In This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff tells the story of a youth marked by violence, transience, rejection, and abuse. As the older Wolff looks back on his formative years, he recalls how storytelling functioned for him as a means of escapism—a way to stave off the pain of his actual life by imagining other lives for himself. Throughout the text, Wolff uses the theme of storytelling and escapism to suggest that in truly abusive situations, even the most determined, fantastical methods of escapism often fall short, and sometimes even further entrap victims in dangerous relationships and circumstances.
The memoir opens with a literal escape; Toby, who has recently renamed himself Jack after Jack London (itself a way of telling a new “story” about his life), and his mother Rosemary are driving across the country in an attempt to escape her abusive ex-boyfriend, Roy, who is stalking her. Roy eventually catches up with them and worms his way back into Rosemary’s life. Wolff shows through this early anecdote how escape from truly harrowing situations is often logistically impossible. As Jack and his mother—along with Roy—start a new life in Utah, Jack begins attending catechism classes at the local Catholic church. In confession, Jack struggles with honesty; when Sister James, hoping to make Jack feel more comfortable with admitting his “sins,” shares her own childhood transgressions, Jack simply repeats these stories to the priest. They are easier than telling the truth: that he and his mother are being abused, that Roy is attempting to draw Jack into his constant surveillance of Rosemary, and that Jack, against all odds, longs for Roy’s approval. Jack tells Sister James’s stories as his own in a desperate bid to escape the truth of his own fractured youth.
After fleeing Utah for Seattle, Jack and Rosemary find themselves on their own at last, in a new place where they are strangers to everyone. Jack makes two friends, both named Terry—he calls them by their last names, Silver and Taylor—and the boys spend their afternoons making prank calls, fantasizing about buying guns, and watching The Mickey Mouse Club. They all have raging crushes on one of the cast members, Annette, and Jack begins writing Annette fan letters in which he describes himself as a wealthy young man whose father, a sea captain, owns a fleet of fishing boats. Back in Utah, Jack had exchanged letters with a pen pal named Alice as part of a class project, and had written lengthy letters describing his life on his rich father’s ranch—Alice wrote back “terse” responses and eventually stopped responding. Now, as Jack’s letters to Annette grow bolder and more fantastical, it becomes clear that his desire to spin stories about himself is directly tied to his feelings of isolation and to the abuse and neglect he has suffered. Jack’s letters to Annette, like his letters to Alice, receive lukewarm replies, and soon whoever has been writing him back stops responding altogether. Wolff uses this anecdote to show how his early attempts at spinning fantastical stories had no impact on his ability to change his situation or even truly engage in escapism; in fact, he was left feeling more alone than ever, and as his ongoing letters to Annette turned macabre, with Jack imagining “a terrible accident in front of her house that would almost but not quite kill [him,] leaving [him] dependent on her care and sympathy,” Wolff makes it clear that the abuse and pain Jack has suffered has actually become an inextricable part of his storytelling.
After Jack and his mother move to Concrete, Washington, with Rosemary’s new husband, Dwight—who turns out to be just as controlling and abusive as Roy—Jack’s dependency on telling stories about himself in order to survive intensifies. In Concrete, Jack’s storytelling expands outwards. By the midpoint of the text, he’s no longer telling stories about himself to himself, playing pretend with the rifle Roy gave him, or writing missives to members of The Mickey Mouse Club. Now the stories he tells become a way to connect with others, cement friendships, and paint himself as someone worthy of the love, attention, and validation he’s been denied. At this point in the narrative, it becomes clear that storytelling as a method of escapism is not something unique to Jack. The boys he meets through the Scouts and his classmates at high school in Concrete also use storytelling as a way to make themselves seem more interesting, and even as a way to deny the truth of who they are. Jack’s closest friend at school is a boy named Arthur, a “sissy” who may or may not be gay. Arthur is picked on by everyone, even Jack, who feels embarrassed about having made friends with Arthur. A large part of Jack and Arthur’s friendship centers around telling each other wildly outlandish stories about themselves, their families, and their heritages. They are each other’s “perfect witness,” enthusiastically believing every word the other says, and what the boys have most profoundly in common is the belief that the true lie is “told by [their] present unworthy circumstances,” not the stories they spin to one another.
Towards the end of the story, it seems as if all of Jack’s practice at storytelling as a way of escaping his present circumstances will actually pay off; with Arthur’s help, he writes his own letters of recommendation in support of his application to the prestigious Hill School in Pennsylvania, and is admitted. He goes off to school, leaving Washington and all his painful memories behind him. However, after three years, Jack—who now goes by Tobias—is expelled. After briefly detailing his expulsion and subsequent enrollment in the armed forces, Wolff, in the final paragraphs of his memoir, travels back in time to the end of a road trip with his friend Chuck, to and from Seattle. Tobias—still Jack, then—had just been admitted to Hill and had just escaped, with his mother, from Dwight’s house, and everything seemed full of hope for the first time of his life. Wolff’s willful retreat into a memory is a metatextual comment on the ways storytelling and escapism function. To end the memoir on a note of failure would be too painful; to arrive at his ending, Wolff engages in one final feat of escapism, retreating into a story that’s easier to tell.
Storytelling and Escapism ThemeTracker
Storytelling and Escapism Quotes in This Boy’s Life
Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide. While we were waiting for it to cool we heard, from somewhere above us, the bawling of an airhorn. The sound got louder and then a big truck came around the comer and shot past us into the next curve, its trailer shimmying wildly. We stared after it.
"Oh, Toby," my mother said, "he's lost his brakes."
The sound of the horn grew distant, then faded in the wind that sighed in the trees all around us.
By the time we got there, quite a few people were standing along the cliff where the truck went over. It had smashed through the guardrails and fallen hundreds of feet through empty space to the river below, where it lay on its back among the boulders. It looked pitifully small.
