The Promise and Peril of Self-Rejection: A Meditation on the Life of Charles Schulz

The delicate curves of his disc-headed children are difficult to duplicate. His friends at the Art Institute tried to render them accordingly only to find that they looked mutant in the end. The simplicity of his characters was deceptive both in form and content, and the unusual combination of depth and minimalism captured the hearts of minds of both children and adults. Charles Schulz lived up to his boyhood dream of becoming a cartoonist, and fulfilled his adult one by becoming the greatest. Peanuts was and still is unparalleled in popularity and appeal.

In light of this unprecedented story of success it is all the more odd, though not surprising, that at the 1966 Emmy Awards, Charles Schulz would shyly accept the trophy for the now classic A Charlie Brown Christmas saying, “Charlie Brown is not used to winning, so we thank you.” Though he would deny he incarnated himself into the melancholy character that could never kick a football, the Schulz-Brown myth was forever sealed. It might be considered a surprising win considering the television production was unconventional (and still is) for its use of actual children’s voices, a jazzy score (Schulz hated jazz), slow-moving animation, and a minute long recitation of Luke’s Gospel. But the idea that its author “was not used to winning” was something that was wedded through the touching narrative that went far beyond anything laudatory awards, book deals, record syndication, and critical acclaim could offset. His was an inner turmoil over the belief that he was not worthy of any of it, and the following conviction that people never really saw him as being very special.

David Michaelis’s biography Schulz and Peanuts is a controversial one. Weighing in over 600 pages he details the life of the most famous cartoonist in the 20th century and reveals a sensitive but ambitious individual who languished under the woes of depression, abandonment, fame, fortune, and strained relationships. Needless to say the Schulz family is unhappy about the profile that seems to miss any sense of happiness that its subject might have experienced. There is probably some truth to this. Michaelis often lapses into the tiresome habit of psychoanalysis, something that beleaguers modern biography, by making much of a supposed complex he had with his mother and her untimely death. But within the length of the narrative emerges a startling recurring pattern that is hard to dismiss: Charles Schulz lived in a self-imposed world of self-rejection.

And it is truly strange.

There has not been a book I’ve read in the last six months that has had as big an impact on me as this one. As with any biography of someone I admire I find much to relate with, and Schulz is no exception. Seeing how his self-rejection played out in his life produced a message I found prophetic to my own: such a way of thinking is utterly damning. It would be a bit too personal to go into all the details in how I’ve seen this unfolding in my life, but a number of examples worthy of reflection from Schulz’s will illustrate what I am trying to describe.

    -All his life, Schulz would speak of being bullied as a child on the streets of St. Paul by the neighbor boys in rough neighborhoods. Yet neighbors that grew up near him cannot recall any “rough neighborhood” or mean kids on the playground. Though his friends testified to the fact that Schulz was a small kid, they do not remember an instance where he was picked on.

    -As a student, Schulz was bright, but failed three classes one semester. Most likely, this puzzling state of affairs was to due to the fact that his mother was dying from cervical cancer. While a fair amount of what resulted could be blamed on an insensitive teacher, Schulz retreated under the cover of thinking himself as “silly” and “stupid” all the while desperately wanting to be pursued.

    -At the advice of his faculty advisor Schulz would attempt to join an after-school art club called the Thumb Tacks. Though he was by then a published artist with considerable talent, his self-imposed exile caused him to turn on the heel of his foot when he saw the lively group going about their business. Without even being introduced he judged them as “brutes” that his self-worth was somehow threatened by.

    -He eventually joined the Thumb Tacks’ yearbook staff his senior year, though he rarely worked with them. He believed that they did not care about him, but it was the other way around. It has he that would not make an attempt to be friendly, remember a name, or make a good impression. To his credit, Schulz realized this when he grew older and remarked, “I suppose I am the worst kind of egoist, the kind who pretends to be humble.”

    -When an actual instance of rejection came he would be absolutely crushed and hardened with bitter resentment. The Thumb Tacks were eventually impressed with his illustrations and were planning on including them as a running theme in the senior yearbook. When he got the book in the mail he paged through it with growing dismay only to find that they were cut and replaced with a lesser talent’s idea. Though he had a good relationship with the art teacher in charge of the project he never bothered to ask her why they were not included. This was because “he didn’t have the nerve,” and all his life he would call it his first major rejection.

    -His shyness around women was a given, and he became more petrified as the girl was prettier. Often he had the inclination to talk to them, but never had the will-power to overcome his convinced belief that he was ugly though he was quite regular in appearance. Yet by all accounts, girls wanted to talk to him and get to know him. One would say, “You’re terrible quiet… but you’re smart.”

    -In his art school days a beautiful brown-eyed woman took a special interest in his drawings and sweetly commented, “On, that’s so neat!” The gratifying instance of affection so startled Schulz, he slipped away at the end of class and did not dare converse with perhaps his first adoring female fan.

    – One of his strips embodies this as Charlie Brown laments to Linus, “I can’t talk to that little-read haired girl because she’s something and I’m nothing… If I were something and she were nothing, I could talk to her, or if she were something and I were something, I could talk to her… Or if she were nothing and I were nothing, then I also could talk to her… but she’s something and I’m nothing so I can’t talk to her…” Linus replies, “For a nothing, Charlie Brown, you’re really something!”

