Time Quintet: Holding Charles Tight

[Wrinkle Content Note: Child Abuse, Fascism, Hypnotism, Captivity]

Wrinkle Recap: Charles Wallace has "allowed" himself to be hypnotized (though consent was impossible since they were prisoners and being threatened with starvation) and now "isn't Charles" anymore, in Meg's words.

A Wrinkle in Time, Chapter 8: The Transparent Column

We left off with a chapter cliffhanger last time, which is a really shitty thing to do when you're not going to update for a year. I apologize for that--life has been hectic. Now we're here approximately 10 months later and there's a movie out! It's getting very mixed reviews! I haven't seen it yet but I plan to! I will report back when I do and there will be a thread for that! No spoilers in this one, please!

As you may recall, Charles and Calvin and Meg entered a very tall building, were soon after taken prisoner, then tormented and threatened until Charles Wallace agreed to submit to a telepathic mind-meld with their captor (known as "IT"). Charles first extracted a promise that he would be able to "get out" from the mind-meld and IT said he would be able to; it's unclear whether that was a lie or not.

Either way it's really unclear how all this is supposed to be Charles' hubris and pride leading to his downfall when he had no choice in the matter. IT's offer was to either submit to the mind-meld now or do so after sustained torture that would weaken Charles, so consent isn't really possible in this situation. I'm reminded again of Lewis and Edmund's "betrayal" which was performed under so many consent-altering caveats (magical mind-control, misinformation, physical threats) that he too was arguably innocent. I keep wondering if it wouldn't be easier to let kids be genuinely flawed rather than to shepherd them into a bad outcome they had no control over and declare it their fault.

Anyway. Before the mind-meld, Charles couldn't enjoy the food because he perceived it as tasteless. This was because his mind was walled off from IT's mind. Meg and Calvin lacked the mental discipline to keep IT out entirely, so they were able to receive the signals stating that the meal was yummy and they ate to their heart's content. Now that Charles is inside IT's mind and his body is being remotely piloted by IT, he digs into the food with relish--presumably only to horrify his sister further at the change in him. (Which is a nicely trollish thing for a villain to do, I feel.)

   Charles Wallace sat there tucking away turkey and dressing as though it were the most delicious thing he had ever tasted. He was dressed like Charles Wallace; he looked like Charles Wallace; he had the same sandy brown hair, the same face that had not yet lost its baby roundness. Only the eyes were different, for the black was still swallowed up in blue. But it was far more than this that made Meg feel that Charles Wallace was gone, that the little boy in his place was only a copy of Charles Wallace, only a doll.

Meg fights down a sob and shouts at the Man With Red Eyes to tell her what he's done with Charles and where he's gone. He tells her she's "hysterical" and a couple sentences later we're told that Meg is "fighting down her hysteria" and, well, on the one hand a reasonable emotional depiction of reacting to your brother being taken over but on the other hand it feels like all the emotions are being delegated to the girl character as a girly thing. Calvin uses his calm manly voice to gently hush her.

   “Hush, Meg. There’s no use trying to talk to him,” Calvin said, speaking in a low voice into her ear. “What we have to do is hold Charles Wallace tight. He’s there, somewhere, underneath, and we mustn’t let them take him away from us. Help me hold him, Meg. Don’t lose control of yourself. Not now. You’ve got to help me hold Charles!” He took the little boy firmly by one arm.
   Fighting down her hysteria, Meg took Charles’s other arm and held it tightly.

Charles Wallace says that IT isn't an enemy at all but a friend, but his voice is tinny and canned like a recording. He says that the Mrs Whatsit-Who-Which trio are really their enemies and that he'll explain if Meg will stop holding him so tightly because her grip is hurting him.

An argument ensues on the issue of whether Meg will stop grabbing Charles' arm. This is confusing to me because on the one hand it seems likely to be true that she's hurting him--Meg is screaming and holding him tight and generally being Emotional--but on the other hand I can't imagine why IT would care about Charles' comfort. The narrative would seem to imply that it's vitally important for Meg to continue holding on physically to her mentally-absent ("mentally-absent" in the sense of his mind leaving his body to go dwell within IT) brother, except that later she will let go of him anyway so... it's not?

