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17 October 2011 @ 02:30 am
Psi for Children -- Matilda (Part 1)  
Psi appears in children's works as well as in works for adults. How psi is presented in children's literature and film is one of the sources by which children, both those with psi experiences and those without, learn cultural messages about psi and those who have psi experiences.

Many children's book about psi feature psi children. One such book is Roald Dahl's Matilda (1988), a children's book about a five-year-old telekinetic girl. (The whole book can be found here. The page numbers are different in the PDF version.)

Dahl, a very popular children's author, has come under criticism for racism and imperialism, anti-Semitism, and sexism, with some protest also from Wiccan groups, which he told to "get a sense of humor," and pulled out the whole, "well, these aren't supposed to be REAL witches!" defense (same article I linked for a discussion of sexism). Except, according to Elizabeth Oliver's article "Boil, Boil, Toil and Trouble: a critical look at the controversy over Roald Dahl's The Witches", Dahl

"...candidly speaks to the audience about the authenticity of the information being given: "This is not a fairy-tale. This is about REAL WITCHES" (Dahl 7). This preface takes on the appearance of non-fiction and children reading this might not realize that the witches being described are purely fictional. In response, Wiccans protested such sentiment, which Dahl preserved in The Witches."

Lovely, eh? They just need to get a sense of humor!

Har har.

Matilda also has its share of problems, notably in its presentation of the "evil, abusive, harsh, nasty, large, athletic, masculine woman antagonist headmistress" (Miss Trunchbull) with the "petite, sweet, blonde, gentle, poor, feminine woman protagonist teacher" (Miss Honey). It does, however, specifically subvert "women should be pretty, not smart," in the contrast of Matilda with her anti-intellectual and superficial parents. To go through this would be an essay of its own, and it is somewhat beyond the scope of this particular essay, so I will note it and move on, and hopefully someone else will pick this thread up.

As for its presentation of psychokinesis, this book could have been much worse, given both the author's track record on (in)sensitivity, and the high profile trainwreck that was Carrie (and its film adaptation), which made Stephen King a star, and which predates Matilda. This book has pros and cons, and requires a more subtle examination.

For the sake of transparency, I must also be upfront that psychokinesis is not something I can speak to from personal experience. To write this review I have to draw on the experiences of friends and acquaintances. My experiences with "coming out" psi to friends, family and teachers has been around psi experiences very different in kind than psychokinesis, and while I can draw on my experiences by analogy, that is not the same thing. Ultimately, those who do experience these things will have to speak about this book (and others) on their own behalf.

The publisher's blurb on the back of the book is where the fail begins. "Matilda is a sweet, 5-year-old genius with horrible, mean parents. Fortunately, she has a great time giving them what they deserve. But at school things are different. At school there's Miss Trumbull: two hundred pounds of kid-hating headmistress. [For someone who is as tall and muscular as Miss Trumbull, this isn't actually very much!] Giving Miss Trumbull what she deserves will take more than a genius... it will take a superhuman genius!"

So now psi folks are "superhuman," even though nowhere does the book itself actually present psi as "superhuman." Nowhere. That just got tacked on for marketing. (There's big money in books about exaggerated psi people, and marketing them as superhuman, even if the book itself doesn't frame it that way!)

Again, think about this.

In the book, Matilda is a child prodigy, who has taught herself to read fluently by the age of four, and by five has also has taught herself to multiply large numbers. Thus, it might seem for most of the book that Matilda is psychokinetic because she is just really super extraordinary in terms of mental gifts. That would be pretty benign, had this interpretation held up through the whole book. I mean, OK, it's clearly a childhood wish-fulfillment fantasy, but there are worse things!

There are things this book does well: rather than psi being framed as subversive in a negative way, as so many books/movies/television shows do, this book frames psi as subversive in a good way. I can't offhand think of another well-known work in which psychokinesis is framed as a) existing in the "real world" (unlike, say, in The Matrix) and b) subversive in a good way. Matilda is a prankster throughout the whole book -- it's just that once she develops PK, she's suddenly not getting caught. And rather than PK as a "religious transgression," it's framed as a gift to bring justice to the downtrodden.

