own memories. He sent these works to newspaper and magazine editors and became accustomed to not hearing back.
The drought was broken on November 17, 1884, when he received word that St. James’s Gazette, a prominent newspaper in London, had published one of his submissions. Payment would be forthcoming. The article was titled An Auld Licht Community, an alteration of the title he had given it, and, of course, the author was not named. With his foot now in the door, Barrie sent other articles and stories to Editor Greenwood at the Gazette. One of them that was rejected yet returned with a note from Greenwood stating, “…But I liked that Scottish thing. Any more of those?”
There were a lot more
of those. With the assistance of his mother, he restored her (and
his) old memories and his pen took charge of the rest. Soon thereafter
An Auld Licht Funeral was published. Auld Licht Courtship
followed that. Then came An Auld Licht Scandal, An Auld
Licht Wedding, and more, with the author’s name now attached to each.
Despite Editor Greenwood’s preference for Barrie to mail the articles from Scotland, Barrie was convinced that residence in London was a pre-requisite for fame. Margaret was worried about the move because of the discrepancy between her son’s physical appearance (reed thin, short, and younger-looking than his actual age) and whatever one might imagine his appearance to be, based on his writings. Nonetheless, Barrie arrived in London in spring, 1885. Undaunted by the curious looks of publishers as they gazed in wonder at the anxious young man who tormented them to read his copy then refused to accept “no” as the final word, Barrie kept returning to the doorsteps where his works had been rejected until some, and eventually quite a few, editors took interest in the often humorous works of the boyish man.
As Barrie crowded articles into several newspapers, he began to merge some Auld Licht stories that had been published in St. James’s Gazette into a book titled Auld Licht Idyls. That book, released in 1888, was an immediate success. J.M had taken a giant step in the direction of answering his question about how to become known. Within a year, a second novel (in all there would be four based on his Auld Licht “memories”) was published. Titled A Window on Thrums, the book was hailed in a front-page review of the National Observer as a “book of genius.”
You and I know that these works were co-authored. Barrie, of course, deserved and received credit for authorship, but a little girl whose life his mother had described during the years of his youth had guided his prose. In an effort to temporarily escape the trauma of David’s death, Barrie had entered the Wonderland of his mother’s childhood. Just as he had briefly endeavored to become David so that Margaret might love him, he entered into the mind and body of a girl whose life was fashioned and refashioned by the memories of his mother. He saw the scenes and dramas described to him. He "met" the characters that had shaped her life. He shared her experiences doing daily chores. He witnessed weddings and funerals, listened in on debates and feuds between different breakaway sects of the same church denomination. He imagined characters so vividly that he knew the lengths of their beards, their mannerisms, their quirks and foibles. He thought the thoughts of that little girl, traveled her paths, and shivered when she was cold. “I have seen many on-dings of snow” Barrie writes, “but the one I seem to recall best occurred nearly twenty years before I was born."
Incorporating of the Object
I remember encountering the idea of "incorporating the object" in psychoanalytic literature in years gone by and I also remember dismissing the concept as one of those convoluted terms psychoanalytic theorists use to mystify outsiders. It annoyed me that a secret language was being perpetuated. I wondered how long it would take for the speakers of the language to realize they were operating under a pretense of actually communicating with each other. I figured that most of them never would and who was I to interfere with their game? Leave them be, I thought. They have their harmless circle of friends and as long as they are nice to their children, take good care of their patients, and don't bother me with concepts like "incorporating the object", I'll just walk away.
Eating crow is one of my specialties. Barrie forced me to reconsider my bias.
But the question now is what "object" did Jamie incorporate? He did not attempt to "become" his mother. That is clear. Instead he appears to have taken in or "swallowed" his mother's memories by way of a gradual, day-by-day, process of imagining what it would be like to have been the child his mother described to him and then becoming that child. Margaret, or more accurately a subjective Margaret who Jamie had never known, was internally installed, piece by piece, story by story, as the next best option to failed attempts to get her to smile.
