When I Was Five I Killed Myself

When I Was Five I Killed Myself

4.8 4
by Howard Buten

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Burton Rembrandt has the sort of perspective on life that is impossible for most adults to even begin to comprehend: the perspective of an 8-year-old boy. And to Burt, his parents and teachers seem to be speaking a language he cannot understand. When Burt meets Jessica, a classmate, he finds solace from the problems of growing up, of dealing with parents and teachers…  See more details below


Burton Rembrandt has the sort of perspective on life that is impossible for most adults to even begin to comprehend: the perspective of an 8-year-old boy. And to Burt, his parents and teachers seem to be speaking a language he cannot understand. When Burt meets Jessica, a classmate, he finds solace from the problems of growing up, of dealing with parents and teachers and adults in general. But when he expresses the ardent love he feels for Jessica--an adult love dwelling in his child's mind--he is placed in an institution with autistic, mentally retarded, sociopathic, and generally "disturbed" children. This is Burt's story as written in pencil on the walls of the Quiet Room in The Children's Trust Residence Center. It begins: When I was five I killed myself.

First published in the U.S. as a Young Adult novel by Holt in 1981, Buten's bittersweet portrayal of childhood received wide acclaim but never crossed the line that separates adolescent and adult fiction. In France it has come to be considered a modern classic for children and adults alike. Not since John Irving's Owen Meany has a little boy's particular frame of mind been so indelibly set down on the page, and with this new edition of When I Was Five I Killed Myself, Buten's classic novel is certain to touch readers of all ages.

"Novelist Howard Buten is one of France's best-loved contemporary writers. . . .When I Was Five I Killed Myself has sold more than a million copies in France."--Time

Howard Buten has had seven novels published in France, the first of which, When I Was Five I Killed Myself, has become a modern classic in translation. As a performing artist he has played opera houses around the world as the theatrical clown Buffo. As a clinical psychologist he is the founding clinical director of the Centre Adam Shelton, a national institution for the treatment of autism in young adults, in Paris. In 1991, Howard Buten was named a Chevalier des Artes et Lettres, France's highest literary honor.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A kind of "Boy, Interrupted" starring a misunderstood eight-year-old, Buten's first novel, written in the late '70s, has likewise been misunderstood stateside. Burton Rembrandt is placed in the Children's Trust Residence Center, an institution for disturbed, psychopathic or autistic children, following an inappropriate amorous encounter with female classmate Jessica. Told in Burt's precocious voice, the story is supposedly written by the boy in pencil on the walls of the Quiet Room. It is a compelling study of the tragedy that can result when literal-minded children and literal-minded adults fail to understand each other. The adults (parents and psychiatrists alike) take little responsibility for the misinformation they spout while they narrowly interpret as sociopathology Burt's innocent comments, normal for any child, about his "hate" or his desire to "kill" something. Wrongly incarcerated with autistic and truly sociopathic children, it is not until Burt encounters a sympathetic psychiatric resident that hope begins to grow, both in Burt and the reader, that the boy will finally be seen for what he is: a child who has a right to an ordinary life. A similar case of mistaken identity has also dogged Buten's novel for 19 years: in 1981 a small, now out-of-print edition of this book was published in the U.S. under the title Burt and was mistakenly billed as a young adult title, receiving little attention. The French translation sold more than a million copies, however, and it has twice been adapted as a film and produced as a play there. Subsequently, Buten published six other novels in France. This psychologically intense tale moves quickly, and the difficult task of creating a child's voice with authenticity and depth proves Buten a gifted stylist and storyteller. The re-publication, after nearly two decades, of this imaginative and provocative book should earn the author the acclaim he deserves on this side of the Atlantic. Agent, the Young Agency. (June) FYI: A clinical psychiatrist, Buten is the founding clinical director of the Adam Shelton Center for the treatment of autism. In the guise of a clown, Buffo, he also performs for autistic children. In 1991, Buten was named a Chevalier des Artes et Lettres, France's highest literary honor. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Published in 1981 as Burt, this novel, told from the point of view of a child, received praise for actually sounding as such. Unfortuntately, it was unfairly marketed as a young adult title, so librarians who passed on it for their adult collections should reconsider this time around. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
From the Publisher
Publishers Weekly (starred review) This psychologically intense tale moves quickly, and the difficult task of creating a child's voice with authenticity and depth proves Buten a gifted stylist and storyteller.

