In 2020, The Queen’s Gambit became Netflix’s number-one show in 63 countries. Early on, the child protagonist, Elizabeth Harmon, future chess prodigy, is abandoned by her father, loses her mother and gets sent to an orphanage. There she learns chess from the custodian in the basement. It is the lowest rung on the ladder that leads, eventually, to fame and prosperity. I was watching it when I began to think about writing this essay. By the time I was putting thoughts on paper, in the fall of 2021, Squid Game was Netflix’s number one: in this dystopian drama, desperate, impoverished adults play children’s games for a huge cash prize, and the twist is that the losers are executed. In one episode, the contestants Sae-byeok and Ji-yeong form a team of two, supposing they will play together against the rest. In fact, they must play each other. One must die. The two women decide to exchange life stories and then to play one winner-takes-all game at the last second. Sae-byeok has a mother and a brother, separated from each other. Her brother is in an orphanage and needs her to help him get out, because their mother cannot reach him. Ji-yeong’s mother and father are dead: she doesn’t even know her full name. Ji-yeong, the orphan, sacrifices herself for Sae-byeok, so Sae-byeok has the chance to rescue her brother from the orphanage. Beth Harmon is the orphan who wins the game: the genius, for whom orphanhood is another form of adversity over which she triumphs. Ji-yeong is the orphan who loses, who meekly counts herself out.
The first time I thought about orphans in any depth was during a childhood game of my own. I had to act as one. In a large hall, our team had to perform a famous story, silently and in a limited time, for the others to guess. Our story was Oliver Twist. As the youngest by some way, I played Oliver. In the first of my two scenes, I held out my hands in a bowl shape and walked hesitantly across the stage, trying to look sad and afraid. I was imitating the scene from the hit musical (Oliver!) when, in an unnerving combination of desperation and defiance, Oliver begs for more food. “Please, sir, I want some more.” I must have been very young, because my teammates seemed impressed that I could follow the basic instructions. As I silently asked for more food, someone watching called out: “Sweet!” In the second scene, I had to run happily toward a teammate, a pretty, older girl playing Oliver’s aunt (another orphan, Rose Maylie), to denote the happy conclusion, “the long close embrace between the orphans.” She held her arms out wide and I gingerly approached her, not reaching her before the time was up.
The stakes of my game were lower than those played by Beth Harmon or Ji-yeong. But Ji-yeong and I were dutifully playing the parts assigned to orphans: needy, hungry, desperate, with less of a place in the world, we both met appropriate ends. Oliver is restored to a family structure; Ji-yeong steps aside for someone else’s. Even Beth Harmon can’t make it alone. Her orphanage friend, Jolene, appears as dea ex machina to pay for Beth’s world-beating trip to Moscow. “We weren’t orphans,” says Jolene. “Not as long as we had each other. … I’m here because you need me to be here. That’s what family does.” The orphan dissolves or evaporates. Family remains.
There is no official criterion for being an orphan, but I didn’t know that when I decided I wasn’t one. To be more precise, I decided that I was technically an orphan, just not a real one. Technically, I thought, an orphan is a child whose parents are both dead. My mother had died when I was six, and my father had died shortly after I turned seventeen. If anyone under the age of eighteen is a child, then, unlike my older brothers, I was an orphan for about a year. Nevertheless, in a brief conversation outside our family home—I think it was the same week that Dad died—my brother and I quickly agreed that I was not an orphan. We didn’t give reasons, but mine boiled down, in essence, to two words: Oliver Twist. Orphans were children, not in the sense that they were under the age of majority, but in the other, younger sense, the sense in which, at seventeen, people tell you that you are not a child anymore. Orphans like Oliver did not know their parents; I had been parented. Orphans were poor and needy, which I didn’t consider myself to be. Orphans lived in orphanages, where they were miserable. I lived at home with my brothers, one of whom, along with an aunt, took joint guardianship for the months until I turned eighteen. Orphans did not stand outside the homes they had grown up in, discussing whether or not they were orphans.
As the decades passed, some of my reasoning seemed less secure. I had always thought that my putative orphan status was a private matter, and a settled one. Strange to say, it had never occurred to me that other people might not come to the same conclusion.
