Primal Scenes

Mary Zaborskis

This past year, Yoplait began airing a commercial, entitled “Mmm,” which features a family—a man, woman, and two children—eating yogurt, producing a chorus of “Mmms” as they ingest. The mother emits a particularly deep “Mmm,” to which the father responds with a louder “Mmm.” With the yogurt and spoon in hand, he starts rapidly banging the kitchen table, finally climaxing with a “Woo!” The children stare incredulously while their mother steals a quick glance at her daughter. The commercial then cuts to the Yoplait slogan: “Over 125 flavors for a family to love.” (The commercial has since been edited and re-aired so as to omit this version of the family affair.)

Juxtaposing sex and yogurt is nothing new. But what the commercial is really playing on is the proximity of children to adult sexuality in the context of the family. On the one hand, it depicts a typical primal scene—the psychoanalytic term for when a child witnesses a sex act involving adults, usually parents, that can produce either trauma or excitement, even if the child doesn’t comprehend what he or she is seeing. In recent television history, think of the Emmy-winning episode of Modern Family, “Caught in the Act,” the multiple instances of Sally Draper walking in on adults in Mad Men, or this 2007 Tostitos commercial: in these cases, children confront adult sexuality at inopportune moments, with consequences ranging from mild horror to anger to apathy. In the Yoplait commercial’s turn at this trope, the children both witness and confirm the father’s orgasm by being unable to interpret his pleasure, causing their mother to glance at them helplessly, unsure if her children register they were an audience for—and perhaps even participants in—their father’s lactose lust.

In all of these instances, the family embodies a contradiction between a cultural fantasy that wants children to be asexual and protected from sexual knowledge and experiences, and the fact that children not only come into frequent contact with sex, but that this contact is heightened in the familial sphere.

The primal scene names a singular event, obscuring the ways that children are always in proximity to sex, both inside and outside the home. Sex is anything but a private act relegated to private spaces—schools, laws, health organizations, and the media are among the institutional and cultural forces that discuss, portray, and discipline sex in public spheres inhabited by children. The modern family is one domain where the lines between public and private become especially blurred, a site where adults are complicit in carrying out institutional and culture desires for controlling children’s relationship to sexual experience and knowledge.

Children’s relationship to sexuality is most prominent when it is their own sexuality being disciplined; adult sexuality is the elephant in and out of the bedroom, present but off-limits to children’s scrutiny. The direction of power is such that children cannot discipline adults, but adults can discipline children. This is why children walking in on parents engaged in a sexual act is considered traumatic, while adults walking in on children is either ignored, as parodied around the 2:45 mark of this recent Saturday Night Live short, or an invitation to enforce rules over who can and cannot be in the child’s bedroom, when the door must be open, and what activities are and are not allowed under a parent’s roof.

<i>Woodcut of Family Dining, from the Roxburghe Ballads</i>. From Wikimedia Commons

This formula is not the rule, though, and Nina Stibbe’s Man at the Helm, Asali Solomon’s Disgruntled, and Camille DeAngelis’s Bones & All are each recent novels that reveal how children break cultural scripts of sexual silence through their relation to adult sexuality. They reveal the illusion of adult power over children’s relation to sexuality, and invite us to recognize children as capable of sexual agency, an agency they may exercise not over their own sexuality but rather over that of the adults in their lives, whose sexuality they manage, witness, or inherit.

The title Man at the Helm refers to the partner that two young sisters hope to find for their newly divorced mother. The novel could be more aptly retitled Girls at the Helm, for the sisters matter-of-factly take charge of their mother’s sex life, trying to match her with local men, both single and attached. The matter-of-factness of the girls’ dalliances in seemingly adult matters fills the story with dry humor, and this witty tone ironically asks us to take seriously the position of children in relation to sexual knowledge: one might find the story humorous because the children must not be able to fully comprehend what they’re seeing and meddling in, but perhaps the joke is on the audience—the children, it turns out, know exactly what they’re seeing and doing.

