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So you think you're special...

I just started reading Jean M. Twenge's book Generations and it's bringing back a flood of associations and memories from my Generation X childhood. This might be one of my most disjointed and naval-gazing (yet lighthearted) posts to date, but as we'll see, that's pretty appropriate, given the topic at hand...

I read an article a while ago called The Satanic How-To Guide to Exalted Girldom by Fiona Helmsley about, among other things, how the author lied her way through middle school in pursuit of the kind of quasi-mythic popularity inspired by the Sweet Valley High series of books for "young adults" (because it was the eighties and the word "Tween" hadn't been invented yet). Here's an excerpt:

Because pretty, popular girls were almost always depicted as being wealthy or upper-middle-class, I also began to lie about my family's finances. Undermining my fib was our modest, slightly run-down home next to a gas station on a major thoroughfare in town, where my sister and I could often be seen doing gymnastics in the front yard. I incorporated the gas station into my lie. My family owned it, I said."

If you grew up in the 80s, the preceding paragraph might have brought a pang of familiarity (or shame lol). In fact, it reminded me of a list I compiled once as an exercise from one of those creative writing self-help books, under the (somewhat appropriately) deceptive heading "childhood impressions."

While it may have started out as a list of impressions that children have of the world, it quickly evolved (or devolved?) into a list of weird, fucked up things my friends and I did or believed or obsessed over or lied about between the ages of five and thirteen.

Some of these memories are as clear as if they happened last year... like my friends and I spending the entire bus ride to school through downtown Seattle in rush-hour traffic every morning hunkered down in the back seat staring out the rear window and judging people in their cars. We took turns writing down license plate numbers of potential "kidnappers" and spazzing out hysterically whenever the targets of our surveillance exhibited any reaction at all to the sight of our faces pressed up against the glass like a bunch of sketched-out little lab monkeys.

Disclaimer: I wouldn't want anyone to think I actually did all (or even any) of these things, but of course I'll admit to some of them. The rest I either directly observed or heard about from friends. In that sense (and only in that sense), they're all true.

Childhood impressions

  • Trusting that adults will drop everything to watch you and your friends perform elaborate dance routines you spent all day working on

  • ...with several costume changes

  • ...that sometimes last through one entire side of a mix tape (that's 45 minutes for those of you born after 1995)

  • Feeling you are "half" animal; horse, dog, cat, rabbit (werewolf?)

  • Suspecting you were adopted (if you weren't)

  • Creating an origin story where one or both of your parents were: aliens, mutants, royalty in exile, witches, vampires, a race of magicians/shapeshifters, subjects of a secret government program of genetic experimentation

  • ...naturally, this means you have a secret identity that you must never reveal (except when you do)

  • The certainty that you will develop super/mutant/magical powers (they usually manifest around puberty)

  • Knowing you can communicate psychically with animals, friends, siblings, the dead, your home planet

  • Being convinced you have a long-lost twin

  • ...with whom you may or may not share a psychic connection

  • Wanting to be invisible, or to have the ability to fly

  • ...and practicing for it

  • Trying out blindness around the house (maybe with a bandana and a stick)

  • Test driving L'Eggs egg breast implants

  • Pretending to be deaf, affecting a foreign accent, a lisp or a limp (in public)

  • Faking amnesia

  • Pretending to faint

  • Impersonating your own secret twin

  • Inventing an imaginary boyfriend or girlfriend

  • ...who you met over the summer

  • ...who goes to another school

  • ...who is fabulously wealthy

  • ...or a child star (which explains why you have to keep it a secret)

  • ...or a vampire/werewolf/alien (yes, this predated Twilight by decades)

  • Telling everyone your house is haunted

  • ...and producing bent spoons and mangled forks as "evidence"

  • ...inviting your friends over for a seance/exorcism/conjuring

  • Pretending you're possessed, have multiple personalities or repressed memories from a kidnapping/alien abduction/previous life/government experiment (again, this predated Stranger Things by decades)

  • Combing the library for ghost stories and true crime murder stories to flesh out your past-life/poltergeist/demonic possession narrative

Pop culture both fuels and feeds off the predisposition of children to feel they are magically special and privileged; that if you can just keep a low profile through high school, you can then claim your birthright as Sleeping Beauty, Superman, Harry Potter or Sidney from Alias. As the first of those examples indicates, this is an origin story as old as time, but the 1975 film Escape to Witch Mountain is the earliest example I can remember from my formative years. The rise of Marvel Comics in the 80s took the trope to a whole new level.

Firestarter by Stephen King was published in 1980. I was barely ten years old when I read it, before I got into the X-Men, etc. and I remember being struck by his description of what having "psychic powers" would feel like. It was so easy as a kid to imagine that you too could set things on fire and smite people with your mind if you got angry enough. Even the less flashy but still lethal powers of mental persuasion that her dad wielded, although he was quickly incapacitated by their repeated use, seemed perfectly plausible.

Books, TV shows and movies throughout my formative years made such things as telepathy, telekinesis and the ability to lash out at people with the deadly force of your manifest rage seem commonplace. Of course twins could communicate with only their minds (apparently even the Sweet Valley High twins shared brief episodes of psychic connection), and in the days before cell phones it almost seemed like a necessary adaptation. Of course little kids could see ghosts and E.T.s, and everyone had the occasional prophetic dream, visitation from a dead relative or guardian angel (often in the guise of an old homeless person who imparted a critical piece of advice or encouragement before mysteriously disappearing).

