One of my favorite shots of my boys (age 6) and me (not age 6)

When I was on bed-rest, hugely pregnant with my twin boys, I did what I do in any anxiety-producing situation, especially one that would have me lying on my side for three months: I read. In addition to the care-and-feeding-of-babies books, I read about the raising of boys into men, the emotional aspects and the pitfalls to avoid.

In my reading, I found prevalent boy-myths to steer clear of (in life, not in writing–myths are fun there, but more on that in a bit). Two common ones: boy as animal (he simply can’t be good); and boy as prince (he can do no wrong, no matter how he tries).

Once I delivered my boys into the world, I became uber-focused not on their boyhood but on their infant hood–a precarious time made more precarious by sleep deprivation (mine, not theirs). “Your job is to keep them alive,” the pediatrician said. (If that sounds dire or needlessly heartless, I’ve since learned this is something pediatricians regularly say to moms of twins.) For me, nursing day and night, there was no time or energy for thinking ahead to boyhood–or mythologizing or otherwise romanticizing it in any way.

Amid the mental and physical haze of exhaustion, I did fall prey to infant-mom advertising: you know, the stuff of soft lighting illuminating mother placidly cradling baby in her arms–that’s one baby, not two. And so much gazing–lovingly–into each other’s bright eyes. Kenny G might have been playing his muzak as soundtrack to the ad–trying its best to sell me bottles, bjorns, fancy diapers, or other stuff I wasn’t buying.

What I was buying, however, (and internalizing like the marketing writer I am by day) was that romantic image presented. I was buying that hook, line, and sinker. Yet, I remember a turn of phrase that left me feeling heartless and creeped out all at once: fall in love with your baby boy.

Of course, myths abound in culture and literature through the ages that feature a mother falling in love with her son: not Pampers-love, but romantic–even erotic–love.

Today, my boys are almost 10. You see, I managed to keep them alive and come to love them–even if we never fell in love (eww). My boys are neither animals nor princes, but they are their own individual, forever-blooming selves, as they approach the cusp of adolescence recently coined tween-hood. They don’t require me every second of the day and night anymore; but we still share a lot of time, and it will come as no surprise that much of our shared time is spent in books.

We’ve found we all have a thing for myths–not surprising since the apple doesn’t fall far… and since the boys have been steeped in Catholic traditions (redolent with myth) since before they could talk. We have fun tracking myths–a Greek whale and a biblical whale. Same for the big flood. And same for the taboos that pop up in the myths we read about. God bless children’s authors, especially Rick Riordan, who, as the narrator Percy Jackson, manages to provide a wonderful introduction for middle-grade readers to the Greek myths without creeping me–or my kids–out. Yes, even those filed under “taboo.” [Great academic article on “The Sacred and the Profane in Rick Riordan’s Mythical Middle Grade Novels,” here.]

Yep, even the doozy: the Oedipus myth. You remember, boy grows up, kills dad, and beds mom. Maybe it’s because–and not in spite–of my Catholic upbringing that I am drawn to such taboos, as put down in literature. (For instance, I like Nabakov’s Lolita, because it presents the writerly challenge of a morally despicable main male character, and I like a challenge.)

Which brings me to the last book I read, Ed King (2011) by David Guterson, which presents the reader with a retelling of the Oedipus myth. Here, the author presents: “…the story of a baby boy given up for adoption, who goes on to become one of the world’s richest and most powerful men. While, of course, killing his father and sleeping with his mother along the way.” [Read the rest of the fairly positive Guardian review by Viv Groskop here.]

As always, Guterson’s writing is clever, but what interested me most about the novel was the challenge of knowing exactly where the story is going from the start–because the plot follows that taboo Oedipal path we all know so well. The question the reader asks is not: what happens next? But just how will it all go down?

Go down it does. “Most of all, though,” says Groskop, “it’s a tale of human error and hilarious idiocy.” Yes, idiocy. What’s that saying?… Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome is insanity? I’d stretch that to lunacy–or idiocy. And isn’t that what we do when we retell myths? Go down the same well-trod narrative path? (Good on ya, brave Guterson.) Call me crazy, but I had fun following Ed King meander from myth to taboo to eww. Less the making of a man but the unmaking of one. Even a cautionary tale (dressed up in really fun literary fiction)–and isn’t that just what taboos are meant to do? Beware all ye who enter here.

