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[Forum]

At First Blush

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It must have been sometime in the early fall, I was thirteen and had just moved to a new school. It must have been during science class, because I remember the teacher who pointed at me and told me, with some irritation, to spit out my chewing gum. “Your gum, Karl,” he said.

I was sitting at the back of the class and stood up to walk to the wastebasket in the far corner of the room. That’s when it happened. I was walking between the rows of desks where all my new classmates were sitting, and I started to blush. I had never blushed before, I had hardly ever felt ashamed about anything. On the contrary, I was a child who enjoyed attention, who loved taking up space, who chatted constantly to everyone I met about almost anything. To me, the classroom was an arena where I could compete and show off.

“Addie Mae (Pouting). Pleasant Grove, UT,” by Brian Shumway, from his series Suburban Splendor

“Addie Mae (Pouting). Pleasant Grove, UT,” by Brian Shumway, from his series Suburban Splendor

Then, suddenly, I was blushing. My face was burning with shame. And the process was self-reinforcing, for my burning face, my red cheeks, were visible to everyone, and that made me feel even more ashamed and made me blush even more deeply. It was like an avalanche. From one moment to the next everything became impossible. Just walking across the classroom, which I had always felt perfectly at ease doing, and did without thinking about it, often joyfully, as when I rushed outside during recess, suddenly became a nightmare. I became conscious that there was something odd about the way I was walking, and that made me walk even more clumsily; I was aware of every step, and there was something stiff and mechanical about the way I moved across the room.

I reached the wastebasket, took out my gum, and threw it away. I saw myself from the outside, with the eyes of my classmates, and I realized that I was an idiot. I understood that I was ugly and stupid.

With my gaze fixed on the floor, I turned to go back to my seat.

“Karl Ove’s face is all red!” someone said.

To be a child is to be within yourself, inside your thoughts and feelings. To be a child is to be free of the perceptions of others. To be a child is also always, in a certain sense, to be inconsiderate. Your own needs, your own hunger, your own thirst, your own joy, your own anger — these direct everything you do. To grow up is to learn to show consideration, to know who you are in the company of others, and to act in relation to them, not only to yourself. Shame is our way of regulating this relation. Shame is the presence of the gaze of others within ourselves. That is what I experienced back then, in the classroom. It was like running into a wall: in the years that followed, I couldn’t speak to anyone except my closest family members without blushing. I couldn’t cross an open space without feeling that someone was looking at me. I could hardly do anything for fear that it was somehow wrong.

Powerful forces are at work within social relationships. When you are exposed to them early in life, as a child and a teenager, you don’t know what they are or what they represent or what purpose they serve, only that they are painful, sometimes in unbearable ways. Few things hurt more than being a teenager and feeling that everything about you is wrong, that you don’t belong anywhere, or being ten years old and feeling frozen out by your schoolmates. You are never more alone than that. The question is why such exclusion happens. For ostracism by children and teenage shame are not exceptions, they are the rule; they happen everywhere and all the time.

When I was growing up, there was a children’s world that had a separate existence, out of the sight of adults. Groups of kids would gather on the road outside my house in the afternoons and evenings and move off into the woods, down to the lake, up into the mountains, in and out of one another’s homes. We went skiing or ice skating in the winter, played soccer, went swimming, built forts or played games in the spring, summer, and fall. Even though no adults interfered with what we were doing — except when something got broken or we did something that bothered one of them — we were still not free, we couldn’t do whatever we wanted, for there were rules that applied to us, and they were absolute. You were not supposed to boast, you were not supposed to cry, you were not supposed to be a coward, you were not supposed to fight with girls, you were not supposed to pay attention to clothes or looks, you were not supposed to snitch on anyone, you were supposed to be brave, you were supposed to be loyal. Writing this now, I realize that it sounds like something out of an Icelandic saga. But that’s what growing up in Norway in the 1970s was like. If you broke too many of these rules, or merely kept yourself apart from the community that was maintained by the rules, you were bullied.

