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Katelyn Rusert

Brad Smith

Applying Literary Theory

10 May 2018

Part 1:

Hushing Emotions

In 2012, Steven Barthelme published a book of short stories called Hush Hush. In this

collection is the story “Siberia” about a troubled boy named Elliott. Elliott struggles with his own

intelligence, which got him put into a school for gifted children. Looking at Elliott through a

psychoanalytic lens, there is evidence that he is employing a myriad of coping mechanisms to

deal with his situation. I will go through the story primarily in chronological order and dissect

Elliott’s use of defense mechanisms in attempt to understand the anguish he is experiencing.

Elliott begins his story with the sentence, “Every eager enquiry elicits exculpatory

equivocation, I said, eventually” (Barthelme 1). In this statement, he admits that he is not telling

the whole truth. While he is saying this to the “lady psychologist,” Elliott is might be

simultaneously admitting to himself that the dam he built to hold back his feelings is leaking. He

is telling her what he believes he needs to in order to convince her that he’s fine even though he

“burned [himself] with a cigarette” because he was sent to a “freak school” and was “not

adjusting well” (Barthelme 2). Though Elliott admits this, it seems that he continues to isolate his

emotions from his situation by grossly understating his state of mind. Kids in a good state of

mind, even if they’re “not adjusting well” do not turn to self-harm.

Besides isolating his emotions from his alarming experience self-harming, Elliott tries to

come off as if his intelligence doesn’t bother him. He follows his opening sentence with “You
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tell me, you’re the doctor. How would I know. I’m just a child” in attempt to hide the fact that he

successfully uses words that could leave some adults scratching their heads (Barthelme 1). He

goes on:

She was sitting up in the big brown chair trying to get me to tell her what

ememtottot means. It’s totem-totem, she said, right? What? I said. And then I

said, Eureka, that’s it, and I pretended to grin. Children grin. You bounce your

head up and down and smile like a moron. You’re a very mature child, Elliott, she

said. Memetottot, I said.

I am not a little adult. I am ten. I am a child and I expect to be treated as a

child and it’s unkind to treat me as if I’m some kind of curio or freak just because

they are bored or something. I know what ememtottot means and no one else

does. It’s my word, so what? I expect to be bought ice cream cones and talked to

stupid and let alone. (Barthelme 1)

Elliott’s description of how a child would “bounce [his or her] head up and down and

smile like a moron,” as if it was an alien thing to him, contradicts his previous and following

statements that he “[is] a child” (Barthelme 1). This passage showcases Elliott’s possible denial

and confusion of who he is. While he is only ten and expects “to be bought ice cream cones and

talked to stupid and let alone,” he struggles to act like a child in many ways. Though he casts

aside the lady psychologist’s label of “a very mature child” by saying he is “not a little adult,”

the psychologist calling Elliott mature seems to be more accurate than Elliott calling himself a

child (Barthelme 1).

Because Elliott seems to have a hard time admitting that he is different from normal

children, he has a hard time coming up with a reason as to why adults are so unkind as to treat
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him like “some kind of curio or freak” (Barthelme 1). While denying how exceptional he is, the

best explanation that he can come up with for why adults treat him the way they do is that “they

are bored or something” (Barthelme 1).

Thinking of himself as a normal child and isolating his emotions leads Elliott to not

“expect to be put in a cage with a fat lady psychologist” (Barthelme 1). Again showing his

intelligence, he claims that “Nietzsche said, E’er twixt expecting und event ist ecstasy”

(Barthelme 1). Besides the fact that it’s partially in English and partially in German, the “quote”

is quite convincing, and not something you would expect from a child. Elliott feels the need to

clarify that “Nietzsche is some freak dead guy” that he read about “in the World Book”

(Barthelme 1, 2). He classifies Nietzsche in the same “freak” category that he feels to be stuck in.

By doing this, Elliott groups himself with a highly intelligent person. This shows that, in some

capacity, Elliott knows how remarkable he is.

Elliott gives his most direct statement of his emotions, bringing them out of the

subconscious, when he says:

I am tired of being a special child. I want to chase cars. No, that’s wrong, that’s

dogs.

I don’t want to go to a school for the “gifted.” Special, gifted, advanced, it

all sounds like “freak” to me. They are sending me to this freak school and I am

not adjusting well. I burned myself with a cigarette. Their excuse for locking me

in a cage in the basement with a psychologist five days a week. Exculpate Elliott

at eventide, excellency. If it’s not a cage, why are there bars on the windows?