At the age of nine, in 1970, the narrator Lizzie and her sister learn that their father had a “love affair with Phil from the factory,” and they must relocate to a village where they are immediately shunned because of their “mother’s divorcedness.” The sisters write to their father about their grave “concerns about the future,” which grow as they watch their mother “become a menace and a drunk and a playwright.” Their mother’s inability to care about the future, which becomes evidenced in the text through neglected piles of laundry, growing piles of debt, and hoarded piles of prescription pills, drives the children to take the future into their own hands.

Their concerns come from the potential consequences of their current situation: Lizzie’s sister fears that “children of the chronically unhappy … often become wards of court.” The threat of state intervention into their family incites the sisters to make it their “main aim in life … to find a new husband for our mother. Not only for her happiness but to keep ourselves from being made wards of court and ending up in the Crescent Homes.” The sisters achieve this by impersonating their mother when they “contact, by letter, the suitable men in the area and invite them to have a drink with her and hope that it would lead to sexual intercourse and possibly marriage. Obviously one at a time.”

What looks typical might be occluding fascinating disruptions to the usual adult-child dynamics.

The girls’ understanding of male sexuality informs the content of these letters and the ways they attempt to orchestrate the ensuing dates. While we don’t know the origin of this knowledge, as they set their mother up on more dates, they learn more about these encounters, sometimes by having a literal front-row seat. For example, they learn that “it had been a mistake … not to have offered any snacks [to the first date] … if there was one thing I knew for definite about men it was that they cannot perform sex if hungry.” When their mother shares that she is pregnant, Lizzie realizes their mother “wasn’t sure whether or not we’d realized that she and Charlie were intimate in that way. We did realize—my sister and I had seen the two of them. Charlie with his hairy bottom going up and down on top of her, as she lay on the rug in front of the fire, fast asleep.” Here, witnessing adult sexuality—whether through hearing it or seeing it—doesn’t traumatize the girls, but actually gives them more information about how to set up their mother for a successful relationship.

The children take charge of adult sexuality to prevent state intrusion into their home, but this control is exerted in order to maintain the family, and so reasserts state-sanctioned desires of what the home and family should look like. That the desired final product is achieved through such queer means, though, suggests that what looks typical might be occluding fascinating disruptions to the usual adult-child dynamics.

Attempts to prevent state intrusion into the family are also at play in Asali Solomon’s Disgruntled. Set in 1980s Philadelphia, the novel follows eight-year-old Kenya as she observes the community service, social activities, and escalating fights of her parents, Johnbrown and Sheila. One of these fights pivots on MOVE, the black liberation group based in West Philadelphia, and the benefits of communal living. Johnbrown admires the model of the “traditional African family” that “share[s] child raising and resources,” a view that Sheila dismisses. After the 1985 state-sanctioned bombing of the West Philadelphia home of MOVE, which kills 11 citizens, her mother and their friends begin questioning some of Johnbrown’s more extreme views, including his admiration for Julian Carlton, the butler of Frank Lloyd Wright who killed Wright’s mistress and children with arson and an axe. Johnbrown admires his style: “Just burn it all down.”

One day, Kenya learns that her father has been having an affair with one of their family friends, Cindalou, and he proposes that Cindalou and the child with whom she’s pregnant move in: “I’d like for us all to be a family.” Sheila vehemently rejects this proposal, and Kenya witnesses the vicious fight that unfolds, which results in her mother being shot and her father’s subsequent disappearance and the issuing of a warrant for his arrest. Johnbrown’s fantasy of the traditional African family cannot be realized, at least not with Sheila and Kenya; nor can the family remain as it has been. With Johnbrown on the run, Sheila and Kenya move to the Main Line near Johnbrown’s estranged but wealthy mother, who enrolls Kenya in private school.

