Freud Reads A Village Childhood

by Rita S. Kipp

July 18, 2012


Freudian concepts illuminate a childhood memoir from Sumatra set in the early twentieth century, adding depth to this coming of age story about a boy and his father. The ubiquitous Oedipal triangle appears here in the context of a matrilineal, Muslim society (Minangkabau) where men were mostly absent from their children’s lives in this era, boys were circumcised as pre-teens, and young women married men much older than they. The unique particulars of the author’s life, especially his being orphaned as an infant and raised by his father, unfold within these cultural and universal parameters.


The utility of Freudian theory for psychology and clinical practice has been controversial from the beginning, and no less so within anthropology where Freud’s framework has been used to interpret collective myths and cultural practices.  Much of the controversy in anthropology has focused on the Oedipus complex.  In Sex and Repression in Savage Society, Bronislaw Malinowski (1927) famously argued that the patriarchal assumptions underpinning Freudian theory limited its value for understanding the matrilineal Trobriand Islanders.  Melford Spiro (1982) later re-examined Malinowski's data, however, and concluded that the Trobrianders struggle with rather strong Oedipal tendencies due in part to a prohibition on the parents’ marital intercourse until a child is weaned, resulting in children who enjoy years of physical intimacy with and exclusive access to their mothers.   A.W Johnson and D. Price-Williams (1996), who deployed Freudian frameworks to interpret over 100 folk tales from around the world, found that while the Oedipal triangle is indeed “ubiquitous,” different social and familial settings influence the particulars of this psycho-sexual development.  Taking their conclusion as my starting point, I show here that the universal oedipal dynamic is over-layered, not only by a particular socio-cultural milieu, but also by idiosyncratic life histories that may amplify or influence it.

                Freudian insights interpret a childhood memoir from Sumatra, namely A Village Childhood by Muhamad Radjab, originally published in Indonesian in 1950 and translated in 1995 by Susan Rodgers.  The genre of memoir or autobiography was brand new in the newly independent nation of Indonesia, and Rodgers interpreted the memoir and another one from Sumatra that was published in the same year to illustrate the dawn of the national imagination.  The authors of these two memoirs actually say nothing about nationalism directly, but Rodgers sees a parallel between the naivety and limited horizons of boys not yet awakened to knowledge of the wider world and the awakening of the varied peoples of the former Dutch Each Indies to a sense of common destiny as an independent nation. Both books were written in the national language rather than the first languages of the writers.  Both authors composed their memoirs in urban settings that contrasted sharply with the rural villages of their remembered ethnic homelands, Toba Batak in one case and Minangkabau in the other.  Rodgers, an anthropologist, is also aware of these memoirs’ ethnographic value as windows on two Sumatran cultures in the early twentieth century but she did not analyze these texts as psychological self-portraits, although the authors’ remembered personas are distinctive and each memoir conveys a distinct emotional tone . [image: Indonesiamap] [image: Sumatra]

Although memories are necessarily subjective, selective, and shifting, memoirs and autobiographies surely reflect psychological truths about their authors.  Among all the events and sensations that we experience as children, only a fraction remain in memory.  Freud spoke of “the amnesia of childhood,” meaning that the earliest years especially leave few traces in memory, and those traces only of trivial things.  He wrote that…”whatever may appear to the contrary, the child no less than the adult only retains in memory what is important; but that what is important is represented (by the process of condensation and, more especially, of displacement…) in the memory by something apparently trivial”(Freud 1924: 211). In other words, fleeting childhood memories of the trivial are actually displacements for events or issues that are important.  The trivial incidents preserved in these two childhood memoirs can signal deeper significance at a psychological, developmental level.  What repressed fears and anxieties motivated the preservation and framing of these particular trivialities within a textual narrative?

In her substantial introduction to the memoirs, Rodgers observes that both books emphasize the authors' relationships with their fathers.  That is especially true of the one that will be the target of my analysis.  One of Radjab’s earliest memories seems quixotically trivial to the author himself (all citations from the memoir are from Rodgers 1995):

What I do still recall – why we remember some things and not others, I will never understand – is that when I was four I really adored boiled eggs.  Sometimes I ate four or five a day.  I called the shells “pails,” perhaps because I often used them to scoop up water.  When I cried for “pails” my father knew I wanted to eat an egg (154). 

In fact this insignificant memory is quite typical of this remembered childhood: a focus on food and the presence of his father. 

                The manifest content of Radjab’s memoir is Oedipal in broad terms, recounting a boy's love for his mother and his coming of age, including developing heterosexual interests.  Much of the narrative tension hinges around the boy's conflict with his authoritarian, even abusive, father.  My reading between the lines of this memoir as a Freudian might read it uncovers latent messages about sexuality and desire that deepen and extend the manifest coming-of-age theme. 

The Name of the Father

                In the week following his birth in 1913 in a highland village of West Sumatra, Muhamad Radjab received the name his father gave him.  A friend asked what the baby would be called, and the father, a respected Muslim cleric and teacher, responded: "Because he's my first boy, and the word for 'boy' in Arabic isridjal, he will be named Ridjal"(150). The author’s given name, Muhamad, never appears in the memoir except on the title page.  This is a memoir about Ridjal, a story about Boy, the moniker forecasting the primacy of gender in the tale and its main theme: transforming boy into man.

                How can this be an Oedipal story when a key player in the familiar relationship triangle, the mother, is not even there?  At nine months old, the writer lost his mother to cholera. Because conservative religious teachers of that time prohibited photographs, he had no record of her appearance and could conjure almost no memory of her person. The author’s father was just such a religious teacher, and his regret at not having even a photograph reproaches the father’s rule indirectly for separating him further from his mother.   Because the mother lived only in the boy’s imagination, she assumed a  perfection possible only in fantasy.  From the descriptions of relatives who knew her, Ridjal inferred that his mother was a "good woman," patient, and with a "tender heart," and as such, that her outlook on life contrasted markedly with that of her much-older husband (150).   The mother’s absence in fact deepened the child’s desire for a love he cannot remember.        