On the third hand (yes, this analogy has three hands), autistic people tend to have sensory issues about things touching them and their skin, and about being grabbed and restrained. An on-spectrum person I know very well haaates having their arm grabbed and will do just about anything to avoid it. I still don't know if Charles Wallace is supposed to be on the spectrum, nor do I know if the boy he's based on was on the spectrum, but I have weird feelings about passages like this:

   “You’re hurting me, Meg!” Charles said sharply. “Let me go!”
   “No,” Meg said grimly.

I don't want to read too much into this, but there is a thing abled people and allistic (i.e., not-autistic) people do where it's like "no, I know best, your bodily autonomy isn't yours now because you're mentally ill / mentally compromised". There's no reason that I can fathom for Meg to be gripping Charles like this. I'm not criticizing her for it--I think it's a natural reaction for a child to cling to her brother when he seems to be slipping away from her--but it's just weirdly focused on here and has no plot significance, so it almost begins to read like a real-life detail but in a not-good way. Idk.

Moving on.

   “You don’t understand, Calvin,” Charles Wallace said. “Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which have confused us. They’re the ones who are really our enemies. We never should have trusted them for a minute.” He spoke in his calmest, most reasonable voice, the voice which infuriated the twins. He seemed to be looking directly at Calvin as he spoke, and yet Meg was sure that the bland blue eyes could not see, and that someone, something else was looking at Calvin through Charles.
   Now the cold, strange eyes turned to her. “Meg, let go. I will explain it all to you, but you must let go.”
   “No.” Meg gritted her teeth. She did not release her grasp, and Charles Wallace began to pull away with a power that was not his own, and her own spindly strength was no match against it. “Calvin!” she gasped as Charles Wallace wrenched his arm from her and stood up.
   Calvin the athlete, Calvin the boy who split firewood and brought it in for his mother, whose muscles were strong and controlled, let go Charles Wallace’s wrist and tackled him as though he were a football. Meg, in her panic and rage, darted at the man on the chair, intending to hit him as Charles Wallace had done, but the black-smocked men were too quick for her, and one of them held her with her arms pinioned behind her back.
   “Calvin, I advise you to let me go,” came Charles Wallace’s voice from under Calvin.
   Calvin, his face screwed up with grim determination, did not relax his hold. The man with red eyes nodded and three of the men moved in on Calvin (at least it took three of them), pried him loose, and held him as Meg was being held.

I'm... mmph.

I want to talk about this passage and I'm already wincing because I realize the comments are going to be an unrelenting flood of "no, you're being petty!" and I really don't think I am. I don't hate L'Engle, I don't wish any harm on her, I don't have feelings about her. I liked these books as a kid, I still have fond feelings for them, and I am fully aware that this is an unusual situation (small child ensorcelled by Satan, but IN SPACE) that doesn't happen regularly to many people. Can I just drape that disclaimer over all this? Done.

[TW: Child Abuse] There is no reason for Meg to be clinging to Charles and for Calvin to be tackling him. Is this supposed to bring him back to them? What the hell are they doing? Suddenly all I can think about is the "Elmo mom" who decided her autistic son had "phobias" keeping him confined to the house (it's more likely that he has sensory overwhelm that may cause him pain without various necessary accommodations like sunglasses, earplugs, stim toys, etc.) and decided against the advice of his doctor to subject him to non-consensual exposure therapy: she'd just physically force him to go and when he saw how "fine" everything is (note: non-consensual exposure therapy is the opposite of "fine"), his phobias would go away. She writes of his attempt to escape a space which is hurting him:

My usually buoyant child is slamming his fists and clawing at the metal door’s push bar. I quickly seize him by the shoulders and pry his fingers from the bar as he jerks his head back in a sudden motion. His skull smashes into my chin, and I taste the metallic taint of my own blood.