The New York Times Book Review Certainly Buten offers some insight into a troubled child's mind.

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Product Details

Canongate Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.12(w) x 7.83(h) x 0.47(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

When I was five I killed myself.

    I was waiting for Popeye who comes after the News. He has large wrists for a person and he is strong to the finish. But the News wouldn't end.

    My dad was watching it. I had my hands over my ears because I am afraid of the News. I don't enjoy it as television. It has Russians on who will bury us. It has the President of the United States who is bald. It has highlights from this year's fabulous Autorama where I have been once, it was quite enjoyable as an activity.

    A man came on the News. He had something in his hand, a doll, and he held it up. (You could see it wasn't real because of the sewing.) I took my hands off.

    "This was a little girl's favorite toy," the man said. "And tonight, because of a senseless accident, she is dead."

    I ran up to my room.

    I jumped on my bed.

    I stuffed my face into my pillow and pushed it harder and harder until I couldn't hear anything anymore. I held my breath.

    Then my dad came in and took my pillow away and put his hand on me and said my name. I was crying. He bent over and put his hands under me and lifted me up. He did this to the back of my hair and I put my head on him. He is very strong.

    He whispered, "It's ok, Son, don't cry."

    "I'm not," I said. "I'm a big boy."

    But I was crying. Then Dad told me that every day somebody gets dead and nobody knows why. It's just the rules. Then he went downstairs.

    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.

Chapter Two

I am at The Children's Trust Residence Center.

    I am here for what I did to Jessica. My nose is still bleeding but it doesn't hurt, but my face is black and blue on my cheek. It hurts. I am ashamed.

    When I got here the first person I met was Mrs Cochrane. She came to meet me at the desk where I was with my mom and dad. Everybody shook hands but me. I had my hands in my pockets. They were fists. Mrs Cochrane took me away. She is ugly. I could ralph looking at her and she wears slacks even though she is old. She talks very quiet to me like I am sleeping. I'm not sleeping.

    She took me to my wing. It has six beds in it. No curtains, no rugs. No dressers. No television. The windows have bars on them like jail. I am in jail for what I did to Jessica.

    Then I went to see Dr Nevele.

    His office is that way, go down this hall and go through the big doors and then go this way and then that's where. He has hair up his nose, it looks like SOS pads. He told me to sit down. I did. I looked out the window which doesn't have bars and Dr Nevele asked me what I was looking at. I said birds. But I was looking for my dad to take me home.

    There was a picture on Dr Nevele's desk of children and there was a picture of Jesus Christ which is phony I feel because they didn't have cameras then. He was on the cross and somebody hung a sign over him. It said INFO. That means you can ask him directions.

    Dr Nevele sat down behind his desk. He said, "Now why doesn't Burt tell me something about himself, such as his most favorite things to do."

    I folded my hands in my lap. Like a little gentleman. I didn't say anything.

    "Come on, Burt. What are your very favorite things to do, say with some of your friends."

    I sat. I didn't say any answer. He looked at me with his eyes, and I looked out the window for my dad only I couldn't see him. Dr Nevele asked me again and then again and then he stopped asking. He waited for me to talk. He waited and waited. But I wouldn't talk. He stood up and walked around the room and then he looked out the window too, so I stopped looking out it.

    I said, "It's night."

    Dr Nevele looked at me. "No it isn't, Burton. It's day outside. It's the middle of the afternoon."

    "It's night," I said. "When Blacky comes."

    Dr Nevele looked at me. "Is the night named Blacky?" he said.

