““Construction of identity” is rarely a deliberate, self-conscious process. Early in life, sense of self is associated with the security, protection, and acceptance that infants, toddlers, and preschoolers feel when effectively cared for by adults to whom they feel an attachment. By the late preschool years and early school years, sense of self comes to be additionally associated – positively or negatively – with attributes that parents value and model for their children in the way they live their lives. Over the school years, peer values and peer pressure come to play an increasingly influential role in how older children and young adolescents think about themselves. “Cliques” – the “in crowd” versus the “out crowd” – become important components of identity. Identities that have been strongly developed prior to these years often protect against the developmental difficulties associated with these years.” Wikipedia
Identity, sense of self, self confidence…so much to unpack in this seemingly simple tale of a troubled young girl. Icarus Girl is one of those stories that haunts the reader. It doesn’t seem especially frightening during the reading but afterwards, one is left thinking – almost always a hallmark of an excellent story. Though it was hard to tell if Oyeyemi’s occasionally immature writing style was a reflection of her own young age or the youth of the character, that seemed to draw the reader in even more. I found myself connecting to the main character Jessy through shared childhood experiences and though the ending was not especially fulfilling, the characters seemed alive, vibrantly unique and real. After finishing Icarus Girl, I feel inspired but also unnerved. How easy it is to discount the perception of a child, so easy to get caught up in our adult lives to the point of distraction even when others around us are troubled, too easy to claim the nonexistence of things we can’t see.
I always wanted imaginary friends as a child but I expected them to be like the ones I saw on television, showing up in full human form but only visible to me. Thankfully this never happened but throughout my childhood I had more than a few unexplainable experiences. I quickly learned not to bother telling adults because adults just claimed it was my imagination, end of discussion. These experiences were mostly unintrusive until my teenage years when I began exploring books about the spirit world. I learned that many people have interactions with spirit and there are infinite ways to ground yourself, reinforce your energy so you are insulated from spirits, not disturbed by every stray spark of energy that notices your ability to see. So from this vantage, Icarus Girl was not just a story but something that may or may not have really happened or could really happen. Even though as adults we speak of things being in spirit, people on the other side, someone smiling down upon us, etc., we give no credence or support to children when they speak of similar things. Perhaps, this is why I felt it was such a disturbing tale.
“Once you let people know anything about what you think, that’s it, you’re dead. Then they’ll be jumping about in your mind, taking things out, holding them up to the light and killing them, yes, killing them, because thoughts are supposed to stay and grow in quiet, dark places, like butterflies in cocoons.” ― Helen Oyeyemi,
Another aspect that created a strong emotional response was the detached or frenetic behavior of Jessy’s parents. My parents both worked full time, in fact all my nearby family worked full time. We were a small family, not especially invested in sharing emotions or close personal connections. I was quite young when I began to notice the difference between my family and the ones I saw in pop culture. My family was not very physically demonstrative, I don’t remember any deep emotional, thoughtful, or academic discussions. We were a family of TV watchers, book readers, but not so much talkers. As long as the status quo was met, all was relatively calm but as soon as someone did something unusual, people would freak out. It was always shocking to see big reactions to things that seemed insignificant to one not indoctrinated by society’s rules. As an adult, I have intentionally distanced myself from people who look down on my free-spiritedness and anyone who would disparage my artistic pursuits as frivolous or worthless. Close minded people have no place in my world. I was lucky to have many adult figures in my childhood who were excellent role models and supporters of my creative life, especially my Mother and Grandmother.
My Grandmother and Mother were both intelligent, strong women but they rarely violated social norms, at least not in public. My Grandmother was a vegetarian and it often seemed like my conservative Uncles would try to bully her into eating meat. She would gracefully decline and laugh as if wasn’t incredibly rude for them to continue to harass her decades after she chose to stop eating animals. She was also a jazz singer and would frequently sit in with the house band if we went to a restaurant with live music. It was strange to see my usually ebullient Republican Uncles, rich with white male privilege, sink in their chairs and get embarrassed at my Grandmother’s confidence and brilliant talent. She may not have been especially famous, but she shined just as brightly as any star. She was an incredible singer and songwriter whose love of music enhanced her life in ways that non-music lovers will likely never understand. She was also psychic but that was a taboo topic so I wasn’t able to get her to discuss much about her extra special abilities.
My Mom was psychic too and an excellent singer but seriously pragmatic, not a fanciful, optimistic, dreamer like Grandmother and myself. Mom was like the bridge between my uptight Uncles and my free-spirited Grandmother. She seemed to understand everybody but during my childhood and teenage struggles, she was working multiple jobs and being a housewife and didn’t have the energy to hear, really hear my problems. My sense told me that she wouldn’t have been able to understand, so unfortunately I didn’t even try. Distance and a better foothold on adolescence allowed a space for me to share more with her, somewhere around age 15, and we truly connected on multiple levels. Before she died suddenly of a heart attack at age 48, there were a precious few years in which we were best friends and I knew I could talk about anything with her.
As an adult, I get it, the problems of a child seem less significant than paying the mortgage, making the groceries, organizing meals, cleaning house, working those jobs, finding harmony in a marriage, endless responsibilities clouding our ability to see when those we love are in need. It was strangely frustrating to relive some of my childhood issues while reading Icarus Girl but I wonder if that was the experience for most readers. As a society, we tend to underestimate the struggles of children and the best ways to help them become resilient, intelligent, empowered, compassionate adults.
“Children who can better cope with frustrations and challenges are more likely to think of themselves as successful, valuable, and good, which will lead to a higher self-esteem. In contrast, children who become easily frustrated and discouraged, often quit or need extra assistance to complete a task. These children may have lower self-esteem if they start to believe that they can’t be successful and aren’t valuable.
External factors, such as messages from other people, also color how children view themselves. Young children with parents, caregivers, and teachers providing them with positive feedback about their abilities and attempts to succeed (even if they aren’t successful the first time) usually have higher self-esteem. On the contrary, when parents, caregivers, or teachers are regularly negative or punitive toward children’s attempts to succeed, or regularly ignore or downplay those achievements, young children will have a poor self-image and a lower self-esteem.
Peers also have an impact on young children’s self-concept. Young children who have playmates and classmates that are usually nice and apt to include the child in activities will develop a positive self-image. However, a young child who is regularly left out, teased, or bullied by same-age or older peers can develop low self-esteem.” Angela Oswald, MSW. MentalHelp.net
Growing up is hard. People are always asking you what you want to be. Some people spend their whole lives just figuring out WHO they want to be, others spend their lives running from that question. Introspection isn’t easy but it is a necessary part of knowing yourself, becoming self-actualized, and ultimately evolving into better and better versions of yourself. One of the ways we improve ourselves is by looking at others and emulating their qualities, ideally the positive ones. I still see many aspects held by both my Mother and Grandmother as ideal human qualities to which I aspire. At the same time, I don’t want to “be” anyone but myself.
“‘D’you still want to be like me, Jessy?’ she said as Jess gazed on in admiration. Jess thought about it, then realised that she didn’t, really. And that she hadn’t for some time. For a little while it had seemed to be … OK just to be her, Jess. She packed up the rest of the coloured pencils as she racked her brains for a tactful way to say it so that Tilly would be nice again, but when she turned around, TillyTilly had gone.” Helen Oyeyemi,