Taking Advantage of Innocence: Tales of Self-Reliance from a Suburban Childhood

2005-017--Mary Kate (Last Name Withheld)

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When I first met my husband, Ryan, five years ago, one of the things that attracted me most to him was his prowess as a storyteller. Ryan lights up when he tells a story, no matter what the story is about, whether it was the time he totaled his first car by running it into a backyard shed, narrowly escaping death, or whether it was the tale of how his first college roommate, Rodrigo de la Garza, managed to stay faithful to his girlfriend back home for four whole days before he cheated on her while Ryan was trying in vain to sleep in the same room. Through his descriptions of people and events, the way he molds his phrases, and his unique evaluative comments peppered throughout his stories, Ryan is able to transport his audience to the exact moment that the narrative took place, and he usually leaves people clutching their sides with laughter and gasping for air by the time the story is over.

Due to his innate abilities as a storyteller and his entertaining personal narratives, Ryan was a natural choice as an informant for this project. However, I must admit that at first I was anxious about whether or not Ryan’s stories were worthy of academic analysis. Over the course of the semester, I did not recall reading any works of folklore similar to the stories I wished to examine, i.e. tales from the suburban childhood of a young, Caucasian male. Though I knew that I had always loved Ryan’s stories, I questioned their folkloric merit: were they as interesting and important as Kathryn Morgan’s stories about how her family overcame racism? The stories certainly weren’t as foreign or as colorful as the Mardi Gras festival traditions from the rural Louisiana plains, but did that mean that they were undeserving of attention? My fears were significantly assuaged, though, when I read selections from Sandra Dolby Stahl’s Literary Folkloristics and the Personal Narrative. Her argument in defending the folkloric status of personal narratives, even those as historically unremarkable as Ryan’s, “was that even though the narrative content of such stories could not be corroborated precisely (as traditional plots or motifs), still the values or attitudes reflected in the stories are culturally shared and thus traditional” (12-13). It then occurred to me that while Ryan’s narratives certainly reflected attitudes and beliefs that were in some respects unique to him, they were also consistent with the culture that produced him, thus backing up Stahl’s claim that narratives are “culturally shared” and “traditional.”

Confident now of the validity of examining Ryan’s narratives, I was still left with the question as to which of his stories I should analyze. According to Stahl, “The overall function of the personal narrative is to allow for the discovery of the teller’s identity (especially in terms of values and character traits)” (21). With this in mind, I thought for a long while about which of his stories, for me, best encapsulated Ryan’s character and his personality. I came to the conclusion that the stories he told me when we first became serious about one another, those that were about his first job collecting and selling golf balls on a Reston golf course when he was seven, were probably some of the most important stories in terms of how his personality was shaped during his childhood. This particular period of Ryan’s life was somewhat unstable. He recalls that “within a couple of months” of his family moving in to the Reston townhouse where he was to live for the next three years, his parents got divorced (Interview 1, see Appendix). His mother, now a single parent, was working during the day, which meant that his older sister, Erin, would have to watch him in the afternoons after school let out until his mother came home at night.

Though a divorce is often a traumatic time in a child’s life, Ryan was young enough and his parents were responsible enough about how they acted in front of their children that today he doesn’t retain many negative memories or associations from the period of time immediately following the divorce. In fact, his recollections of the three years he, his mother, and his sister spent in that neighborhood in Reston tend toward the idyllic: “It was like one of those neighborhoods where you…could go out and pick fucking blackberries and shit…and like, during the summer there were fireflies, and stuff like that” (1). Interwoven with his happy recollections of time spent in that neighborhood are also his memories of collecting, cleaning, and selling lost golf balls: “It was my first job and it was the job that I loved the most…. Out of all my jobs I enjoyed that more than anything, ‘cause I could go out and explooore. I did it for the love of finding golf balls” (1).


