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Literature / When I Was Five I Killed Myself

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When I Was Five, I Killed Myself (Burt or Quand j'avais cinq ans, je m'ai tué in its French publications) is a 1981 novel by Howard Buten with an unusual publication history: an English-language novel written by an American, it sank like a rock in its home country, while its French translation became a cult classic often called "the French Catcher in the Rye" (statistically, it's been read by one out of every ten French people who know how to read) and has never been out of print, resulting in two film adaptations and a stage play. Only in 2000 was the novel finally republished in America.

Eight-year-old Burt Rembrandt doesn't want to be a child anymore, but the world of adults doesn't seem such great shakes, either: full of fear, confusion, and incomprehensible rules that stand in the way of fun and human connection. Unable to either relate to his peers or to be taken seriously by the adults around him, Burt's world is turned upside down when he meets Jessica, a kindred spirit whose imagination, defiance, and worldview is a perfect match for his own. What begins as Puppy Love soon becomes more powerful than anything Burt can understand, and he realizes that he's in love...and he doesn't know what to do about it.

When I Was Five, I Killed Myself is Burt's story, written on the walls of the Quiet Room of the Children's Trust Residence Center where he has been sent after his relationship with Jessica ends in tragedy.

This novel contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Adults Are Useless: Exemplified in the hospital, where the doctors are too fixed on a diagnosis to look at their young charges as humans. Burt longs to be an adult in order to have his feelings taken seriously, while suspecting adulthood means simply hiding one's feelings.
  • Affectionate Nickname: Jessica's father calls her Contessa.
  • All Girls Like Ponies: Jessica has an imaginary horse named Blacky and is seen reading books from the The Black Stallion series.
  • Bedlam House: Played pretty realistically. The Residential Center isn't a house of horrors: it has doctors, regular therapy, and structure; the kids are taken on outings, have a playground and a play-therapy room, and get weekly visits to the swimming pool.note  But it's still a psychiatric institution and there are still straitjackets, bars on the windows, isolation rooms, and the occasional dangerous patient or unkind staff member.
  • Blood Brothers: Burt and Shrubs. Burt is too afraid of needles to poke himself with a pin, so he slams his finger in a drawer instead and ends up in a cast.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Burt and Jessica share one of these.
  • Childhood Marriage Promise: Before meeting Jessica, Burt considers marrying his best (male) friend Shrubs when they grow up—not because of any homosexual feelings, but because girls are icky and it seems more fun to be married to your best friend.
  • Child Prodigy: Burt is extremely advanced in reading and writing. He is always the champion of the school's spelling bee and practices for it by reading the dictionary. This turns into a Chekhov's Skill/narrative device for the book itself as we find it is meant to be Burt writing his story on the walls (with relatively few spelling or grammatical errors to distract from the narrative).
    • Jessica likewise seems to be sophisticated for her age: her reading and writing is equal to (if not greater than) Burt's, she speaks basic French, and she has an eerie grasp of emotional truths. It's implied that her parents are pretty progressive and purposefully encourage and direct her intellectual development.
  • Children Are Innocent: Deconstructed, subverted, and played straight as a major theme of the book.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Rudyard comes off as this, with his frequent non sequiturs and irrational fears. We later find out that he's mirroring the fears and emotions of his young charges as part of his therapeutic technique.
    • Burt's buddy Shrubs is also a bit of a Cloudcuckoolander even compared to other kids in the book.
  • Cool People Rebel Against Authority: Burt, Jessica, and to a degree Rudyard.
  • Did You Die?: In spite of the title, Burt did not literally kill himself when he was five. The title refers to an incident where five-year-old Burt is terrified by a news report of a girl his own age killed in an accident. Not wanting to live in a world where terrible things happen for no reason but unable to articulate this feeling, he goes up to his room, makes a Finger Gun, and shoots himself in the head.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: When Jessica tells her "what I did on my vacation" story, it is an obviously false, fantastical story of a magical adventure. In the book's climax they end up unwittingly acting out her story beat for beat in real-world terms.
  • Do Not Call Me "Paul": Burt introduces himself to Jessica as Randy. She continues to call him this, even after he admits his real name.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: When Dr. Nevile jokingly invites Burt to "step into [his] chambers," Burt freaks out because he thinks Nevile is going to kill him. Dr. Nevile takes this as evidence of Burt's growing paranoid delusions and has him locked in the Quiet Room. In fact, the only time Burt's ever heard the word "chambers" was in a horror film about a doctor who trapped people in his torture chambers. note 
  • Embarrassing Damp Sheets: Everyone in Burt's summer camp cabin ends up wetting the bed at night, except for Burt, who instead poops in bed on the last night of camp. In the end, all the other children's accidents are forgotten in favor of Burt's.