Substituting for the mother symbolically in the memoir, I believe, is the relatively trivial but constant trope of food.  The orphan rejected a wet nurse that was found for him, but at nine months of age, was able to survive on other food.  Still, this would have been considered an early weaning in that time and place, and the writer’s preoccupation with food belies oral anxieties that probably started with his abrupt loss.  His aunt told him that, as a baby, he liked to suck his own tongue.  The young protagonist is frequently at the mercy of his appetite, which leads him into much mischief and folly.  Food is mentioned in all but one of the book’s 23 chapters and is the narrative driver in many recollections. Furthermore, stories of illicit eating or wanting to eat at the wrong time appear frequently.  I interpret these recurrent stories about food (and by contrast, the companion memoir published with this one hardly mentions food at all) as a way of speaking elliptically about emergent, repressed sexual desire, particularly because illicit eating often provoked the harshest disciplinary anger from Ridjal’s father.  In short, the writer’s preoccupation with food symbolizes maternal nurturance suddenly disrupted, and the illicit eating that provides the narrative tension of several of the book’s chapters masks a latent conflict with the father over control of the boy’s sexuality.

                Ridjal’s maternal loss produced a longing so deep it went beyond expressing.  He felt this lack most acutely when he visited his mother's family's house where he was born.  His words in this passage suggest a deep Lacanian well of Desire.

That house and its surroundings always made me feel extremely nostalgic every time I visited it after I was five years old.  I do not know why, and I have never been able to explain it.  The sense of yearning was vague but it penetrated to my very soul.  There were various flowers of different colors and some croton plants around the house…They always caught my attention and heightened my sensation of longing for some unknown thing.  Maybe I felt this way because I planted two crotons on my mother's grave; every time I see that plant the feeling envelopes me…Sometimes I prayed to God that the agonized longing in my heart would cease (151).

Croton plants always reminded him of his mother, and conversely, remembering the lack of his mother evoked the image of that colorful plant.  Years later at his public recitation of the Koran someone says, “If your mother were still alive her happiness would just be beyond telling,” (190) and tears flowed down the boy’s cheeks as an image of her graveside plants popped into mind. [image:croton]

                The early loss of his mother, devastating for any child, was no doubt compounded in this cultural setting because the Minangkabau, like the Trobriand Islanders, are matrilineal. In any matrilineal society, the mother anchors individuals in the social order, conferring to her children membership in a matrilineage and a clan. Minangkabau  matriliny has been the subject of considerable anthropological attention (Blackwood 2000; Kato 2007; Sanday 2004; van Reenen 1996), especially its co-existence over centuries with Islamic law and culture.  Women control land and houses.  The large and distinctive Minangkabau houses provided space for the female descendents of a family to live together, their husbands visiting them in the evenings in small private sleeping compartments set off from a large common area for sitting and socializing. Ridjal's mother's house, the scene that always prompted his “agonized longing,” was of this traditional type, at one time sheltering more than forty people -- seven adult women and their children.  [image:matrilineal] [image:minanghouse]

                In the case of divorce or the death of the mother, children are supposed to remain with the matrilineage, enfolded into the big household to be reared by their grandmother and mother’s sisters and among their matrilineal cousins.  This is what is likely for female children, but the outcome for male orphans is less predictable (Kato 2007).  Ridjal’s father carried the motherless infant, "crying all the way," to the little prayer house (surau) where he was the cleric and teacher (153).   This father’s taking control of the baby was, if not a legal breach, at least a highly unusual occurrence in this time and place.  The role of fathers and husbands in the big, extended matrilineal households was truly peripheral. Men’s life-long loyalties were with their own mother and sisters, that is, their matrilineal group, including their sisters’ children to whom they were mamak (mother’s brother) and over whom they exercised legal responsibility. Men visited their wives’ houses only at night, men were allowed more than one wife, and divorce rates were historically high.  Many Mingangkabau thus had what R.J. Chadwick (1995) termed “father-absent childhoods” (71).  The way Ridjal grew up, then, in a daily and intense relationship with his father, was highly atypical in this time and place.  Tsuyoshi Kato describes what usually happened to orphans:

With or without their mothers, women are still incorporated within their extended matrilineal system as perpetuators of blood lines and their identification with their matrilineal group is intact.  The situation is different for men.  Without a linchpin, a motherless boy was at the mercy of fate.  If he was lucky and had a good mamak (and a good maternal aunt), he might still have been incorporated within the circle of his matrilineal family.  If not, it is likely that he developed little attachment to his matrilineal family and that he was relatively isolated from the matrilineal system in general.  This is all the more likely since Minangkabau boys usually did not stay at their mother’s house after the age of six or seven (2007: 60-61n.).

If Ridjal’s father later appears unusually cruel and controlling in this story, at least he did not leave his son “at the mercy of fate.”  It is also clear from the memoir that this father loved and sometimes took pride in his only son, provided well for him, and invested much hope in him. 

