Some thoughts on writers and childhood

Lately, perhaps for obvious reasons, I’ve been thinking about the myriad ways a troubled childhood can influence and preoccupy a fiction writer.

Louis Auchincloss has argued:

You don’t know the things in your childhood that influence you. You can’t possibly know them. People today try to analyze the early environment and the reasons for something that happened, but if you look at children of the same family — children who have identical parents, go to identical schools, have an almost identical upbringing, and yet who have totally different experiences and neuroses — you realize that what influences the children is not so much the obvious externals as their emotional experiences.

He’s right, of course. Plenty of people have shitty parents, grow up in deplorable, abusive conditions beyond our wildest imaginings. And then they leave home and do what my Texan grandmother always advised: they pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start over. They bury their memories, or come to terms with them. They don’t feel the need to reveal what they felt to others.

Yet many writers dwell on their childhood, replaying again and again the same events and emotions–in their minds, if not in their fiction. This obsessive focus on the traumas of youth may prevent them from enjoying life in the present, from experiencing joy and hope and love and pleasure.

Franz Kafka, for instance, was famously cowed by his father:

Particularly vivid to Kafka was his childhood memory of an incident in which he repeatedly cried from his bed for water, whereupon his father removed him to a balcony and locked him out of the house. Years later, at age thirty six, the event still powerfully haunted Kafka, and in a missive later published as Letter to His Father he reproached Hermann Kafka for his crude methods. “For years thereafter,” Kafka wrote, “I kept being haunted by fantasies of this giant of a man, my father, the ultimate judge, coming to get me in the middle of the night, and for almost no reason at all dragging me out of bed onto the pavlatch–in other words, that as far as he was concerned, I was an absolute Nothing.”

As he aged, Kafka’s self-loathing was so complete that he “was psychologically incapable of reciprocating a woman’s love,” and confessed to a friend that “he could only love women unlikely to share his feelings.” (From Contemporary Authors.)

Dostoevsky “wrote with warmth about his mother, Mariia Fedorovna, but wrote nearly nothing about his father and is reported to have said that his childhood was difficult and joyless.” (From Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 238, Russian Novelists in the Age of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.) Karen Gocsik contends that this tension in Dostoevsky’s life “between harsh judgment and forgiving love … would be his life’s theme, recurring throughout his major works.”

Edgar Allan Poe’s mother died before he turned three, after his father had abandoned the family. Poe was raised by relatives. Some scholars have speculated that feelings of abandonment compelled the detachment and horror wrought in his stories. At the age of twenty, he inscribed in an autograph album a revealing poem that was not published until after his death:


From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were; I have not seen
As others saw; I could not bring
My passions from a common spring.
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow; I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone;
And all I loved, I loved alone….

Graham Greene once said that an unhappy childhood is a writer’s capital.

While it would be overstating things to say that all writing is concerned with the traumas of childhood–many of my friends refrain from mining their own lives, factually or emotionally, in fiction–enough writers admit to penning stories about, or inspired by, their childhoods that it is impossible to deny that there is a connection in many cases.

The pop-psychological wisdom is that writers focus on their lives to make sense of them, sort through them, and in the end move beyond them. Recently I’ve been asking myself whether this is true.

Do we write because we want to synthesize events and move on? Or is writing about childhood a sign that we are stuck, endlessly reliving the bad things that happened, never able to exist apart from them?

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