The section of the novel that follows the shooting is entitled “The Little Princess,” perhaps capturing how Kenya has found a way to resolve the conflicted position in which her parents placed her: she is able to occupy the fantasy space of the orphan by becoming increasingly distant and ultimately estranged from her mother. As a child, she would find solace in the story of an orphan who gets to “stay at her boarding school only by becoming a servant.” As Kenya gets older, she repeatedly identifies with being an orphan; when she moves in with friends, she notes that it “felt like she lived in a home for orphans,” and that she has “no family and no future and lousy memories.”

<i>Dad Macks on Mom</i>. Photograph by Paul Stumpr / Flickr

Kenya’s relation to adult sexuality helps her to extricate herself from a kinship she finds overwhelming and enables her to forge new relations with, and ways of being in, the world. To be sure, these new relations leave her sometimes feeling like there is “no future” for her. However, occupying the role of the orphan is not a purely negative state; it’s a way for her, like Julian Carlton, to “burn it all down,” to disrupt the family dynamics that permit adults to determine children’s roles in the family and future.

In Camille DeAngelis’s Bones & All, a family secret withheld from a child emerges when that child feels sexual desire. Maren wakes up on her 16th birthday to find that her mother has abandoned her, leaving a note that reads, “I’m your mother and I love you but I can’t do this anymore,” along with Maren’s birth certificate, naming the father she never knew. That the mother “can’t do this” refers to her inability to keep living with “the bad thing” that Maren has done on multiple occasions since she was a baby: succumb to an insatiable urge to devour people with whom she becomes close. When the novel begins, Maren goes on a quest to find her father, convinced he holds the answers to why she is the way she is.

While Maren’s first victim was a babysitter when she was an infant, her later victims were boys for whom she felt the first inklings of a childhood crush; destruction is what results from those feelings of “hunger and … certainty.” When Maren is in sixth grade, a classmate tells her about black widow spiders and their “sexual cannibalism” and notes that this fact is not in the encyclopedia they’re using for an assignment. Maren replies, “It’s a kids’ encyclopedia … They can’t put the word ‘sex’ in it.” As the classmate continues, Maren “was too nervous to say anything. [Her] heart was thumping like it was trying to get out,” but eventually asks, “Do other species do that?” In this scene, Maren recognizes her own behavior in the act of the black widow spider, seeing the “bad thing” as a form of sexual cannibalism. She also astutely notes that an ostensibly neutral source of knowledge, an encyclopedia, leaves out this key fact about the black widow spider because it’s geared toward children. As a sixth grader, Maren connects “the bad thing” with sexual desire, a connection she has not previously been able to make because she has been protected from sexual knowledge. While this knowledge doesn’t stop Maren from collecting victims, it gives her a way to name and understand this ingrained trait.

Maren hopes finding her father will give her further insight into herself, and she finds others like her on the journey, who dub themselves “eaters.” When another eater, Sully, wonders if “it’s hereditary,” Maren feels a “curiosity prickling beneath [her] skin” and shares that she thinks her father must be one, too: “It was the first time I’d consciously thought it, let alone said it out loud … I want to know where he came from, and why he left us.” Maren believes that her inheritance has left her orphaned and alone, unable to forge close intimacies without fear of doing “the bad thing.” Adult sexuality is both inherited by and incomprehensible to the child.

In Man at the Helm, Disgruntled, and Bones & All, orphanhood looms heavily over each girl protagonist. Lizzie’s fear of orphanhood compels her to find her mother a compatible sexual partner; Kenya’s fantasy of orphanhood enables her to reimagine her position in a volatile family configuration; and Maren’s forced orphanhood allows her to go on a quest to find out about the past that’s been withheld from her. In Man at the Helm, children’s proximity to adult sexuality is an attempt to prevent orphanhood, while Disgruntled and Bones & All suggest orphanhood may be one of the more desirable consequences of children’s proximity to adult sexuality.

In each of these novels, children cultivate agency and subjectivity in situations where adults seem to be setting the terms of what the family can look like and what options for living are available to the child. By interacting with sexuality, children empower themselves in disempowering situations, forging ways of being that exceed adult-child scripts in the family.