On one hand, that's good -- it's really a problem when PK is framed as immoral, sinful, cheating, religiously transgressive, demonic, etc. But it's not problem-free to do it this way, either -- mainly because of the ending, in my opinion. I would be fully applauding a book in which a little psychokinetic girl uses all her gifts to outwit the evil teachers and bring justice to the school, were these abilities all treated equally. But they're not. In the end of the book, once the antagonists have been defeated and little Matilda is finally being academically challenged in school, "poof" she loses her PK abilities, and she is presented as glad she's lost it. This makes as much sense as her losing her reading and math aptitude and high intelligence after she's defeated Miss Trunchbull, makes psi a "mysterious intermittent gift from God" rather than a human ability, and perhaps most disturbingly, shows a psi protagonist actually relieved that she is no longer psi. The universe is not restored to balance simply when Miss Trunchbull is defeated and Miss Honey gets her fortune back -- it's only returned to balance when these things happen, Matilda is suddenly no longer psi, and Matilda is glad she is no longer psi.

I do not recall having read this particular book as a child (although I am not actually sure if it was read to me), but I do recall that in elementary school, I had developed a passionate hate for stories that end like this, where suddenly the interesting characters I could relate to or I cared about are made "poof" normal at the end for the sake of the author's sense of what needs to be "right" in the universe. I absolutely hated it. When I wrote stories, not only did I make sure that never happened, I made a point of pointing out explicitly that I was not doing this miserable trope of an ending.

I may not have thought of it in exactly these terms back then, but these kinds of endings ran contrary to my own narrative of myself -- whatever situations I got myself into, whatever experiences I had, I was going to be just as psi at the end of them as I was in the beginning of them. I knew this in elementary school -- I began writing in my diary about thought transference in second grade, alongside entries about my sneakers and my pencil collection and my pet toad. Psi experiences have never been something in my life which is part of some "fundamental disruption" of the universe, and thus which need to be "reverted back to normalcy" at the end for things to be right in the universe. This is my normal -- not to be psi would be a fundamental disruption in my universe, and this is how it is for psi people. This is our normal.

Forgive the analogy, but it's a bit like an author making their gay characters straight at the end, once some conflict in the book is resolved -- framing that characters sexual orientation as linked to some "fundamental disruption" in the universe which is resolved by the end of the book (thus making the character straight with it). Psi, like sexual orientation, is part of who someone is, and you can't just erase that at the end of a book (and have your character glad to be rid of it) without sending some really bad messages to the kids reading it.

With this in mind, onto the book itself.

For a story that includes psi, this story introduces it very late. Matilda does not develop psychokinesis until page 158 out of a 232 page book. That is really unusual! Psychokinesis is introduced in explicitly religious framework (the chapter is called "The First Miracle"). She develops psychokinesis when she is made especially angry (by Miss Trunchbull, who accuses her of a prank she didn't commit).

I am not sure what to think of the trope that extreme anger triggers psychokinesis. I've seen it in several works of fiction, but I've also known several people (who were not ordinarily psychokinetic) who this has actually happened to (in very limited contexts). I can, however, say that not all of these friends were Christian, and so it doesn't have to be framed in a Christian context!

“I'm telling you I did not do it!” Matilda screamed. “I've never even seen a creature like that in my life!”

“You have put a...a...a crocodile in my drinking water!” the Trunchbull yelled back. “There is no worse crime in the world against a Headmistress! Now sit down and don't say a word! Go on, sit down at once!”

But I'm telling you...” Matilda shouted, refusing to sit down.

“I am telling you to shut up!” the Trunchbull roared. “If you don't shut up at once and sit down I shall remove my belt and let you have it with the end that has the buckle!”

Slowly Matilda sat down. Oh, the rottenness of it all! The unfairness! How dare they expel her for something she hadn't done!

Matilda felt herself getting angrier...and angrier...and angrier...so unbearably angry that something was bound to explode inside her very soon.

The newt was still squirming in the tall glass of water. It looked horribly uncomfortable. The glass was not big enough for it, Matilda glared at the Trunchbull. How she hated her. She glared at the glass with the newt in it. She longed to march up and grab the glass and tip its contents, newt and all, over the Truchbull's head. She trembled to think what the Trunchbull would do to her if she did that.

The Trunchbull was sitting behind the teacher's table staring with a mixture of horror and fascination at the newt wriggling in the glass. Matilda's eyes were also riveted on the glass. And now, quite slowly, there began to creep over Matilda a most extraordinary and peculiar feeling. The feeling was mostly in the eyes. A kind of electricity seemed to be gathering inside them. A sense of power was brewing in those eyes of hers, a feeling of great strength was settling itself deep inside her eyes. But there was also another feeling which was something else altogether, and which she could not understand. It was like flashes of lightning. Little waves of lightning seemed to be flashing out of her eyes. Her eyeballs were beginning to get hot, as though vast energy was building up somewhere inside them. It was an amazing sensation. She kept her eyes steadily on the glass, and now the power was concentrating itself in one small part of each eye and growing stronger and stronger and it felt as though millions of tiny little invisible arms with hands on them were shooting out of her eyes towards the glass she was staring at.

