When I Was Five I Killed Myself: A Novel

When I Was Five I Killed Myself: A Novel

by Howard Buten


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Burton Rembrandt has the sort of perspective on life that is almost impossible for adults to understand: that of an eight-year-old.

And to Burt, his parents and teachers seem to be speaking a language he cannot understand. This is Burt’s story as written in pencil on the walls of the Quiet Room in the Children’s Trust Residence Center, where he lands after expressing his ardent feelings for a classmate. It begins: When I was five I killed myself. Rarely has a child’s particular frame of mind been so indelibly set down on the page as in this extraordinary novel. In When I was five I killed myself, Howard Buten renders with astounding insight and wry language the tale of a young boy testing the boundaries of love and life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781468308877
Publisher: The Overlook Press
Publication date: 07/01/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.40(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About 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.

Read an Excerpt


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.


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."

"Who —"


"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.


The first time I saw Jessica Renton was during the Air Raid Drill. It was near the end of last semester, in Spring. It was warm outside when we went to the main part of school from the portable. The portable is a little house like, behind school, where the second grade is. I was in the second grade then.

(The portable smells an odor, I don't enjoy it as an aroma. The portable is very little for a building. There are only two rooms in it. I was in one. Jessica was in the other one. I never noticed her until the Air Raid Drill.)

Air Raid Drill is ten short bells. It is very scary for children. There are rules. You have to line up in two lines. You have to pull down the shades so the Russians won't know we're there and kill us. Then you have to pass quietly to the main part of school. Then you have to line up next to the lockers in the hall and sit down on the floor and turn off all the lights and sing "God Bless America." It is very frightening.

Both the second-grade classes were in line outside the portable waiting to go in the main part. There wasn't any talking. (That is another rule.) Everyone was scared because maybe there was going to be bombs. I was scared only nobody knew. I am a good actor, I feel.

Then somebody talked.

"I'm going home now, Miss Young."

It was a girl. She had brown hair, no braids (barrettes, though). She stood just, with her hands behind her back like she was ice skating.

"I just thought I'd tell you," she said. "Because I'm going home now."

Miss Young said, "Jessica, please get back in line now, there's no talking during an Air Raid Drill."

"No," said Jessica. "I'm going home," and she started to walk away. Miss Young was very cross. She yelled, "Jessica, come back here this instant!" Jessica stopped and turned around. She came back and walked up to Miss Young and said something very quiet. "Miss Young, if there are going to be bombs I want to be home with my family. That's where I'm going."

Miss Young stood just. She didn't say any words. Jessica looked up at her. She had a red dress on which was soft, you could tell by looking at it. (I am good at looking. I feel Jessica's dress was quite soft.)

Miss Young looked at Jessica.

"This isn't an Air Raid," she said. "This is only a drill, a practice. There aren't going to be any bombs. It will be over in a few minutes, so there's no need to go home. Please get back in line."

Jessica didn't move even at all. I thought she was going to cry or something but she didn't. She talked without moving.

"Miss Young, you know I was very frightened because I thought it was dangerous. My dad is going to build a shelter in our cellar. He saw it in a magazine. I thought this was a real Air Raid. I don't think it's fair to scare children."

Miss Young didn't say a reply, but Jessica stood in front of her for a long time, and when the bells rang for the end of Air Raid Drill she was still standing there. I watched her. She stood until everyone was gone. She was all by herself. Then real slow she picked up the end of her dress, held it in her hands and twirled around and bowed.

This was the first time I ever saw Jessica Renton.


that day I took Marlowe home from school. Usually I walk down Lauder, the street I live on, but that day I walked down Marlowe.

I waited by myself on the corner. (Usually I walk home with Shrubs but he had to stay after school for saying shit to Miss Filmer. Shrubs' real name is Kenny. He is bad in school, all the teachers hate him. But he is my best friend. I have known him since I was born. He is exactly one week older than me. Exactly. We are blood brothers. When we were five we pricked our fingers with a pin and held them together. Except I didn't because I am scared of pins. So I slammed my thumb in a drawer to get blood. I had a cast for six weeks.)

I started to walk down Lauder first, but there were the safety boys on the corner who are mean. They are grease. They pick on little children. Which I am one. I had my picture in my hand from school (we had coloring in Homeroom because we ran out of things to do) and I waited on the corner for the safety to say, "Let's go." Safeties stand with their arms out like this and say "Hold it" when there are cars coming and then they say "Let's go" when it is safe. This is why they are called safeties.

