Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Loss of Innocence
There are several moments throughout The Boy Behind the Curtain that introduce major turning points in Tim Winton's understanding of the world, its beauties and its dangers. Winton demonstrates quite clearly that his life began in a place of undisturbed innocence. When describing his childhood, he states, "I grew up in safety. In our home in the Perth suburb of Karrinyup there was nothing to fear and no one to second-guess." Winton goes on to explain that because his mother experienced a life of violence, she did everything in her power to ensure that Winton's childhood would be one of predictable security.
A tragic drunk driving accident when Winton was five years old shattered this security. Winton's father, John, was hit by a drunk driver who had run a stop sign. John was sent flying into a brick wall from the impact and left bedridden for many months. "The months of my father's convalescence had a lasting impact on me," Winton explains. He continues:
By these events I was drafted into the world of consequences. I became "Mummy's little helper." The little man. I was assigned the role of sibling enforcer and family protector. I was the keeper of grown-up secrets, the compensator, the listener. I had to be "wise beyond my years," to assume an unlikely authority, to understand what I could not pronounce.
At a very young age, Winton is suddenly sprung from his life of ease, security, and safety into a life of anxiety and immense responsibility. The sole breadwinner of his family, his father, had become incapacitated, and it was up to his mother and young Winton to fill this gaping hole. Winton's transition from childhood to adulthood began prematurely.
At the age of nine, Winton witnesses his first accident while out with his father—a man had been severely injured on the side of the road while riding his motorbike. While they waited for first responders to arrive at the scene, the victim's father appeared; he was drunk and became violent toward Winton's father. Winton identifies this incident as a major turning point for him, saying, "I had no experience of violence, domestic or otherwise." Here we clearly see the theme of loss of innocence emerging. Winton demonstrates his naivety when he admits, "I thought once the ambulance arrived everything would be fine, but when it finally pulled up the whole scene intensified, as though some fresh madness had arrived with it." His previous understanding of safety is disrupted here, as his image of a "rescue" becomes thoroughly complicated and messy.
Winton takes great pains throughout his memoir to illustrate to his audience the ways in which he was forced out of his childlike, innocent safe haven and into experiences of violence and danger. He draws meaningful connections between these experiences of lost innocence and the ways he now, as an adult, understands the world.
The Influence of Art on the Formation of Identity
Books and movies exert a great influence on Winton. The most significant example of this can be seen when Winton is eight years old and his friend's mother mistakenly brings the boys into the theater playing Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey for his friend's birthday party. Winton is eternally grateful for this mistake, as the movie greatly alters his worldview. He explains,
... What was most frightening about [the film] was the experience of being led out into the cold darkness of space and left alone. ... With the conventional tropes of popular storytelling snatched from me at every turn, I had the child's slowly mounting panic at...
(This entire section contains 1149 words.)
having been abandoned.
Here, Winton reflects on how Kubrick's film drastically altered his understanding of storytelling. 2001: A Space Odyssey is worlds away from the tidy and organized stories to which Winton was formerly accustomed, and Winton discovers that stories are not always meant to be easily understood: the world is messy, he learns, and stories can be, too. He reflects that "the movie had gotten to me in ways I wouldn't understand for many years."
The earliest example of literature's influence on Winton can be found in his memories of attending church as a child. "Scripture stories," he recalls, "were my imaginative bread and butter ... The violence of these ancient fables was darkly appealing." Winton explains that he used Jesus as a role model and consistently sought to emulate Jesus's qualities, which he found "mysterious, confounding, anarchic." This early influence is perhaps what jumpstarts Winton's tendency to compare himself to characters in books and film, frequently finding strong connections between fictional circumstances and his own reality. After waking up in a hospital following a nearly fatal car accident, Winton compares his experience to "So many great novels [that] have been set in hospitals":
Hospitals make rich fictional settings because from the inside they are such chillingly plausible worlds unto themselves. They have their own surreal logic, their own absurd governance, their own uncanny weather, and the impotence and boredom they induce is hard to match anywhere else but prison or the military.
This constant comparison of his real-life experiences to those of fictional characters demonstrates Winton's tendency to distance himself from some of his more painful experiences. Looking at his past through a fictionalized lens allows him to see his own firsthand experiences as something that might have occurred in a book he read rather than something he directly experienced.
While books and films allow Winton to experience some distance from his past, they also allow him to analyze and reflect on his childhood, bringing him closer to the trauma he has endured. He describes watching the Dalton Trumbo film Johnny Got His Gun and feeling a rush of "childhood horror" from his days of, at the age of five, visiting his father in the hospital after his father's car accident. He describes the film as "a memory and a nightmare, one of the images that once danced out of bounds beyond the walls of my panicky tunnel vision." The film, which follows a severely injured soldier who is essentially trapped in his own body because he has lost the capacity to walk, see, smell, and hear, reminds Winton of the severity of his father's injuries and Winton's feelings of helplessness in knowing there was little he could do to ease his father's pain. Film here serves as a helpful, visceral way for Winton to connect with his audience and meaningfully describe the feelings he had in relation to his father's accident.
Ultimately, Winton's constant references to books and movies argues that life does not occur in a vacuum—rather, we are all constantly influenced and changed by the media we consume. This argument gives his memoir power, as Winton is meaningfully contributing to the world of storytelling that so deeply influenced his understanding of his own life. Winton's story will, in some way—large or small—influence readers' lives as well.