Which brings me to my own writing, as I return to my work-in-progress and pull in myth–not as a plot device but to provide powerful images for my female characters. Sorry, boys. While the Greek and Roman myths, with which we’re all so well acquainted, often figure males in the leading roles, I’m discovering more female-centered myths in Finnish folklore, particularly in the tales set down in the Kalevala. I’ll keep you–and my avidly-reading boys–posted on my mythical meanderings.

Now, it’s your turn. What’s your favorite myth? What’s your favorite myth retelling? What are you reading right now?

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14 thoughts on “On myth, taboo, and the making of boys

  1. First of all, kudos to you for nursing twins. I remember being exhausted with just one baby girl at a time, nursing them 3 years apart. I was tired for a decade. I endured 6 weeks of bed-rest with my first daughter, and I read too. Baby books. I have a hunch your boys are going to turn out to be great catches and well-rounded learners. I adore that picture of you with the boys – so precious. Your WIP sounds wonderful…I can’t wait to read it. I’m currently reading “You Beneath Your Skin” by Damyanti Biswas. As always, I’m wishing you wild success! xx

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    1. Thanks for reading, Shelley! I have to say, I’m glad the baby days are behind me; now I just need time to slow down a bit. My new WIP is progressing slowly–so we’ll see! And we are reading the same book right now–Damyanti’s. I’m about a third in–been too busy to read it all at once, like I’d like to. How fun–it’s like we’re in a book group!

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      1. You’re welcome!! I’m thankful the baby days are behind me, now I confess, I’m warming up to the idea of grandparenting some day in the future. You’ll finish your WIP soon! WOW -that’s awesome we’re reading the same book. I’m not sure how far I am into it, I’m reading it on my Kindle while on the dreadmill. It does seem like a book that deserves more dedicated reading time. Damyanti’s attention to detail is intriguing. A virtual book-club – YAY!!! 🙂

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  2. I enjoy Guterson’s work, so I must check it out. I don’t know that I have a favorite myth, but I’ve been exploring the hero’s journey as presented by Joseph Campbell and seeing how to apply it to my gold rush book (non-fiction, so a little more challenging).

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    1. Eilene, thank you for stopping by! I have to admit, I hadn’t read a Guterson novel since SNOW FALLING… (which is an old comp. for my historical novel–so I’ve read that one a few times). Now, I need to go back and catch up on other books from him. He has a lovely style. ED KING did get a tough response from some critics; I thought it was fun. But I could see their points. It’s just really tricky to try to retell a myth like that. Oh yes, I could see you getting a lot out of Campbell’s hero journey material. I read a while back Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY–based on Campbell’s work. I’m excited for your gold rush book–best of luck with it!

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  3. Fascinating post…I think as a society we are challenging the myths of what it is to be born a boy or a girl, and whether genetics or society are the most powerful guides…as I am reading your story I remember the Doors song “The End”, and just how controversial that was at the time!

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    1. I think you’re right, John. (And it’s interesting to discover myths from other cultures that were challenging our societal “status quo” very long ago!) So, I had to look up that Doors song, which I know to hear but couldn’t have told you the lyrics–or the oedipal lines or the controversy they stirred up. I always think it’s interesting that lyrics (and poetry–except for persona poems) are often taken so literally. I appreciate you stopping by!

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      1. In the film “The Doors”, Val Kilmer very dramatically sings as he moves toward his Mother’s room…very creepy but powerful!
        “The killer awoke before dawn
        He put his boots on
        He took a face from the ancient gallery
        And he walked on down the hall
        He went into the room where his sister lived, and then he
        Paid a visit to his brother, and then
        He walked on down the hall,
        And he came to a door
        And he looked inside
        “Father?” “Yes, son?” “I want to kill you”
        “Mother? I want to…”
        (then comes a primal howl)

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