Putting the 'I' Back Into Being: Maurice Sendak's Exploration of Childhood Fears and Terror Phil Fitzsimmons
Abstract: Recognized as arguably one of the most engaging and internationally the best selling, Maurice Sendak's picture book trilogy of 'Where the Wild Thing Are', 'In the Night Kitchen' and 'Outside Over There' is also recognized as being the most darkest in children's literature. Unintentionally intertextual, Sendak readily acknowledged that his work in general and this trilogy in particular was "colored with memories of village life in Poland, never actually experienced but passed on to me as a persuasive reality by my immigrant parents". While acknowledged but not explored by researchers, these texts also represent a visual representation of the psychological phenomenology of how children understand the concepts of fear, horror and terror. The latter point was a personal realization years after these texts had been published when it was pointed out to Sendak how similar his texts were to elements of his own childhood. While using all three texts in the previously mentioned trilogy, this paper focuses on the last in the series, Outside Over There, reputedly the darkest, most esoteric and the most symbolic. Using a transtextual approach in tandem with the 'Red Thread' reader response framework this paper unpacks possible meanings of Sendak's pictorial subtext and how they form a transcultural underpinning of how children understand, relate to and deal with fear, horror and terror. Key Words: Deformed discourse, 300, monster theory Dreamscapes and Nightmares: Forces and foci This paper began after an initial analysis of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Using the tools of visual literacy, this analysis revealed the psychological depth that children’s picture books contain. Children’s literature, and in particular the works of Sendak, not only “floats on a sea of talk”, but on ocean of mindscape that is at once not only sufficiently shallow enough for children to paddle in, but for adults to dive into and not touch the bottom. While arguably one of the most analysed of all chidlren’s books, Where the Wild Things Are still holds research depths not yet plumbed. However, in the literature review that was undertaken “ex post facto so as to direct theoretical sampling already undertaken”, 1 a second issue that arose. 1

so strong they seem to menace the very text they’re meant to illuminate. He later admitted that the actual authoring of this text caused him to go back to therapy. the following section is grounded in his analysis and other interview data so as to provide a platform of insight that underpinned the connection between Outside. While the two previous texts in the trilogy represented a dark departure. . Reputed to be “the most difficult of his books”2 this picture book story of a little girl Ida. In spite of this. Her search for her missing sister is pictorially represented by illustrations that are “hyperreal in their intensity.”3 While Kushner offers provided greater insight into the relationship between Sendak’s ‘context of situation’ and the latter text of the trilogy than other commentaries such that of Lane.Putting the 'I' Back Into Being: Maurice Sendak's Exploration of Childhood Fears and Terror 2 While it is often acknowledged that Where the Wild Things Are is part of a trilogy that includes successive publication of In the Night Kitchen and Outside Over There. excerpts from Sendak’s journal and interview transcripts as an evidentiary warrant tell a much deeper story than the scope and depth provided in the commentary.. While it had an incubation period of at least three years it’s final development occurred during a period in Sendak’s life in which he suffered from depression. densely coloured. or the polyvalent issues that are embedded in this text. Kushner’s use of summaries. it would appear that because of Kushner’s friendship with Sendak he skirted key issues. In particular it would appear that with the exception of Kushner’s analysis. whose sister is captured goblins and place an ice baby in her place. engaging. little analysis has been undertaken in regard to the hypotextual. during the completion of the final drafts he was also suffering a serious throat infection. as any text without context is pretext. they’re like photographic dream plates. Also. was giving up smoking and taking misprescribed medication for insomnia. the frames of Sendak’s emotions and his psychological state of mind. 2 The Author’s Context of Situation Sendak created Outside with the intention of developing a text that contained psychological depth far beyond anything as yet crafted in children’s literature. mysterious. . little attention has been paid to the last of the books in this series. rich. this text was an even more shadowy turning point. archertextual or paratextual links that one would assume to operate amongst and between these texts. and urgent. Even in this analysis the focus is on the art of Sendak and not the relationship between text and the illustrations. was severely stressed due to overwork.

6 In his own autobiographical writing. he also deliberately focused this text on death. “I was dead in my mother’s womb. The first was a national outrage that occurred in his early childhood.««GreetingLine»» 3 On a short holiday he showed the drafts to friends who advised him not publish this text. Yet. The safest children in the world have that fear”. Sendak claims that there were several conscious elements of subtext that he placed into this text. it is clear that he asked if his father was ever going to die to which his father fobbed him off with a curt response of ‘no’. In his journal. The dark facets that underpin this book are further revealed in the dedication. where Barbra Brooks is the dedicatee. Although only four years of age at the time. 4 Sendak also attempted to build this narrative around several other interconnected beliefs that were also linked to events in his childhood. From the tenor of this description it is clear that he also felt isolated from this father and the issue of death was never resolved within the family circle. Sendak writes in the first person and equates himself with the ice baby left behind in his illustrations. it is understandable that his writing habitus as one that leant to the production of deformed discourse. though sheer determination that only a workaholic can muster the book was finally finished in 1979. Sendak links the death of baby Charlie Lindberg to his own intense dislike of his mother. The illustrations of the goblin abduction of the baby in Outside are a representation of this aversion to his mother and are also a key subtextual element of Wild Things and paratextual element in Night Kitchen. Despite these personal issues. In a journal entry where he discusses the Lindberg abduction. Perhaps the key element of this connection was his deep seated conviction that children have a primal fear of “being separated from mummy and daddy – the fear of being lost. menacing and blood chilling.5 Linked to this notion. . the Lindberg abduction of 1932 and ensuing nationwide horror was a personal fixation for Sendak and the entire Sendak family. She died before the book was published and was Sendak’s lone supporter in his personal psychological struggle and doubts as to whether he should continue to write this text. in the same breath admits that after reading the book to a child you find that. Now slipping into further despondency and an abject fear of failure. As Kushner points out the illustrations in Outside are not only dark and unforgettable but also frightening. “a question that every child worries about”. Even in the cursory summary of Sendak’s context of situation and culture provided in the previous paragraphs. I was the ice baby – and my mother didn’t notice that I’d been replaced”.