Ancient texts use “orphan” to mean a child without a father—fathers being what mattered most. That is why orphans are often paired with widows, their mothers, together forming a metonym for “those who are quintessentially weak” (as one commentator put it). In modern, everyday usage, it often means what I thought: a child with two dead parents. But an alternative usage, even in Dickens, is a child with at least one dead parent: “His wife was to be made a widow and his daughter an orphan.” This is how UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund) defines it: a “child under 18 years of age whose mother, father, or both parents have died from any cause.” Recent social-scientific research has tended to follow suit. Following UNICEF terminology, then, I may have been a “maternal orphan” when I was pretending to be Oliver Twist—a fact that lends the game a darker aspect. I became, UNICEF would say, a “double orphan” as a teenager, though older literature seems to use “half orphan” and “full orphan” for the same distinction. In wider usage, the term is even more liberally applied. I have seen Steve Jobs described as an orphan when, as far as I can tell, he was adopted, with both his biological and adoptive parents staying alive into his adulthood.
Even sticking to my own definition, it is increasingly clear that a seventeen-year-old is not just technically a child. I left London for Cambridge at eighteen, to begin my studies in philosophy. It marked, as I saw it, the end of childhood and my first step onto a level playing field. High school was over, we were all done being parented and Dad had managed 95 percent of the job. Later, I would listen in amazement as older friends talked about how best to parent their 21- or 25-year-old sons and daughters. When they expressed concerns about their adult children, I used, at first, to think it would be supportive to relieve them and correct their error.
The second conversation I had about my orphan status was a decade after the first. I had started a new job and I was having a drink with some colleagues I hardly knew. It began with a question about my mother and unfolded, initially, in a familiar way: “Oh, so you were brought up by your father?” Then, from one colleague, a reaction I have never had before: “Stop! I can’t bear it!” So I stopped. “The word ‘orphan’ just flashed over you,” she said later, partly by way of explanation. She was recently widowed, with dependent children, and a great deal rested for her on the negligible chances of two parents dying on a child. Suddenly there I was.
I was still secure in my non-orphan status, but a seed of doubt had been planted. For the first time, I found myself explaining to someone that I wasn’t a real orphan. Meanwhile, I began to imagine people dressing me up as Oliver, watching me walk across that room, holding out my hands to ask for more. I heard them calling out “Sweet!” I wondered who else was seeing that word when they saw me and what it might mean to them if they did.
Of all the orphans in literature, why did Oliver so take hold of our imagination? Why was I not an orphan because I was not him? If he were the only orphan available, you could understand it. But there were orphans of all shapes, sizes, intelligences, fortunes and capacities, especially in the Victorian literature that my father encouraged me to read. Dickens alone left plenty to choose from. Besides Oliver and Rose there was orphan Pip and (presumed) orphan Estella; orphan David Copperfield, with orphans Martha, Emily and Clickett, better known merely as the “Orfling”; presumed orphan Esther Summerson, befriending orphans Ada Clare and Richard Carstone, visiting the three little orphans at Bell Yard. Little Johnny in Our Mutual Friend. Orphan Martin Chuzzlewit loves orphan Mary Graham. Orphan Sydney Carton was one of my favorites as a young reader. Carton loves (presumed) orphan Lucie Manette. He is a drunkard who redeems himself in death, doing that far, far better thing. His final gesture is to comfort an orphan seamstress who will be guillotined just before he is. She won’t have to wait long in heaven, he tells her, before meeting her cousin—yes, her orphan cousin. Though extreme, Dickens was hardly alone. Jane Eyre, Heathcliff, Dorothea Brooke, Lucy Snowe, Isabel Archer, Billy Budd, Becky Sharp—which Victorian characters aren’t orphans? Within the suffocating confines of the Victorian novel—and reading them now, I often find myself reaching for the oximeter—this is without doubt an intimidating hit parade of varied, nuanced characters.
What if Pip, or Carton, or Becky Sharp had been my quintessential orphan? Becky, a delightfully vicious social climber, will use anything—especially her orphan status—to get what she wants. In her acting game she plays not Oliver Twist but Clytemnestra. Vanity Fair begins the day Becky finishes school. Among those orphans who appear as children, David Copperfield, Jane Eyre and Pip all grow up. As adults, they make their own choices, usually to get married, sometimes unwisely. One reason Oliver stands out is because he stays young, in permanent dependence. Most of all, though, there’s the institutional setting. Oliver is raised at a baby “farm”—that is, the parish pays a woman to raise him and other babies in his first years, though in fact she embezzles the money, letting many of them die. Perhaps I pictured Oliver as the orphan because he is born and grows up in the orphanage, the place where he asks for more.
