Boarding School Syndrome

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Was Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ Inspired by an Edgar Allan Poe Story?

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In Jordan Peele’s new movie, Us, the Wilson family—father, mother, son, daughter—encounters their own strange doubles, who’ve come to exact a terrible revenge. But the Wilsons aren’t the only family to be stalked and menaced. In the second half of the movie, it becomes clear that nearly everyone else in the United States is encountering their doubles—and with similar results.

There are two Americas, Peele suggests. The first is populated by the leisure class and the second is made up of an aggrieved, murderous underclass. So far, so standard, but what exact social issue or experience is Peele attempting to make literal? Us never feels like a straightforward critique of capitalism. The many elements of the story—including the numerous allusions and Easter eggs—never really add up to anything we’ve got words for. We’re left sensing a larger theme we can’t quite name.

And maybe that’s as it should be. Peele is working in the realm of the unspeakable, and as Rod Serling’s famous Twilight Zone intro goes, that territory “lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” Some of it is unconscious. Even the geniuses don’t always know exactly what they’re laying bare.

Just take what is arguably the source material for Us—Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 short story “William Wilson,” in which a young man encounters, and ultimately murders, his own uncanny double. “William Wilson” initially appears to have an almost annoyingly obvious meaning: The man’s double is his conscience, or superego as Freudians would have it, and we’re all our own worst enemies. Except I’m not sure we’ve ever really understood Poe’s story. What if “William Wilson” isn’t about what it’s always seemed to be about?

I’d like to float a fresh theory about “William Wilson,” which I think casts light on Us, too. It comes down to the autobiographical nature of Poe’s story and to new research published by the British psychoanalyst Joy Schaverien, namely her work on Boarding School Syndrome.

Schaverien first coined the term “Boarding School Syndrome” in a 2011 paper. In treating patients over many decades, she began to detect a distinct pattern—“an identifiable cluster of learned behaviors and emotional states”—in those patients who’d attended Britain’s elite boarding schools. The image of such education as the pinnacle of privilege has blinded us to the cruelty of the practice, she argued, characterizing the phenomenon as “socially condoned abandonment of the very young” in her 2015 book, Boarding School Syndrome: The Psychological Trauma of the ‘Privileged’ Child.

Children who are separated from their families and put into boarding school at a tender age, she’s written, “suffer the sudden and often irrevocable loss of their primary attachments.” Even when not bullied or mistreated at school, the experience of being sent away itself may constitute a “significant trauma” that children may experience as “literally unspeakable.”

“There are no words to adequately express the feeling state and so a shell is formed to protect the vulnerable self from emotion that cannot be processed,” Schaverien has said. “Whilst appearing to conform to the system, a form of unconscious splitting is acquired as a means of keeping the true self hidden.”

“William Wilson” reads like a virtual case study in Boarding School Syndrome. And Poe wrote the story in part about his own experience of boarding school. As most fans know, Poe lost his biological parents early, with both succumbing to tuberculosis in 1811. Few people realize that he effectively lost his family all over again, when his foster parents, John and Frances Allan, put him into boarding school.

The Allan family had moved from Richmond, Va., to London in 1815 so that John could open up a new branch of his business. But Frances quickly grew depressed and withdrawn, and John’s business tanked with the broad economic downturn that began in 1816. Little Edgar, per the longstanding tradition for boys of his age and class, was sent off to school at age six. He first lodged with the Misses Dubourg in a nearby neighborhood. At nine, he was transferred to the more prestigious (and more expensive) Manor House School, in Stoke Newington, much further from the Allans’ home in central London.

Poe used the Manor House School as the initial setting in “William Wilson,” more or less explicitly. The story offers extensive details of its building and grounds. Poe didn’t even bother to change the name of the headmaster, Reverend Bransby (who, according to one source, did not appreciate the mention).

Here the narrator, on his very first day, encounters another boy who’s also entering the school that day. This boy shares the narrator’s name and birthday, as well as every “counter of person and outline of feature.” Other students assume they are brothers.

Though the narrator struggles to define or describe his feelings about his double, he does register “uneasy curiosity” at the “knowing and strangely sarcastic smiles” and “advice not openly given but hinted or insinuated.” Something about this other boy causes him to recall “dim visions of my earliest infancy—wild, confused and thronging memories of a time when memory herself was yet unborn.” When at last the narrator murders his double, the other William Wilson responds, “how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.”

The double, of course, is a part of the narrator, his own twin. Or perhaps he’s the narrator’s shell, formed the very day he was put into boarding school. Poe may have been portraying his own unspeakable experience, giving his own psychic split a literal treatment. “William Wilson” drew on some contemporary literary sources, too, but it’s still among the most autobiographical of Poe’s tales.

Art, Schaverien wrote in her book, “offers a way of revealing imagery which has previously had no other form of representation. It shows what cannot be spoken and mediates between conscious and unconscious.” She described one patient who insisted that, on his first day at school, he had “murdered” a part of himself. The man eventually recovered, in part by drawing pictures of his experiences—including a portrait of his “soul murder.” (“They made us cut ourselves in half!” he told Schaverien. “Can it ever be put back together?”)

Reading “William Wilson” in context of Boarding School Syndrome isn’t just an exercise in armchair diagnosis. It raises the possibility that what Poe portrayed in the story—consciously or unconsciously—isn’t solely the symbolic killing of one’s conscience or superego but a deeper and more intimate kind of “soul murder,” through which we become dead to our own feelings, including empathy. The same goes for Peele’s Us.

Though Freud popularized the term “soul murder,” it’s more lately been used to describe abused children who experience psychic splits and by the historian Nell Irvin Painter to explain the psychological dynamics of slavery in antebellum America, including what Painter identified as a deadening of conscience among the privileged, literal master class.

Here’s one example Painter offered.
John Nelson was a Virginian who spoke in 1839 about his own coming of age… He says, when he was a child, when his father beat their slaves, that he would cry and he would feel for the slave who was being inflicted with violence. He would feel almost as if he himself were being beaten, and he would cry. And he would say, “Stop, stop!” And his father, “You have to stop that. You have to learn to do this, yourself.” And as John Nelson grew up, he did learn how to do it. And he said in 1839 that he got to the point where he not only didn’t cry; he could inflict a beating himself and not even feel it.
Is it just me, or in all this does the inchoate subtext of Us start to become clearer? What if Us is also about a kind of soul murder, the soul murder that results from privilege, from constantly observing terrible shit and not doing anything about it, from our becoming numb to the inequities (and iniquities) of class in contemporary America, from our loss of attachment to anything resembling collective interests? What if Us isn’t really about class struggle so much as the dreadful knowledge so many of us live with and are—at the same time—effectively deadened to: our awareness that so much of what’s good in our lives depends upon the exploitation, even subjugation, of people who, but for the circumstances of their birth, are just like us?

Maybe we just don’t have a name for this syndrome yet, even though we can sense it effectively operating at scale among us. But I think that, one day, in what I hope is a slightly more enlightened age, we will. Then we might see Us, like “William Wilson,” as a case study ahead of its time.

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