The two stories that I will examine for this paper both come from this period of Ryan’s life. One story concerns Ryan’s unwillingness to lower the price of his golf balls because a golfer claimed someone else was selling them for cheaper. The other story involves Ryan’s refusal to go with a stranger on the golf course that was trying to lure him away. To me, they both express two values Ryan holds in high regard: Ryan’s integrity, and his ability to follow his instinct as to whether someone was on the level, or warranted suspicion. Additionally, these stories encapsulate his worldview that the world can be tricky, or even dangerous, but that trusting one’s “gut reaction” is a sure way to navigate these obstacles. Lastly, while in many ways these narratives appear to reiterate certain Western traditional values, they also contain elements of subversion.
Clearly, I had heard these stories many times before in the course of our relationship, and had even requested (or prompted in front of others) the re-telling of these stories, so it was not difficult to draw these narratives out of him. When I conducted the interview, it was an overcast Sunday afternoon in March, one week after Easter. We were sitting on our living room couch, curled up next to each other under a blanket. The light was dim in the living room and the house, overall, was quiet and peaceful. Needless to say, we were both extremely relaxed, and fortunately Ryan had absolutely no trouble ignoring the tape recorder on the coffee table. He required little prompting to tell his tales, and throughout the interview I only infrequently interjected questions, or guided the interview slightly.

R: Uh, and then of course there was that one guy that I told you about, that, I mean, I mean
You really have to have no soul to do this,
But he came up and
I was like on the
I think I was like on the eighth? hole or the ninth hole – somewhere in the middle [cough]
Of the course, and, uh, the tee for it, and this guy was saying
“Oh! Well there’s a guy over on the first hold sellin’ the golf balls for a nickel a pop!”
I’m like
“O.k….uh, mine are fifty cents for the new ones or a quarter”
And I, and I wouldn’t budge! Because that’s lame,
MK: Yeah!
R: What I told him was, well, I’m pretty sure what I told him was basically the equivalent of, well,
“You should go back and get ‘em from that guy, I can’t compete with those prices!”
Um, something along those lines, but what a seven-year-old would say.
But basically I didn’t cave, and I’m proud of myself for not caving, because, that would have been
Horse shit.
I mean, but seriously, dude,
How cheap have you got to be to try to con…?
MK: A seven year old!
R: A seven-year-old.
I mean, my God, that’s just, like, you’re already gettin the shit cheaper than you would at the club house.
I mean, that’s just ruuude.
But, didn’t cave, so, I’m happy with that.
* * *
R: The scary thing though was that one guy, that was, uh, uh, getting back to the golf ball collecting that I told you about before, where, you know, I’m on that one side of the lake,
The golf course side of the lake.
This guy on the other side the lake is like,
“Hey, c’mere kid.”
That’s no way you approach some kid, man, that’s just no way you do that.
So automatically it’s off-putting.
He was like in his early twenties, had a moustache, uh,
Just kind of…
MK: Bad guys always have moustaches.
R: Yeah, yeah. He was just kind of
There was something that was just
Uneasy about him.
And when he started circling the lake to come towards me, that’s when I got one of the passing golfers
Who, again, you can’t turn down a seven-year-old kid.
Asked him if he could walk me
And of course he said “Sure,” and, you know, he was walkin’ in that direction anyway.
So, when I start, when I got together with that guy, the other guy,
Walked away.
And the golfer didn’t walk me to my door, but he walked me close enough.
He walked me to, like, the creek that was just was just like twenny yards from our house.
Our back door. So. I got home and Erin was there. So we were inside and that was o.k.
MK: Was your mom home yet?
R: No, she wasn’t home yet, but when she was home we told her about it.
That’s when she called the police and the police came out.
And, apparently there was some guy who had
Molested some, uh,
Kids who were my age, some boys who were my age, like two neighborhoods over,
Or a neighborhood over, I don’t know.
I pointed him out in the picture line-up, and that was the guy that they were looking for,
And I think they did catch him.
Now, granted, they couldn’t get him for anything that I…
But I think the guy was, definitely had issues.
MK: Well, you helped point him out.
R: Well, yeah, yeah, it definitely points out the fact that it’s still a problem.
This guy’s still on the prowl, so…
I’m pretty sure they got him.