If so, it is a picture that needs updating. Children with dead parents have often been raised by family members, not in orphanages. In fact, there were no orphanages in England when I was orphaned. More to the point, the children who lived in orphanages were (and are—where there are so-called “orphanages”) generally not orphans, by my definition. Most had at least one living parent. Sometimes these parents were unknown, had given them away, abandoned them or were unable to care for them. Many of these so-called orphans wouldn’t know whether they fell under my definition or not—though the question certainly played on their minds, according to many testimonies, as they imagined wealthy parents coming to take them away. Oliver’s mother dies at the start of his story, but initially nothing is known of his father, who may be alive. Robert Blincoe, the orphan whose oral testimony was published in 1832, and who may have influenced the writing of Oliver Twist, could dimly recall someone saying his mother had died, but he could not confirm that claim. He thought that the woman who dropped him off at his institution was not his mother, for the simple reason that he did not recall loving her. Orphanages, often enough, were homes for foundlings (found, unclaimed, abandoned or unable-to-be-claimed children) or waifs, a word originally used for any lost or unclaimed property, before being transferred to property of a childish kind. Waifanages, if you will.
But even that is a simplification. Many orphanages were, in effect, residential child-welfare institutions, supporting parents who were doing the best they could. Some orphanage children would have known perfectly well who their parents were, because their parents had placed them there on a temporary basis, hoping to get them back. In England in the later nineteenth century, many children in such institutions had been “rescued,” a term that encompassed everything from saving the lives of abuse victims to high-minded philanthropic kidnapping: in societies that treated poverty as akin to a crime, poor parents had less of a claim on their children, simply because they were poor and a presumed bad influence. The same was true in New York at the turn of the century. The “orphan trains” that carried children out west to the families who had placed orders for them (“Your agent has promised me a nice red-haired boy. I have a red-haired wife and five red-haired girls and we want a boy to match”) likewise carried many “rescued” children whose biological mothers, according to the letters they left, might have done anything to retrieve them. Calling those children “orphans” was a euphemism, or at least a kind of studied fuzziness. Welfare institutions found it easier to promote themselves for looking after “orphans” than children whose parents wanted them back. When they did acknowledge parents, it was often to portray them as abusers, as the sort of people you should give us money to save their children from. “Orphan” could mean a child whose parents were, as far as the child’s institution was concerned, better off dead.
In fact, though, Oliver Twist and Robert Blincoe did not grow up in orphanages, waifanages or foundling hospitals at all. They grew up in workhouses. These were the nineteenth-century employer of last resort, designed to be so gruesome that only the truly desperate would choose to remain there. To be at the workhouse was to acknowledge, at least tacitly, that one was the lowest of the low; the absurdity of this, when applied to babies, may be one reason why Oliver must be born there. Oliver is nicknamed “Workhouse” (“Work’us”) by Noah Claypole, the “charity-boy” (so, about as poor as it gets) who is delighted to find someone beneath him in the pecking order. Blincoe envied the foundling-hospital children, who enjoyed a higher status than he did. Oliver, the boy we consider the quintessential orphan, does not live in an orphanage and for a long time does not know the word “orphan” at all.
Twist and Blincoe are campaign-literature orphans from a chapter of British history. Both Dickens and the publisher of Blincoe’s account were taking a stance on the treatment of poor English children. Workhouses saved money by getting rid of their charges, so Oliver is offered to a chimney sweep and then to an undertaker, while Blincoe, rejected as a sweep, was duped into becoming a child laborer in a cotton mill. To function effectively as a campaign orphan, Oliver is fit with certain specifications. He is pure, innocent and moral—“so jolly green,” as the less naïve Master Bates puts it. Although Oliver ages a little, he does not really change. His is not a bildungsroman, a story of education and formation. His innocence, like that of Job, is guaranteed at the start, and it lasts until the end, because the moral of the tale is blunted if he has it coming in any way.
When I acted as Oliver, I imagined him being defiant. But in the story he is merely being dutiful: a fellow workhouse boy has threatened violence on another if he doesn’t get a second bowl of gruel. Oliver is chosen, by lot, to ask for it. He wouldn’t have eaten the extra bowl himself. No wonder the other orphans cannot compete: Pip and Estella are callous or cruel. Becky Sharp is a piece of work. Carton is caustic, crafty and disappointed: “There is nothing in you to like,” he says to himself. But he’s wrong. It is Oliver Twist in whom—in the end—there is nothing to like.