                Perhaps the difference in wealth between Ridjal’s matrilineage and that of his father provides a clue as to why Ridjal did not remain with his mother’s family.  The house in which Ridjal was born, while large, was made of bamboo instead of expensive, planed lumber, "because we were not well-to-do…" (150).   Readers learn, too, that Ridjal’s male lineage chief (datuk) had died before his birth, and apparently no other male in the matrilineage was able to claim that role and title, perhaps for financial reasons.   Ridjal’s matrilineage was struggling financially and may have been a client or formerly slave descent line without claim to land.  In comparison, Ridjal’s father was man of some means.  In a society where land devolves to women, he owned or managed rice paddies, “three big wide plots” (201). These fields might have belonged to his matrilineage and been given to him for lifetime use (Chadwick 1991), or he might have purchased them (Errington 1984).  He was able to afford the religiously prescribed trip to Mecca, the haj.  In fact, he was preparing to make the haj with one of his sisters when his young wife died.  Leaving the baby in the care of a niece, Ridjal’s father vowed that if he received word that the baby had died, he would remain in Mecca for the rest of his life. 

                Another index of Ridjal’s father’s wealth and his status is his having at least two other wives in addition to Ridjal's mother.  When he was about five years old, Ridjal lived for a year with one of his step-mothers, a woman with grown children who lived by herself in a village a short distance away on the shores of the beautiful Lake Singkarak.  His father visited this wife two days of each week, bringing fruits or cakes for her and his son. Ridjal recalled this as an idyllic time of freedom and playing with friends in the lake.  His fond memories of life there also included the fresh fish that he ate every day, and fish eggs, a delicacy "which came in strings that were sometimes as long as my sleeve, cooked fried or roasted.  These fish eggs were so good, in fact, that I did not finish them with my rice, but saved them.  After my rice was gone I took a big pile of fish eggs into the yard, where I licked them and niggled them bit by bit as I walked down to the water's edge" (158).  [image:Singkarak]

                This idyll was not marred by memories of conflict with his step-mother nor with his father, although Ridjal’s step-mothers come up short in comparison to his imaginary mother, his “Real” mother, in the rest of the book.  Whenever one of his step-mothers attempted to discipline him or thwart his wishes, Ridjal always imagined that his Real Mother would not have been so cruel.  The Lost Mother was always more generous, patient, and tolerant in his imagination than any of the actual women whom he also called Mother.  The happy year at his step-mother's house by the lake ended when he was six and when, without warning, his father came to take him back the surau to begin school

Boys older than 12 years old, in fact any unmarried men, were not supposed to sleep in their mothers' houses.  When Ridjal began school, sixteen boys slept at his father's surau, and several of them became his playmates and intimates.  Two or three elderly men slept there regularly also, and male visitors to the village used the surau as a place to sleep.  At those times, as many as 30 men and boys might spend the night, staying up late, telling stories, and visiting.  It was the common pattern in Minangkabau (and elsewhere in Sumatra) that as male children grew toward puberty, they no longer shared sleeping quarters with their sexually active parents or other close female relatives.  Minangkabau boys took their meals in their mothers’ homes but then went to sleep at the surau or in a food stall.  This practice aimed explicitly to distance young boys from the sexual lives of their mothers and sisters and was enforced by an internalized sense of shame.  Boys who still wanted to sleep at home were teased that “they’re still nursing their mothers,” and boys were, “…embarrassed to be called the guardians of their sister’s rooms” (191). The lumping of sisters and mothers together in matters of sexual shame is also like the matrilineal Trobrianders who, Spiro (1982) argued, told myths about brother-sister incest as a displacement for the unspeakable idea of incest between son and mother.  Myths of brother-sister incest are also a part of Minangkabau heritage (Peletz 1996), and as we learn later, Ridjal does fall in love with a “sister.”

                Men in that era who had made the haj often opened religious schools upon their return, schools that generated income. Whether Ridjal's father already had such a school before becoming a haji is not clear, but if so, fulfilling the pilgrimage would have raised his stature and perhaps attracted more pupils to study with him.  Ridjal’s father wanted very much for his only son to take his place as a leader and teacher, but the boy had no interest in that kind of future. Ridjal was grateful that at least his father, unlike most conservative leaders  of that time, understood the value of secular as well as religious education and sent him to school beginning when he was about six years old. After some initial adjustment, Ridjal proved to be an apt pupil, usually the first in his class, and he much preferred going to  school over the religious education he received in tandem with it. [image: atschool]


“All Because of a Banana…”


Considering Ridjal’s preoccupation with food, it is not surprising that stories set during Ramadan, the fasting month, play a key role in this memoir.  Ramadan is manifestly about the ability to control and master one's desires to eat and drink, restricting all ingestion to the hours of darkness.  Ridjal's father keeps watch over his young son's fasting and punishes him, sometimes brutally, for giving in to his appetite.

                One of these stories is recounted in the chapter entitled, “All Because of a Banana…”  It must be said that bananas -- ubiquitous in the Indonesian diet as a snack food and dessert -- are also ubiquitously a euphemism for penises throughout the archipelago.  Peggy Sanday described the bananas distributed at a Minangkabau ceremony as “icons of male fertility” (2002: 115), and Joke van Reenen, another scholar of that society,  noted that, “The pisang (banana) is a metaphor for the male sexual organ” (1996: 130-31).  Finally, in this society that reckons descent through women, the kin term women use for their brothers’ children is anak pisang, literally child of the banana.  That bananas are a phallic symbol is in this setting is common and manifest knowledge. [image:bananas]

                Before the incident recounted in this chapter, Ridjal's love for bananas had already brought him in conflict with his father.  As a very small boy, he had once traded a toy car that his father had given him for three bananas. Store-bought toys were a real rarity in this time and place, and Ridjal’s having one shows both his father’s relative wealth and his affection for his son.  His father was, however, furious that the boy did not understand how much the toy was worth. He made the friend trade it back to Ridjal for four bananas. This is an early instance of Ridjal’s tendency to follow the short-term impulses of his appetite before weighing (or understanding) the consequences, and thus incurring his father’s wrath.