(Barthelme 2)
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Elliott’s confusion as to who he is is evident when he says, “I want to chase cars. No, that’s

wrong, that’s dogs” (Barthelme 2). This suggests, in his head, some connection between normal

children and dogs. For the first time, Elliott really admits to himself that he is a “special child”

and is often classified as “gifted” and “advanced,” even though he again throws away the labels

saying they all sound like “freak” (Barthelme 2). To a reader, it seems as if Elliott could be

projecting the word “freak” onto himself. The adults in his life are probably impressed with his

intelligence and want to help him reach his full potential, but Elliott takes this special treatment

to mean that he is a “freak” because he might be projecting his thoughts about himself onto the

adults in his life and perceiving their words and actions through his own insecure filter.

Elliott’s denial of his mental state and status of gifted makes him see the psychologist’s

office as a cage. He claims that there are “bars on the window,” and the reader cannot know for

sure because the story is told all through Elliott (Barthelme 2). The reader does not even know if

he’s telling what the psychologist is actually saying or if he’s making that up just like he makes

up Nietzsche quotes. Because of Elliott’s state of mind and subconscious use of defense

mechanisms, it’s not possible for the reader to know if he is a reliable narrator.

Elliott says that he was at the top of the class at his old school, suggesting that he is not at

the top of the class in this new school. He claims that there are “freakier freaks than [him]” at

this new school (Barthelme 2). This could explain Elliott’s current identity crisis: he doesn’t fit

in with the normal kids, but he also doesn’t fit in with the other gifted children because though

he is intelligent, he is only interested in things that start with E, pythons, and Siberia (Barthelme

1, 2). His explanation of why the other gifted children are “freaky” is not as expected. He calls

them freaks because they look like Henry Kissinger, Christine Amanpour, and Mick Jagger.

Given that most kids would not know who the first two are, Elliott makes it stranger by
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continuing to refer to the other children by these names, suggesting that he has made no effort to

get to know them (Barthelme 2). He goes on:

Most of the kids in this school are professors’ kids or schoolteachers’ kids. It

makes you wonder. We are all kids whose parents taught them to say

“melancholy,” and then when they say it, the parents gush and swoon. Give them

a dog biscuit. Christiane and I are going to run away together and have sex as

soon as we feel like it. Erumpent erotogenesis.

I don’t think reading the dictionary is so strange for a ten year old child,

and I am a child. Lots of us do it. There are two kinds of freaks. Freaks who

pretend to be normal and freaks who pretend to be freaks. I pretend to be a normal

child, but I’m not very good at it … It’s not the freakishness that makes us blue;

it’s the pretending. You’ve got to think about it. You’re all the time planning,

never being (Barthelme 2).

Elliott again compares children to dogs, this time suggesting that the gifted children aren’t

actually smarter than average, just conditioned to act like they are. This idea has its flaws, at least

when applied to Elliott. He could not have been conditioned to constantly think at a higher level

the same way a child can be conditioned to use a few big words.

In the middle of his theories on intelligence, Elliott’s id butts in and claims that he and

Christiane, a girl whose real name he doesn’t know, “are going to run away together and have

sex as soon as [they] feel like it. Erumpent erotogenesis” (Barthelme 2). He later says that, in

Siberia, they’ll “fall in love and kiss and sit on the banks and feed the pythons” (Barthelme 4).

Though his original statement seems like some kind of Freudian slip, the second one suggests

that Elliott is really just looking for someone to love him the way he is and not make him feel
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like a freak. His ramblings about his fictional version of Siberia all lead to the Siberians saying “I

love you, Elliott, you’re not weird at all,” which reinforces the notion that Elliott’s original

statement about having sex was less about animal desires and more about being loved. Elliott

mentions that sometimes Christiane “Satisfaction” and “Get Off My Cloud,” presumably the

songs by the Rolling Stones (Barthelme 2, 4). Both songs suggest that, if he does talk to the girl

he calls Christiane, she wishes he would leave her alone. If Elliott doesn’t talk to her, his claim

that she sings his song could be a projection of his insecurities about himself. He may fear that

people don’t get satisfaction from his company and they just wish he would go away.

In the second paragraph of this excerpt, Elliott goes back to insisting that he is not weird

and that he is a child. He again contradicts himself in saying “I pretend to be a normal child, but

I’m not very good at it” (Barthelme 2). Elliott spends most of the first two pages trying to

convince the reader, the psychologist, and himself that he is normal. With this statement, he truly

admits that he is strange, and that pretending to be normal “makes [him] blue” (Barthelme 2).

After this statement, Elliott talks about Siberia, his ideal place to be, where things he likes are in

plenty and things he dislikes don’t exist. Most notably, “there are no children and no adults, and

no one is special or gifted or freak,” “everyone likes everyone,” “everyone wants to fall in love,”

and “People say, I love you Elliott, you’re not weird at all” (Barthelme 3-5). Almost everything

he says about his version of Siberia makes it so that he is included and can do what he wants

instead of feeling as if he has to pretend to be something he’s not. Though there is other evidence

throughout the story that Elliott is stuck in a muddle of defense mechanisms, sadness, and

insecurity, seeing his ideal world is an unfiltered window into his true feelings.