“Orphan,” then, brings two kinds of unlucky children huddling together under one umbrella term. First, the ones with dead parents. Second, by metaphorical extension, the ones, typically with living parents, who are nonetheless abandoned to the social elements. Plenty of children belong to both groups, and Oliver unites them in moral sainthood. But the difference must be respected. The first group, my group, points (in the best cases) to what philosophers sometimes call “natural evil”—catastrophes that befall us without human agency. Our plight reminds you of your mortality, your helplessness in the face of those you love. My mother, I am told, used to say that all she wanted was to be there for her children. I believe it. And she wasn’t. It was nobody’s fault. But the other group points in a different direction: toward the worst things humans have done to human children, which are surely among the worst things they have done to anyone; toward moral evil and the uneasy ways we have tried to address it. To speak of orphans in that way encodes an attitude—stuffy, moral, charitable—whether it aims to rescue these children from or by means of their institutions.
We are able to draw distinctions like this, but out there in the world, lines blur and we sometimes find it hard to maintain them. Signing up to orphanhood implied a claim to a vision of moral purity, a useful fundraising tool for a plight that was not mine. If that were all it had to offer, I might have been well advised to walk away.
Yet fiction offers another image of the orphan, in stark contrast to Oliver Twist and his nineteenth-century fellows. In place of the dependent, the maximally free; in place of the weak, the strong; and in place of a cowering fear of the law, a lofty, vertiginous perch, high above it. Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and Iron Man are all orphans. The death of the parents, in these stories, offers the storyteller a range of options. There is wealth, which Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark inherit, and which aids them in their adventures (rather than marking them out for manipulation). Bruce Wayne receives the gift not only of means but of motive, swearing “by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths”—and so the Batman is born. Superman’s biological parents send him to earth, foreseeing their own apocalyptic destruction, but at least ensuring that their child survives. The year of Superman’s first appearance, 1938, saw the first Kindertransport trains leaving from Germany, carrying many children whose parents had made the same choice. Superman fights the orphan Lex Luthor, who has killed his own parents to trigger their life-insurance policy. For the apparent orphan, Jessica Jones, as for Luke Skywalker, a dead parent shows up to surprise us.
Like Oliver Twist, these are moral figures, but they are essentially active. It is hard to conceive of a superhero who does not suffer, but in the end superheroes are objects not of charity, weakness and pity but of envy and fantasy. Parents dress their children as superheroes—that is, as the orphans who are superheroes—and they walk with them, hand in hand, to the kindergarten gates.
Superheroes are, typically, American heroes, heroes of a nation that had prided itself, in imagination at least, on its own form of orphanhood. Colonists complaining about the British government had frequently likened themselves to children, tyrannized by the parent across the ocean and therefore justified in breaking free. “If one accepts the family metaphor—England, the mother country; George III, the authoritarian father; the colonies, the children,” writes Eileen Simpson, psychologist and orphan, “it is a small step to the formulation that in throwing off the parental yoke, the children, who had grown to adolescence … had orphaned themselves.” We find even more orphans with superpowers if we are willing to extend the definition beyond the comic book and the cape—Beth Harmon’s chess wizardry, for example. The orphan hero I spent most time with as a child was James Bond. The closest thing to a British superhero, Bond is free, in a sense, but, with his license to kill, characteristically dependent on the motherland. “Orphans always make the best recruits,” M tells him.
Next to the Victorian novel, however, the second great warehouse of orphan stories is the children’s book, where the orphan appears enviable and free. “There are good reasons for the wealth of fantastic, gutsy orphans in children’s literature,” Katherine Rundell wrote in the Guardian in 2014. She was about to name her top ten, while promoting her own book (with an orphan protagonist). It was the first time I had read someone stating the fact so bluntly, giving reasons and examples from an author’s point of view. “Parents, with their concern for safety and the law, are a dampener on adventure: orphans are allowed to make their own rules, fight their own battles … Without parents to protect you, enforce order and inflict grown-up priorities on a storyline, orphans are free to run wild and live large and daring lives. And orphans are walking possibilities: you might turn out to be [a] lost prince, a[n] Egyptian king, a wizard.” Mowgli’s parents are eaten by a tiger. Harry Potter witnesses the murder of his parents. Anne of Green Gables is dispatched, by mistake, from an orphanage, while Sophie is snatched from her orphanage window by the BFG. Rundell’s selection leaves plenty out. Frodo Baggins, Heidi, Pollyanna, Tarzan, Mary in The Secret Garden, Frozen’s Elsa and Anna, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and the superheroes.