                One day late in the afternoon during Ramadan, when he was "seeing stars and couldn't withstand the hunger," the boy’s attention focused on six large bananas that rested on a shelf in his step-mother’s house.  The memoir’s language describing this food sounds positively lustful:

Their peels were lovely like gold, shining brightly.  Plump, fat bananas -- ah, their insides would surely be sweet and delicious…The bananas got lovelier, I rubbed them back and forth, they were all fresh and invitingly delicious there at my fingertips.  And I kissed their peels.  Oh, their scent.  They're sweet inside for sure! (184).

At last he gave in to his hunger and ate one.  His step-mother noticed that one of the bananas was gone, and mentioned it to his father when he arrived home about an hour later.

That's the problem with having a stepmother.  A real mother probably wouldn't have complained.  She'd understand that her child was very hungry, and that it wouldn't do any good to punish him….A real mother would forgive it: her great love for her child would press her to forgive him (p. 185).

A step-mother, in contrast, is always pleased to see her step-child punished. "Well, you didn’t come from my womb," she'll say (p. 185).

                At first Ridjal denied taking the fruit, but finally he confessed.  Due to the stress of managing his own hunger and thirst during Ramadan, Ridjal's father was especially prone to rages, and this time he tied Ridjal to one of the pillars in the house.  Crying and begging for mercy as darkness fell,  Ridjal remained tied to the pillar, drooling as his step-mother set out the food for the evening meal.

Father and mother ate together, chatting away, not looking at me, as if I absolutely did not exist.  With a hungry stomach I was left to gaze at them scooping up the rice, eating fried fish and stewed meat and chewing on chicken thighs.  My saliva began to drip…Afterward, the two of them drank sweetened tea and ate the five big king bananas.  I watched all this with burning eyes, my body weak from hunger, irked and sad.  This is how it is if you don't have a real mother.  I was angriest at this stepmother; to go complain about a single banana! (186).

The sensual description of the bananas is less homoerotic than simply the desire for what the banana represents – adult male power.  The humiliation of watching – with dripping mouth – as his parents enjoy together what was denied to him suggests the Oedipal overtones of this memory.  Ridjal’s anger is almost wholly deflected from his father to his step-mother, however.  He is more angry at her for telling on him than he is at his father for the punishment, as if his father had every right to lose his temper, but a real mother would have let him eat what he wanted.

                Another time, Ridjal was suspected of breaking the fast although he had not. He was asked to go to the market to buy some yams for one of his little step-sisters who was ill. Finding none for sale there, he bought instead some fermented cassava wrapped in leaves and took it back to the prayer house where he got drawn into a game of dominoes.  Two hours later, he left the surau but forgot the package.  Running back to the deserted surau later, he found only the leaves in which the food had been wrapped.  Ridjal's father thought he was lying, and again exploded.  He tied his hands behind him and around a pillar, this time one in the middle of the surau, then removed the boy's shirt and went out to the back yard where he retrieved a nest of red ants with a stick and placed the nest on top of Ridjal's head.  Whenever the prisoner shook off the nest, his father would retrieve it and place it there again, letting the ants swarm down the boy's body. "Being bitten by the ants, wasn't as painful, though, as my fright at seeing Father's eyes burning like fire. I didn’t have the courage to look him straight in the eyes" (195-96).  This time, Ridjal’s father knew he had gone too far and he reprimanded his wife for not intervening to stop his cruelty.  She countered that she, too, had been frightened of him in that state.  Ridjal took some comfort in his stepmother being blamed too. The next day, feeling remorseful, his father inquired whether his body still hurt from the ant stings and gave the boy a coin as an apology. [image: cassava]

                Repeatedly, the boy succumbs to his appetite, or the father thinks that he does, and punishes him for his lack of self-control and for lying.  The step-mother sides with the father, which only reminds the boy that he lacks a real mother.  He always assumes that his real mother would have been on his side, letting him slake his appetite and standing with him against his father.  Appetite here displaces forbidden sexual desires, desires that, implicitly, a real mother would have indulged.

                Once, the father’s Ramadan irritability led to another outburst of corporal punishment, not over food but simple insubordination.  Ridjal and some friends were playing touch tag one night outside the surau and making a racket.  One of his father’s students stepped out and told the boys to stop making so much noise. “His Honor forbids it,” the student said, referencing Ridjal’s father.  Ridjal retorted smartly, “Well, I’m ‘his honor’ too!” (265). When the student reported this, his father ran out of the surau “with a scarlet face and voice,” and the boys scattered.  Ridjal hoped that his father would cool down and simply forget the incident, but the next day when returning from bathing, his father spotted the boys sleeping in a food stall. “Now, so here are yesterday’s honorable sirs, are they?” (266). He hit Ridjal and some of the other boys “as hard as he could” with the wet sarong he was carrying. 

                Sexual appetite does not always remain veiled behind stories about food in this memoir.  As Ridjal ages, the narrative recognizes these desires explicitly, especially in the description of afternoons during Ramadan.  When people cannot eat or drink during the day, the diurnal schedule upends.  In the dead of night, everyone is awake, praying and eating.  Conversely, early mornings and much of the afternoons are given over to sleep or indolence in order to conserve energy and forestall thirst.  Perhaps it is not surprising that during lazy afternoons in Ramadan, when one is trying so hard to suppress thirst and hunger, other desires rise unbidden to mind.  [image: Ramadhan]

During this exhausted, empty time, when nothing was undertaken or thought about in any positive, definite way, daydreams were more active than was normally the case.  They got wilder and flared up much more violently than usual. Daydreams that rarely occurred to us (ones we considered indecent, for instance) cropped up repeatedly during this time.  Sometimes they would take control of us for an entire hour.  If they were put aside they would just crop up again.  A young woman with an average sort of face would become a princess in our eyes: her whole body would attract us, her hair, cheeks, chin, chest, waist, thighs, and calves -- all of those enchanted us (260).

