Over the Tree Tops
by Grant S. Robertson
Written October, 2005
Who hasn’t noticed that teenagers seem to “live in their own little world”? Wrapped up in their own lives and their own selves, adolescents seem indifferent to the needs and concerns of others, almost isolated from all other concerns. Normally, this self-imposed isolation is considered a phase that all kids go through and is, therefore, excused. But what happens when this isolation goes too far? What happens when it extends to the community itself or, perhaps, is enforced upon the subjects against their will? A good example of this phenomenon in literature is the book The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides.
When one discusses isolation in the context of the The Virgin Suicides the discussion often centers around the Lisbon house and the last few months before the surviving Lisbon girls ceased to be, well, surviving. Thoughts then turn to speculation that this enforced isolation was the cause of the suicides. However, more subtle forms of isolation exist within the text which seem to have induced even more subtle effects upon the characters. In particular the isolation of both the Lisbon girls and the group of boys obsessed with them, though brought about by different means, seems to have fostered a form of egocentrism within each group. The degree of passivity of this egocentrism appears to be related to the overtness of the isolation experienced by each group. While the boys exhibited a passive level of egocentrism in the way they thought merely of how interacting with the Lisbon girls would somehow make their own lives more interesting, the forced isolation of the Lisbon girls by their mother increased the active nature of their egocentrism from a level on par with their peers to a level that could almost be considered pathological. This is evidenced by the way they manipulated the boys merely to create an audience for their own suicides.
In the book, the girls’ mother, Mrs. Lisbon, literally grounded the girls for life after the second youngest daughter, Lux, came home from a dance having obviously had sex with her date. However, long before Lux’s incident at the dance – the only one the girls had ever been allowed to attend – her mother had been isolating her and her sisters from the world as much as she possibly could. Even when going to church Mrs. Lisbon exerted her control over the girls. As the narrator of the book relates, “Clutching her good purse, she checked each daughter for signs of makeup before allowing her to get in the car and it was not unusual for her to send Lux back inside to put on a less revealing top" (8). After Cecilia’s first attempt at suicide even the neighbors knew that the girls were feeling trapped. “That girl didn't want to die,” one neighbor observed. “She just wanted out of that house” (17). Cecilia’s own reactions to the ink blot test administered after her attempt reveal her feelings. Among other things, “She also saw 'prison bars,' [and] 'a swamp,'…" (21), classic symbols of entrapment or imprisonment.
Only after Cecilia , the youngest daughter’s, suicide attempt was the psychologist and Mr. Lisbon able to convince Mrs. Lisbon that it would be best for the girls to give them more freedom. Mrs. Lisbon eased up only a little. She let the girls play in the front yard. The fact that "The front door was always left open, …" (22) was only remarkable because it had always been shut before. It was considered a "miraculous [change]" (22). Mrs. Lisbon had always been strict. "According to Mr. Lisbon, he had long harbored doubts about his wife's strictness…" He felt [the girls] were "cooped-up"(23). Cecilia was 13 before "… Mr. Lisbon persuaded his wife to allow the girls to throw the first and only party of their short lives" (24). After Cecilia finally succeeded in killing herself – by throwing herself out a window onto the spikes of a steel fence – Mr. Lisbon was able to convince his wife that the girls needed even more freedom. The young girls needed something more than just playing in the front yard or having an incredibly restricted party in a brightly lit basement. But this taste of freedom was short-lived.
Once it was discovered that Lux had had sex after that dance, the girls’ isolation became even more extreme than most people can imagine. Mrs. Lisbon pulled the girls out of school and locked them up inside the house in “maximum-security isolation” (141). What really escalated the situation from mere sequestering into true imprisonment was the living conditions within the house. For reasons that could only be guessed at, Mrs. Lisbon entirely ceased to care for the house or her family. The house became a shambles. A festering cess-pool would be a more accurate description. With food left lying around for months, the house eventually started to smell so bad that neighbors could smell it down the block (165). This dungeon-like imprisonment lasted for months, until the girls finally “escaped” by committing suicide.
Though, compared to the conditions under which the Lisbon girls suffered, the isolation experienced by the boys in their neighborhood was barely noticeable, it is still worthy of examination if only for comparison purposes. Rather than being imposed by outside forces, the isolation experienced by these boys was more a form of habit, learned by example from their parents and peers. Just by climbing up on their own roofs they could see "… over the heaps of trees throwing themselves into the air, the abrupt demarcation where the trees ended and the city began. … Sounds we usually couldn't hear reached us now that we were up high, … we made out, faintly, an indecipherable backward-playing tape of city life, cries and shouts, the barking of a chained dog, car horns, the voices of girls calling out numbers in an obscure tenacious game – sounds of the impoverished city we never visited, all mixed and muted, without sense carried on a wind from that place" (34). They were close enough to actually hear little girls playing in the street. They knew there must be something going on there or there wouldn’t have been race riots. But they never gave it a second thought.