    -The infamous Little Red-Haired girl was based on an actual woman named Donna Mae Johnson whom he courted for a time, though she was holding out for a boyhood friend whom she had grown up with in the local Lutheran church. Though the relationship was serious, it ultimately was used to wake the other suitor out of his romantic slumber by way of jealousy. Donna Mae Johnson loved Schulz, but could not imagine a life wedded to that of a cartoonist, and convention won out in the end. For Schulz, the impact of losing her was profound, and if the comment of a former girlfriend is true—that he had to be refused in order to fall in love—it is no surprise that he had a long standing affection for her that was weaved into the heart of Charlie Brown.

    -When he was ascending in his career many publishers found him to be oddly pleasant and well mannered considering other cartoonists were boorish and rude. Many people did not know how to read him. His mild manners and self-effacing humor masked a deeply competitive spirit that once lead him to walk out on an awards ceremony that honored the most outstanding strip of the year. Mort Walker, the author Beatle Bailey, was surprised that Schulz was snubbed, but even more surprised at the fact that he had just got up and left and told no one he was leaving the instant he knew he had lost. Of course, he would go on to win the award twice in his career, but declined to receive it the second time in person because, according to Schulz, “I hate to say ‘Yes’ now, and then find next fall that I’d wish I hadn’t.”

    -Many people have assumed that Schulz loved children and sought to preserve the innocence of childhood through his strip. In reality, he felt childhood was a brutal time in human existence and that children themselves are savages to one another. Moreover, he never felt like children would like him and thought they would think he was boring.

    -His first marriage was a mismatch in personalities as his wife Joyce was an outwardly ambitious women who defied role expectations of the times by literally “making the home” through various landscaping projects that transformed her living space into something resembling a modern day palace. Schulz was rewarded with time and space left alone to draw his strip, which of course was the monetary foundation for all her ideas.

    -Joyce was a confrontational woman who spoke her mind plainly while Charles retreated into himself passively. Charles did not involve himself in the role of fatherhood and left much of the child-rearing to his wife. Discipline was always a continual flashpoint of controversy in their marriage as he refused to administer it. The marriage ultimately fell apart since cartooning was an all-consuming reality for Charles. Many of Joyce’s personality traits are captured in Lucy’s character and their relationship illustrated by the headstrong “fuss budget” and the Beethoven enthusiast Schroeder who pays her no attention while he is absorbed in the piano.

    -It is a well known fact that Schulz was a committed Christian. But his faith waned later in adulthood and identified with what he called “humanism” or the belief that our lives are to be spent enriching others. Linus, the hero of faith in A Charlie Brown Christmas is repeatedly embarrassed by his unshakable belief in the “Great Pumpkin” who is supposed to rise in the “sincere” pumpkin patch and bless children with toys. Though he is ridiculed and despondent he somehow always rationalizes his belief in the end. The point, of course, as Michaelis describes it, is to satirize the proposition that it is better to “live drunk on false belief than sober nothing at all.”

    -Schulz was much happier in his later years and learned to see how his self-rejection was a problem. But he was always wary about answering fan mail, because he believed that his readers would discover an inarticulate and boring individual that would undoubtedly let them down.

Reading through Michaelis’s analysis of these anecdotes inspired much reflection on the nature of self-rejection, especially of course, my own. In each instance I could think of a similar narrative in my own life, and those that relate to parenting and marriage most certainly could be my own. The troubling question is: Why have I thought this way? It is because self-rejection comes with a promise, that it will bring a (false) sense of security that will guard one from engaging in “risky” behavior—like taking the necessary steps in friendship, forming a loving relationship, or engaging in a rewarding project. Better to play it safe by defeating oneself at the outset than by being humiliated in the end. Aim low and you will not fall far. But this comes with a price. The peril of self-rejection is that it presumes a ruthless competition with others who are kept at bay by self-protecting walls. These are erected not for the purpose of protecting something valuable on the inside, but as a means of quarantine to keep others on the outside safe. All the while, of course, the person on the inside silently wonders Can I—Will I ever be loved? And harm doesn’t just come to the exile, but sadly to those on the outside who want to reach in.

The myth of Charles Schulz as Charlie Brown makes perfect sense. In a way Charlie Brown was Schulz’s vehicle for reaching out and overcoming self-rejection. Part of his character is based on a Jewish girl at his art school who was of the dwarf size, 4 feet tall. Though the oddity of her physical appearance and ethnic identity was clear to everyone, she was resilient and confident. Michaelis writes, “No matter how much others mocked her, she maintained her dignity.” This is true of Charlie Brown, who handles insults that would scar a normal child for life, without self-pity. He confronts his vulnerability with dignity, and faces failure with strength. He never quits, never yields, always listens, cares for others, senses humor and continually gives life to millions of readers from all ages and generations.

Schulz, in himself may not be remembered well by way of biography, but he will always be loved in memory as the person he was in Charlie Brown.

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