                Just before the fasting month one year, Ridjal was living at the prayer house belonging to his father's brother to undertake additional study in Koranic recitation there.   Maskur, a slightly older cousin, was his companion, and Maskur had fallen madly in love with a girl named Dasima.  From the second floor of the surau, the boys could peer between the cracks in the wall to a water spout below where women came to bathe. The boys enjoyed the sight of Dasima bathing, a sarong secured above her breasts but her contours clearly visible beneath the wet bathing garment.  "Oh, if only our skins could touch!" Maskur imagined (238).  Ridjal, an avid reader of romance novels and thus well-versed in the language of love, became Maskur’s Cyrano, composing letters to the lovely Dasima in on his cousin’s behlaf.  Dasima reciprocated by sending the boys snacks that she had prepared.  After about three weeks of this, Ridjal's father learned of the boys' shenanigans and suddenly called him back home.  Secretly, Ridjal was pleased; he missed his old friends at his father's surau and found his uncle's intensive recitation drills boring. [image:womanbathing]

                Ridjal was discovering his own romantic interests as well. One Ramadan, Ridjal’s sexual fantasies were provoked by a newlywed couple who were reputed to be very much in love.  Unlike European couples who might hold hands with each other, Minangkabau couples were constrained not to show affection in public, but these newlyweds alternated wearing the same sarong on different days, a signal everyone understood as a silent declaration of love.  Ridjal watched them walk together to the surau for evening prayers during Ramadan and then reunite to return home after the service that separated men and women.  He fantasized what it would be like in three or four years to take his own wife home:

And after tarwih, I, too, would be going home with my wife.  She'd still be sort of shy and embarrassed and wouldn’t have the nerve to look me straight in the eyes yet; she'd always just bow her head and glance at me sideways.  I'd look at her with increased passion. And I'd be carrying the flashlight (264).

Of course, as a man, Ridjal would carry the flashlight. During another Ramadan, his repressed desires prompted a  crush on a married woman.

At that time, by happenstance, I had fallen in love with a young woman whose husband had been away for a year, as he had migrated to Medan.  She was plump and pretty, with a cute bosom and a big rear end.  All this made me desire her, especially when I could see her figure beneath her clothes as they clung to her body (295).

Aiming to win her heart, Ridjal asked to escort her home one moonlit night after Ramadan services at the prayer house, knowing that that no one would have suspected anything more in this than "just an older sister with her younger brother" (295). But when he suddenly grabbed her hand and embraced her around the waist, she was startled and angry. In response to that rejection, and feeling "disappointed, sad, cross, and afraid that she might complain about all this to father," he aimed to "drive her wild" by means of love magic (295), but the spell made no difference in the woman's attitude toward him, so the experience  reaffirmed his doubts about the efficacy of magic.  It would be the last time he would attempted "witchcraft," he resolved.


Naked Memories

                A single memory about a naked frolic would not be particularly surprising in a childhood memoir, but this short book contains three stories involving public nakedness suggesting that this theme carried particular psychological weight for the author. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud (1911) noted that naked dreams have parallels in fairy tales and myths and, he supposed, are connected to experiences in dreamers’ earliest childhoods.  They reveal an anxiety about “forbidden wishes,” and also evoke the paradise of childhood “when shame is unknown.”  For that reason, Freud felt that whether or not the dream is accompanied by feelings of embarrassment and shame was an important distinction. Ridjal’s stories of nakedness usually start playfully and without shame, but two end with embarrassment, especially when Ridjal’s father intervenes and punishes him publically.

                Ridjal and his friends were between the ages of 12 and 15 and playing touch tag one moonlit night in the yard near the surau when one of the boys suggested they conserve their shirts and trousers by playing naked. When two old women approached a nearby outhouse to defecate, the boys hid behind and within a cement water tank. The women left and the game resumed.  Suddenly Ridjal's father was upon them!  Forbidding the boys to get dressed, he beat each boy on the thigh 20 times with a rattan stick except for Ridjal and the friend who had suggested the nakedness who each got 30 lashes.

The punishment didn't entail all that much pain.  It was the embarrassment that was unbearable.  Everybody laughed in great amusement to see us lined up there waiting for the rattan switch -- ten stark naked people with their bodies shining with sweat (177). [image: bathing]

The choice to be naked with one’s playmates evokes the shameless paradise of childhood.  Only when the nakedness was compulsory and mandated as a part of the father’s punishment was it shameful.             

In the second story about nakedness, Ridjal and his friends have graduated into the role of santri, that is, advanced students of religion.  At this time, he was again living at his uncle's prayer house to receive instruction.  Bereaved families often requested that santri come to recite the Koran at wakes, and having done that one evening, eight of the boys were caught in a downpour while walking the kilometer back to the surau.  Again, one of them suggested that they strip in the interest of saving their clothing.  Ridjal found their public nakedness ironic given that only minutes before they had been standing piously and reciting holy passages.  They startled three women coming home from the surau carrying a torch.  To preserve their cover of darkness, one of the boys kicked the torch out of one woman's hand, falling on the ground himself in the process.  Thinking that the "eight black shapes running along in the dark” were ghosts that had attacked them, the women screamed ( 228). [image:santris]

