28 March 2011

12. When I Was Five I Killed Myself by Howard Buten

When I Was Five I Killed Myself is a short, unusual story about Burt Rembrandt. Burt narrates the story for us from The Children's Trust Residence Centre about his experience there and the events leading up to his stay there. The book, my copy at least, is also unusual physically. It is a tiny red covered book with no cover illustration, just the title in black. The book also has footnotes in German, the blurb on the back of my book is in German as well. To be perfectly honest, I have no idea why as the author is an American living in France, where the book was initially published and particularly popular. Interestingly, Buten is also a clown, violinist and psychologist. His fascination with what it is like to be an autistic child inspired this, which was his first novel.The preface that is featured in my copy, written by Buten, seems to hint at a author who is similarly quirky to his protagonist: "I'm an ingrate. It's a personality trait I have."

We immediately learn that the title is not literal: "I sat on my bed for a long time. I sat and sat. Something was wrong inside me, I felt it inside my stomach and I didn't know what to do. So I layed down on the floor. I stuck out my pointer finger and pointed it at my head. And I pushed down my thumb. And killed myself."

We learn fairly early on that there was an incident with a girl named Jessica Renton that led to Burt's incarceration. We learn the details of this throughout the book with details being revealed right up until the end of the book. Burt is clearly an unusual child, both precocious and childish. He picks up phrases that adults use around him, "I threw a conniption fit in the shoe store" or "I saw Jessica walking with Marcie Kane who I have no use for, to be candid." Whilst he is never labelled as autistic, Buten has made it clear that Burt is and his view on the world is at turns charming, amusing and heartbreaking. He is stuck between wanting to follow the rules and feeling like they are irrational. For all his quirks, he is an incredibly sympathic narrator. There is a lovely moment in the Children's Centre where a non-conformist counsellor helps Burt to overcome his fear of swimming.

When I Was Five I Killed Myself is a curious little novel that makes you think about the issues associated with children with special needs and the way they are provided for. The novel was written in 1981 and I assume the experiences of Burt are typical of his time but it is still interesting to think about the way that children like Burt are treated in schools and institutions.

I would recommend reading this; it's a fairly short book in length so is worth an experiment. Ultimately it's a story about a little boy and about friendship and it is thought provoking and moving.


  1. Reclam is a German publisher and the "red series" are books in foreign languages. These books are mostly used in schools and that's why all the information is in German.

    By the way: Reclam's German books are yellow, bilingual books orange (you see what they did there). The design is almost the same for each book: just the author and the title, sometimes with an illustration.