Before I come to my own analysis of the above stories, allow me to discuss Ryan’s interpretation. These two stories are, in many respects, structurally similar. In each of the stories, the young Ryan is approached by a man who, though he would have Ryan believe otherwise, poses a threat to him. Ryan sees through their benevolent façade, and quickly extricates himself from the situation, unharmed. When I asked Ryan what these stories meant to him, he said they represented, aside from his unwillingness to be fooled, his ingrained sense of wrong and right. Ryan believes that some people were born with a clearer idea of the difference between wrong and right, while others’ moral sense involves a much broader area of ambiguity. For his part, Ryan claims never to have had a difficult time determining what was right and what was wrong; for him it always came down to trusting his instinct. This world view that instinct is your most reliable guide in uncertain situations is clearly expressed when I asked Ryan his feelings about being approached by the potential child molester.

MK: Did you feel scared when the guy was, like, “Hey, c’mere kid?” or…
R: Well, I was, I was scared, I was definitely uneasy, I mean
I wasn’t scared like I’m gonna start crying, or anything like that,
But I was definitely uneasy. I mean,
Again, there was just something, I don’t know if it’s instinct, or something like that, but you know when there’s just something that doesn’t
MK: Sit right…
R: Sit right. Exactly, so…I got away from that.

And boy! Think how diff’rent would be if I didn’t, and actually did
Go to the guy. If I got molested
That would lead to, God only knows what kind of trauma
And I probably wouldn’t be sitting here with you now
Telling this story, because…
MK: It would have been too painful, prolly…
R: Well, it would have been painful, but I don’t think I would have been able to have…
A normal…life.
Or at least I would have had to work hard at it. I don’t think I would be the kind of person that I am
If something like that happened. But, you know, in a given lifetime,
There are always these little fateful decisions, crossroads, uh,
That you get to, where, you know, one direction, you’ll be o.k., the other direction [sardonic laughter],


According to Ryan, it was instinct that prevented this chance encounter from permanently altering the course of his life. Additionally, although the golfer who tried to cheat Ryan presented no threat to his physical well being, had he actually succeeded in tricking Ryan, Ryan might still carry the bitter memory of how a man took advantage of his innocence. While the latter incident is different in degree from the threat presented by the pedophile, is not significantly different in kind. In the opinion of Jens Brockmeier, “[t]he practice of autobiography involves…not so much documenting past events but positing possible pasts and possible beginnings in the light of the end” (177) Though these narratives are about things that did happen to Ryan, they are just as much about what might have but didn’t happen to him, as well.

Among the exoteric groups that exist outside of Ryan’s and my own dyad, which Barre Toelken defines as “the smallest group that can be called a folk group…[which consists of] two people who participate in an ongoing relationship which is so close that each partner provides an immediate reflexive counterpart to the other,” the stories retain much the same meaning and function as was mentioned above (57). For example, if we are watching television with friends and there is a story on the news about how a child was cheated or harmed, Ryan becomes indignant and tells either one or both of these stories. He is angry at the adult who acted wrongly, and feels deep sympathy for the child who was the victim. Ryan realizes that most seven-year-olds would not necessarily have the presence of mind to act as he did when confronted with danger; in this case, his stories function as both a warning to parents to protect their children from and educate their children about the dangers the world presents, as well as acting as an outcry against those immoral enough to harm an innocent. (Interestingly, as we have gotten older and are more closely approaching the time when we will be ready to have children, Ryan has become increasingly irate when he hears about news stories where a child was hurt or killed due to either the action or neglect of an adult.)

