The Boy Behind the Curtain

by

Tim Winton

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The Boy Behind the Curtain: Havoc: A Life in Accidents Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
At nine years old, Winton sits in the passenger seat as his father drives them home from the beach. They’ve been fishing, but it was Winton’s desire to spend time with his father, not the fishing, that attracted Winton to the outing. Out of nowhere, a motorbike zooms past the car and overtakes them, speeding up the road into the distance. But then the motorbike’s taillight disappears suddenly. Winton’s father stops the car and tells Winton to stay where he is.
Winton’s priority is to be close to his father, rather than simply to fish, which suggests that there’s something precious and urgent about his connection with his father. Winton’s father’s decisive behavior and protection of Winton is echoed in Winton’s own later actions, suggesting that this is a moment of profound learning for him.
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Winton leans forward to see his father kneeling beside a motionless body before dragging the motorbike off the road. He returns to the car and drives to find a phone and call an ambulance, and then he drives back to the injured rider. His calmness disturbs Tim, for whom the scene is immensely stressful. The rider is convulsing on the ground. Tim’s father tells Winton to continuously pump the brake pedal so that the ambulance can see their lights from afar—a task that might’ve only served to keep Winton occupied. The rider’s face looks like a raw piece of meat.
Winton’s father’s ability to remain calm while chaos and violence unfold speaks to his training as a police officer—but it’s behavior that rubs off on Winton, despite never completing police training, as shown by his actions in later scenes. This emulation suggests that Winton deeply respects his father. His description of the rider’s face as raw meat implies that violence and danger can transform a human being into an animal.
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The rider tries to get up and begins to scream, and as the ambulance approaches, he yells and struggles more violently, saying that he needs to go. Tim’s father holds the rider down. When the ambulance arrives, the chaos deepens, and the rider’s father appears, first weeping at the sight of his son and then attempting to throttle him and to fight the paramedics and Tim’s father. Winton is shocked at the sight of the man attempting violence on his own son, and he panics at the sight of his dad being threatened.
This scene demonstrates Winton’s subconscious attitudes toward his father. Winton takes his dad’s strength, calmness, and presence for granted, which would explain why the victim’s father’s behavior is such a shock for him—this new man behaves in the exact opposite way.
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The police arrive, and Winton and his father head home. His father downplays the incident to his mother, but Winton feels rattled and out of control. Later, as an adult, when he attempts to make sense of his fear, he realizes that it echoed the fear of almost losing his father a few years before that incident. At the time of the motorbike crash, he’d gotten used to his dad’s scars and the scent of his anti-inflammatory ointment, but the sight of his father in danger brought up the anxieties he felt when his father had first been badly injured. Looking back, he sees his life as a “topography of accidents.”
From a place of retrospection, Winton realizes that the accidents and moments of chaos in his childhood echoed and reverberated against each other, making each moment much bigger than its own isolated incident. It’s times of immense, immediate stress that remind him of his vulnerability, and that of his loved ones, while in day-to-day life, this is something he can often forget.
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Winton grew up as a child of a police officer who worked in the Accidents Branch dealing with traffic collisions and sometimes attending fatal incidents. As a child, he learns to tread carefully around his father, vicariously bearing the emotional burden of witnessing fatal crashes and the exhaustion of dealing with human mistakes. The fear he sees on his mother’s face helps him understand the dangers of his father’s job. When Winton is five, that fear surfaces when a driver runs a stop sign and hits his father, who was on his motor bike.
Winton’s father’s occupation as a police officer and the incident that almost claims his life accumulate to make Winton wary of human behavior: so much of his childhood was made fragile by the mistakes of other people.
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Tim’s father is catastrophically injured in the crash; when the paramedics find him, he’s close to death. His chances of survival and recovery are slim. His state is so dire that two of his colleagues resign after visiting him. Winton is the oldest child and the only one who truly registers what’s going on as his mother struggles to keep the family afloat. When his father returns home, completely disabled, he’s enraged that a stranger has ruined his family’s once-stable life.
Though Winton’s father’s accident didn’t happen when he was on duty, his identity is so bound up in his work as a police officer that his colleagues apparently see the accident as a part of the job, and believe they’re at less risk if they find other occupations. Winton’s status as the oldest child seems to cause him to grow up quickly, something also implied by his capacity for rage even as a five-year-old.
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Winton habitually seeks out his father’s helmet—the one he was wearing during the accident. The inside of the helmet smells like the father he remembers, while the outside reminds him of the near-death experience. The helmet is all that stood between his father and death.
The helmet in this scene is a metaphor for the thin boundary between normalcy and chaos that Winton’s life will continue to explore. There’s only a brittle layer between life and the father he knows, and the danger lurking behind every corner.
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Quotes
Tim’s father’s accident and long recovery force Winton to grow up quickly and become useful in the household. He must take on the role of the strong eldest sibling and help his mother with things he doesn’t understand. The house feels dim and stagnant, transformed from what it used to be. They welcome visits from family and friends, but one visitor is a complete stranger who offers to bathe his father.
The changes to Winton’s role in the family and the physical atmosphere of his childhood home signify that danger, in the form of his father’s accident, has shattered the world he grew up into in more ways than just altering his father’s body.
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Winton finds it extremely strange that a strange man is undressing, carrying, and bathing his father, and the idea of a stranger washing his father as though his father were an infant appalls him. But Winton learns that, while strangers can ruin your life (like the one who hurt his father), they can also show great kindness. One day, the stranger brings olive oil with him and anoints Tim’s father’s feet as in the Christian tradition. After his father’s recovery, Tim’s parents become lifelong Christians.