  • Everyone Is Christian at Christmas: Burt goes to see the Mall Santa at Christmas. Having never had any first-hand experience with Christmas, he asks Santa if he's Jewish, too. When Santa assures him that Santa is all religions, including Jewish, parents begin pulling their kids out of the line.
  • Free-Range Children: Set in the late 50s/early 60s, the book has a shockingly cavalier attitude toward child supervision.
    • Burt's class goes on a field trip to the zoo where the teachers turn the kids loose, allowing Jessica to climb into the alligator enclosure.
    • Burt's friend Shrubs sneaks over at midnight so they can play Zorro together. When Burt's mom discovers them, not only does she not bother calling Shrubs' parents, she lets the kids play outside for an hour and allows Shrubs to walk back home unattended.
    • Later, Burt and Jessica skip school and wander around downtown. A few adults ask why they're not in school, but overall, no one finds this alarming.
  • Good Doc, Bad Doc: Rudyard versus Dr. Nevile.
  • How We Got Here: The book begins after Burt has been in the Center for several weeks and flashes back and forth between his experiences in the hospital and the events that led him there.
  • Hilarity in Zoos: On a class trip to the zoo, Jessica decides to introduce herself to the alligators, up close, en français.
  • I Let You Win: Jessica lets Burt win the spelling bee, even though she's a better speller than he, because it means nothing to her and everything to him.
  • Informed Judaism: Burt is from a mixed-religion family, noting that he has a Bubbie and a Zadie on one side but a Grandma and a Gramps on the other. He mentions getting Hanukkah gifts and attending Passover with his dad's family, but the family doesn't appear to attend either synagogue or church, nor do they celebrate either Shabbat or the Sabbath. And while Burt has the occasional misunderstanding or insight into Christianity, he never seems to have a similar insight about Judaism.
  • Kid Has a Point: Jessica, frequently leading to I Have Nothing to Say to That from adults.
    • Burt's first memory of Jessica is during an air raid drill. Jessica gets up and tells the teacher that if the bombs are coming, she would prefer to die at home with her family. When the teacher tells Jessica that it's only a drill and that there are no bombs, Jessica replies that the teacher should be ashamed of herself for letting children believe they were going to die. The teacher is rendered speechless, and Burt is smitten.
  • Playing Doctor: It goes a bit beyond that.
  • Questionable Consent: Jessica and Burt's um, love scene, as the participants are both eight years old. While on the surface it seems that both Jessica and Burt were consenting, it's questionable if either party can truly consent when they don't understand the full implications of what they're doing. Far from being titillating, the scene comes off as both tragic, horrifying, heartbreakingly innocent, and incredibly uncomfortable.
  • Reverse Psychology: When Burt acts out because he's afraid of the group swimming lesson at the Center, Rudyard pretends to be more scared of the water than Burt is. First Burt is angry, shouting at Rudyard and calling him a sissy (just as Burt fears being called a sissy for being frightened), but then Burt takes over the role of caregiver and encourages Rudyard to go into the pool with him so that neither of them will be so afraid.
  • Room Full of Crazy: Subverted. Burt scribbles all over the walls of the Quiet Room, which Dr. Nevile takes as a symptom of his psychosis...because he never bothers to read it. In fact, Burt is writing out the very story we're reading detailing all the experiences and feelings that led him to the hospital—the very information Dr. Nevile has been trying to get Burt to tell him.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Burt for Jessica, on a kid-friendly scale: he follows her home after school, then watches her whenever they're in class together. Later Jessica admits that she knew he was there the whole time but ignored him until he could actually speak to her.
  • The Talk: Burt's mom avoids this by giving him a child's book on human reproduction (From Little Acorns) and letting him figure it out for himself. It backfires horribly.
  • There Are No Therapists: Subverted, in that the book starts with Burt already in a mental hospital. However, the therapists available offer wildly varying degrees of help.
  • Title Drop: The novel's title is its opening line.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Ostensibly it would seem that two young children engaging in sex would be the major example of this, but the book goes out of its way to challenge the notion of what "childlike behavior" really is, and seems to argue that any behavior is childlike if acted on by a child.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Dr. Nevile, who in his heart genuinely wants to help the children in his care, but can't let go of his established, deep-rooted beliefs and authoritarianism even when they clearly don't work.
    • Rudyard is this too, but in the opposite direction: he abandons conventional psychological methods in favor of his own radical, hands-on, unorthodox therapy (which could endanger both him and the children).
  • Where Did We Go Wrong?: Burt's parents, via the knowledge that their child has committed a terrible crime, the fear that their parenting caused their son to harm another child or that they overlooked warning signs, and the shame of having a child institutionalized (which at the time of the book's setting would have been a grave social stigma).