    (Outside the window a car parked and another car went away. My brother Jeffrey can name you any car, any car, man. He is an expert at cars. But when we ride in the back seat of our car we get yelled at due to horseplay.)

    "At night Blacky comes to my house," I said, but I didn't say it to Dr Nevele. I said it to Jessica. "When I am tucked in tight. He stands outside my window and waits. He knows when. He is silence. He doesn't say any noise, not like other horses. But I know he is there because I can hear him. He sounds like the wind. But he's not. He smells like oranges. Then I tie my sheets together and lower myself out the window. It is a hundred feet down. I live in a tower. It's the only tower on my block.

    "When I ride him his hooves make the sound like baseball cards in bicycle spokes and people think that that's what it is. But it isn't. It's me. And I ride Blacky out to where there's no more houses and no more people. Where there's no more school. To where they have the jail where they keep people who didn't do anything wrong, and we stop next to the wall. It is silence. I stand on Blacky, he is very slippery but I never slip. And I climb over the wall.

    "Inside are soldiers, they have white belts crisscrossed on them like safety boys only with beards. They are sweaty. They are sleeping. One of them is snoring, the fat one who is mean to children.

    "I sneak down to the jail part where the windows have bars on them and I whisper to the people inside, `Are you innocent?' They say yes. So I unlock the bars with my pointer finger and let them out.

    "Just as I am climbing back over the wall the fat one who doesn't like children wakes up and sees me, but it is too late. I just wave at him and jump. It is a hundred feet down. Everybody thinks I am dead. But I'm not. I have a cape on and I hold it out like this and the wind comes and it fills up the cape and I like fly. I land on Blacky and then we go and have cookies and milk. I dunk them."

    Dr Nevele stared at me. "That's very interesting," he said.

    "I wasn't talking to you."

    "Who were you talking to?"

    "You know who."


    (Outside a little boy like me played with a ball, he bounced it on the parking lot and laughed. His dad came and took him away from The Children's Trust Residence Center—home, where he played with trains that really go.)

    "Burt, I want us to be pals. Pals that tell each other things. Because I think I can help you figure out what your problems are, and then help you solve them. You're a sick little boy. The sooner you let me help you the sooner you'll get better and go home. Help me, ok?"

    I folded my hands up in my lap. It is correct for sitting. It is good citizenship. No talking, no gum. Dr Nevele stood in front of me and waited but I didn't say anything. I listened to the noise from out in the hall at The Children's Trust Residence Center, of children crying.

    "I have to go now," I said.


    "My dad is here."

    "Burt, your parents have gone."

    "No it's special, they came back to tell me something. They came back for me, Dr Nevele."

    "Please sit down."

    I was standing next to the door. I put my hand on the knob.

    "Please sit down, Burt."

    I watched him and I opened the door a little and he walked to me. I ran to the other side of his desk. He closed the door and stood in front of it.

    "Burt, were you talking to Jessica?"

    I didn't say anything.

    "Jessica is not here," he said.

    So I took the picture of Jesus Christ and threw it on the floor. I put the wastebasket on top of it and smashed it, then kicked it and ran to the corner by the window.

    "She's in the hospital. Her mother was very upset. Very. Maybe you'd like to tell me your side of the story."

    My throat started to hurt. It was killing me. I screamed "You shit ass" at him and made it hurt more, so I screamed it again and again. I screamed and screamed.

    Dr Nevele walked to behind his desk. He didn't say anything and sat down and started reading a piece of paper like there wasn't anybody there. Only there was. There was a little boy in the corner. It was me.

    "I have to call my dad," I said. "I just remembered I have to tell him something."

    Dr Nevele shook his head without looking at me.

    I walked over to his bookshelf. I leaned on it. It wobbled. I looked at Dr Nevele and said, "I wasn't talking to you," but he didn't look up. "I was talking to Jessica."

    "Jessica is not here."

    The books crashed down and went all over the room because I pushed the shelf over. The noise scared me. I ran to the door and opened it. Dr Nevele got up. I closed it.