Winton’s reluctance to welcome and accept the stranger and his care imply that the society he grew up in does not commonly represent men as either caring or vulnerable. Further, his realization that the stranger has good intentions, and his parents’ acceptance of the Christian faith, suggest that people can build strong community bonds in times of great turbulence.
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Tim’s parents’ newfound faith and hope rejuvenates Tim. Looking back, he realizes that the stranger’s actions were a miracle of decency and grace in a world that Winton learned could be horrific and vile.
Though as a child, Winton was caught up in the horrors of human actions, hindsight allows him to see that those horrors are often balanced by the kindness of others.
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After Tim’s father recovers, he returns to work; he initially works the Accident Desk and then draws up schematics of accidents for the courts to refer to. He has no memory of his own accident, but reflecting as an adult, Winton knows that it must’ve been hard for his father to return to the kind of work he’d once been implicated in. His dad eventually gets back on motorbikes and sometimes drops Winton off at school; Winton pretends to enjoy this, though he’s terrified.
Winton’s father’s behavior, and Winton’s own pretense of enjoyment, echoes a stoic mindset that was perhaps encouraged by the society of the 1970s—men, in particular, were expected to portray an image of strength and resilience. Nevertheless, Winton’s father seems to genuinely enjoy his dangerous work. This is a further display of the way that his identity as a police officer is inseparable from his existence.
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Winton realizes as an adult that the motorbike accident he witnessed with his father bothered him so strongly because it felt like an echo of the time his life unraveled as a child. Many years later, he wrote a story about a similar incident, but this time the boy pressing the brake pedal leaps out to defend his father. He knows, looking back, that his father’s near-death experience unsettled him permanently and would keep resurfacing in echoing events throughout his life.
Winton’s creative career enables him to recall and process incidents from his childhood that were confusing and overwhelming at the time. In his writing, he’s able to give himself more power and agency than he has in real life. Through this process, he’s also able to figure out the patterns of his life and how they have shaped his mindset.
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Eight years after witnessing that motorcycle accident, Winton finds himself in a car crash, the only passenger in a car that plows through the perimeter wall of a girls’ school. The driver escapes unhurt, but paramedics cut Winton of his seatbelt and take him to hospital in an ambulance. After leaving the hospital, Winton feels extremely weak and rattled and tries to work out whether he’s feeling grief or shock. He hasn’t lost anyone, but he feels enfeebled and stuck. 
Winton’s shock at feeling weak and profoundly changed after the accident suggests he grew up taking his strength and bodily ability for granted. This may have been a core element of his identity, and now that it has been taken away, he’s not able to go on with life as normal.
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Quotes
The accident and ensuing recovery focus Tim’s mind. He’s been drifting along at university, but after returning to work, he writes three books before graduating. He realizes that the life he imagined—supplementing his writing with manual labor—is no longer viable now that his back has been injured. He must support himself with writing alone, which, looking back, he realizes fueled him to follow his childhood dream of being a writer.
Winton’s reassessment of his own ability, and his subsequent increased motivation as a writer, demonstrate that writing really is the only thing he can rely on—yet it has to be fueled by necessity. This is an idea that Winton will return to later in the book.
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As a teenager, Winton toys with near-death experiences. He crawls into tight underwater crevices with only a snorkel and challenges himself to find his way out before he runs out of air. Though he puts himself in situations of severe danger, he feels completely alive when he manages to escape unscathed.
Winton’s thrill-seeking behavior seems to be fueled by the idea that he has agency over his own life. Though the situations he puts himself in are dangerous, he has the ability to escape them—something he didn’t have in the accidents described in the essay.
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Looking back, Winton reflects on the fact that those and other moments of danger were times in which he knew himself the best. He suggests there’s an innate sense people use to feel danger approaching and to accept the inevitable process of surviving it. He describes finding a crashed car with a mother and child, helping the child to stay calm by enlisting her to press the brake pedal as his father once told him to. In this incident, Winton himself is the one helping with the injured driver until the ambulance arrives. He becomes robotic on the outside and hysterical on the inside, and he wonders whether this is his truest state.
Winton’s behavior in stressful situations as an adult mimics his own father’s actions in similar situations, suggesting that a fight-or-flight response might not be purely innate, but partially learned. Winton’s experience as an adult perhaps allows him to reflect on his knowledge of his father—his father may not have always felt as cool and calm as he appeared, but necessity may have driven him to act without obvious emotion or fear.
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As an adult, Winton no longer goes looking for trouble, though trouble seems to have followed him through his life. He considers the idea of surprise and danger in the surrounding world. Though people go out of their way to find thrills, even inflicting pain on themselves or others to interrupt their own boredom, they expect and rely upon predictability. Winton notes that a magazine rejected one of his stories because it described a shark attack that “came out of nowhere.” Even though his friends claim to enjoy surprises, he knows that real, unexpected danger is something that will always disrupt a seemingly safe life. And yet he knows that his life as a writer, like his father’s as a police officer, relies on danger and chaos—it’s accidents that fuel stories, just as they shape each person’s identity.
Winton’s reflections on the nature of danger suggest that the dangers in his life have taken two discrete forms—those that he had no control over, and those he sought out. It's the moments of danger that appear without warning and offer no choice or agency that truly scare him, and even if he doesn’t seek those dangers out, he'll never be able to avoid them. This is compounded by his occupation as a writer, for whom conflict and chaos are the key ingredients to narrative—another way in which he takes after his father, who couldn’t help but return to the police force as soon as he was able.
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