                The third story takes place during Ramadan and shortly after Ridjal had found a brass watch chain that he polished and then fastened around his ankle.  He wanted to test whether the ankle bracelet might cause him to have strange dreams due to some "special history" attaching to it.  Ridjal was embarrassed to wear it during the day, perhaps because this is something only a woman or girl might wear, or perhaps because he was ashamed of this instance of magical thinking that he deplored, but he wore it every evening from dusk to dawn.  One morning his father rousted the boys sleeping in the surau around 9:00 a.m., telling them to get up and bathe, and Ridjal forgot to remove the bracelet.  Unlike adult males, the teenagers bathed without their sarongs, and soon the bathing turned into play.  Splashing, chasing, and shouting, some of the boys climbed into the cement tank rather than using it just to douse themselves with dippers of water.  Suddenly the boys in the tank felt themselves being rapped on the head with a bamboo pole.  Ridjal's father, who had been leading some girls in group recitation of the Koran in a building nearby, was whacking the water.  Boys leapt from the tank in all directions, grabbed their clothes, and ran. The girls, coming to the windows to watch the melee, howled with delight. [image: bathing2]

Their screams and laughter rose in intensity when they saw me running naked holding my bundle of clothes with my shirt, my trousers, my cap, and …wearing my ankle bracelet.  I was extremely embarrassed…(268).

Ridjal was especially embarrassed with regard to one particular girl among them who was his current sweetheart.  Perhaps the “strange dreams” he hoped to evoke were dreams of her.  Starting that day, he decided never to wear the ankle bracelet again.

                These stories about repeated nakedness in public represent the writer's struggle to come to terms with forbidden desires, the arc of two of these stories reflecting the development from a childlike innocence about sexuality to the embarrassment of an adult’s sensibilities.  Being seen by women is only one source of this learned shame.  Just as important was the father’s anger and his public anger and corporal punishments. The ankle bracelet in the last story exposed Ridjal’s lapse into the (childish) magical thinking that he decried in others, his untoward desire for a woman, or perhaps effeminacy.  In any case, the bracelet, like the Boy’s very nakedness, showed him to be less than the man he wanted to be.

Castration Anxieties

                In the Freudian framework, a young boy fears that sexual desire in competition with his father will be punished with castration.  In this setting, the cultural environment surely heightened castration anxiety through the practice of circumcision when boys were between the ages of 8 and 12.  In Ridjal's village, boys were circumcised only after age 10.  Groups of boys usually underwent this rite at the same time, their families celebrating together, and the boys were given new clothes and much attention and praise.  Ridjal's circumcision took place when he was 12 along with his cousin Maskur and was an important juncture on his road to maturity, including a mature sense of sexual shame.

For us boys, circumcision was an important event in our lives, one which left traces in our souls.  For, at that time we began to be aware that we differed from girls, and we began to become bashful and respectful around women (179).

Make no mistake.  This celebration of male adulthood also struck fear in the initiates: “Our hearts pounded, embarrassed and scared: if say, all of it got cut off, surely we'd die”(179).  Friends and relations made fun of these fears, teasing the boys that, truly, their young lives hung in the balance. They would say, "And, you know, I'm surprised: Why haven't graves been readied for both of them?" But when the procedure was over, friends and family praised the brave boys:  "Now you've become real men and real Muslims" (180). [Image:fearofcircumcision] [image:boyinorange]

                The memory of his signal rite of passage also included more of his father’s rages over food, however.  Ridjal and Maskur were overjoyed that their status as “invalids” meant that they were exempt from the requirement to fast during Ramadan, but to speed the healing, his father did proscribe a number of foods for them, one of which was boiled peanuts.  When an acquaintance who wasn’t fasting came by for a visit bringing along some boiled peanuts, Ridjal gave in to his appetite.  “After all, I hadn’t tasted peanuts for several days.  He gave me five.  Father found out. He beat me on the knees, and my whole body shook” (181).

                During this same period of convalescence, Ridjal was allowed to attend the weekly market day alone and given some money to spend there on whatever he wanted. His father said he could leave at 8:00 in the morning.  The night before, Ridjal  lay awake making plans for the various kinds of food he would purchase – two cents for this snack, two and a half for another – until all but three cents had been allocated to some specific treat.  Rising before dawn, he ate, dressed, and was ready to go by 7:00.  Another hour to wait!   He climbed on a chair, shoved the hands of the clock forward an hour, and left happily for market.

                At the market, his careful budgeting was quickly forgotten and his money was soon spent on whatever food he had seen first.    In fact, the money was gone even before all of the vendors had set up their stalls so he regretted missing some of the best snacks.  Exhausted by rising early and by the excitements of the adventure, he returned to the surau and soon fell asleep.  Meanwhile his father also returned to his home with two friends, and realizing that the clock was off, quickly suspected Ridjal.   When the boy denied repeatedly that he had tinkered with the clock, his father beat him several times on the back with a palm leaf rib, the whip end of it as thick as a thumb.  Finally he confessed, but his father beat him again and told him that his convalescence was over.  Starting the next day, he would have to observe Ramadan like everyone else.

                In addition to these memories about his circumcision ceremony and convalescence, another memory hints at castration anxiety.  This story takes place during a period when Ridjal was living at his uncle's surau.  He had little patience for long discussions about hypothetical moral quandaries that seemed only remotely possible or that seemed inapplicable to his life, such as how to perform the ablutions required before worship when one is in the desert.  Where Ridjal lived, there were no deserts! Why worry about it?  One day the discussion turned to a puzzle about finding part of a penis in one’s path:

For more than two hours they debated the matter of whether or not some prayer water would have to be invalidated as unholy if it were stumbled over by a guy who happened to be walking along and a little piece of his penis, which had been chopped off his body, happened to be lying across the highway…. must a little piece of penis be prayed over like a corpse, or not?  Must it be wrapped in holy shroud, or not?  (221-222). [image:discussion]

It was a waste of time to take seriously such an unlikely event.  Finally he jumped into the discussion:  "Listen, all of you! I would speak.  In your entire lives have you ever encountered a piece of a human penis rolling along the road?" (222).  His uncle got so angry with Ridjal's impudence, he asked him to leave.

