Emotional Health · Marriage & Life Partners

Dr. Ford on Emotional Health: When Parents Act Like Children

Older children, such as teenagers, sometimes enact the feelings stirred up within people their own age, and this is what Simon (age 15) does in the book. Instead of processing his feelings, he is propelled into a confusing summer fling with a local girl from the Rhode Island summer town that his mother flees to with the kids in the aftermath of the incident. Poor Kay, however, who is only 11, is at a loss to understand her feelings or articulate them.  A writer of Seinfeld FanFiction, she starts introducing startling sexual themes into her stories, and inevitably, her pages fall into the hands of a reproachful class parent. Deb, concerned but realizing that her daughter is probably reacting to her father’s affair, encourages her to talk about it. Kay, of course, doesn’t really understand her tumultuous feelings. “I don’t know why  [I  am so upset] . . . It’s stupid.”
Of course, Jack’s problem is not just that he slept with a much younger woman who wasn’t his wife (he’d done that before—that’s how he got together with Deb). Throughout the book, Jack emerges as more or less a child. As the book begins, Jack has just installed an art piece that involves the use of one of Simon’s beloved childhood stuffed animals (among other things), which literally blows up and injures a gallery patron at the opening. Jack is concerned only with the legal and career implications of this event. Besides the blatant symbolism here, this is our introduction to Jack (incidentally, it’s the second book I’ve read this year that involves a narcissistic parent who uses a child’s beloved toy in this way). When his wife leaves, he actually goes home to his mother, whom he never used to visit.  Jack’s skeptical stepfather immediately realizes that Jack must be in trouble with his wife, or he wouldn’t have come.
It doesn’t take long for Jack to point out that legally, at least, Deb can’t “take the children away from him.” He does swoop in at the last minute to help find Kay, who has run away, but, of course, he’s the reason she has run away. Though it seems at this point that it might be possible for things to be repaired, the author has made the unusual decision to tell us the outcome in the middle part of the book: Reconciliation will not happen. Jack has left this family long before.

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