OWhat will happen to the children when there are no more adults? sang Noel Coward, satirizing the self-indulgent hedonism of the 1920s. But Coward’s ironic lyrics seem even more relevant today as traditional values of adulthood, self-control, self-sufficiency and willingness to take responsibility have become sources of anguish rather than a desirable, albeit difficult, end. So what, if anything, has been lost? In her book, journalist and analyst Moya Sarner tries to find answers to this question.
The project grew out of her own experience of psychoanalysis, where four times a week, for several years, she discovered the healing effects of good listening. This, in turn, led her to train as a psychotherapist. She uses her skills as a journalist and what she has learned about listening to explore the controversial question of what becoming a mature adult personality might entail, and why achieving it has become such an ordeal and perplexity for so many people today, including herself. The answer, inevitably, is manifold, as evidenced by her accounts of interviews she conducts with a wide variety of people, which she intersperses with psychological commentary drawn from eclectic sources, as well as meditations on her own attitudes to life. adulthood that were sparked and magnified by these conversations.
The title of the book comes from one of the best known songs from the show of one of the best known children’s books (Matilda) and at one point looking for some expert opinion on her topic, Sarner consults children’s writer Jacqueline Wilson. Wilson’s candid view of adulthood is fun and dismissive: “That’s when you start pretending.” While Sarner disagrees with Wilson, she acknowledges that much of inauthentic maturity consists of versions of impostor syndrome, which one interviewee describes as feeling “like a pretender in the body of an adult. Another, a retired academic, recounts having worked in an institution where it was “important to flaunt”, a character concealing a more radical personality. Several interviewees describe trembling at the responsibilities that come with parenthood and yet, conversely, feel initiated by them into a new maturity.
And then there is the desire to escape the eroding effect on the mind of much of everyday life, which WH Auden described as “in headaches and in worry / Vaguely life leaks” and what Sarner calls “contents insurance”. This means that for some, like Wilson, adulthood is a qualitatively false goal. One interviewee complains about the recurring call to “be realistic”. “There’s nothing realistic about the world we live in… And that’s why I don’t think I’ll ever grow up.” This notion of purity in childhood vitiated by adulthood is the core of Romanticism, embodied in Wordsworth’s “Shades of Prison Begin to Close / On the Growing Boy” or Blake’s Songs of Innocence. The question then becomes: is what Freud called the reality principle, its reference to maturity, incompatible with maintaining the vision and creativity of childhood?
Sarner’s effort to unravel the many pieces of this conundrum is a noble, if not entirely successful, undertaking. The most compelling parts come from the journalist in her. She has a way with people, which I imagine serves her well in her therapy work. She is adept at drawing her subjects and getting an authentic inner track to their emotional vicissitudes. The theoretical interpolations are the least satisfying aspects of the book. I confess to being alarmed when she writes her own analysis: “For example, if I say something that I find positive, [my analyst] can tell me that she actually thinks I feel the opposite, or that I feel envious of her, or that I’m angry with her. In my professional experience as an analyst, a Kleinian insistence on unconscious hatred and envy can cause harm. Sarner brings many other psychological sources into play, but too often they come across as undigested goblets of theory, lacking the liveliness of her person-to-person encounters that she brings to life with telling detail.
The nature and timeliness of adulthood is not a simple matter in a time when it is entirely possible to extend childhood to the end of one’s life. Is it good for society? Is it good for the individual? These are non-trivial questions and the answer must be, as in so many areas: it depends. I think Sarner is correct in believing that there is such a thing as a mature adult with a well-preserved and nurturing inner child, however rare that ideal may be. But her book suggests that as a society we are bad at producing them – and that there are too many of them who are sadly stuck in the confines of childhood, unable to find new and lasting ground.
The Gardener by Salley Vickers will be released in paperback by Penguin on July 7.
When I Grow Up: Conversations With Adults in Search of Adulthood by Moya Sarner is published by Scribe (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.