The website TV Tropes points out that "a similar type of character exists in most of the output of Stephen King." He at least went to great lengths to make it clear that the downside of supernatural "gifts" usually outweighed the benefits. Some people had them, some people didn't, but make no mistake, these powers were a burden and maybe you should consider yourself lucky that you weren't so "special."

But yeah, right.

A generation of "latchkey kids" internalized these ideas and decades later, that idealized self-image occupies the part of the brain that was once reserved for thoughts of "god." The once-prolific blogger known as The Last Psychiatrist (an actual psychiatrist who wrote eloquently and anonymously about the mental health industry and the ills of modern society) described this phenomenon at great length. Too pervasive to be a mental disorder, he didn't hesitate to call it out as an epidemic of narcissism, a new mode of groupthink that started with the Baby Boomers and was now reaching saturation levels. He wrote a series of essays referred to collectively as The Matrix Effect. Here's an excerpt:

You walk through life diligently performing the tasks assigned to you, automatically. But always the thousand yard stare, the tiniest expectation that it is all about to change... you hold active the remote probability that you are more than your current appearance. You're not unfinished, you're undiscovered. If, in the preposterous situation of alien invasion or talent scout or ninja attack, you'd know exactly what to do... You know ninjas aren't going to attack. But... In a reality which would permit the existence of a ninja attack, it is inevitable that it would allow you to know kung fu.

Office Space, American Beauty and Fight Club all came out in 1999, the same year as The Matrix, and all those movies feature a pivotal scene — essentially the same scene — in which the main character or characters have had their fill of the maddening tedium of office life and, acting as audience proxies, they express their pent-up frustrations in the only meaningful way possible; creative destruction. Catharsis through chaos. The id of an entire generation is unleashed upon the sterilized, fluorescent-lit prison cells of modern middle-class life.

These movies seemed to suggest that even if you couldn't awaken to a reality where the life you knew is merely an illusion and your destiny is to save humanity from imprisonment, you could still throw off the shackles of corporate conformity ("You are not your fucking khakis"), smash up some office supplies, laugh in (or punch) the face of smug middle-management, commit an audacious act of compensatory extortion and lay claim to a more authentic existence in... Construction work? The afterlife? The ruins of a post-capitalist survivalist utopia?

Director David Fincher said of Fight Club: "We're designed to be hunters and we're in a society of shopping. There's nothing to kill anymore, there's nothing to fight, nothing to overcome, nothing to explore. In that societal emasculation this everyman is created."

The life of an über-mensch is a lonely one, though, and if you want to bring your friends along for the ride into self-actualization and a more meaningful life, you're going to need a zombie apocalypse. But we're skipping ahead.

The Last Psychiatrist (TLP for short) wrote about three distinct phases of this "Matrix Effect" on my generation. Phase two is described in his article on Wanted, an über-ridiculous movie starring James McAvoy as an everyman whose true identity and violent, awesome destiny as a mystical assassin are revealed to him by Angelina Jolie, in a role that, as TLP puts it, embodies: "Madonna, whore and death instinct, in high def." Here's an excerpt:

The 80s adolescent hits the 90s full force, then 2000, and with every passing year it becomes more certain he will not learn kung fu or join the special forces. Now what? How is he supposed to find true love if he was never in the special forces? Answer: go find a girl who was in the special forces. Just in time for the first midlife crisis, Hollywood has our back: Alias, Underworld, Lara Croft, etc. You think we like those women because they are sexy? ...It has nothing to do with sex, it is all about love... It's probably impossible that I can take out thirty terrorists and save the girl. But it's slightly less impossible that I could meet a woman who could do it. Phew."

More examples, if you need them, are Kill Bill 1&2, La Femme Nikita, Run Lola Run, The Fifth Element and the Resident Evil franchise (okay, pretty much anything with Milla Jovavich).

The Last Psychiatrist concludes his "Matrix Trilogy" with a brief article on the movie "Hanna," a strange little one-off feature from 2011 about the daughter of a rogue agent from a secret government program who escapes to the frozen wilds of distant wherever to raise his genetically-enhanced progeny in safety and seclusion and train her to be a lean, mean, sociopathic killing machine until the day when she decides she's ready to return to the world and fulfill her destiny; to seek her (his) ultimate revenge on the agents who killed her mother and tried to kill them in an effort to destroy all evidence of the cancelled secret government program of which she was a product.

TLP sums up the psychology behind "Hanna" thusly:

The next step in the life cycle was to have kids, and a really optimistic narcissist, still clinging to the fantasies, might say to himself: I am old and fat, and I've forgotten all my Russian... What hope is there? Your wife is older and heavier... But the kids... they are limitless reservoirs of possibility. Sure, they don't know kung fu now, but they could learn.... Why is it always a daughter? ...First, take a look at your son: he's an idiot. Maybe he's really smart but he's as physical as a bag of water; or a super-spaz who can barely articulate a sentence. The only thing he's really, really good at is the left and right fire buttons. But your daughter, at two, at four, at six, seems very sophisticated... And she's so pretty."

(As an aside, Stephen King's inspiration for Firestarter was his own ten-year old daughter! She's so pretty... and wise beyond her years.... but if she gets out of control, she could destroy the fucking world. Wow. We love you too, Dads.)

So, you know — who knows? Maybe despite being raised by a generation that studies for parenthood the way others study for the bar exam, despite the burden of knowing they're the magic beans their parents bought in trade for the only identities they'd ever known — for a long-term investment in the roles of Supermom and Dad — despite the narcissism, helicopter parenting and neurotic need to have their kids think they're cool; despite the medicalization of personality formation into syndromes and disorders, and the fact that they're never separated from their phones, the kids of today might turn out alright. After all, we did.

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