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Joe Lehman

The Peter Pan Syndrome: "I am Charlie Brown" [by Joe Lehman]

Peter Pan SyndromeI should thank Hans Christian Andersen, author of The Steadfast Tin Soldier (and Jon Voight, for that matter) for shaping me as the man I am now. And of course, I should include Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz in the group. I have a confession to make: I really am Charlie Brown. That is to say, I bear the same traits of wishy-washiness, insecurity, yet cautious optimism that define the late Charles Schulz’s signature character in his venerated comic strip Peanuts. My feelings do bruise easily, and I maintain an outwardly ingenuous façade. And of course, when I was nine-years-old, I held the distinct honor of being cast as the understudy of the lead in the superb musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown at my Montessori school.

J.M. Barrie (creator of Peter Pan) and Carlo Collodi (creator of Pinocchio) deserve ample credit here too. I am still a child at heart. I believe the term best used to describe my personality is the “Peter Pan Syndrome.” Or as one sometime friend has put it, I am a man-child (or man-boy, depending on which designation is more apt.)

“Peter Pan Syndrome”, as a clinical term, dates back to Dr. Dan Kiley’s groundbreaking book The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men who have never grown up, first published, ironically in the year of my birth 1983. Kiley followed up a year later with a sequel titled The Wendy Dilemma: When women stop mothering their men.

In my perusing these two books, I become more and more amazed at how accurately my lifelong psychological disposition corresponds with  Kiley’s findings. Take, for example, this passage from his preface:

“During their late teens and early twenties, these men indulge in an impetuous lifestyle. Narcissism locks them inside themselves , while an unrealistic ego trip convinces them that they can and must do whatever their fantasies suggest. Later, after years of poor adjustment to reality, life seems to reverse itself. ‘I want’ is replaced with ‘I should.’ Pursuit of other people’s acceptance is their only way to find self-acceptance. Their temper tantrums are disguised as manly assertion. They take love for granted, never learning how to give it in return. They pretend to be grown-ups but actually behave like spoiled children.”

turned 40-years-old on July 24, 2023, the breaking dawn of middle age, so it would seem that there could be no better time for introspection than right away. It doesn’t come very easy to me to admit that I should have ever been classified as a narcissist. Summer camp 1Given my decades of self-doubt (bordering on self-loathing), I find it hard to believe that I could have ever been in love with my own self. But I certainly have been trapped inside myself, as Kiley phrases it. In that respect, I exhibit a more Charlie Brownish type of broken ego, than one as conceited as belonging to Peter Pan. But it could be just as accurate an analysis to postulate that my ego is composed of a relentless duel between the aspects of Peter Pan and those of Charlie Brown. One from my rotating circles of therapists from over the decades once suggested that I suffer from a “narcissistic injury.” To which, I responded, does that mean that I am a narcissist? No, the therapist corrected, it means I have an injury to my sense of self.

The best retort I could give to someone who accuses me of being narcissistic is “you may say I’m self-involved, but hey, I’m the one who has to suffer the punishment of living with myself twenty-four hours a day.”

Ping-pongIndulging in an impetuous lifestyle, during my late teens and throughout my twenties? I plead, guilty, as charged. Did an unrealistic ego trip convince me that I can and must do whatever my fantasies suggest? Again, yours truly pleads guilty. As for pursuit of other people’s acceptance, is my only way to find self-acceptance? Well, I might have to plead no contest here. Because my constant pursuit of other people’s acceptance actually has occurred simultaneously with my compulsion to live out my impracticable fantasies. So Kiley is merely half-right in this instance. It is right now, in real time, during this period of deep reflection that I do so willingly reevaluate that need of mine to please everyone.

But let us back up to the very beginning, so we can best understand all the events that have led up to this, the fortieth year. We’ll start with my early childhood. I was born two months premature. Two whole months is a long time to not have gestated. By all accounts, I probably shouldn’t have survived at all. The hospital incubator and my own resolve ensured my survival. But there were no lack of a heap of birth defects. The doctors that delivered me, did so by lifting me out head-first, using a pair of tongs. Did those tongs’ impression on my tiny skull cause the various mental illnesses that followed? Stages of mania, depression, and anxiety. Just the tip of the iceberg.

The physical disabilities rode on the coattails of the mental ones. Or is it the other way around? Maybe the mental disabilities rode the coattails of the physical ones. The eternal question. Never mind.