If castration anxiety is a universal psychodynamic in boys' sexual development, a cultural practice such as the circumcision of half-grown boys would surely heighten that anxiety. The ritual quandary about how to handle skin detached from a penis, or a detached penis, probably reflects a cultural anxiety in this case as much as one peculiar to the narrator, although the fact that the incident stayed in his memory, and that he chose to recount it, reveals something about him and his particular struggles toward maturity in the shadow of an especially authoritarian and punitive father.  Ridjal’s memories of this rite of passage again show his typical focus on food, including an incident about illicit eating followed by his father’s punishing reactions. While circumcision marks boys’ transition to manhood within a religious community, Ridjal’s memories of this maturational landmark emphasize an infantile lack of self-control and his father’s punitive responses.


Real Men Migrate, Real Men Marry

                Ridjal’s struggle to achieve independence from his father increasingly focused on his wish to leave the village rather than remain as his father’s heir to the religious school.  As a function of the matrilineal inheritance of land and houses, Minangkabau males were encouraged to merantau,  that is,  to migrate to lands outside of the homeland and to become economically successful traders or merchants. Returning to their home villages to display their success, they aimed to attract marriage proposals.  In this society, offers of marriage come from the families of the brides. For males, leaving the village to prove themselves in the wider world was almost a pre-requisite for marriage, and thus for adulthood.  As Evelyn Blackwood put it, “Individuals, whether male or female, are not considered adult until they have married” (2000:77).  Ridjal recalls wishing for the opportunity to migrate when still very young, fantasizing about all the adventures awaiting him and then showing off  his success when he returned to accept the offer of a bride.  In this cultural context, then, real men migrate (merantau). Van Reenen observed that, “Men who never leave their village will be called dull-witted, stupid, and effeminate” (1996: 117). The memoir presents two negative examples that taught the growing boy what happens to men who do not migrate and succeed.  Like the Lost Boys in Neverland, their maturation is stunted.

                One negative model is individuals who, in the Indonesian version of the story, are called preman, a term that Rodgers renders into English as "the village privates.”  A better term might be punks or thugs, since today preman usually connotes young men with little to do but get in trouble.  In the memoir, preman are young underemployed men who hang around the village and who, because of their lack of achievement, have not been sought out as sons-in-law. They sleep at night in the food stalls or at the surau although they have long outgrown the age of religious instruction, and sometimes engage in petty crime.  Ridjal recounts one night when the young thugs stole a chicken to cook themselves a meal, and he joined in the caper.  Although intrigued by their idle lifestyle and their bravado, Ridjal also describes their predicament as embarrassing to themselves and their families. A second negative role model for Ridjal was Lebai Saman who, because of a mental handicap, remained psychologically and socially immature into advanced age.  He had left the village once briefly but returned home without success, and thus he had never married.  He lived at Ridjal's father's surau where he served as a chaperone of the resident boys. When Ridjal was very small, Lebai Saman was “a close friend, teacher, and advisor…" (166), in fact, a surrogate mother.

And if I was sick, he'd be my companion every night, sleeping near me, talking to me, and making me feel better and shoring up my confidence, all the while blowing on my forehead while reciting mantras, so that I'd recover quickly (169).    

Although "thoroughly good, friendly and open," Lebai Saman also suffered from obsessive compulsive behaviors.  "Whatever task he did would always take him a very long time to accomplish, and he would repeat it over and over again" (p. 167). Whether preparing to wash himself for prayer, or carrying out the praying itself, his excessive repetitions and efforts to get everything exactly right caused him to lag behind the rest of the congregation.  The boys in the surau sometimes manipulated Lebai Saman’s affliction as a cruel entertainment. Once when Lebai Saman was on his way to the noon prayers, Ridjal told him (lying) that there was lizard shit on his sarong, so he went back home and washed it immediately, missing the prayer.  After that, Ridjal pitied him and resolved not to join the others in taking advantage of the old man who had been his kindly childhood companion. 

                No doubt exacerbating the Oedipal pattern in this society was the generational struggle between young men and old men in the competition for brides.  Commonly, older men married much younger women, often as a second, third or fourth wife, and thus “fathers” stood in the way of young men’s romantic ambitions.  Families sought matches for their daughters either with men who were well-to-do or of high status, like Ridjal's father.  Older men were usually in a much better financial and social position to compete for brides than young men who had not yet left the village . Ridjal’s frustration at loving a cousin who was promised to a much older man also suggests a fantasy romance with a classificatory sister.  As Spiro (1982) argued for the matrilineal Trobrianders, myths of brother-sister incest may be a “symbolic disguise” for anxieties about mother-son incest (75), and this story of Ridjal’s frustrated romance with an older “sister” may have functioned the same way at a psychological level.

                Toward the end of the book Ridjal falls in love with a paternal cousin, Asjiah.  At sixteen, she was a little older than he and was engaged to be married to the older brother of one of Ridjal's step-mothers.  The prospective groom, a successful cloth merchant and a haji, was forty-five and had already been married four times and fathered seven children although his current wives numbered only two.  Asjiah had caught merely a glimpse of him, but Ridjal has seen that "he was already kind of old and had a long mustache, and that his hair was white, his body skinny -- not at all cocky and dashing -- and that he was sickly" (301).   Ridjal read a novel to the bride (Asjiah's schooling had stopped with the third grade), about a desperate young woman forced to marry an older man, hoping that it would give her a fictional model for resisting her own fate, but "she didn't really understand" (299).  Ridjal observed that, contrary to what the romance novels depicted, girls rarely resisted their families’ arrangements. 