"Tip it!" Matilda whispered. "Tip it over!"

She saw the glass wobble. It actually tilted backwards a fraction of an inch, then righted itself again.

She kept pushing at it with all those millions of invisible little arms and hands that were reaching out from her eyes, feeling the power that was flashing straight from the two little black dots in the very centres of her eyeballs.

"Tip it!" she whispered again. "Tip it over!"

Once more the glass wobbled. She pushed harder still, willing her eyes to shoot out ore power. And then, very very slowly, so slowly she could hardly see it happening, the glass began to lean backwards, farther and farther and farther backwards until it was balancing on just one edge of its base. And there it teetered for a few seconds before finally toppling over and falling with a sharp
tinkle on to the desktop. The water in it and the squirming newt splashed out all over Miss Trunchbull's enormous bosom. The headmistress let out a yell that must have rattled every window-pane in the building and for the second time in the last five minutes she shot out of her chair like a rocket.

The Trunchbull, her face more like a boiled ham than ever, was standing before the class quivering with fury. Her massive bosom was heaving in and out and the splash of water down the front of it made a dark wet patch that had probably soaked right through to her skin.

"Who did it?" she roared. "Come on! Own up! Step forward! You won't escape this time! Who is responsible for this dirty job? Who pushed over this glass?"

Nobody answered. The whole room remained silent as a tomb.

"Matilda!" she roared. "It was you! I know it was you!"

Matilda, in the second row, sat very still and said nothing. A strange feeling of serenity and confidence was sweeping over her and all of a sudden she found that she was frightened by nobody in the world. With the power of her eyes alone she had compelled a glass of water to tip and spill its contents over the horrible Headmistress, and anybody who could do that could do anything.

"Speak up, you clotted carbuncle!" roared the Trunchbull. "Admit that you did it!"

Matilda looked right back into the flashing eyes of this infuriated female giant and said with total calmness, "I have not moved away from my desk, Miss Trunchbull, since the lesson began. I can say no more."

Suddenly the entire class seemed to rise up against the Headmistress. "She didn't move!" they cried out. "Matilda didn't move! Nobody moved! You must have knocked it over yourself!"

"I most certainly did not knock it over myself!" roared the Trunchbull. "How dare you suggest a thing like that! Speak up, Miss Honey! You must have seen everything! Who knocked over my glass?"

"None of the children did, Miss Trunchbull," Miss Honey answered. "I can vouch for it that nobody has moved from his or her desk all the time you've been here, except for Nigel and he has not moved from his corner."

Miss Trunchbull glared at Miss Honey. Miss Honey met her gaze without flinching. "I am telling you the truth, Headmistress," she said. "You must have knocked it over without knowing it. That sort of thing is easy to do."

"I am fed up with you useless bunch of midgets!" roared the Trunchbull. "I refuse to waste any more of my precious time in here!" And with that she marched out of the class-room, slamming the door behind her.

In the stunned silence that followed, Miss Honey walked up to the front of the class and stood behind her table. "Phew!" she said. "I think we've had enough school for one day, don't you? The class is dismissed. You may all go out into the playground and wait for your parents to come and take you home."

So we see, not only does she use PK to humiliate the evil abusive headmistress, but she lets the good teacher, Miss Honey, tell Miss Trunchbull that she must have knocked over the glass herself, even when Matilda knows this isn't true. Sneaky little one, isn't she! It is very well-established in the book by this point that Matilda is a prankster, so she's just doing her normal mischief with PK; her pranks are not framed as "less acceptable" or "more immoral" because she uses PK to do them, it just makes her a lot harder to catch. I don't see a double standard here.

Right after Matilda uses PK, she decides to tell Miss Honey what she did. I can't think of too many fictional representations of "coming out" experiences for psi, so this is worth examining.

Again, the chapter title ("The Second Miracle") sets up an explicitly Christian context for these events.

"Matilda did not join the rush to get out of the classroom. After the other children had all disappeared, she remained at her desk, quiet and thoughtful. She knew she had to tell somebody about what had happened with the glass. She couldn't possibly keep a gigantic secret like that bottled up inside her. What she needed was just one person, one wise and sympathetic grown-up who could help her to understand the meaning of this extraordinary happening."