This is the fundamental clue as to the meaning of the overall visual facets. Ida has her back turned and an ice baby has been set in the place of the crib that is now overturned. The only full panel that can be seen.Putting the 'I' Back Into Being: Maurice Sendak's Exploration of Childhood Fears and Terror 4 the same child you thought you’d traumatized. In particular the basic premise of the ‘blue page’ formed the foundation for this paper. 3 Themes of Fear and Streams of Childhood Terror The first of the blue pages contains a scene is a bedroom in which the viewers eye is immediately drawn to the screaming baby being taken out of the window by two hooded goblins that have no visible face. This could be argued that that is a random act of the author . the most frightening and unforgettable illustrations in this text are those that depict the abduction of the baby by the goblins and where Ida falls backwards out of a window into the menace of the ‘Outside’. itself linked to the notion of perfection as it represents the divine mind or divine reason. In this text it has also been drawn in the same fashion as the ancient symbol of the hanging mistletoe. what does this text tell us about Sendak’s fears and terrors and what are the implications? As a means of answering this question the concept of methodological appropriateness demands that the tools of investigation in this case were to be based in the visual literacy elements of the ‘Red Thread’. or line that the eye is immediately drawn to is the wall panel at the back of this imaginary room. The blue page is that page or cluster of illustrations that form “the darkest or most calamitous section of the text”9 Again using the guidance of Kushner. Drawn as photographic dream plates the meaning would appear to be simple enough except when the viewer-reader understands the allegoric nature of the visual elements in this single page and the symbolism their linkage suggests. Given that Sendak “cloaks his spectres from the past in a new identity”8 and that Sendak himself believes that there is a great deal of material that has been unconsciously inserted. The major vector. metaphor and culture can be teased out. the guilty desires it solicits. Playing her ‘wonder horn’. and the hidden aspects of mind. The circle has a polyvalent meaning of perfection completion and divine order. the “Red Thread” analysis can be carried out using a more focused elucidation through the identification of iconic forms and associated tools of visual literacy. and the dream of valour it elicits7. the questions remain. addicted to working through the terror it elicits. it has as a decorative feature a circle hung from two draped lines. Having identified the central darker area.

the figures and emblems are all situated within a single room. overlooking all of this action is a reflection in a mirror of an elderly mother figure. While the manager with the single doll represented atonement and reconciliation from the mother-creator caregiver. or at least having plot line with an existential or messianic overtone in which the evil twin kills the good. While as discussed previously. The horn is a symbol of salvation in Jewish mythology as well as the concept of judgment. this is representative of the Lindberg kidnap. To the left of the panel Ida can be seen playing what Sendak has termed in the accompanying text. In this more ancient enactment or scenario. and in particular a room. as can be clearly seen in this one page illustration. To the right of the illustration. leftover in the shift from Druidism to Christianity. the mistletoe scene was a binary opposite. Similarly. Her gaze is directed towards the ice baby figure but appears cold and uncaring. which are Ida. To Ida’s immediate left. has a long history in art as being representative of the universe and the means by which . In mythological terms this represents constancy revealing a link to the flowers ability to turn its flowering head during the day to face the sun’s movement across the sky. is again a symbol of the Christ figure and the transcultural messianic or hero codes of ancient Greece. While it was representative of the Christian saviour this static mistletoe scene also is a vestige. in other cultures it is representative of the eye. The panel itself draws the eye down into the actual focus of the page and divides the main characters of the narrative. the mirror is symbolic of a door or entrance in which the unconscious discloses it its primary nature or focus.««GreetingLine»» 5 illustrator if it were not for similar relationships to other symbolic elements. Many instances of this twin narrative have morphed into scenarios similar to Cain and Able. As Perls has suggested we can also find our own image in an artistic reflection of the illustrated mirror. the doll like ice baby and the goblins climbing out of the window with the kidnapped child. Under the mistletoe. it also has all of the characteristics of the mistletoe diorama used in Europe and in particular England. or as in the Celtic translation it simply means the ‘Shepherd’. the house itself. Archetypically. and seen through the bugle is a sunflower. This in itself gave rise to the ‘babes in the wood’ folktale. Her back is turned to the departing kidnappers and her eyes in a firm gaze into the unknown distance.10 In a more holistic sense. her ‘wonder horn’. the entire narrative was also linked to a parallel narrative of twins who were cast out into the forest by uncaring selfish parents. Also realized in the standing stone monuments in the United Kingdom. or a cultural icon. it was often customary to place dolls in a manger scene. or the all seeing eye. As Coomsamawary has pointed out.