                Ridajl's love for his cousin was innocent at first. "I loved Asjiah, a love of the sort a younger brother would have for his older sister.  And Asjiah loved me too" ( 299). In the weeks before her marriage, she was required to study the aspects of Islamic law related to marriage, and Ridjal coached her, sleeping beside her on the floor. "Her mother and maternal uncle were not discomfited by any of this because I was only a younger brother with his older sister, with Asjiah.  And actually, that's what I thought too"(p. 300). Conversing and laughing before falling asleep, they shared hopes and secrets and enjoyed the close physical contact. 

If it had been a rainy day and it was cold in the middle of the night, she'd put her body up close to mine and we'd feel hot. I could feel her soft scented body and could hear her orderly breathing as her chest went up and down (300).

Although Asjiah continued to cry and seemed to have deep misgivings about her pending marriage, "she didn’t know what it meant to rebel" (301).  Her family proceeded with the complex preparations for a big wedding.  Ridjal was anak pisang (brother’s child, literally, child of the banana) to Asiah’s mother and as such he was given a role in these preparations.  He and another boy were charged with going throughout the village to invite more than two hundred people to the wedding, a task he regarded as "humiliating" because it required behaving in a formal, respectful way to each potential guest. 

                As the wedding festivities continued, Asjiah and Ridjal made eye contact but did not speak.  One final humiliation in Ridjal's role as anak pisang had him going to the groom's house (actually to Ridjal's step-mother's house, where the groom was staying) carrying a betel box covered by a wide velvet handkerchief embroidered with gold thread to call the groom to the bride's house. Although he did not protest outwardly, his heart was breaking. The consummation of the marriage did not happen until the second night after the wedding.  Ridjal felt very lonely as he returned to the surau that night to sleep alone. Two weeks later, Ridjal went to Asjiah's house one afternoon thinking her husband would not be there yet, but he was.  He overheard Asjiah laughing and talking with him in her sleeping room.  "Asjiah was happy.  It was as if my heart were being sliced with a knife" (309).  A month later, when she left the village with her new husband, Ridjal was among the relatives that gathered at the train station.  Standing alone and off at a distance, he sadly watched his sweetheart/cousin/sister standing under the shade of a large croton, the plant that always reminded him of his mother, the imagery in his memory suggesting that losing Asjiah was like losing his mother.

                As his friends and former playmates began leaving one by one for their own adventures in the world beyond the village, Ridjal became more and more focused on the need to escape the village himself, and escape his father's design for his life The book concludes when at last his father agrees to send him to the city to continue his education.


                Other scholars have mined A Village Childhood, set in Sumatra during the 1920s, for historical and ethnographic purposes.  My purpose was to suggest that this childhood memoir full of “trivial” incidents also reveals the author’s psychological development toward maturity, and that the Freudian framework makes sense of that universal coming-of-age struggle and the particulars of the narrative, both cultural and idiosyncratic.  Certain features of Minangkabau culture probably heightened his Oedipal struggle, namely circumcision as a pre-teen and the pattern of old men competing with young for brides.  The persistent focus on food and on illicit indulgence, the repeated incidents of public nakedness, the author’s deep longing for a mother’s love and his ill-fated romance with a classificatory sister take on meaning against the particulars of his life, especially his early loss of a mother, when analyzed through a Freudian lens.  It is not so much that the author’s Oedipal struggle was typical of Minangkabau males since Radjab’s life was not at all typical.  Rather, a baseline Oedipal dynamic was elaborated in the context of a particular cultural and historical setting and a particular life history.

                Radjab’s exuberance for play, enjoyment of food, and his eagerness for romance make him a winning protagonist.  His unique life-story strikes common chords with readers, resonating partly because we empathize with its universal foundations, especially his grieving for the lost love of a real mother, and because his straining to grow to manhood in the shadow of an overbearing father rings true to our experiences.  That becoming a man includes sexual pleasure mostly goes without saying, except elliptically through the repeated incidents of illicit eating and the interrupted pleasure of nudity.  Impudent in challenging his father and other teachers, eager to find his own way and to see the wider world, making fun of his own lapses into magical thinking, and laying bare for readers his frequent lack of self-control and good judgment, the Boy lurches toward manhood and we identify with his struggle.


References Cited

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2000  Webs of power: Women, kin, and community in a Sumatran village. Lanham, Boulder, New York, Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 

Chadwick, R.J

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Errington, Frederick K.

1984 Manners and meaning in West Sumatra:  The context of consciousness. New Haven & London: Yale University Press. 

Freud, Sigmund

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Freud, Sigmund

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Johnson, A.W. & Price-Williams, Douglas

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Malinowski, Bronislaw

1927  Sex and repression in savage society. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd.

Peletz, Michael G.

1996   Reason and passion: Representations of gender in a Malay society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rodgers, Susan

1995  (Ed., Trans.) Telling lives, telling histories: Autobiography and historical imagination in modern Indonesia: Aku dan Toba by P. Pospos and Semasa Kecil di Kampung by Muhamad Radjab. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Sanday, Peggy Reeves

2002  Women at the center: Life in a modern matriarchy.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Spiro, Melford E.

1982   Oedipus in the Trobriands. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Van Reenen, Joke

1996  Central pillars of the house: Sisters, wives, and mothers in a rural community in Minangkabau, West Sumatra.  Leiden: Research School CNWS.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Rita S. Kipp "Freud Reads A Village Childhood". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available June 18, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: July 16, 2012, Published: July 18, 2012. Copyright © 2012 Rita S. Kipp