Matilda's emotional experiences here are, of course, much closer to those of an older child or an adolescent than to those of a five-year-old. Matilda is looking for context for her experiences, for meaning. This is what all children and adults who experience these things are looking for, and it's interesting that despite having read many, MANY books (children's books and adult books), Matilda hasn't encountered any meaningful context for this. She doesn't even have to articulate to Miss Honey that she hasn't read anything about this anywhere -- it is simply assumed in this story that Matilda could not find any meaningful context for her experiences in books and stories, not one clue.

There is no one like her in the books she reads so voraciously. This doesn't even have to be stated outright -- if she had read about anyone like her, she would have immediately recognized that. (She doesn't even appear to think that there should be anyone like her in the books she has read.)

Ironically, the book Matilda itself is one of the only children's books which deal with PK, so this very book is likely fulfilling that exact role for some children reading it. Any child reading the book who is him/herself looking for that very context and meaning is going to place him/herself into Matilda's shoes.

Matilda chooses Miss Honey because she does not have a warm relationship with her parents:

"Neither her mother nor her father would be of any use at all. If they believed her story, and it was doubtful they would, (emphasis mine) they almost certainly would fail to realise what an astounding event it was that had taken place in the classroom that afternoon. On the spur of the moment, Matilda decided that the one person she would like to confide in was Miss Honey."

At only five years old, having read no books about about anyone like her, Matilda has already internalized that her parents will not believe her? (Even though she can demonstrate it?) I recognize that in this book, Matilda and her parents are already pretty distant, and they are the types who simply do not believe her about anything. Her parents are very one-dimensional characters. I'm troubled, however, by how easily the narrative that "your parents will not believe you, don't even bother telling them," is slipped in without comment.

"What do you want to talk to me about, Matilda?"

"I want to talk to you about the glass of water with the creature in it," Matilda said. "You saw it spilling all over Miss Trunchbull, didn't you?"

"I did indeed." "Well, Miss Honey, I didn't touch it. I never went near it."

"I know you didn't," Miss Honey said. "You heard me telling the Headmistress that it couldn't possibly have been you."

"Ah, but it was me, Miss Honey," Matilda said. "That's exactly what I want to talk to you about."

Miss Honey paused and looked carefully at the child. "I don't think I quite follow you," she said.

"I got so angry at being accused of something I hadn't done that I made it happen."

"You made what happen, Matilda?"

"I made the glass tip over."

"I still don't quite understand what you mean," Miss Honey said gently.

"I did it with my eyes," Matilda said. "I was staring at it and wishing it to tip and then my eyes went all hot and funny and some sort of power came out of them and the glass just toppled over."

Miss Honey continued to look steadily at Matilda through her steel-rimmed spectacles and Matilda looked back at her just as steadily.

"I am still not following you," Miss Honey said. "Do you mean you actually willed the glass to tip over?"

"Yes," Matilda said. "With my eyes."

Miss Honey was silent for a moment. She did not think Matilda was meaning to tell a lie. It was more likely that she was simply allowing her vivid imagination to run away with her. (emphasis mine) "You mean you were sitting where you are now and you told the glass to topple over and it did?"

"Something like that, Miss Honey, yes."

"If you did that, then it is just about the greatest miracle a person has ever performed since the time of Jesus." (emphasis mine)

"I did it, Miss Honey."

It is extraordinary, thought Miss Honey, how often small children have flights of fancy like this. She decided to put an end to it as gently as possible. (emphasis mine) "Could you do it again?" she asked, not unkindly.

"I don't know," Matilda said, "but I think I might be able to."

Luckily for Matilda, her psychokinesis works very unrealistically; it always works on command.

Miss Honey's mouth dropped open and her eyes stretched so wide you could see the whites all round. She didn't say a word. She couldn't. The shock of seeing the miracle performed had struck her dumb. She gaped at the glass, leaning well away from it now as though it might be a dangerous thing. (emphasis mine) Then slowly she lifted head and looked at Matilda. She saw the child white in the face, as white as paper, trembling all over, the eyes glazed, staring straight ahead and seeing nothing. The whole face was transfigured, the eyes round and bright and she was sitting there speechless, quite beautiful in a blaze of silence.