    Now he is going to knock some sense into me, I thought. He is going to teach me a lesson I'll never forget. He is going to show me who's boss around here. He is going to give me a taste of my own medicine. He is going to do it for my own good and I will thank him someday. And it will hurt him more than it does me.

    But he didn't, he just looked at me. Then he said real quiet, "Do you want the seatbelt?"

    I looked at him. He looked at me. We looked at each other.


    I didn't know what it was. I watched him, he opened his drawer and took out a belt. He sat me down in the chair and put the belt around me and put the buckles in my hand. I have seen it before, like on airplanes, no holes. I pulled the belt around me. It was tight. I pulled it more. Dr Nevele watched. It was around my stomach and I pulled it and then I pulled it down over my peenie and pulled it tighter and tighter on my peenie until it hurt me so much I started to cry, and I pulled it tighter. On my peenie.

    "That's enough," said Dr Nevele. He came over and undid the belt and took it away. He picked up the telephone and dialed but it wasn't enough numbers. He said, "Send Mrs Cochrane down to my office." Then he walked over and crouched down in front of me and looked at my face.

    "Tell me one thing about her, Burt, just one thing and you can go back to your wing. When was the first time you saw her?"

    I looked at him for a long time. Then I said something.

    "There is a lawn in front of my house, and I am not allowed to walk on it because my dad pays a gardener good money, but sometimes I look at it from the driveway. Then clouds come. I stand on the driveway and I wait. Then the wind comes like it's going to rain. But it's not. The wind blows. It blows and blows and soon I can hardly stand.

    "So I start. I walk backwards ten steps and then I run down the driveway and jump. Then I run up the driveway and jump. Then I run down the driveway and jump and then the wind comes under me and lifts me up over the lawn and down the block over all the lawns that I am not allowed to walk on. I fly to Shrubs' house on the corner. The wind is always warm. In winter it is cold, but I can walk on the lawn then because there's snow."

    Dr Nevele was leaning on the door. He frowned.

    "Burton, the sooner you decide to help me, the sooner you'll be well enough to go home."

    "Shut up," I said.

    "What was that?"

    "I wasn't talking to you."



    "I've told you, Jessica is not—"

    I threw the chair at his face. He knocked it away, it ripped his sleeve and he ran up at me and grabbed me and squeezed me real hard but I yelled, "You're tickling me, you're tickling me."

    The door opened. It was Mrs Cochrane. She was calm.

    "Take Mr Rembrandt to the Quiet Room," said Dr Nevele, "until he regains control of himself. Do you want some help?"

    Mrs Cochrane went out and came back with a man in a blue shirt, he was an attendant at The Children's Trust Residence Center. Then Dr Nevele let go of me. I wiped my nose on my sleeve and Mrs Cochrane took my hand.

    "Mrs Cochrane, I can walk by myself you know," I said.

    She laughed like. "Well just hold my hand anyway," she said. I said ok.

    And now I am in the Quiet Room. There isn't any furniture in here except a chair. It is square in here. Four sides the same size. A square. It is geometry. I learned it in Homeroom at school. (At the Science Fair I saw a room with one wall, just. It was a circle.)

    I deduce that it is raining outside. It is raining bowwows and meows, like how Jeffrey said. (He is my brother, he can name you any car. Any, man.) I can tell it is raining because there is water running down my words where I am writing on the wall. Whoever made the Quiet Room made bad rooms. I deduce he was not ept.

    Raining. R A I N I N G. Raining.

    On the way here I found a pencil in the hall. Mrs Cochrane didn't see me pick it up. And after she put me in here I did something. I climbed on the chair next to the wall. And wrote something with my pencil.

When I was five I killed myself.

    I wrote it on the wall of the Quiet Room. I am writing now.

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Meet the Author

Howard Buten, the author of seven novels published in France, is a performing artist known as Buffo the clown, who has played opera houses around the world. In 1991, he was named a Chevalier des Artes et Lettres, France’s highest literary honor. He divides his time between New York and Paris.

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