I give up trying to pry his fingers away, wrap both arms tightly around his torso and yank him back fiercely. We both tumble to the floor. Zack momentarily escapes my grip and scrambles back toward the door, but I leap on top of him, pinning his entire body flat to the ground. We are still in the vestibule.

Breathlessly, I pivot myself to secure Zack’s entire body between my thighs as I clamp down tightly and interlock my feet to prevent him from breaking free. Zack is shrieking at an alarmingly high pitch, but I keep heaving and dragging us both, inch by dreadful inch, closer to the show’s main entrance area, which we are separated from by a red curtain. I can hear voices around us.

Kaelan Rhywiol has been documenting on twitter this woman's "therapy" with her son (which the woman has captured in a larger book soon to be released and which, in my opinion, stands poised to teach a lot of allistic parents to abuse their autistic children under the guise of "helping" them).

So okay, that's bad but what does that have to do with Wrinkle in Time? I don't know. I honestly don't know whether Charles Wallace is autistic, nor do I understand Calvin's motivation in tackling him after he wrests Meg's arm from him, nor do I understand Meg's determination to grip him in a hurty way, nor do I understand why IT would give a damn about whether his captive is being physically held or not. No one's motivations are explained and none of this appears to ever be plot relevant.

Yet... it's here. It's here and it doesn't feel like filler. It's specific and visual and vivid and I find myself worried for the little boy Charles Wallace was based on because I hope against hope he never had "empty eyes" and a "tinny voice" and was then grabbed until he fought back to get free and then tackled for the crime of fighting back. I hope this is just some weird useless interlude meant to inject some kind of action into a scene that is otherwise men and boys talking while Meg shrieks a lot.

   “Mrs Whatsit!” Meg called despairingly. “Oh, Mrs Whatsit!”
   But Mrs Whatsit did not come.

Back to the narrative, Charles Wallace keeps saying that the Mrs. W's are the bad guys but offers literally no argument to support this position so (shockingly!) this fails to convince anyone. Which is a shame because I feel like I could offer several: they deceived the children about their true natures for no real or good reason, they stole from people while they were on earth, they carelessly took the children to a two-dimensional space that nearly killed them, they dropped them on this apparently dangerous planet without a word of real warning about what to expect or do--those are just the things I remember; I'm sure we could name more if we tried.

The narrative justification isn't even that those decisions were somehow secretly good. Perhaps recognizing what a hard sell that would be, the justification is instead that the angels are forgetful. Which, okay, but intent isn't a magical shield from harm. So the angels are doing harmful acts, they just "mean well". That's a flimsy stand on which to hang your hat, so it's interesting that Charles doesn't put forth any of these points to justify his bland insistence that the angels are their enemy.

   “Meg,” Charles Wallace said. “Meg, just listen to me.”
   “Okay, I’m listening.”
   “We’ve been all wrong, I told you; we haven’t understood. We’ve been fighting our friend, and Father’s friend.”
   “If Father tells me he’s our friend maybe I’ll believe it. Maybe. Unless he’s got Father—under—under a spell, or whatever it is, like you.”
   “This isn’t a fairy tale. Spells indeed,” Charles Wallace said. “Meg, you’ve got to stop fighting and relax. Relax and be happy. Oh, Meg, if you’d just relax you’d realize that all our troubles are over. You don’t understand what a wonderful place we’ve come to. You see, on this planet everything is in perfect order because everybody has learned to relax, to give in, to submit. All you have to do is look quietly and steadily into the eyes of our good friend here, for he is our friend, dear sister, and he will take you in as he has taken me.”
   “Taken you in is right!” Meg said. “You know you’re not you. You know you’ve never in your life called me dear sister.”
   “Shut up a minute, Meg,” Calvin whispered to her.

As we pause here, I note to you that Calvin is supposed to be the one who is skilled at communicating with people in a way that makes them trust and like him.


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