The orphan is, then, also a stock character, a shorthand for freedom, adventure and narrative possibility. Make the protagonist save a cat, and the audience knows to like her. Kill off her parents, and we know to expect a wild ride in the shared fantasy of a life without imposition from above. Parents can read their children stories of children who live without the constraints of parents; then they can tuck them up in bed. In a short essay titled “Why Do We Write About Orphans So Much?,” the author Liz Moore reflected on why she was working, at the time, on a fourth novel featuring “an actually or functionally parentless character.” The orphan “comes with a built-in problem, which leads to built-in conflict.”
Far more than being called an “orphan” had done, reading Rundell’s description, and recognizing this other kind of fictional orphanhood, seemed to stir something up, to orient me differently toward the word. Even in its conventional sense—not being told what to do—the idea that I had more freedom, that parents were painlessly absent in some liberating way, had played a part in my youth. A fellow student, on hearing about my circumstances, said he thought having dead parents must be “like having a free house all the time.” One long house party, in other words, with no parents to tell you to clear up. It wasn’t an empathetic reaction—a little like telling someone whose roof has been blown off that you’ve always dreamed of sleeping under the stars—but it was part of the story. I was freer than average in my orphan year. I had guardians with the same legal authority as a parent. But one of them did not live at home and the other was my brother, then in his early twenties. Neither was in the habit of laying down the law. Money, and the freedom it brings, was a more complex affair. At first, I wanted to reassure people that I wasn’t in need of charity. I wasn’t an Oliver Twist. Of course, not everyone was merely reassured. It is disconcerting to be envied for something, the direct and necessary cause of which is your greatest personal tragedy. Call it rich-orphan problems.
After I finished my first degree, I kept on studying philosophy. My Ph.D. dissertation was about different concepts of freedom—a word very often deployed when we want to talk about something we like. It is hardly surprising, then, that the history of philosophy can provide a counter-image of freedom to that of the free orphan. In sum: family is freedom. It’s not all there is to freedom, but it would be difficult, if not impossible, to have freedom without it. Writing in 1821, between the real birth of Blincoe and the fictional birth of Twist, Hegel is perfectly aware that family life is a kind of restriction, and one you might well dream of being without. Each member of a couple, for example, faces individual “self-limitation.” But such limitation “is in fact their liberation.”
The kind of liberation he has in mind begins with his understanding of love: to love someone is to renounce a naïve claim to “independent existence”—a pardonable but unrealistic fantasy of freedom, like flying above Metropolis, faster than a speeding bullet. Since we do, in fact, need each other—since we are not superheroes—simpleminded attempts at complete personal independence, in Hegel’s eyes, lead to disastrous unfreedom. Children receive this lesson, implicitly, in the family, where what they need to survive is provided without question. But their freedom is secured in other ways, too. They are disciplined, which brings freedom, because—this is the nineteenth century—unconstrained, natural desires and inclinations keep people in bondage, slaves to their passions. They are educated, “brought up and supported,” which brings freedom, because it gives them what they need to stand on their own. Another way of saying this is that family gives children Bildung—the very thing Oliver Twist does not require. Children in a family are taken seriously and cared for in their own idiosyncrasy. In warmer prose: they are special. Orphans, who appear special, even magical, to the non-orphan child reading stories about them, often complain precisely of not feeling special, of being nobody’s little boy or girl, of being emotional waifs, unclaimed. This specialness is freedom, because, within limits, a free person must find value in fulfilling their own desires and pursuing their own personal projects, which only family life can easily accommodate and nourish. Hegel has sharp words for anyone who idealizes a childhood beyond the reach of society: “No one should imagine that the breath of the spiritual world will not eventually find its way into this solitude.” Viewed from this perspective, being on the outside is unfreedom. The world will come for you; you just won’t be ready. People who aren’t ready aren’t free.
I trust my reader to recognize that it is only human for a former technical orphan, encountering the traits of orphan children’s stories, to reflect on their relation to his life, which has not been one long adventure, large, wild and daring. I am not a lost prince. There is little mystery associated with my childhood and my origins. I know exactly who my mother was. And I know she is dead because I saw the white lips on her corpse. Still, I could imagine such a reader replying, with due tact, that these stories are not really for orphan readers and that their deepest subject is not orphanhood. They explore, through the device of absent parents, a world of possibility, the dream of every child to go it alone, abetted by the inability of every child to think through the real-world implications. Doubtless, some have a darker side too. Even if it remains beneath the surface, orphan stories tap into universal fears of loss and vulnerability, what it might mean to have everything taken away from you and to meet yourself on the other side. “The orphan condition is not essentially the objective state of growing up without one’s real parents,” write Baruch Hochman and Ilja Wachs, in an academic study on orphans in Dickens. “Loss is a primary condition of human life; orphanhood is the ultimate reach of our ineluctable sense of loss.” Orphans: it’s not about you, it’s about everyone.
