Did you ever hear of Mickey, how he … fell through the dark, out of his clothes past the moon and his mama and papa sleeping tight into the light of the night kitchen?”
Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen is one of those masterpieces I revisit in adulthood. Its rhythm and phrasing were tattooed on my young mind. There’s a recording of the text by the late actor James Gandolfini. Even though it was only a few years ago that I heard this, and I’m a Gandolfini fan, the petulant child in my wanted to protest, “You’re reading it all wrong!”
The appeal of In the Night Kitchen isn’t merely sentimental whimsy, but Sendak’s complicit understanding of what our parents wouldn’t admit. He encourages us to embrace the (unspoken) fear of night-time and face uncanny and surreal happenings in the dark.
Children are tough, though we tend to think of them as fragile. They have to be tough. Childhood is not easy. We sentimentalize children, but they know what’s real and what’s not. They understand metaphor and symbol. If children are different from us, they are more spontaneous. Grown-up lives have become overlaid with dross.” Bernard Holland.
I think of the book when in hospital. Suspended in insomnia in a seventh floor isolation room, looking over the ‘night kitchen’ of Dunedin North. Like Mickey meeting the bakers, I’m alert to the labour that continues under focused beams of light while most of us sleep. There’s that that must go on. And fear. Hospital is discomforting no matter your age, so I ask: could In the Night Kitchen be read as an allegory for the patient experience?
After Mickey has fallen in the batter and is about to be put in the oven, he bursts through the crust and exclaims, “I’m not the milk and the milk’s not me! I’m Mickey!” In The Birth of the Clinic, Michel Foucault writes of how the patient is framed as: “the disease itself, with shadow and relief, modulations, nuances, depth; and when describing the disease itself the doctor must strive to restore this living density.”
Most patients who live with a long-term or chronic condition will have experiences of medical practitioners and others in the health workforce privileging bodily status over identity and personal history. It’s not necessarily intentional, more likely an outcome of the need for diagnostic and curative expediency. However, when treatment spans many months or even years, such continual classifying can have a cumulative effect on how the patient views themselves or feels they can express themselves in the clinical setting.
The give-and-take of patient autonomy and agency are echoed in the lines: “Mickey the Milkman dived down to the bottom singing: I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me.” Mickey embraces the inevitable sinking, with the faith that he will rise to the surface yet again. This is similar to a patient succumbing to anesthesia. Once under, the surgeon may need to be brutal and blunt, like “the bakers [who] … beat it and baked it.” There is pummelling and slicing and yanking and discarding and suturing before the body is pronounced ready to rise.
Hospitals are what sociologist Erving Goffman terms total institutions, where patients can find themselves reverting to a somewhat infantile state. Hospital may “disrupt or defile precisely those actions that in civil society have the role of attesting the actor and those in his presence that he has some command over his world – that he is a person with “adult” self-determination, autonomy, and freedom to action.”
In hospital, we re-adopt our childhood selves. Routines must be followed and conduct is regulated. This can lead to feelings of frustration and even degradation, but it can also provide some comfort. The nursery-style food with its puddings and mash, warmed blankets and fresh towels can mediate the fear of prognosis and treatment. Like Mickey, the convalescent can appreciate being “[s]lid … straight into bed carefree and dried.”
- Maurice Sendak. In the Night Kitchen. (New York: Harper & Row, 1970)
- Bernard Holland. “The Paternal Pride of Maurice Sendak”, The New York Times, Nov 8, 1987.
- Michel Foucault. The Birth of the Clinic. (New York: Vintage, 1994).
- Erving Goffman. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situations of Mental Patients and Other inmates. (London: Penguin, 1961).
For more by Emily Duncan on Corpus, read “Sounding a Sanitorium: The Waipiata Playscript” here.