Self-Harm Versus the Greater Good: Greta Thunberg and Child Activism - Quillette

When Greta Thunberg was 11 years old, she went two months without eating. At least, that is what a recent family memoir asks us to believe. Her heart rate and blood pressure showed signs of starvation, and she stopped speaking to anyone but her parents and younger sister, Beata. After years of depression, eating disorders, and anxiety attacks, she was eventually diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, high-functioning autism, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). She also suffers from selective mutism, a disorder related to severe anxiety which can render her unable to speak to anyone outside her closest family. When she wants to tell a climate researcher that she is planning a school strike to save the environment, she speaks through her father.

Scenes from the Heart

(“Scener ur hjärtat,” 2018) recounts the events that led to Greta Thunberg’s now-famous “school strike for climate,” during which

hundreds of thousands

of children cut classes for a day to protest government inaction over climate change. Thunberg now strikes every Friday and spent three weeks sitting outside the Swedish Parliament at the beginning of the school year.

Scenes from the Heart

is written by her family—her mother, father, sister Beata, and herself—and the story is narrated by Greta’s mother,

the opera soprano Malena Ernman

, who was a celebrity in Europe long before her daughter’s rise to fame. Although the book is only available in Swedish for the time being, it is already being translated into numerous languages—a development that reflects the global fascination with Thunberg’s eccentric campaign. Their memoir tells the story of “a family in crisis and a planet in crisis,” and while these two narratives might appear to be entirely unrelated, Ernman and her co-authors insist they are inextricably linked. The oppression of women, minorities, and people with disabilities, we are told, is a product of the same root cause as climate change: our unsustainable way of life. The family’s private crisis and the global climate crisis, the authors implausibly argue, are simply symptoms of the same systemic disorder.

Thunberg is not the only family member to have suffered from mental health and anxiety disorders. Her younger sister Beata, who was 12 years old when the book was written, lives with ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome, and OCD. She is prone to sudden outbursts of anger, during which she screams obscenities at her mother; the 10-minute walk to dance class takes almost an hour because she insists on walking with her left foot in front, refuses to step on certain parts of the sidewalk, and demands that her mother walk the same way; and she makes her mother wait for her outside during class, forbidding her to move, even to go to the bathroom. And yet, still the child ends up weeping in her mother’s arms.

Swedish 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg takes part in a march for the environment in Brussels. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

This is a family struggling to cope with the harrowing experience of raising severely dysfunctional children, and the passages detailing the parents’ anxiety and desperation can be upsetting to read. They have fought for their daughters to receive the best available care and assistance in school, and they have done what they can to keep them from starving and otherwise harming themselves. In one particularly heart-wrenching episode, Thunberg’s father helplessly begs their doctor to release Beata from the anxieties governing her life. As moving as some of this is, anyone unpersuaded by the outlandish claim that the girls’ disorders and climate change can both be alleviated by “changing the system” may recoil at the parents’ decision to expose intimate details of their vulnerable children’s mental health to the world.

It has been less than a year since Scenes from the Heart was published and, during that time, Greta has become a global celebrity. This week, she was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time Magazine. She has briefly met the Pope, who encouraged her to “Keep doing what you’re doing.” She has received numerous awards, including, most recently, the German Golden Camera award. She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She has been featured and interviewed in most of the world’s leading media. She has appeared on a panel with the UN Secretary General António Guterres, addressed the European Parliament, and lunched with the Financial Times. During a recent televised debate about the school strikes, the German TV anchor Maybrit Ilner asked, “Is Greta the new Che Guevara?” and the Bishop of Berlin has even compared her to Jesus Christ. Ilner was probably referring to Thunberg’s transformation into a global political symbol, but her question was telling, nonetheless: Thunberg is now routinely romanticised by media figures and commentators as a revolutionary icon. Given what we know about her many and various problems, this is hardly a responsible way for adults to cover her school strike.

Well-meaning media professionals like Ilner are surrendering good judgment to an understandable temptation to exoticise novelty. They gaze at pictures of a moppet in pigtails nobly defying authority in the name of environmental protection and appear to have concluded that this troubled child is a font of wisdom from which adults must not hesitate to take moral instruction. Absurdly, the German media have taken to calling Thunberg the “

Pippi Longstocking of climate change

,” after the

diminutive pigtailed heroine

of a series of Swedish children’s books. They do not seem to appreciate that Thunberg comes from a country where her peers look more like the stars of the

Norwegian television series SKAM

than Pippi Longstocking—or that she is physically marked by years of self-starvation.

In the workplace, a labour strike is a coercive instrument used by the workforce to remind company owners and management that they are able to harm them economically. A school strike, on the other hand, is undertaken to attract adult attention, and constitutes a form of self-harm. And this particular global school strike is being led by a girl with a long and tragic history of inflicting harm on her own young body. We learn from Scenes from the Heart that when Thunberg eventually started eating again, she only allowed herself to consume certain foods. Her mother now has to prepare the same meal every day—pancakes filled with rice—which her daughter then takes to school and keeps in the refrigerator. Thunberg will only eat this meal if there is no sticker bearing her name affixed to the container, because stickers, paper and newspapers trigger her OCD.

“I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day,” she announced when she addressed the world’s leaders in Davos. Given her personal history of fear and panic, this intemperate injunction should perhaps inspire caution rather than the enthusiastic endorsement offered by experienced diplomates like Madeleine Albright. (“You go, girl” was Albright’s reply when she was asked for her thoughts on the school strike.) After all, Greta Thunberg is not playing truant from just any school, but a school for children with special needs. Many other Swedish families would give their eye teeth to secure a coveted spot for their own troubled child in such an institution, while Thunberg sits on the steps of the Swedish parliament sloganeering beneath her placards before a mostly compliant and indulgent media. However, family Thunberg reassure us that presently scarce resources like these will be available in abundance for such families, once we make the wholesale changes to society they are demanding in the name of all humanity—this includes dismantling the “patriarchal structures” that we are told currently favour boys with neuropsychiatric disorders.

I do not wish to suggest that 16 year olds are necessarily too young to understand the consequences of their actions, nor that the challenges Thunberg faces make her unsuitable to take a stand on political issues, or even to lead a global movement. No one who has heard her address world leaders in impeccable English can doubt that she is intelligent and extraordinarily capable on some level. Her mother stresses that her daughter has never felt better than during her campaign to address the existential challenge posed by our changing climate, and Thunberg herself says working for the climate has helped her recover. For someone coping with the unhappiness caused by her various debilitating conditions, this is no small thing. But adults have a moral obligation to remain adults when dealing with children in the public square and not to allow themselves to get carried away by the trite sentimentality of messianic or revolutionary dreams.

Greta was recently named ”Woman of the Year” by a Swedish newspaper. But she is not a woman, she is a child. It is time we stopped to ask if we are using her, failing her, and even sacrificing her, for what we perceive to be a greater good.

Paulina Neuding is Quillette’s European editor. Follow her on Twitter @paulinaneuding. 

Feature photo by Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.