Miss Honey waited, trembling a little herself and watching the child as she slowly stirred herself back into consciousness. And then suddenly, click went her face into a look of almost seraphic calm. "I'm all right," she said and smiled. "I'm quite all right, Miss Honey, so don't be alarmed." [The child is telling the adult not to be alarmed. Ha.]

"You seemed so far away," Miss Honey whispered, awestruck. "Oh, I was. I was flying past the stars on silver wings," Matilda said. "It was wonderful."

Miss Honey was still gazing at the child in absolute wonderment, as though she were The Creation, The Beginning Of The World, The First Morning. (emphasis mine)

[The only other way she could have reacted was to freak out because she felt this was Satanic, no?]

"It went much quicker this time," Matilda said quietly.

"It's not possible!" Miss Honey was gasping. "I don't believe it! I simply don't believe it!" (emphasis mine) She closed her eyes and kept them closed for quite a while, and when she opened them again it seemed as though she had gathered herself together. "Would you like to come back and have tea at my cottage?" she asked.

"Oh, I'd love to," Matilda said.

"Good. Gather up your things and I'll meet you outside in a couple of minutes."

"You won't tell anyone about this . . . this thing that I did, will you, Miss Honey?"

"I wouldn't dream of it," Miss Honey said.

So, to recap:

The "wise, sympathetic adult" reacted twice with disbelief when Matilda just brings it up, and frames the possibility of it as something on the order of the miracles Jesus performed. Then, after the demonstration, 1) she panics, 2) she thinks of the events as possibly dangerous, 3) she continues to see this simple act as something Godly or divine, 4) she exclaims that what she just saw is "not possible," 5) she then exclaims twice that she "doesn't believe it," and then finally she invites Matilda back to her home for tea.

In other words? This "wise, sympathetic adult" "others" the shit out of this little girl. She freely mixes "positive" and "negative" othering, but all of it is extremely othering. If this story were actually taking seriously the way that adult reactions frame and color and impact how psi youth see themselves and their experiences, Matilda would not subsequently react nonchalantly to this display. She would have just learned several very important lessons about her place in society, and might at this point decide that the whole thing is just too scary and should never be attempted again. Because ZOMG look how Miss Honey reacted!!!

And readers remember, this is how the "good adult" in this story reacted!!!

To be clear, I am not saying that it is per se bad to show people reacting negatively to psi. For example, I would find it completely reasonable for Miss Honey to have reacted with fear if Matilda had, for example, psychokinetically lifted a couch and Miss Honey thought she was about to throw it at her. (I highly recommend that webcomic, fwiw.) Not only is that actually a potentially dangerous situation, but real world psychokinesis very much Does Not Work Like That, so yes, it would be scary.

But tipping over a glass of water? ...Really?

It's also important that if characters react negatively to psi, that their reactions have believable consequences. Not to dwell too much on Negative One, but what makes that story so believable is that the characters have believable responses to the events happening around them. Baby Amanda, as she gets older, really internalizes the impact of the fear that others exhibit around her, and to her. The negative responses of her various caregivers, and of many strangers, have an impact on the development of the psyche of the psi child.

Not so in this book, where by the end, Matilda is conveniently also no longer psi, to boot. All that messy stuff about how a psi child would really feel is too inconvenient for a lighthearted children's book, right?

Which brings me to my next point: There aren't any books aimed at young readers, that I know of, that do include any serious treatment of what it feels like to be the psi child to whom adults react with fear, disbelief and ridicule (if not worse). There are no books which address what it feels like to be rejected by your peers because of this difference, or to have your parents tell you that this is make believe for so long you begin to doubt your own sanity. Matilda is not that book, but then, what book is? Well, none, because who would write books for a demographic of children who "do not exist" -- despite the plethora of books which attribute psi awarenesses to those still in the innocence of childhood?

In short, our being "special" as children is about entertainment for others, and almost no books are actually written for us, as children, with the specific challenges we are facing in mind. (I love Negative One, but I would not call it a children's book!) In elementary school, I was super excited if I could get my hands on a book about telepathic children at all -- no matter how poorly their experiences matched up to mine (and it was always quite a stretch).

For an excellent video about one author's experiences growing up psi, there is this essay by author Michele Belanger. Your mileage may vary, of course, and each person's experiences and family are different, but this essay really says a lot of very important things. "'And thus you have the story of hundreds of people in the world today [thousands, actually], wrecked and ruined and convinced that the fault somehow lies with them, because they could not understand what they were feeling, and there was no one around to explain.'"

Do you think Miss Honey really did that good of a job? Stick around for Part 2!
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