When do you know that you’ve crossed a personal boundary? Jaap Robben, author of You Have Me To Love, a novel about inching closer and closer to the boundary, tries to find out.
I need a volunteer for this experiment – you.
‘Thanks for helping me out. Go stand over there.’
‘Like this?’ you ask.
I nod. ‘Perfect.’
You’re now three meters away from me, and I ask if I can point at you. You answer ‘yes’. Pointing doesn’t hurt, and you assume it’s part of the experiment. Both of us look at my finger. ‘Is it okay if I point at you like this?’
You shrug. It feels a bit uncomfortable, but it’s okay. I bring my finger a little closer, let’s say about twenty centimetres closer. That shouldn’t matter for you, right? And after a few minutes, just when you’re not looking, I move a little closer still. And then I move a tiny bit closer again.
You don’t notice.
‘Can I move a little closer?’ I ask.
‘Uhm, yeah.’ You nod half-heartedly.
We are now two meters away from one another. We have time. I keep moving a little closer. Until I’m standing one meter away from you. And just when you start to feel uncomfortable, I ask: ‘Does it hurt, does this bother you?’
‘Hurt? No. It‘s a little strange, but…’
‘—Can I move closer?’
‘Uhm, sure,’ you say.
With unnoticeably small steps, I move closer to your eye. And closer still. So close that you feel my fingertip touch your eyelash. ‘Is it okay if I go just a little bit closer?’
‘Uhm yeah, I’m not really enjoying this.’ Your head moves back a little, but you’re against the wall.
Then I touch your eye.
I press gently.
‘Ow,’ you say, and push me away.
Thanks for volunteering, you said exactly the right words. You can sit down now.
When writing my novel You Have Me to Love, I kept thinking of this experiment.
Most people grow up within a large social context. As a child, you visit other children. You notice how some fathers acknowledge you when you enter their house, whereas others refuse to look up from their newspaper. How sometimes you feel like your presence is too much. How some fathers play football. How some friends have angry brothers whose rooms are off limits, and others play with their brothers like they are best friends. This wider social context teaches you how to relate to others. What you think is normal might be very strange to others. You emulate certain behaviours. When you become a teenager, you start to compare yourself even more. Slowly, you start to develop your own values. To discover your boundaries.
In You Have Me to Love, Mikael Hammerman is nine years old in the first part, and 15 in the second. He lives on a remote island between Scotland and Norway. His only social context is his mother, the mail boat, which visits once every two weeks,and a singular neighbour who only cares about Mikael because he has designs on Mikael’s mother. And a group of seagulls.
Because of this remoteness, Mikael has complete trust in his mother – she unintentionally sets the values and boundaries for social interaction. And Mikael accepts these. Throughout the book, she moves closer to him, millimetre by millimetre. So slowly you can’t point it out. So slowly she doesn’t even notice it. But over the course of several years, Mikael starts feeling it. Even if he is not able to pinpoint exactly what’s happened. It’s a kind of coming closer that is irreversible and, just like in the experiment, he accepts it. Mikael tries to avoid his mother. He tries to get a feel for how close he can get to her, or to what extent he can avoid her. She has no bad intentions but keeps moving a little closer. She drinks from his glass of water, goes to the toilet while Mikael is in the shower. She tries out his father’s sweaters on Mikael.
Until, just like in the experiment, she touches his eye. At that moment, Mikael knows with absolute certainty that this is too close. This boundary is different for everybody. And sometimes you don’t discover where yours lies until someone’s crossed it.
Jaap Robben is a Dutch poet, novelist, playwright and performer. Author of several highly praised children’s books, You Have Me to Love (translated by David Doherty) is his first novel for adults. It has received great critical acclaim in the Netherlands and was awarded the Dioraphte Prize and the ANV Debut Prize.