There is cerebral palsy—a mild case, but significant enough. Childhood development with just those weaknesses rendering me slower and unathletic went plenty well toward alienating me from my peers. It should be naturally then that such feelings of alienation led to topsy-turvy mood swings, with aggressive outbursts of rage that became more age-inappropriate as I entered adolescence. By the time I reached the age of my bar mitzvah, I was already highly medicated—Prozac, Depakote, Adderall (those are just the starters. I’ve gone through too many different meds in my life to be able to name them all, without at least forgetting one or two.

But early childhood is easily the worst stage of my life because it is at that time that any child possesses the least bit of self-awareness. A child can be highly intelligent; precocious, but not yet wise. It is quite remarkable then that I have never heard the word autism associated with me until adulthood. Looking back now, it makes perfect sense. I’ve lived as a loner from day one.

Chanukah all 8My religious upbringing played an important role in my childhood. There is the fluctuating conflict between pride in practicing Judaism devoutly, and the feeling of alienation in living as a social minority in a predominantly Christian society. Like all younger people, I was conditioned to confuse popular culture with reality, to some degree. Virtually all television programming was geared toward appealing to the Christian holidays. At least that was how I perceived it to be. That episode of South Park is correct. It is lonely being a Jew at Christmastime. Oh, sure, I could never argue with the fundamental pleasures of receiving presents on Chanukah (those eight crazy nights, to quote the irrepressible Adam Sandler). But it sure was tough to look outside and see Christmas decorations on every other house. The commercial world is the world that children tend to live in. Not seeing any Chanukah-related television programming is quite disaffecting. Another strike against me.

I give my parents, especially my father, the credit for coming from an intellectually superior genepool. My father is an acclaimed poet. Very prominent in literary circles. My mother’s field is graphic design. So, the fact that artistic talent runs naturally through my family is an understatement. Since I first could hold a pencil I’d wanted to be a great writer like my dad. But I don’t think I ever possessed, in my evolution, the ability to discern the understanding that success doesn’t come automatically. I was always lost in my fantasies of how my adulthood was going to turn out. Truly a critical flaw, if there ever has been one. Presumably my first unrealistic ego trip, if I truly adhere to Dr. Kiley’s Peter Pan Syndrome character traits.

If Dr. Dan Kiley is to be deemed successful in his use of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan as a basis for examining the minds of emotionally stunted young adult men, then it comes as no surprise to me that Barrie himself must have had some rudimentary knowledge of what I assume was his own emotionally stunted mind. I turn now to the opening pages of Peter Pan: “I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of a person’s mind. Doctors sometimes draw maps of other parts of you, and your own map can become intensely interesting, but catch them trying to draw a map of a child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and there are probably roads in the island; for the Neverland is always more or less an island… …Of all delectable islands the Neverland is the snuggest and most compact; not large and sprawl, with tedious distances between one adventure and another, but nicely crammed. When you play at it by day with the chairs and the table-cloth, it is not in the least alarming, but in the two minutes before you go to sleep it becomes very nearly real.”

Peter PanNeverland. Everyone that knows of Peter Pan and Wendy and the Lost Boys and Captain Hook is instantly familiar with this mythical destination. Neverland is as recognizable a fantastical place as Oz is in L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, and Wonderland is in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, or Narnia is in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, to name but a few. However, reading Barrie’s definition of Neverland as a child’s state of imagination seems awesomely inspired. Every young individual person has his or her own Neverland, unto their mind. The trouble for me is, I have had such tremendous difficulty moving out of it. In college, I dubbed the repetitive mental state, my Shangri-La existence. Clinically, it is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

I glance again at Dr. Kiley’s overview of the Peter Pan Syndrome: “A careful and thoughtful reading of [J.M.] Barrie’s original play opened my eyes to a chilling reality. As much as I want to believe the contrary, Peter Pan was a very sad young man. His life was filled with contradictions, conflicts, and confusion. His world was hostile and unrelenting. For all his gaiety, he was a deeply troubled boy living in an even more troubling time. He was caught in the abyss between the man he didn’t want to become and the boy he could no longer be.” Contradictions, conflicts, and confusion.

Perhaps I was compensating when I acted as a class clown, off and on in high school. 

October 31, 2023

August 28, 2023

August 14, 2023

June 24, 2023

June 17, 2023

June 10, 2023

October 14, 2022

July 24, 2022

May 26, 2022

April 16, 2022

September 25, 2021

July 04, 2021

May 15, 2021

February 19, 2021

February 12, 2021

November 18, 2012

August 29, 2012

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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