But the deeper reaction I had to Rundell’s words applies exactly there. It had less to do with any dissonance between the content of these stories and my life, to the accuracies or inaccuracies of orphanhood as freedom or even as universal loss. When I read that “orphans are free to run wild and live large and daring lives,” I felt certain—as certain as one can feel, without knowing—that Rundell would be amazed if someone told her that a real (former) orphan was reading her words, and that he was judging her. Moore, who notes that there are real orphans out there and asks whether “this problem [is] even mine to write about,” leaves me with a similar unease. It is the unease of being glossed over a little too smoothly. I—we, as I newly began to imagine—were being spoken over for the benefit of others, whether merely for entertainment or for therapeutic, non-orphan self-exploration. We just aren’t the kind of people who usually say anything at all, at least not as orphans. “You wouldn’t dare write that,” I thought, reading Rundell, “about another…” But about another what, exactly? And, for what it’s worth, the best I could come up with was: about another social identity. What I felt was the desire to speak for us as us.
A recent study of American orphans claims that one in one thousand children are double orphans; it concludes that single and double orphans typically have worse educational and health outcomes. In her analysis of fifty orphan folktales from around the world, Melanie Kimball writes that “orphans are clearly marked as being different from the rest of society. They are the eternal Other.” It is hardly surprising, then, that I have come to think of orphanhood through the lens of social identity. Hasn’t identity become one way, one of our principal ways, of exploring otherness and putative disadvantage? And so I find myself wondering, on reading Rundell’s lines, what an equivalent piece would look like that lightheartedly examined the best children’s stories featuring a “gutsy” wheelchair user or the “walking possibilities” of the racially (as opposed to “eternally”) other. These comparisons, whatever their objective aptness, have had something to offer me. Perhaps they will offer you, non-orphan reader, another way to understand me, to identify with me, if you have had identities to manage, hear stories about, chafe against, deny or reveal.
It isn’t a perfect fit. A social identity, claims the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, requires, among other things, a label—he gives this the generic letter “L”—and a way to apply the label. He also says that the tendency to think of yourself as this kind of person, as falling within this category, should make a difference to how you behave. Now it’s clear from Appiah’s examples that he is thinking of identities that are either visible or publicly accessible and widely known. For this to apply, it needn’t be that every member of the group is readily identifiable as such (which is rarely, if ever, the case), but only that plenty of them are. One example of changed behavior is that you “respond with pride as an L when an L triumphs” or that you might be found “restraining your public conduct by the thought that misbehavior will reflect badly on Ls.” In folktales, orphans may be “clearly marked as being different.” In real life, we are not marked out, which is one reason why I have never taken pride in the achievements of another orphan, or worried that my actions will confirm the most harmful or irritating orphan stereotypes.
We lack something else too—a sense of what we might share, a ritual, a gathering place, or just some structured, plausible account of what it is like, not just for me, but for us. And without some of those things, it would seem absurd to claim an affinity with Aristotle, Bach, Wordsworth, Keats, Tolstoy, Bertrand Russell or Marilyn Monroe. If orphanhood is a social identity, it has failed, for me, to meet Appiah’s criterion, where thinking of yourself as this kind of person changes the way you behave—at least, it has failed for me until now.
Early on in my year as a technical orphan, a friend asked me a favor. One of his friends—I’ll call her “Megan”—had lost her father and her mother was dying. Would I talk to her? I didn’t think I had much to say, but yes, of course, if she wanted to. Another of Appiah’s examples of changed behavior includes “offering a helping hand to another L, perhaps, who is otherwise a stranger.” I hoped I might be able to offer something to Megan. But I was also thinking of myself, and what help I might require. I had never met another technical orphan.