Instead, the boys spent their time obsessing over five girls who they could never really understand. But, even in this obsession the boys thoughts were focused inwards. All they seemed to be concerned with, as far as the Lisbon girls were concerned, was how interacting with the girls could somehow make the boy’s lives more interesting or enjoyable. When they were invited to the “party” at the Lisbon house, rather than seeing it as an opportunity to get to know the girls a little better, all the boys thought about was whether the girls knew about them. The narrator explains how "It was thrilling to know that the Lisbon girls knew our names, that their delicate vocal cords had pronounced their syllables, and that they meant something in their lives. They had had to labor over proper spellings and to check our addresses in the phone book or by the metal numbers nailed to the trees." (24), almost as if the girls only purpose was to hold the mirror for the boys. These boys had been obsessed with the Lisbon girls all their lives yet hadn't stopped to think that " the Lisbon girls were all different people" (26). Even "Joe the Retard" was nothing more than a conversation piece for these boys (28).
When Cecilia did end her life the description given is purely one of the fact of a body falling through the air. No compassion whatsoever. The narrator even says, "It didn't matter whether her brain continued to flash on the way down, or if she regretted what she'd done, or if she had time to focus on the fence spikes shooting toward her. Her mind no longer existed in any way that mattered" (30). Even after Cecilia’s death all the boys were concerned with was whether she had thought of them. When they got hold of Cecilia's diary, the boys "passed the diary around, fingering pages and looking anxiously for [their] names" (42).
However, the diary did impose upon the boys, almost against their will, a sense of how it felt to be someone else. They "knew, finally, that the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them" (44). After Cecilia's funeral, the boys did exhibit a modicum of concern and even thought about ways to sooth the girls. However, all the methods they conceived concerned the boys being able to spend time with the girls (53). Interestingly, when remembering Kyle Kreiger's retainer, the narrator confesses to knowing the importance of empathy and consideration saying, ". Acts like these -- simple, humane, conscientious, forgiving -- held life together." (60) yet the boys exhibited few of these types of behaviors themselves. However, during the months after Cecilia's suicide it does seem as if the boys capacity for empathy began to grow. They even tried to run into the Lisbon girls in the school hallway just so they could ask the girls what was troubling them (101). Finally, in the description of how the girls waited for their dates before the school dance it is apparent that the boys are more aware of the girls' individuality than they had been before (118-119). This is even before the ride to the dance when the boys truly realized that the girls were just normal people with individual personalities (123-126). This egocentrism exhibited by the boys, while disturbing on closer examination, was still passive in nature. There are no examples within the text of the boys doing anything specific to hurt someone else simply for personal gain.
This passive level of egocentrism was also evident in the Lisbon girls up until the time of their suicide. When Lux attacked Trip Fontaine in his car after his visit to her house she was only concerned with fulfilling her own needs. She was like "a creature with a hundred mouths … sucking the marrow from his bones. She … came on like a starved animal, …" Rather than enjoying the "soft, inviting, warmth or her moist loins" or some other pornographic description of Lux's vagina, Trip likened it to "the ravenous mouth of the animal leashed below her waist" (86). Trip certainly seemed to enjoy the experience, so it would be hard to say that Lux caused him any harm. Other examples are more difficult to find within the text. Therese’s Spanish teacher had observed that she could "speak Spanish … but not feel it" (102). When dancing, Mary " seemed to have a picture in her mind of … how they should look together, and she concentrated fiercely, to realize it." She was less concerned with her date than how she looked with him. At the dance one of the girls at the school even observed, "I don't think they cared so much about their dates as just being at the dance. I felt the same way." showing us that the level of egocentrism exhibited by the girls before their imprisonment began was very similar to that of their peers; worse than some would like but definitely not extraordinary.
Post-lockdown is an entirely different story. Or perhaps, it is the story. The only good thing one can say about passive egocentrism is that it is, well, passive. The attitude is characterized specifically by a lack of action. After months of captivity, rather than become passive the Lisbon sisters did quite the opposite. They became quite active. Over a period of weeks they sent out notes and even participated in an elaborate phone call that must have lasted almost an hour (197). The reader is led to believe the same thing as the boys … that the girls were interested in them. For quite some time the girls worked on this elaborate ruse to trick the boys into breaking into their house in the dead of night merely so the girls would have an audience for their suicides. If the girls had simply asked the boys to rescue them, to drive them to some distant city away from their now abusive parents, then all of the machinations could be considered a basic cry for help. But by intentionally inflicting their suicides upon relatively innocent and harmless boys the girls displayed an extreme level of selfishness. When one’s survival is as stake it is natural for most people to resort to what are rightly called “survival tactics.” Regardless of whether one may consider these tactics good or bad, justified or not, most would definitely consider the use of these tactics for this purpose to be a little over the top.
After spending all of their young lives isolated in an exclusive neighborhood the young boys in “The Virgin Suicides” displayed a degree of egocentrism that many would find disturbing but not extreme. In comparison the Lisbon sisters suffered a form of isolation worse than that endured by many prisoners. The selfishness of their subsequent behavior matched that level of isolation in almost direct proportion. So there seems to be a correlation between the level of isolation experienced by these children and the degree of their egocentrism. The cryptic message on the note from the Lisbon girls seems to say that past a certain threshold there is no hope for true survival. But there does seem to be hope for the young boys. Though they exhibited many signs of passive egocentrism, their experience with the girls may have given them a sense of the importance of seeing beyond their own noses. Perhaps the investigation these boys, now young men, have undertaken has been an attempt to force themselves to see past their noses and even far beyond the trees at the edge of their neighborhood.
Eugenides, Jeffrey. The Virgin Suicides. New York, NY: Warner Books, 1993.
This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.