While I was waiting the safety saw my picture.

"What is that, a frog?"

"No," I said. "It's a horse, I drew it."

He looked at me, he was very large.

"What are you, stupid or something?" he said.


Excerpted from "When I Was Five I Killed Myself"
by .
Copyright © 2000 Howard Buten.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Buten uses his wit like a whip to get at the heart of this boy's own story, and in the end the novel succeeds, bringing some shock and some power to that delicate line between youth and the rest of the world.” —Austin Chronicle
“This book poignantly captures the profound gap that exists between children and adults, the constant struggle for even the brightest, most willing children to make sense of the swirl of words, actions, and rules that constrain their lives.” —Detroit Free Press

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When I Was Five I Killed Myself 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
wispywillow on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Amazing.I was putting away books at the university library where I work when I came across this book. The title grabbed my attention immediately, so, out of curiosity, I tucked it away to read when I had free time.It's something like a cross between Girl, Interrupted, The Catcher in the Rye, and Sesame Street, oddly enough. That's the only way I can describe it.
posthumose on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Written in English by France's noted autistic specialist, it has been read by millions in France alone. This psychologist has written 5 books on his subject. This is his only fiction.This is more than a good novel. The main character is a troubled boy narrating and navigating his way through a difficult time in his life; and the understanding and help, or lack of it, from those he encounters along the way. It is one of a kind.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I dont get it
Loaf_of_Dead More than 1 year ago
I have read this book probably 10 times. You're sucked into Burt's world without any hope of getting out. It's hard to discern if he is truly disturbed or if his parents just can't seem to care enough. The writing, from the viewpoint of an 8 year old, is exquisite, intelligent and never takes you out of the setting. It's imaginative and tragic. Everytime I read it I get a new feeling of the events and of the characters. It's a rare, but great, find.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After I read 'When I was Five...' I felt utterly sad for two days. It left a really powerful impression on me. It haunts you like regret. The story delves into issues that are not typical for an 8 year old narrator abandonment, sexual frustration, lonliness, love. It is heart breaking because of the story teller's (Burt) horrible hand in life. Detached parents and teachers, strange tangents of make believe (in solitude) and an inability to comunicate. He is punishable under the laws of a parent world that he does not understand. For example, the story reaches a point where Burts infatuation with his classmate Jessica culminates in a naively orchestrated 'sex-act'. It is in fact initiated by Jessica. But upon being discovered by Jessica's Mother, it is Burt who is accused as the aggressor. It brings to mind the song 'Boy's Dont Cry'. The characters demise in a prison of Institutional psychiatry is a result of a language barrier and social pigeon-holing. You feal stuck, too young and helpless along with Burt.. and it hurts just like your own childhood. It is a modern masterpiece
Guest More than 1 year ago
'Getting in touch with your inner child' has been given entirely new voice. 'When I Was Five I Killed Myself', a re-release of an amazing story by Howard Buten, has just found new life on this side of the ocean. Originally published as 'Burt' here in the States in 1981, this original and fresh young adult book didn't find immediate success. Buten then had it published in France, where it (and he) became known as 'one of France's best-loved contemporary writers', even though the author and the story are both American. Go figure. 'When I Was Five...' is the wholly original story of Burton Rembrandt, a precocious and misunderstood young man, trying to grow up around adults who seem to have landed here from another planet. None of their words or actions make much sense to Burton...or Burt...but, neither does he to those who must try to understand and deal with his unique way of seeing the world around him. When an event transpires totally out of Burt's control, and the resulting backlash lands him in The Children's Trust Residence Center, Burt finds himself in a dangerous and completely alien new world. Now, nothing at all makes sense to him...and he reacts in the only way his young mind knows...by throwing tantrums, aching to voice not only his confusion at the treatment he's recieving, but also at his frustration with not being able to communicate this to adults. Told completely from Burt's point of view, this story is one of the most intelligent and lyrical stories ever written. Given the hazy mysticism of youth and told in a voice that is at once immature and completely adult, this goes down as one of the most influential books I have ever read in this genre. It's message and story literally took my breath away at times...and its importance lingers long after I've read the last word.