Sunday, July 20, 2014

Victoria I

This is the first installment in what may become a minor inquiry. It relates to the topics of shyness, intergenerational changes, adolescent females, isolated subcultures, mental illness and inadequate parenting. Victoria is 17 and the daughter of my partner's brother, Martin. Like my partner, Victoria is growing up in Hoyland, South Yorkshire. I have been intrigued for several years by the apparent otherness of Hoyland, because my partner, who was born in 1954, has often seemed culturally like someone who was born closer to 1940. Except for some late exposure to contemporary culture while she was an undergraduate, my partner somehow managed to miss the 1960's and early 1970's entirely. As a child she hardly knew anything about the Beatles or the Rolling Stones and was never aware who Bob Dylan was or that he performed in nearby Sheffield in 1965 and 1966. She probably did not hear about him until the 1970's. I was attracted to my partner in part because, not only was she completely unlike educated American women of my age group, who often seem to possess a narcissistic sense of entitlement, but because she represented a kind of puzzle to me.

For someone who is about to apply to universities, apparently with excellent credentials, there are some things about Victoria that are quite odd. It is difficult to pry out any opinions from her, and her food requirements seem bizarre. From what I can gather, her mother is obsessive-compulsive, cleans constantly, and prepares an unimaginably narrow menu for her family. Victoria has never eaten the skin of a potato. The only green vegetable that she will eat is peas. She will eat unflavored chicken but dislikes turkey, meat and fish. For someone who has led an isolated life, this is not necessarily unusual, but I am struck by her almost complete unwillingness to experiment. By 17 one would expect the beginnings of individuation and a desire to diverge from the habits of one's parents. Her elder sister, Elizabeth, who visited us a few years ago at about the same age, at least recognized that there were limitations to the quality of her upbringing. Elizabeth's favorite poem then was This Be The Verse, by Philip Larkin:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

Victoria is one of the most passive people I've ever met and only reacts when something that she dislikes is proposed. If asked a question, she typically replies "I don't know." When pressed, she will offer only the most basic information and not elaborate. My partner, my sister, my brother-in-law and I have all tried to help her, but she doesn't seem to know that she needs help or that we might be able to help her. This weighs heavily on my partner, who above all is a helper.

One of the most surprising things to me about Victoria is that she has no questions about anything. Apparently she was confused about the air conditioner in her room in Connecticut but never brought it up at the time. I only found this out later when I asked her whether she had been hot. She did not provide any input into the itinerary that I proposed, and she had no questions and made almost no comments about any of the places that we visited.

Usually when we arrive at a house, Victoria will go to her room without saying anything and remain there until someone gets her. Some of that time may be spent texting her friends in England, but, if so, I have no idea what she writes about. I initiated all of the conversations with her in the car and was not once satisfied by her response. On the way back I gave up and there was complete silence. Victoria is now spending some time with her cousins here, but overall her behavior is not noticeably different.

I am hoping to come across new information about Victoria that will allow me to put to rest some of the ideas that are whirling around in my head. Does Victoria represent a rare case of shyness of a magnitude that I've never witnessed before? Is living in Hoyland like being brought up on a Neolithic island? Is Victoria an abuse victim? Have Victoria's parents' worldviews made her completely unadapted to modern life? Is Victoria mentally ill? Will Victoria suddenly grow up and radically change her behavior? There is so much uncertainty here that I am bothered and will continue to work on it. I'll keep you posted on any news, new theories or conclusions.

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