Bullying is usually considered the dark side of childhood, and rightly so. But it’s never one person bullying the many, it’s always the many bullying the one, and the one who is bullied is always deviant. Deviance is evidently intolerable. It can’t be permitted; it has to be rubbed out. Why is this so? To bully is to correct; what makes it so cruel is that it is done without empathy, with no feeling for the pain that exclusion inflicts on the person being excluded. But often the correction is appropriate, or at least understandable. Sometimes I meet children who are self-assertive or boastful or in other ways lack boundaries in their relation to others, and I feel like warning them to stop their behavior, so that they don’t come to a bad end. However, no adult warning will do any good, the insecurity or lack of acknowledgment that these children are suffering from cannot be mended with words. But the behavior will cease eventually, for no child’s peer group in the world will tolerate it. Either he will realize on his own, or he will be bullied until he changes his behavior. By that time, great harm may have been inflicted.

On the other hand, for there is always another side to consider: What would a world without bullying, and the community that is maintained by bullying, look like? No rules, no sense of belonging, no community — just individuals who would each be forced to create and maintain their own separate worlds.

Whenever I have maintained this view in discussions, I have been met with the same objection: If bullying were brought to an end, why wouldn’t we be able to create a new community, a better one? My answer is that community demands equality, and equality demands sacrifice — in other words, something or someone has to be sacrificed, namely the one who is bullied. It is the price we have to pay to be more than one. It is impossible to imagine any community that doesn’t exclude, that doesn’t in one way or another demand of its members something that not everyone has.

Many of my writer friends were bullied in childhood, which is not so remarkable, for being a writer is only possible if you are outside the community; only then are you able to identify it, to know it, and to describe it. It strikes me now that a world without bullying would be like a world composed only of writers and artists. I can hardly imagine a more dreadful dystopia.

The desire for everyone to be the same can come from outside oneself, through bullying or other forms of corrective action, or it can come from within, as it did for me that time in the classroom, when I made the bullies’ way of seeing me my own, and mandated it to correct myself. The problem was not so much the external view in itself as the moment that it made its appearance: for puberty, the first years of youth, is precisely the time when another desire and another will arises, namely the desire to be special, separate from your parents and your family and also from your friends and classmates. And how difficult it is, when your desire to be just like everyone else is as strong as your desire to be unique! I remember that I cut my hair very short, wore an army jacket, and pierced my ears, and that I ran into my father in the hall shortly afterward, and that he told me I looked like an idiot. I blushed and felt ashamed, for he was right, of course, but at the same time I felt so strongly the pull of another thing, a thing having to do with music, freedom, the future, individuality. This is an important reason why I became a writer, I think, for in everything I write, I am seeking freedom, which to me is a state that is inaccessible to the gaze of others. And this state, which is not only shameless but also selfless, is not unlike a child’s way of being in the world.

A few days ago I was sitting in the garden having dinner with some friends. Dusk fell slowly around us as we sat there talking and drinking wine. My brother was there, and suddenly he said that I had grown more and more like my father in recent years, and that now watching me sitting there was just like seeing him. I have noticed it myself; sometimes when I face myself in the mirror, it is my father’s face I see. It feels strange and a little creepy. At the same time, there is something about it that I like. Because my son, who will soon turn seven, is not unlike me at his age. He talks constantly about all kinds of things; he has no shame and is always cheerful and unaffected. So there I sit, in the form of my father, watching my son in the form of myself. Of course, he is quite unaware of this, as he is unaware of what is waiting for him out there. Sending him and the other children to school for the first time — that is to say, out into the world on their own — has been a good experience, but it was also heartbreaking, because out there you can’t help them anymore, out there they have to manage on their own: figure out the rules, suffer the blows, make their way inside, seek their way out again, until some kind of balance has been created, the balance between freedom from and responsibility for others. And one day, they too will sit in a garden and know that they resemble their mother or father, and that the kids running around them are just like they themselves once were, before all this, which came to be their life, had begun.

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book 3 (Archipelago) was published in May.

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December 2014