The Parent Trap
A sesquicentennial for the father of Peter Pan.
Nov 8, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 08 • By DAWN EDEN
"All children, except one, grow up,” wrote J.M. Barrie, and Dr. Dan Kiley, despite his self-identification with the eternal boy of Barrie’s fiction, was no exception.
Kiley, a psychologist, died of a heart attack at age 54 in 1996, 13 years after hitting the bestseller lists with The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up. The New York Times obituary noted that, while The Peter Pan Syndrome “dovetailed with a widespread feminist view of relations between the sexes,” the author’s next effort, The Wendy Dilemma, failed to capture the zeitgeist. His agent told the Times that the follow-up’s failure was, in part, “because women resisted Dr. Kiley’s suggestion that while the men in their lives might be jerks, the women who mothered them were responsible for their own problems.”
If that is true, Kiley’s audience understood Barrie (1860-1937)—the Scottish author who was born exactly 150 years ago—better than he himself did. To
How can Wendy be “responsible for [her] own problems” when, as every little girl who sees Peter Pan knows, all her attempts to change Peter are futile? Witness this exchange in the home where Wendy and Peter pretend to parent the Lost Boys:
Peter’s helplessness, and Wendy’s inability to change him, is emphasized by his creator’s answer when asked by the producer Charles Frohman to provide a new subtitle for the play: “The Boy Who Could Not Grow Up.” According to
The idea that human beings are
In Barrie’s plays, this philosophy is expressed in the essential unchangeability of the relationship between the sexes. Man and woman, by his account, do not grow in their relationship with one another; the most they can do is come to an understanding about who is in control. Successful marital unions, by his account, are built not upon shared sacrifice but shared selfishness, with each spouse granting the other an
Not even his happiest marrieds, the Darlings, escape this transactional view of love. Mr. Darling’s duty is to bring home a salary while Mrs. Darling’s duty is to make her husband feel admired. (Child care is delegated to their dog.) The opening chapters of Peter and Wendy accentuate the truce-like quality of their relationship, seen in the husband’s practice of keeping his wife in suspense for two weeks after the birth of each of their children while he reviews their accounts to determine whether they can afford to keep the newborn. Mrs. Darling holds up her end of the bargain, attending a dinner party with her husband in order to impress his boss, even though it means leaving her children alone when she knows Peter Pan is at the window.
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