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The Parent Trap

A sesquicentennial for the father of Peter Pan.

Nov 8, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 08 • By DAWN EDEN
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"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
Barrie, as he scribbled in his early notes for Peter Pan, Peter is “a demon boy (villain of [the] story).” Seized by “the horror of growing up,” he “runs away from pain & death” and has a “tragic horror of matrimony.” He is a boy when he
literally sweeps Wendy off her feet; he is a boy when he makes a home with her; he is a boy when she decides, after a taste of Neverland domestic life, that she would rather fly off home to Mother. And he will be a boy until the end
of time. 

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:

WENDY [knowing she ought not to probe but driven by something within]: What are your exact feelings for me, Peter?

PETER [in the class-room]: Those of a devoted son, Wendy.

WENDY [turning away]: I thought so.

PETER: You are so puzzling. Tiger Lily is just the same; there is something or other she wants to be to me, but she says it is not my mother.

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
Barrie biographer Andrew Birkin, Frohman suggested that “Could” be changed to “Would”—“thus transforming Barrie’s tragedy into
Peter’s triumph.”

The idea that human beings are
fundamentally unable to change is a theme repeated throughout Barrie’s work, embodied in the counsel that a feathered friend named Solomon Caw gives Peter Pan in The Little White Bird (the 1902 novel in which Peter’s character was introduced): “In this world there are no second chances.” 

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
unalienable fiefdom. 

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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