Most of the time, within our own esoteric group the story has these two functions, as well the function of being re-told because hearing them gives me pleasure. However, the first time I heard this story its function was more reminiscent of what Kathryn Morgan describes as a “buffer.” In Children of Strangers, Morgan writes that “Caddy legends have served as ‘buffers’ from racism for the children in our family” (xiv). In my case, Ryan’s stories served as a buffer against my feelings of insecurity about my abilities to survive alone in the world. To explain, when I was seventeen I was having some difficulties with my parents which culminated in my being forced to move out of their house. Understandably, I was extremely upset and felt both alone and unsure of myself. Soon after this happened, Ryan told me these stories. Looking back, it occurs to me that the seven-year-old Ryan and the seventeen-year-old me were both in much the same situation. For the first time in our lives we were separated from a parent, and we were also, for the first time, forced to function on our own for extended periods of time. Ryan’s stories do not shy away from the fact that the world can be treacherous, but they both make clear that anyone, even a child, can, by acting intelligently and trusting one’s instinct, survive on his or her own. I found this thought enormously comforting at a time when I needed both solace and confidence above anything else in the world.

Up until this point I have emphasized the morally righteous and comforting qualities evident in Ryan’s stories. These stories allow Ryan to do what Paul Ricoeur described as “the fundamental function of the narrative [which] is to ‘construct the durable properties of a character,’ what he calls ‘narrative identity’” (qtd. in Brockmeier 181). The “narrative identity” that Ryan has constructed is one that, on the surface, seems to reinforce the traditional American culture that places value on moral certainties and the powers of the individual. Lying latent within Ryan’s text, however, are elements of what Mikhail Bakhtin would term “the carnivalesque.” When something is “carnivalesque” in nature, it means the world has been turned topsy-turvy, that it flouts the status quo. Traditionally, in Western culture, older males are meant to be respected, their orders listened to and heeded, especially by children. Their word is not only the law, it is the absolute and unequivocal truth. Ryan, however, a small, scrawny child saw fit to question the validity of their words and intentions, and he got away with it with remarkable success. Or, as Bakhtin eloquently words it, “one might say that carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order, it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions…all were considered equal during carnival” (10). Due to the divorce, Ryan lacked supervision by an older male in his life, however, he realized that this did not mean it was necessary for him to indiscriminately listen to any older male he came across. He knew he had the power, a power that was subversive and subsequently freeing in nature, to not listen to or trust whomever was not an already legitimate, established, and acknowledged authority figure in his life. This negotiation between traditional and non-traditional cultural values, one conservative and one dynamic, makes Ryan’s narratives a good example of how the twin laws of folklore process operate within folklore.

Over the course of this paper I have explained how these narratives express Ryan’s character, personality, and his world view, as well as reconfirming and subverting traditional values. In addition, I have explored the different functions Ryan’s narratives have taken on in different contexts and found credible sources that argue for the folkloric merit of these two personal narratives. None of this would have been possible had I not, during the semester, learned how to collect and analyze folklore, tools that I feel will be invaluable to me in the years to come. Initially, I was apprehensive having only ever analyzed literature before, but I came to realize that there was no reason not to treat folklore with the same critical eye that one looks upon literature with. Though there were some frustrations, such as the hours spent transcribing the interview, overall I have found the experience enormously rewarding and worthy of the time spent on it.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. U.S.A.: M.I.T., 1968.
Brockmeier, Jens. “Autobiography, Narrative, and the Freudian Concept of Life History.”
Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology. 4.3 (1997): 175-199. Project Muse. Johns Hopkins U. Lib., Washington D.C.. 25 April 2005 <http://muse.jhu.edu>
Morgan, Kathryn L. Children of Strangers: The Stories of a Black Family. Philadelphia:
Temple UP, 1980.
Stahl, Sandra Dolby. Literary Folkloristics and the Personal Narrative. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.
Toelken, Barre. The Dynamics of Folklore. Logan: Utah State UP, 1996.


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