What did I want from a fellow orphan? Not instant friendship, or closeness. Rather, it was something like navigational assistance in a world that simply did not expect me to be what I was. Long before I realized that superheroes were orphans, there was one way in which I identified with them, which had nothing to do with freedom or adventure. Superheroes have something to tell, a secret that changes how people think of them. If you don’t tell, you aren’t being truthful—not just about one isolated fact, but about how you think of yourself as a whole. As an older child and a young adult, parents were the subject of incessant small talk. I could tell you so much about my friends’ mothers and fathers, even those I never met. How could I enter such conversations honestly without annihilating them? At times, I thought of telling the truth, for lack of a better phrase, as a form of “coming out”—another borrowing from the language of identity. At other times, it seemed like a superpower.
Of course, it was not the kind of superpower that the mature superhero has under their control. It was the clumsy kind that the young hero doesn’t yet know how to use—and reactions to the telling were outsize and unpredictable. Some teachers took extraordinary pains to help me out; others seemed, if anything, to be harsher. It opened doors. Kids who had seemed hostile suddenly asked how I was, sought reconciliation, invited me to exclusive parties. Only: not all of them, not all at once and not whenever I chose. When I got to those parties, I didn’t know if the person I told would try to kiss me or announce to the room that I was “so fucking depressing.” A neighboring boy offered to buy me a night with a prostitute. Once, dejected, I stuttered something to a girl I half-knew about what was happening at home. Averting her gaze, and remaining completely silent, she took my hand, led me back to where my friends were and then walked away. It was, at once, tender and utterly humiliating. I have avoided her ever since. My ex-girlfriend told me I was being melodramatic about the whole thing—that is, about the then-imminent death of my one remaining parent, while I was still a child. But we were all children. And she was right, at least in the sense that I was trying, and failing, to use my new superpower to stay in her life.
The worst reaction was avoidance, even revulsion. Jack, in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, receives the most succinct reply when it emerges that he has lost his parents: “Both?… That seems like carelessness.” Wilde aside, a surprisingly common response was to joke that I must have killed them. It speaks to something icky or unnerving about us. Orphan and The Orphanage are both horror films. You can pay to go ghost-hunting at a former orphanage in Liverpool. At the start of his book, part history, part collection of orphan testimonies, Jeremy Seabrook says of the orphan at his school that “he was to be avoided for fear of contagion.” I realize that I have often worked hard to preempt this, to make myself more hygienic. An acquaintance alluded to hearing about my dead parents from a mutual friend—“but she told me it wasn’t a big deal,” he said. I was proud of that one. Superhero identities are dangerous to reveal, but they are not miasmic, creepy or unbearable.
The conversation with Megan never materialized, and I sometimes wondered what would have happened if it had, or if I had met someone else who had had a similar experience. For the simple truth is that I have never, to my knowledge, outside of novels and films, met another technical orphan. But I did meet Megan, by chance, nearly a decade later. Her mother had been gravely ill, but she had survived. She died soon after that first meeting. “I’m like you now,” said Megan, when we saw each other the next time. “Not even technically an orphan,” I thought to myself. (Orphans are not moral saints.)
We were sitting on a park bench, mid-conversation, when a stranger sat down next to us. I decided to continue as if he wasn’t there. Perhaps because, in my imagination, we had almost been fellow travelers, an emotional missed connection, I told her something I had never told anyone else: the image I’ve had in my mind since my father died. In a children’s book, I had pictures of a space shuttle flying into space. It launched with the aid of two vast rocket boosters, external but attached, which fell off back to earth after a couple of minutes, leaving the shuttle and a large external fuel tank (the orange one, if you remember). When the external tank emptied, it, too, was jettisoned, leaving just the tiny shuttle. Timed perfectly, the shuttle would then propel itself into the earth’s orbit to continue its important work. I was, it had always seemed to me—and so I told Megan, and the stranger, if he cared to listen—like a shuttle released from its boosters and tank. Only something had gone wrong with the timing. In other words, I was off course, released too early, unable to connect with the planned path. The stranger got up from the bench, thanked us (without saying what for) and left. Megan left shortly after. I never saw her again.