Even after such vivid descriptions, Elliott throws away his ideal Siberia saying, “Of

course none of this is true” (Barthelme 3). On the surface, it seems like he is just admitting that
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Siberia is a “vast icy wasteland,” but considering his insecurities, he may also be saying that he

is a freak and nobody loves him. This sad thought is further suggested at the end when the people

who say “Oh, don’t go Elliott, not yet. Stay here with us” also say “Ememtottot, and they

disappear” because to Elliott, people who love him and want him around do not seem to exist

(Barthelme 5). Even the psychologist, who Elliott says “is all right” and is “just trying to help

[him]” but is “just no good at it” never tells him directly that she cares about him (Barthelme 4).

If she does, Elliott does not tell the reader. He mentions that he loves his “mother and father even

though this school was their stupid idea,” but he never tells himself that they love him back

(Barthelme 4). Elliott seems to project his possible self-hatred—or, at least, his lack of love for

himself because he can’t decide who he is—onto everyone he talks about.

Elliott ends his story feeling worse than he started. He concludes that “there is no place to

go” where he feels accepted and that just like his made-up word, ememtottot, people who love

him and want him around are made up and only exist in his head. In this, the defense

mechanisms he so diligently employed to try and convince himself that “a lot of kids burn

themselves and stuff” crumple and he falls into a pit of despair (Barthelme 4).
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Part 2:

Assuming Gender

In 2012, Steven Barthelme published a book of short stories called Hush Hush. In this

collection is the story “Siberia” about a troubled boy named Elliott. Elliott struggles with his own

intelligence, which got him put into a school for gifted children. Looking at “Siberia” through a

queer theory lens raises a question: is Elliott a boy or a girl? First I will discuss why this question

is possible, then I will look at the reasons for believing Elliott is a boy, and finally I will

speculate on the struggle Elliott may be hiding.

Throughout the whole story, the only pronouns applied to Elliott are “I” and “me.” One

could say that this is simply because the story is written in first person, but there are other ways

to establish gender. Elliott calls himself “a child,” but he never calls himself a boy or a girl

(Barthelme 1). Even the psychologist never calls him a boy or a girl, only referring to him by his

name or when calling him a “mature child,” which still avoids gendering Elliott (Barthelme 1).

Readers assume Elliott is a boy because of his name and the things he says he likes. Can

Elliott not be a girl’s name? After all, there are girls with “masculine” names such as Hunter and

Sawyer. Elliott plays chess, has “an interest in pythons,” and loves rain (Barthelme 2, 3). Of

those things, people may take Elliott’s liking of snakes to add to the fact that he is a boy, since

boys are supposed to be less scared of reptiles and other strange animals. Seemingly the biggest

clue to Elliott’s gender comes when he says “Christiane and I are going to run away together and

have sex as soon as we feel like it. Erumpent erotogenesis” (Barthelme 2). Taking this as a clue

to his gender completely disregards the fact that gender identity and sexuality are not connected.

Just because Elliott chooses a girl to be the one to love him does not mean that he identifies as

male.
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Everyone else in this story is given a clear gender. Elliott refers to the psychologist as

“the lady psychologist” and as “she” (Barthelme 1-4). He makes it clear that he has a mother and

a father and he refers to the head of his school as the “headmistress” so that even these people

who are only mentioned once have a gender. (Barthelme 4). When he talks about the other

children, he doesn’t only refer to them as children or as “freaks,” he gives them the names of

public figures with known genders. What is perhaps most interesting is that he refers to the child

he calls Henry Kissinger as “an orange kid,” while he refers to Christiane as “a girl” (Barthelme

2). He then goes on to say that Christiane Amanpour “looks like Mick Jagger,” crossing gender

lines. This almost suggests that Elliott avoids talking about males directly, because he doesn’t

call himself a boy and he doesn’t refer to Henry as “an orange boy,” just as “an orange kid”

(Barthelme 2). Elliott also does not acknowledge that he compares a woman to a man, suggesting

that it doesn’t really matter to him.

Because the story is all told through Elliott and he is clearly going through a hard time,

we don’t know if he is a reliable narrator. It is possible that the psychologist does assign a gender

to him at one point, but it’s not the gender he identifies as, so he doesn’t tell the reader. Given

Elliott’s inner turmoil, he may not even know his gender identity. Though he is very intelligent,

he may not have the vocabulary to express how he is feeling in this respect. Elliott may feel even

more like a “freak” because of his possible gender identity crisis. He says that “In this new

school there are much freakier freaks than me,” but goes on to imply that they’re freakier

because they’ve been trained to act like “gifted” children (Barthelme 2). The fact that he still

feels like a freak in some way could be because he realizes that the other children do not

understand him. Perhaps he even told them how he feels and they alienated him, making it so

Elliott never got to know any of their real names.


