Thursday, October 24, 2013

That Time Lucy Didn’t Know That When People Die We Don’t Eat Them, or How American Girls Dolls Taught My Daughter That Cannibalism Is A Cultural Taboo



In May, while I was engaged in various bridesmaids’ activities in the city of Chicago, weekend off Don was alone and lose in the Windy City with a ten mile run rush of endorphins and his wallet.  A dangerous combination, made even more so by our location in the Watertower Place on Michigan Avenue.  When I returned to the hotel room to change for the rehearsal dinner, I found Don napping and several gigantic American Girl Doll bags crowding the hotel room entryway. 

Little did I know that this frenzy of commerce, followed by my horrified and confused exclamation of “What have you done!?” would lead to some of the most interesting and unexpected conversation that I could ever hope to have with my three year old daughter.

Lucy's Kit Kittredge haircut

Since Kit Kittredge came into our lives that fateful Memorial Day we have decided to focus less on the dolls and their many accessories and outfits, and more on the girl’s stories and their accompanying book series.  So far we have read all of Kits, Kaya’s and Felicities books, and Lucy has decided we will work our way through the rest of the girls chronologically.  It is adorable how she has every girl’s description memorized, and sometimes fashions names for her imaginary friends or playmates from one of the girl’s biographies.  The other day in the car she was having an elaborate imaginary play session with someone named “Spunky Colonia” and after a few minutes it was Don who figured out that she was remembering that phrase from Felicities’ description as a “spunky, sprightly colonial girl.”

So far we have had long talks about homelessness, poverty, the Great Depression, kidnapping, tribal rivalries, tyranny, patriotism, and hoboes.  These are all subjects I never expected to discuss with a three year old, but they came along naturally enough in the framework of the stories we have read so far.

Last night, however, I encountered a new subject while reading the last book in the Felicity series that really took my by surprise: cannibalism.  If you are not familiar with the American Girl’s let me sum something up for you, an observation that was put very succinctly by Don after we had already read a few stories.  American Girl dolls serve a very important function for privileged families.  They provide these families with a framework to teach their privileged daughters about adversity, usually the kind of adversity that these girls will largely be sheltered from their entire lives.  Poverty, depression, hunger, homelessness, imprisonment, death, war, etc.  Each girl lives in a time of change and turmoil, and has to display great strength of character to overcome her situation or problems that arise.

Our current heroine, Felicity, is living in colonial Virginia in 1775, and facing the many changes that our country faced at the dawn of the American Revolution.  Her beloved Grandfather is a loyalist to King George while the rest of the family are Patriots.  At the end of the books, her Grandfather goes out in bad weather to help several people at the jail, becomes ill, and eventually dies.  Now, I expected this to affect Lucy deeply, as she is very sensitive to death.  I expected tears and sadness and a long talk about the nature of life and death.

What I did not expect was this.

Lucy: did they take his bones back to the plantation to bury them?
Me: Yes, they did.  He wanted to be buried at his plantation.
Lucy: oh.  After they ate him?
Me: I’m sorry.  What?
Lucy: They buried his bones after they ate him.
Me: Just one second sweetie.  Let me think about this.  <<pause to gather my incredibly scattered wits>>  Lucy, do you think that we eat people after they die, like we are eating Chubbs?
Lucy: Well, yeah.
Me:  OK, that is understandable.  Let’s talk about that.  Eating other humans is actually called cannibalism, and amongst humans it is considered to be very, very bad.  It’s called a cultural taboo.
Lucy: Taboooooooo.
Me:  Yeah.  So we do eat lots of different animals.
Lucy: YEAH!  We NUM them up!
Me: That’s right.  We eat cows, and pigs, and chickens, and many other things…
Lucy: AND horses!
Me:  Well, actually, in America we don’t really eat horse.  That is considered another kind of taboo because they are companion animals, like dogs and cats.  In other places they eat dogs and cats and horses, but not in America.
Lucy: oh…
Me: And we don’t eat other humans either.  It’s very, very bad.  Some animals eat each other.  For instance, if a shark gets hurt and other sharks are around, they might eat the hurt shark.  But one of the things that separate us from other animals is that we do not eat our dead, we bury them.
Lucy: OK.

In hindsight, it makes sense.  I mean, I was an anthropology major.  I know all about the various cultures that condoned and practiced cannibalism of some form throughout history.  Even now it is not considered a mental illness, and is practiced in extreme circumstances, during wars or famines, though it is then almost always considered a crime.

The point being that the cultural taboo against cannibalism is just that – cultural.  It is passed on through culture, and a culture can either subscribe to it or not.  Children learn a culture through all sorts of avenues: parents, extended family, schools, other children, media, etc.  Most of the time I feel like the question of cannibalism gets addressed without parents even really knowing.  I guess I never really thought it was going to be an actual conversation that I had with my kids, something that I had to spell out and explain. 

But Lucy is the precocious kind, and we have had to have all sorts of conversations with her that we never expected.  The difference between boys and girls conversation came when she was only 21 months!  This past summer we bought a pig at the Steuben County 4-H Fair, had it butchered and processed and have most of it in our basement freezer.  We like knowing where our meat came from, and supporting local kids and their families instead of factory farming corporations when we choose to eat meat.  Lucy actually met Chubs at the fair before we bought him, and she was very excited when we picked up the meat and took it back to the house.  

Chubs

However, the first night we had a pork burger at the house, it was too big for her to finish, and Don started to explain to her how important it was that we don’t waste meat.  He told her that Chubs died so that we could eat him, and we had to respect and honor that by not wasting him.  She looked at him, her eyes filled with tears, her lips trembled and she exclaimed “He died?!  I didn’t want him to die!!  Why did he have to die, Daddy?!”  Well, it seems we had skipped a key step in our explanation process there.  She knew we were buying Chubs to eat.  She knew we took him to the butcher.  She knew he came back from the butcher as many packages wrapped in white paper filled with bacon and chips and sausage.  But she didn’t know that to go from pen to butcher to our freezer he had to die in the process.

The whole Chubs affair (after a heartfelt talk and explanation she continues to enjoy pork products more than any other meat.  If you tell her something came from Chubs, she will devour it) probably contributed to her confusion over cannibalism as well.  We wanted some meat, we bought Chubs, and then we ate him.  Felicity’s grandfather died, so he was already dead, so they probably ate him.  Right?

We finished the Felicity books last night, and tomorrow we hope to go to the library to pick up the Josephina series.  Josephina lives on a ranchero in New Mexico in 1824.  I can’t begin to imagine what conversations this new character will open up.

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