I was subject to fits of feeling myself unworthy, somehow deeply at fault. It didn't take much to bring this sensation to life, along with the certainty that everybody but my mother saw through me and did not like what they saw. There was no reason for me to have this feeling. I thought I'd left it back in Florida, together with my fear of fighting and my shyness with girls, but here it was, come to meet me.
Roy stored his ammunition in a metal box he kept hidden in the closet. As with everything else hidden in the apartment, I knew exactly where to find it. There was a layer of loose .22 rounds on the bottom of the box under shells of bigger caliber, dropped there by the handful the way men drop pennies on their dressers at night. I took some and put them in a hiding place of my own. With these I started loading up the rifle. Hammer cocked, a round in the chamber, finger resting lightly on the trigger, I drew a bead on whoever walked by—women pushing strollers, children, garbage collectors laughing and calling to each other, anyone—and as they passed under my window I sometimes had to bite my lip to keep from laughing in the ecstasy of my power over them, and at their absurd and innocent belief that they were safe.
At the end of every show the local station gave an address for Mousketeer Mail. I had begun writing Annette. At first I described myself in pretty much the same terms as I had in my letters to Alice, who was now very much past tense, with the difference that instead or owning a ranch my father, Cap'n Wolff, now owned a fleet of fishing boats. I was first mate, myself, and a pretty fair hand at reeling in the big ones. I gave Annette some very detailed descriptions of my contests with the friskier fellows I ran up against. I also invited her to consider the fun to be had in visiting Seattle. I told her we had lots of room. I did not tell her that I was eleven years old.
I got back some chipper official responses encouraging me to start an Annette fan club. In other words, to organize my competition. Fat chance. But when I upped the ante in my letters to her, they stopped sending me anything at all. The Disney Studio must have had a kind of secret service that monitored Mousketeer Mail for inappropriate sentiments and declarations. When my name went off the mailing list, it probably went onto some other list. But Alice had taught me about coyness. I kept writing Annette and began to
imagine a terrible accident in front of her house that would almost but not quite kill me, leaving me dependent on her care and sympathy, which in time would tum to admiration, love . . .
Now I saw her only when Dwight agreed to drive me down with him. He usually had reasons for leaving me behind, the paper route or schoolwork or something I had done wrong that week. But he had to bring me sometimes, and then he never let me out of his sight. He stuck close by and acted jovial. He smiled at me and put his hand on my shoulder and made frequent reference to fun things we'd done together. And I played along. Watching myself with revulsion, aghast at my own falsity yet somehow helpless to stop it, I simpered back at him and laughed when he invited me to laugh and confirmed all his lying implications that we were pals and our life together a good one. Dwight did this whenever it suited his purpose, and I never let him down.
I also missed my father. My mother never complained to me about him, but sometimes Dwight would make sarcastic comments about Daddy Warbucks and lord High-and-Mighty. He meant to impugn my father for being rich and living far away and having nothing to do with me, but all these qualities, even the last, perhaps especially the last, made my father fascinating. He had the advantage always enjoyed by the inconstant parent, of not being there to be found imperfect. I could see him as I wanted to see him. I could give him sterling qualities and imagine good reasons, even romantic reasons, why he had taken no interest, why he had never written to me, why he seemed to have forgotten I existed. I made excuses for him long after I should have known better.
Arthur's disappointment was more combative. He refused to accept as final the proposition that Cal and Mrs. Gayle were his real parents. He told me, and I contrived to believe, that he was adopted, and that his real family was descended from Scottish liege men who had followed Bonnie Prince Charlie into exile in France. I read the same novels Arthur read, but managed not to notice the correspondences between their plots and his. And Arthur in tum did not question the stories I told him. I told him that my family was descended from Prussian aristocrats--"Junkers," I said, pronouncing the word with pedantic accuracy—whose estates had been seized after the war. I got the idea for this narrative from a book called The Prussians. It was full of pictures of Crusaders, kings, castles, splendid hussars riding to the attack at Waterloo, cold-eyed Von Richthofen standing beside his triplane.
Arthur was a great storyteller. He talked himself into reveries where every word rang with truth. He repeated ancient conversations. He rendered the creak of oars in their oarlocks. He spoke in the honest brogue of the crofter, the despicable whine of the traitor. In Arthur's voice the mist rose above the loch and the pipes skirled; bold deeds were done, high words of troth plighted, and I believed them all.
I was his perfect witness and he was mine. We listened without objection to stories of usurped nobility that grew in preposterous intricacy with every telling. But we did not feel as if anything we said was a lie. We both believed that the real lie was told by our present unworthy circumstances.
I declined to say I was a football star, but I did invent a swimming team for Concrete High. The coach wrote a fine letter for me, and so did my teachers and the principal. They didn't gush. They wrote plainly about a gifted, upright boy who had already in his own quiet way exhausted the resources of his school and community. They had done what they could for him. Now they hoped that others would carry on the good work.
I wrote without heat or hyperbole, in the words my teachers would have used if they had known me as I knew myself. These were their letters. And on the boy who lived in their letters, the splendid phantom who carried all my hopes, it seemed to me I saw, at last, my own face.
We had been close. Whatever it is that makes closeness possible between people also puts them in the way of hard feelings if that closeness ends. Arthur and I were moving apart, and had been ever since we started high school. Arthur was trying to be a citizen. He stayed out of trouble and earned high grades. He played bass guitar with the Deltones, a pretty good band for which I had once tried out as drummer and been haughtily dismissed. The guys he ran around with at Concrete were all straight-arrows and strivers, what few of them there were in our class. He even had a girlfriend. And yet, knowing him as I did, I saw all this respectability as a performance, and a strained performance at that.