but the fear of becoming and of becoming nothing. 3 Implications and Associations While Sendak clearly underpinned his text with a series of visual facets that he believed metaphorically represented his childhood fears.11 This latter notion of becoming leads to the point of the illustrative subtextual themes contained in this page. and in his case a futile existence. All of the elements deal with not so much with becoming. The replacement of the child with the ice baby reveals the possibility that this could also be engendered in the feeling of entrapment. He became a false. Although surrounded by parents and siblings. it would appear that he also inserted a network of themes grounded in nihilism. the visual metaphors employed reveal their true phenomenological connections and have an echo with elements of Kelly’s ‘Personal Construct Theory’ and Karen Horney’s notion of the ‘Ideal Self’. as he was unable to escape the vision his parents had of him. dread of abandonment and death. As such this text is a visual autoethnography or an illustrative case study of not only Sendak’s childhood fears but a psychological echo of all childhood fears and notions of horror. While this text is often refereed to as being Freudian in nature. Sendak not only inserts reflections of his childhood in regard to these elements but through the use of archetypical structures reveals their depth and connectedness. he had made no emotional contact with them and came to experience a profound sense of loss revealed in the abduction of the baby. this also acted as a binding agent. this belief had a ripple effect in which his sense of alienation and helplessness grew into a fear of abject hopelessness. Without familial love he developed a kind of substitution-projection process in which his fears developed into an overwhelming sense of alienation and belief that life itself was meaningless. He was unable to find a genuine vision of his true self. Thus his greatest fear and horror became the entrapment of his life and familial history. Thus as represented in the mask like face of the . cold and disconnected other. and taken ‘outside over there’. As a natural extension of this his illustrations reveal a dread that life after death was a false hope. While Sendak’s felt the emotional loss or distancing from his parents. While the most basic fears are loneliness.Putting the 'I' Back Into Being: Maurice Sendak's Exploration of Childhood Fears and Terror 6 an individual is “sheltered in their path of becoming who they are”. and so he substituted into the physical place in which he should have felt the safest an emotional place. so too death was the end of life.12 However the elements in the ‘Blue Page’ reveal that Sendak had no concept of self or a personal construct. However. Just as he was captured and replaced by an inanimate replica.

G Kelly. Maurice Sendak (b. New York. 202.13 Notes 1 2 3 4. p. viewed June 13 2007. 22 Sendak. Harry N. http://www. p.Houghton Mifflen Books. in Worlds of Childhood: The Art and Craft of Writing for Children. Wiley. July 17 2007. in Clinical Psychology and Personality: Selected papers. The Door in the Sky. 1998. ‘The Language of Hypothesis: Man’s psychological instrument’.htm. K. “masks have a way of sticking to our faces when wear them to long”. ibid. The Art of Maurice Sendak – 1980 to the Present. ‘The Language of Hypothesis: Man’s psychological instrument’. Norton.. p. Lafeyett. Kushner. T Kushner . M Sendak. p. However. 3 Mem Foxthe darkest or most calamitous section of the text F Perls. Princeton.norhtern.««GreetingLine»» 7 ‘ice baby’ he wore a mask. Hastings. 1950. Wiley. 5. B Maher (ed).. K Horney. W. Maurice Sendak (b. 24. ibid. Sendak. p. R Coomsamwary. 2003. New York. 1928).. 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 Strauss and Corbin 1990 52 A Hastings. Princeton University Press.htm Horney. 1964148) Bibliography . B Maher (ed).edu/hastings/sendak.. viewed June 13 2007. 32 Kushner. cit. op. 1964. 24. G. Neurosis and Human Growth... Neurosis and Human Growth.. Princeton University Press. NJ. in Clinical Psychology and Personality: Selected papers.. New York. NJ.. The Door in the Sky. Norton. ‘Visitors from My Childhood’. New York. http://www. 137-152. Princeton. R. p. Abrams. 1969.norhtern. Coomsamwary. 32.cit. op. Zinsser (ed). Real People Press. A. 1997. New York. Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. New York. 1997. . Kelly. p.edu/hastings/sendak. 1950. 1928). July 17 2007.

Zinsser (ed). . F. in Worlds of Childhood: The Art and Craft of Writing for Children.Houghton Mifflen Books. Real People Press. T. 2003.Putting the 'I' Back Into Being: Maurice Sendak's Exploration of Childhood Fears and Terror 8 Kushner. M. 1969 Sendak. New York.. Harry M. Lafeyett. The Art of Maurice Sendak: 1980 to the present. Strauss and Corbin 1990. 1998. Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. ‘Visitors from My Childhood’. New York.. Abrams.. Perls. W.

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