April 23, 2004. A bright, sunny morning in the Laurentian Mountains of southern Quebec. I wake up laughing. Not one of those feathery chortles or frizzy cackles. A deep, resonant, earth-rumbling belly-laugh. The kind that thunders through your innards to leave you simpering and tear-stained.
I've found my answer.
The question I’d been missing for so long had come to me the previous afternoon. A totally unexpected question. Almost flippant. I found it in Eric Berne's 1972 classic What Do You Say After You Say Hello?, when Eric explained his take on why the stories we're told as children matter.
Each of us, he wrote, identifies with a particular archetypal character. A heroic figure we encounter and latch on to early in life. A larger than life character we take as a role model for how we're to live. How we're to act. What we're to value. What's to be our purpose.
Eric's mechanics behind this identification process struck me as simple and straightforward. It relied on two factors. Naiveté and authority.
Naiveté comes in our childhood inability to distinguish fiction from fact. The characters we first meet in fairy tales and myths live in a world spanning reverie and reality. As children, we’re never completely sure. Is magic real? Do gods exist? Is there a monster living under my bed?
Eric's second factor, authority, rests in the sources who introduce us to these stories. Trusted people we depend upon entirely. Mothers. Fathers. Grandparents. Babysitters. Teachers. How do we first encounter these fantastic characters? Through stories told to us by parents and guardians. TV programs watched from caregivers' laps. Books read or given us. Every story we are introduced to as children comes stamped with an authoritative seal of approval. Each story is important. Grabs our attention. Holds some truth. Matters. And what’s the best way for us to emulate the lessons learned through these stories? Emulate our heroes.
The examples of archetypes Eric gives in his book are impressive. Greek heroes mixed with a smattering of fairy tale classics. Sisyphus. Europa. Hercules. Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty. A dazzling pantheon of the Who's-Who from the wonderful world of Once-Upon-A-Time. Eric’s line-up puts a bug into every reader's ear; a question begging the response. “Who was my childhood hero?”
Amazing. That was it. The question I'd been missing for more than a dozen years.
“Who was my childhood hero?” A simple question. Almost the premise for a party game. The moment it arose, I set Eric's book aside and began my search. I scoured my memory for that special character introduced to me as a child. Some figure to give me that “ah-ha!” feeling. Superman? Ulysses? Nope. I continued throughout the afternoon. No result. Zip. Around seven that evening I called my parents. Any thoughts? They too were as stumped as was I. Nada. Zilch. Hours of focused introspection, dedicated concentration and brainstorming. To no avail. No clue.
My laughter the next morning begins in my sleep. In a dream. I'm dreaming I'm awake. Lying in bed. Watching morning light play across the bedroom ceiling. All very familiar. And then it happens. A dark figure looms forward. Over me. Leans forward and down. Down 'til we're practically nose to nose. The figure grins then leans back. Away. Out of sight. Morning light plays on the ceiling. Stillness. And then again. The dark figure appears, bows forward, grins and arches back.
Are you familiar with those drinking bird toys? Maybe you came across one as a child? If not, Google “bird drinking water toy” and you'll see what I mean. Precisely like that tipping bird toy, my figure cantilevers back and forth. And, just like that tipping bird toy, my figure too wears a top hat. A tall, striped stovepipe version. And again, just like that tipping bird, my figure is tall and thin. With a bit of a tummy. That's where the similarities end. My figure is not a bird. It's a cat. A tall, grinning, big-hearted cat. The Cat in the Hat.
Forget Sisyphus. Forget Hercules. This is my guy. That's when I start laughing.
Later that morning, I lay my hands on a copy of Dr. Seuss' classic book of the same title. This book, recommended for ages four and up, becomes my teacher. My guru. My door to understanding how I'd stayed in a problematic relationship for so long. And more. This book becomes a mirror to how I'd been living my life up to this moment. This moment when The Cat in the Hat lets me know we're still a thing.