Childhood memories worm their way into subconscious adult minds

Barbara Streisand seems to have been so impressed by Michael Jackson’s ‘sweetness’ and ‘childishness’ when she met him twice that she felt the need to defend his reputation against the onslaught that followed a recently broadcast documentary.

MY DAY of childhood ignominy and shame stands out because it was exceptional. That day, if I’d developed horns and a tail, nobody would have been surprised. My mother spouted horrified reproach in a sporadic way, like a water tap with an airlock. How could I? What kind of a child would ever? The very idea of inflicting such cruelty on a dumb animal.

I absorbed all the punishment she wanted to deliver, although some of it was puzzling to a six-year-old. The dumb animal bit, for starters. Would it, I silently wondered, have been less ghastly if I’d cut up an animal that could talk, like my grandfather’s budgie? Also, I wasn’t sure if a worm was an animal, but it did not seem a good time to do genus-clarification.

“God almighty,” my mother spurted, “the poor harmless defensive yokes.” Cut to an even more puzzled six-year-old who had, up to that point, believed yokes were found only in eggs. Three months ago, she pointed out bitterly, I had been afraid that a particularly undulant large worm would eat my tricycle and now look what I’d done.

What I had done was cut up two live worms, in the belief that I would thereby increase the worm population in our back garden. Nor did I do the fell deed on my own. I had several witnesses, including my best friend Anne Sheehy. My mother suggested that when Anne Sheehy told Mrs Sheehy about vermiform massacre just up the road from where they lived, my friendship with Anne was goosed. This, fortunately, didn’t turn out to be the case. Maybe Anne didn’t tell her mother, or maybe Mrs Sheehy wasn’t that pushed about worm elimination, but we stayed pals.

I remember at one point in that awful day pointing out that all the bits of the worm I had subdivided had actually crawled away, so maybe they were going to live long and happy independent lives.

“YOU tell her,” my mother snarled at my father at that point. He refused to provide a nature study lesson, offering as his reason the unlikelihood of the recurrence of the crime and anyway it was bedtime. She favoured him with a look. When my mother favoured you with a look, death at the business end of a scimitar was preferable. My sister just shook her head sadly as if only her essential nobility of spirit could sustain her in the face of her deep disappointment in me.

Every element of that day is alive in a mental drawer labeled “Crimes of my Childhood”. Although, in fairness to me, the plural doesn’t apply: I didn’t smoke out the back of the school bicycle shed; nor steal lipstick in Woolworths; nor cheat in exams; nor sneak sips of sherry out of the sideboard; nor inform on other primary school kids to the teacher. (To be brutally honest, I’d have informed on them in a heartbeat, except that I was absent so often from school because of accidents that I hardly knew the names of the students in my class, let alone any bad things they did that I could gain by snitching about.) The only really bad thing I can remember doing in my entire childhood was worm-surgery.

The two worms involved have haunted me my entire life. When I started to read books about psychopaths and spree killers, I found out that many of them evinced an early tendency towards weirdness and wickedness by torturing small animals, and I watched myself for signs of impending mass murdering. Even though I still wasn’t sure if worms were classifiable as small animals.

When, decades later, my then 18-month-old son took to washing worms in the back garden, he caused me an odd discomfort. It was as if my conscience had burped in company. I hovered over him like a search and rescue helicopter, ready to intervene on behalf of the worms. He would harvest them, take a handful to a saucer of water on the flagstones, wash them thoroughly but gently, and set them down beside the saucer to dry. They would lie there for a minute or two, clearly stunned by the experience, before legging it — not that a worm is really capable of much legging — back to the flowerbed whence they came. You could imagine them arriving home to their mothers, properly dirtied again, and telling about the horrible day they’d had. I was just relieved they stayed intact and my son hadn’t inherited evil tendencies towards worms from his mother.

What I didn’t know, and what would have saved me a lot of misery throughout my life, is that an awful lot of quite well-behaved children cut worms in half and — even more importantly, that the half with the brain in it usually regenerates into a whole worm. Who knew that worms had brains? A team of organismic and evolutionary biologists at Harvard University have found out that some worms will even survive more radical subdivision. So, on all fronts, I didn’t deserve the obloquy visited on me at six, which sparked into vivid memory — oddly — when I read Barbra Streisand’s comments about the men who have accused the late Michael Jackson of repeatedly molesting them when they were children.

The singer seems to have been so impressed by Jackson’s “sweetness” and “childishness” when she met him twice that she felt the need to defend his reputation against the onslaught represented by the recently broadcast documentary.

Streisand is one of the most talented performers alive and acutely sensitive to the power of words. Several decades back, she analyzed the differences in the way the same behaviours are interpreted when manifested by men, as opposed to women, and although only about 10 lines long, the list is still valid, still worth quoting.

WHAT she said about Jackson’s accusers is equally fascinating, because, in its brevity, it exemplifies two profound misunderstandings of child abuse.The first is her dismissive statement that the children involved, at the time, were “delighted to be there”. Of course they were. But their delight did not constitute the permission they were too young to give for the sexual activity they claim Jackson seduced them into.

The second misunderstanding is in her observation that the two men went on to marry and have children. So, she deduces, they’re fine. If the abuse happened as they claim (and Barbra Streisand doesn’t query that) then it will have haunted them throughout their lives. It’s not trivial to point out that if, at my advanced age, I still miserably recall one childhood afternoon involving two worms, these two men are likely to miserably and constantly recall months of abuse by an adored icon.

As for the notion that being married and parenting children in some way proves normality, the world is full of couples who prove the contrary. Starting with Fred and Rosemary West.

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