Keeping Wild Things at bay

The New York Times obituary of Maurice Sendak (the most e-mailed article in the newspaper) pictured him with his German Shepherd at his home in Connecticut. His death was announced by Michael di Capua, his longtime editor — as opposed, say, to a blood relative or friend.

In 2008, the Times interviewed him after the death of his long-time (50 years) partner. Sendak was not a happy man:

"That Mr. Sendak fears that his work is inadequate, that he is racked with insecurity and anxiety, is no surprise. For more than 50 years that has been the hallmark of his art. The extermination of most of his relatives and millions of other Jews by the Nazis; the intrusive, unemployed immigrants who survived and crowded his parents’ small apartment; his sickly childhood; his mother’s dark moods; his own ever-present depression — all lurk below the surface of his work, frequently breaking through in meticulously drawn, fantastical ways."

Sendak survived by illustrating and transforming his fears into children's literature, a literature much admired by adults as well as attracting children. He imagines outwardly horrifying scenes, terrible psychic landscapes, but ones that children can master in their minds and emerge from as though they were, well, bad dreams. It's a kind of mindfulness meditation for children about the worst things that can befall humans, but which they, or at least some spirit version of themselves, can survive.

A famous curmudgeon, Sendak told the Times interviewer, "I hate people." He provided any number of examples. And, in fact, he confessed to Stephen Colbert that he didn't like children all that well.

Yet he was not a confrontational person — quite the opposite. For example, his parents died never knowing Sendak was gay (at least he never told them). Nor did he mention he had a heart attack at age 39 to his mother when she was dying of cancer. Sendak prefered to confront demons on the printed page.

In a brilliant brief statement of the human condition (and of addiction), PT blogger Mary Lamia notes, "habits that bring momentary comfort are difficult to relinquish." Her solution in the case of nail-biting is an epiphany of psychology: "A relationship with another person who is attentive and caring" and who provides comforting concern "is the essence of the procedure I propose to reform the nail-biter."

Sendak had a similar plan for life on earth. He developed challenging but ultimately reassuring images of the human condition to which people could turn for comfort.  In one famous incident at the White House, Bill Clinton confessed to Sendak that he had dreamed as a child of wearing a long coat with brass buttons. Sendak said, “But Mr. President, you’re only going to be president for a year more, you still have time to be a doorman.”

That's a joke, right?

Not for Sendak. And, really, not for humans, who spend their time on earth occupying the most reassuring garments, or settings, they can manage for themselves.

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