Lee Siegel wonders at the perverse success of a certain children's book meant for adults ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
“Go the F*** to Sleep” is an expletive-laced cry of adult rage disguised as a child’s book of lullabies that is now a smash bestseller. Go, as they say, figure. The book consists of page after page of more or less conventional two lines of nursery rhyme, and flat-footed ones to boot—“The tiger reclines in the simmering jungle./The sparrow has silenced her cheep.”— followed by another two lines, which are crude, angry pleas for the resistant child to immediately make himself unconscious. “F*** your stuffed bear, I’m not getting you s---./Close your eyes. Cut the crap. Sleep.”
The whole thing reads like Celine translated by Philip Larkin and recited by James (Tony Soprano) Gandolfini. It has the vitality of a Bronx cheer at a stuffy formal dinner. It is supposed to be a prank, a great, vulgar cri de coeur revealing a truth hitherto hidden away: parents resent their kids for depriving them of sleep. But the F-word is a powerful imprecation that carries a wish for subjugation and even annihilation. A celebrity among words, it is—like certain tough-guy actors who have made it their trademark—full of rage. The idea of applying it to children, “in fun”, in a world where they are the first victims of adult stupidity, incomprehension and rage simply doesn’t work as an extended joke. “You know where you can go? The f*** to sleep.” None of the parents I know, who like my wife and me have young children, could make it past the first few pages without tossing the book down in disgust.
The very fact of the book’s commercial success, however, seems to have inspired legitimising kudos. After the book—written by Adam Mansbach and illustrated by Ricardo Cortes—rose to bestseller-list heights, writers rushed to explain just what made it so important to own. In a typical effusion, one writer deployed Proust and Freud on her way to extolling the book as “odd, rageful, beautiful,” praising it for exposing “a kind of existential despair that is very particularly ours.” And you thought getting the kids to sleep was the least of your problems.
Others have argued that the book provides a catharsis to parents overwhelmed by the flood of child-rearing books that have appeared over the last several decades. There is something to this. As torturers know, sleep-deprivation is an especially cruel infliction. Sleep experts like Dr Marc Weissbluth and Dr Richard Ferber have become almost messianic figures to parents desperate for some shut-eye. The reverse side, however, to their precious advice has been an increased sense of shame among parents for whom the advice does not prove effective. How can an expert be wrong? Once upon a time, frustrated, sleepless parents felt like, well, parents. Now, particularly in our hyper-competitive environment, they feel like they have failed to live up to the official, expert standards of child-rearing. They feel like “losers”. Enter Mansbach: “My life is a failure, I’m a […] parent./Stop f*** with me, please, and sleep.”
Anxious yuppies fear that not only is the neighbours’ grass greener, but that the neighbours’ kids are more perfect social products who are on the path to greater social success. This anxiety further galvanises a fundamental yuppie trait: the desire for control. Years ago John Passmore, an Australian philosopher, published a book called “The Perfectibility of Man”, in which he traced the disastrous effects of the human desire for perfection, from the ancient Greeks to the present day. He might just as well have been commenting on the booming market in child-rearing advice. The Utopian impulse that animated Robespierre, Stalin and Mao is alive and well among many of America’s well-educated, affluent young and youngish parents. Mansbach’s book, say its admirers, responds to parents’ sense of failure, and also offers a catharsis to parents’ obsession with control. Just as feminists once burned their brassieres, these oppressed breeders can chant the F-word as they set fire to their tattered editions of Dr Spock.
All this is true, as far as it goes. But the fancy explicators of “Go the F*** to Sleep” doth perhaps explicate too much. For eons, parents have been vexed, exasperated or simply kept awake by children who refused to go to sleep. Yet, I would venture to guess, they never felt that their desire to be elsewhere than rocking or imploring a sleep-recalcitrant child was tantamount to criminal negligence. Nor, I would think, did they ever consider their inability to get their child to sleep the equivalent of profound personal failure. I would bet good money on the proposition that most parents today feel similarly.
I suspect that something else is going on here. It is perhaps no coincidence that “Go the F*** to Sleep” follows hard on the heels of Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”, another book in which children are portrayed as obstacles to the fulfilment of a pleasure-craving, ego-famished parental will. The impression you get from both books is that their authors are new personalities trapped in an old social paradigm.
They are creations of an unprecedented contemporary culture of narcissism and ultra-competitiveness, who are at the same time beholden to older ideas of childbearing and family. Fanatically devoted to their children, they are also trapped in a prison of self-obsession. And so they unwittingly resolve the tension by treating their kids as extensions of their social and professional lives. They attempt to manage their children with the strategies of control that made them so socially and professionally successful themselves.
If this new generation of afflicted parents, heroically straining like Sisyphus under every aspect of raising a child, so fears the revelation that they would like to be autonomous persons as well as parents, it’s most likely because, for all their doting and love, their parental conscience is startled by their ambivalence about being parents.
Help is on the way, however. Before you know it, toddlers practiced in the art of postponing sleep become teenagers who arrive home long after their parents have gone to bed, and who are almost impossible to rouse in the morning. Suddenly, those first sleep-tormented months and years seem just a part of life, and a sweet one at that.
Lee Siegel is a New York writer and cultural critic. His latest book "Are You Serious?: How to Be True and Get Real in the Age of Silly" is published by Harper.