Eileen Simpson begins her orphan narrative by saying that she did not look or feel like an orphan and that she had wrongly thought that her orphanhood “had ended … when the law said it did.” I felt, in her very denial, a spark of recognition, even though she was much more of a real orphan than I was (younger; orphanage). Maybe more than a few of us have that denial in common, but I’d never have guessed. How many, like me, would find themselves comforted, however awkwardly, by the image of Tolstoy, aged eighty, still imagining his mother taking him into her arms? I can’t say that a stronger, more supple identity would have ever arisen or that, if it had, it would have stood me in better stead—only that I notice its absence, especially set against the overwhelming plenitude of orphan fictions that have flourished in the void. I like the idea that, in writing this piece, I offer another and a different account—one that lingers not so much on the details of my orphanhood, but on its shape, set against the shape of the culture that surrounded it. I could have done with an account like that. I had imagined sending this essay out like an invitation, prepared for misfires and corrections, and for the malaise that follows, inevitably, from the relief of intimacy disclosed. Are we, orphans, a meaningful we? It might be that, handed the microphone, we wouldn’t have much to say. All I knew was that I wanted to ask. That is where I thought I would end.
But there is something to add—less comfortable, more ambivalent, without which it would not be honest. Hegel thought that family was a limited freedom because no family, however perfect, survives a lifetime. In orphan stories, family usually prevails; in reality, it dissolves. To the adult, the nuclear family of origin “recedes in importance,” becoming merely an “original basis and point of departure.” Often enough, you start a family of your own.
I was not prepared for the new dimension of loss that opened up when my child was born. New parenthood introduces a humiliating dependence, which reconfigures many of our relationships to family and friends. For a while, all that matters is who can help and who cannot. In that spirit, a fellow parent likened my parents’ situation to hers, when it came to their grandchildren. Her parents live abroad. A free house has become a lack of free childcare. I hadn’t needed parents for a while. My thoughts were thrown, flailing, toward them, and what they might have offered. Parenthood, for me, was a second grief.
Even as the acute demands receded, plenty was left. Watching friends who are parents with their parents—where those relationships were halfway harmonious—it seems as though the arrival of the next generation raises everyone’s understanding of themselves and each other by a power. Holding the baby, the parent can say to the grandparent: “I was this, once, and you were me, then, doing this, looking at me this way, and now we all know what we were and what we are, and things can never be the same.” This tableau sounds idyllic, and it is hardly universal. But I believe I have seen the dynamic at work. When my parents’ eyes fell on me, they knew my mother would not see me grown. I was this, but already they were not me, their paths diverging toward catastrophe. A part of that catastrophe, I now see, is that we could never know what we were and are. My son has developed the habit—part affection, part attention, part distraction—of asking his parents to hug him together, one on each side. I stand in this brief, jovial embrace, reminding myself, patiently, that this is my nuclear family now, and that, from the outside, nothing is noticeably missing. We are just two parents with their child. And one orphan.
Back when I was writing my Ph.D. dissertation, I dwelled on a passage in Nietzsche in which (as I read him then) he tracks a progression toward freedom. It begins with doing what you are told—Nietzsche uses the image of a camel. It ends with something truly innocent and free—a child. In between, neither free nor unfree, the spirit becomes a lion, roaring “no!” This “no!” is the creation of a space for freedom, for whatever happens next. The passage came back to me as I began watching The Queen’s Gambit. When I saw the mother-killing car crash; when I saw the sullen girl in the loveless orphanage halls—the very same halls I never walked through, except when playing Oliver in my childhood imagination—something began to rise up in me. It was the dragon, anger, spreading its wings. It was the lion, roaring “no!” I switched it off. I didn’t want orphan consultants, advising Netflix’s next orphan show using their lived experience. I didn’t want someone to commission a series of short films, told by real orphans, featuring orphan actors. I just didn’t want to be your story anymore. I still don’t. Perhaps there is a breath of this in much talk of identity. The desire at once to be seen and to be left alone.
In a sense, this is a story of acceptance, of taking on a label I once rejected. Trying it on for size. A baby step toward the freedom afforded by that “no!” I resolved that the next time I found myself asked about my parents I would test the waters. When it came, it was, as so often now, a question from a fellow parent, prompted by the sight of my child and his exhausted father. Do your parents help? “I was orphaned,” I said. I half-expected to be asked how old I was, and then—because I was seventeen—to be told I wasn’t a real orphan. I had my arguments at the ready. It didn’t quite go like that. “Fascinating,” came the reply.
Art credits: Casey Gray. Hugs & Kisses & Argyle Sock; aerosol acrylic, enamel, molding paste, glitter, fluid acrylic on panel; 40 × 32 in.; 2016. Work/Life Balance; aerosol acrylic, enamel, molding paste, glitter, fluid acrylic on panel; 31 × 28 in.; 2017. Inner Piece of Cake; aerosol acrylic, molding paste, glitter, fluid acrylic on panel; 31 × 28 in.; 2019. All images courtesy of the artist.