Saturday, January 19, 2013

Runaways (Bunnies and Children and Parents)

          I have hated The Runaway Bunny from the first time I read it which was soon after the arrival of my daughter.  Margaret Wise Brown’s other famous book, Good Night Moon, has wonderful surreal moments like its blank page saying “Goodnight nobody,” but The Runaway Bunny always has seemed like a threat.
            Here’s a baby bunny who dreams of traveling, and the mother says that she will pursue him wherever he goes and bring him back.  He tries to imagine various ways to escape, including becoming a flower, a boat, a tree, and a circus performer, but the mother insists that whatever ingenious form he takes, she can find one that is more controlling and domineering.  If he's a flower, she'll be a gardener. If he's a boat, she'll be the wind "and blow you where I want you to go." Eventually, the bunny decides "I might just as well stay where I am," and the mother rewards him with a carrot.
            You can't run, you can't hide, you can't get away from mommy, so don't even try.
            I refused to read this story to my children.
            Then, at a party full of parents (because that’s the kind of parties I go to now), someone mentions the book, and I start to go off on it as an authoritarian, ideological, fascist, tract.  As I’m revving up about this tale of a smothering mother, a friend announces her fear of crystal meth.  I’m struck by this seeming non-sequitur, and shut up to listen.  She had read a New York Times article about meth’s horrific effects when her daughter was young, and she had developed a fear of her child getting addicted to drugs.  She explains, “I decided whatever my daughter would do, I was determined that I would go get her.”  As she’s speaking, I suddenly remember various movie scenes like Traffic where the father gets the daughter who has ended up in terrible circumstances.
            Would I go and get my children?  I hope so.
            Is the rescuing of a child from drugs, prostitution, destitution, homelessness, different than blowing them back home when they’re a boat trying to sail away?  Of course.  And yet . . .
            I also begin to recognize the other side of the story.  I ran from my family.  Again and again.   And sometimes I ended up where I wanted to be rescued, and sometimes I needed to be.  Throughout the years, there have been offers from my father of emergency loans, a place to stay, and calming advice.  He never insisted that I come home or forced me to, but that was always an option.  My father has always been there, and he has always made me feel safe.
            I want my children to feel this way.  When my daughter calls out in the middle of the night, “Are you there?”  We answer, “Yes, go back to sleep.”  My son stomps off down the block, yet he keeps looking over his shoulder to make sure we’re watching and will follow if he gets too far away.  We will.  We’re here.  For now.
            And yet we can make no promises.  We know too much about what can happen.
            Most of us have moments and stories that haunt us. In 2011, a mentally disabled  homeless man was beaten to death by police.  As they struck him, he begged them to stop, and, at the end, he began calling “Dad. Dad. Dad” over and over.  I cannot think of this – I cannot write this – without crying.
            The Runaway Bunny tries to insist I will be there for you.  I will protect you.  I will.  I will.  I will.
         I should have recognized earlier the over-insistence.  The mother is attempting to convince herself, but she knows it’s not true.   It’s a promise that can’t always be fulfilled, a fantasy, one that stems from fear, from our knowledge of inevitable aging and life’s vicissitudes.  At some point, one of us will not be here.  Yet we may want and need to believe we will be, both parents and children.
            Do I wish I had read the book to my daughter and son?  Not really.  I’m still uneasy about it.
            But I won’t run away from it any more.


  1. Thanks, Joe. I have always been just the other side of the fence from you on this book: I've felt uneasy in my love for the story... always on guard against how it paints me as a mother bunny smothering my child with excess love, excess watching, obsessive following. I always sensed mama rabbit trying to convince herself, and appreciated her overabundant love, but have never found nearly the clarity you express here. So, again, thanks. And did you ever read _The Little Fur Family_ or the weird story about the scarecrow boy, or the completely lovable _Big Red Barn_? I love Margaret Wise Brown.

  2. Interesting. I have a completely different reading. I imagine that the child is testing the mother: "Will you come after me if I go? Will you find me?" The mother's repeated insistence on following and finding the child is a reassurance. Funny how we read ourselves in books. And @ Betsy: love Big Red Barn, though there was a long, long day in early parenthood where I was "forced" to read it nearly 30 times.