In the book Fantasies
of Flight I speculate more fully than I am able to do here about how
Jamie's sense of self had been brought to the brink of destruction when
Margaret turned away from him. He felt hollowed out by the disappearance
of a vital player in his intersubjective world. Margaret's happy
face and particularly her smile had been internalized as cues associated
with his well being and he struggled to bring them back when she became
overwhelmed with sadness. His partner in the life-giving process
of co-regulating his feelings had vanished. It was then that he installed
a new sense of self, a replacement part if you will, and saw the world
through the eyes of a little girl carrying a flagon with food for her father's
Although this "new" subjective self had little capacity co-regulate his feelings, it did an excellent job of co-authoring his early books. But his borrowed self was a poor substitute for his sense of self that once flourished in the flow of its merger with Margaret. Here Heinz Kohut's theory of the importance of mirroring a child's sense of grandiosity is relevant. Jamie lost his mirror when Margaret turned away from him. An important feature of that mirror had been Margaret's smile and his only hope for restoring his previous sense of sense of self was to restore that smile.
Jamie the child and James the adult continued to return to Margaret's bedside for the purpose of checking to see if the smile had returned. Until the very end of Margaret's life, Barrie never ceased in his efforts to bring his core sense of self back to life and have it resume its proper position. The only way that could happen was to resurrect the facial cues that previously had evoked feelings of being united with an object that had been associated with his survival.
The Arrival of Peter Pan
Throughout his adult life, Barrie was never without a writing pad in his pocket for entering notes for plays and stories and for recording scraps of passing thoughts. Many of these notebooks were among the items made available to Mackail when he undertook the monumental task of writing The Story of JMB. One of the pads contained an entry where Barrie referred to "a little box inside me that nothing opened until later years it did of its own accord. Just trifles in it, but I made a game with them for many years." That notation was entered in 1926, when Barrie was sixty-six years old. It was in reference to Peter Pan's debut in The Little White Bird twenty-five years earlier.
I doubt that the little box sprang open of its own accord. It had some assistance. The keys to the box can be found by knowing about some of the circumstances of Barrie's early adulthood life.
In his late 20's and early 30's, Barrie was well known in the London literary pool for having written several novels and some lightweight, funny plays. Since he was involved in auditions and the productions of his plays, he became acquainted with young, attractive actresses anxious for cast positions. Bowled over by their beauty, he charmed them with his wit, praised them for their good looks, and targeted some for sentimental letters. Recognizing the lovesick tone of these letters, only a few responded to his romantic overtures. Those who did, those who came back to laugh at his antics and be amused by his stories and his curious way of speaking, became puzzled by his sudden retreat into dark and distant thoughts. The discrepancy between the bold openness of his letters and shutting down in person was bewildering. In part, he retreated into concerns about his mother and the roller coaster quality of her health. Whenever one of the daily letters he received from his sister, Jane Ann, mentioned a worsening in Margaret's condition, Barrie would drop his work and travel from London to Kirriemuir to be at his mother's bedside.
At age 34, Barrie became ill during one of these visits. A cold turned into pneumonia and he fought for his life. For two years prior to his illness, Barrie had been seen in the company of Mary Ansell, an ambitious and strikingly attractive actress who had starred in a play that Barrie had written. Mary went to Barrie's home in Scotland and stayed with him during his lengthy convalescence. In midsummer, 1984, British newspapers reported that J. M. Barrie and Mary Ansell had been married in a private ceremony at the groom's home.
There is evidence from his private notes that Barrie was either not interested in or was incapable of making love. Sex is in the province of grown ups and, as Barrie so frequently said, he didn't want to grow up. A contributing factor is the likelihood that he wanted Mary to serve as a replacement mirror for the one that had been shattered when his older brother had died. Whether or not those dynamics played a part in their troubled relationship, Mary terminated the marriage fifteen years later by having an affair with another man.
One might think that the marriage could have been salvaged after Barrie was released from his responsibility to visit Margaret's bedside. Margaret died in 1899, five years into Barrie's marriage, and within a little over a year he memorialized her in the book Margaret Ogilvy. The book gives every appearance of closing that long chapter of his life. He writes, for example, "Everything I could have done for her in this life I have done since I was a boy: I look back through the years and I cannot see the smallest thing undone."
But the compulsion to check the expression on Margaret's face did not come to an end. The game was not over. Fortunately for the generations of children who have enjoyed Peter Pan, Margaret's death resulted in a fantasy enactment of the script that had taken Barrie to her bedside for 29 years. One year after Margaret was memorialized, Peter Pan, half human, half bird, arrived. Peter's first adventure was to fly to his mother's bedroom and attempt to make her look happy by playing her a lullaby. The "little box" inside a lonesome middle-aged man had opened and it remained open for many years to come.
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