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Even in his make-believe paradise of Siberia, Elliott never mentions gender. Many

children grow up with the boys versus girls mentality, and in their ideal world whichever one

they are would probably be “the best.” Elliott, however, does not seem to think this way. He says

that “In Siberia there are no children and no adults, and no one is special or gifted or freak,” but

he still does not mention gender (Barthelme 3). Our biggest insight into gender in Elliott’s

fantasy world is when he says, “The principal rivers in Siberia are called the Robert DeNiro and

the Michelle Pfeiffer. The two rivers cross at the exact center of Siberia which is where you go in

Siberia if you want to fall in love” (Barthelme 3, 4). This could suggest two things. One, because

the rivers are gendered, that Elliott has been taught to expect the heterosexual norm, and that is

why it’s a “male” river and a “female” river that cross in the spot where people fall in love. The

suggestion that he has been taught to expect a heterosexual norm also could contribute to his

crisis if he identified as female but wanted to be in love with Christiane. Two, that the rivers

representing gender themselves have a gray space where they cross and it’s not one river or

another, but whatever it wants to be. Maybe Elliott chooses this spot for people to fall in love

because it is the part where the river is most like him: unable to identify.

All of these possibilities could contribute to the reason Elliott felt the need to “[burn

himself] with a cigarette,” because normally it takes a lot more than not liking a school to turn to

self-harm (Barthelme 2).


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Part 3:

Reflection

I’ll start off by saying that I think that the psychoanalytic part of this paper is much

stronger than the queer theory part. There are many reasons for this, but the biggest one is that

Elliott lent himself to the psychoanalytic lens with all his inner turmoil, and a queer analysis took

many more assumptions and had less evidence. I chose queer theory simply because Marxism

has nothing to do with this story, and I didn’t feel that I could get enough out of analyzing how

the few women in this story were talked about by Elliott.

Another reason I believe the psychoanalytic reading was easier and brought out more of

the story than the queer reading is that I am much more comfortable with psychology than with

queer theory. Psychology is something of a hobby of mine, and I enjoy getting to use it. While

writing the queer theory analysis, I had no confidence and really had no clue if what I was doing

was remotely “correct” in any sense. What I read in our book about queer theory gave me a

starting place, but after that I felt like I was stumbling around in the dark. That being said, queer

people do go through a lot of internal struggles throughout coming out, in some ways, the two

papers complemented each other. Adding to Elliott’s inner turmoil only strengthened the

arguments for his use of defense mechanisms to cope with his situation. However, I did find

myself using some different textual evidence to support the two lenses.

There was much more from the text I was able to use for the psychoanalytic reading than

the queer reading, but applying queer theory did make me realize how easily we make

assumptions about gender and sexuality. The smallest stretch I made in my analysis is that it

never was firmly established if Elliott was a boy or not, and yet I would imagine that nearly

everyone reading “Siberia” would decide that he was a boy. That new perspective was fun to
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play with, but very hard to get a paper out of. I knew that I was stretching, and I don’t really

think it turned out all that well.

Reading this through a psychoanalytic lens helped me connect with Elliott much more,

and I think it brought out the meaning Barthelme most likely intended. I still empathized with

Elliott when reading through a queer theory lens, but I felt like I understood him much better the

first time. My connection to Elliot is the reason that I love this story so much and wanted to do

this final paper on it instead of the Mary Ruefle poem or something else. In a number of ways,

Elliott and I are similar. While I am not near as intelligent as he is and I was never put in a gifted

school, I always was at the top of my class. In first and second grade at my first school, me and

two other kids in my class were separated out as the “advanced” group, given workbooks, and

left to our own devices. That was all fun and games because we were in it together, it was still

easy, and nobody treated us different because of it. It wasn’t until middle school that I started

noticing people treating me differently just because I was smart. The popular kids were always

nice to me in class so I would help them do their work, and everyone was always saying that I

was “so smart” or “some kind of genius.” By the time I got into high school, the G-word really

started rubbing me the wrong way. Just as Elliott says, it starts sounding like “freak.” It was

worse when my friends called me a genius or called me “perfect” because I’m not, and the fact

that my friends thought that even for a second made me feel alienated. It was better for the

popular kids to call me those things because I didn’t want to “fit in” with them anyway, but when

my friends called me those things, it sounded exactly like “freak.” As Orson Scott Card says so

simply through Ender in his novel Ender’s Game, “[I] had so much damn respect [I] wanted to

scream.”
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Because of all those things, I totally get Elliott’s dream world of Siberia. I had multiple

made-up families and places to escape well into high school, so I really do understand his inner

demons. When I read this through a queer theory lens, I felt like the point of the story was lost

because I was so focused on trying to find evidence of his gender dysphoria and not on the story

that Elliott presents so clearly.