When I Grow Up by Moya Sarner review

What’s going to happen to the children, when there aren’t any more grownups?” sang Noël Coward, satirising the self-indulgent hedonism of the 1920s. But Coward’s ironic lyrics seem even more relevant today when the traditional values of adulthood, self-control, self-sufficiency and the willingness to take responsibility have become sources of angst rather than a desirable, if difficult, end. So what then, if anything, has been lost? In her book, journalist and analyst Moya Sarner attempts to find answers to this question.

The project arose out of her own experience of psychoanalysis, where four times a week, for a number of years, she discovered the remedial effects of being properly listened to. This, in turn, led her to train as a psychotherapist. She takes her skills as a journalist and what she has learned about listening to explore the vexed question of what becoming a mature adult personality might entail, and why achieving it has become such a trial and a puzzlement for so many today, herself included. The answer, inevitably, is many-faceted, as emerges from her accounts of the interviews she holds with a wide variety of people, which she intersperses with psychological commentary drawn from eclectic sources, alongside meditations on her own attitudes to adulthood that have been prompted and enlarged by these conversations.

Sarner is adept at drawing out her subjects and getting an authentic inside track on their emotional vicissitudes

The book’s title comes from one of the best-known songs from the show of one of the best-known children’s books (Matilda) and at one point, in search of an expert opinion on her topic, Sarner consults the children’s writer Jacqueline Wilson. Wilson’s candid view of adulthood is amusingly dismissive: “That’s when you start to pretend.” While Sarner disagrees with Wilson, she recognises that much inauthentic maturity consists of versions of impostor syndrome, what one interviewee describes as feeling “like a pretender in an adult’s body”. Another, a retired academic, speaks of working in an institution where it was “important to put up a front”, a persona concealing a more radical personality. Several interviewees describe quailing at the responsibilities that arrive with parenthood and yet, conversely, feel initiated by them into a new maturity.

And then there’s the desire to escape the erosive effect on the spirit of much of everyday life, which WH Auden rendered as “in headaches and in worry / Vaguely life leaks away” and Sarner refers to as “contents insurance”. It means that for some, like Wilson, adulthood is a qualitatively false goal. One interviewee complains of the common upbraiding call to “be realistic”. “There’s nothing realistic about the world we live in … And that’s why I don’t think I’m ever going to grow up.” This notion of purity in childhood vitiated by adulthood is the kernel of romanticism, epitomised in Wordsworth’s “shades of the prison-house begin to close / Upon the growing Boy” or Blake’s Songs of Innocence. The question then becomes: is what Freud called the reality principle, his benchmark of maturity, incompatible with retaining the vision and creativity of childhood?

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Sarner’s effort to tease out the many strands of this conundrum is a noble if not wholly successful enterprise. The most convincing parts come from the journalist in her. She has a way with people, which I imagine serves her well in her therapeutic work. She is adept at drawing out her subjects and getting an authentic inside track on their emotional vicissitudes. The theoretical interpolations are the least satisfactory aspects of the book. I confess to being alarmed when she writes of her own analysis: “For example, if I say something I think is positive, [my analyst] may tell me that she thinks in fact I feel the opposite, or that I am feeling envious of her, or that I am angry with her.” In my professional experience as an analyst, a Kleinian overemphasis on unconscious hatred and envy can cause harm. Sarner does bring many other psychological sources into play, but too often they appear as undigested gobbets of theory, lacking the vividness of her person-to-person encounters that she brings to life with telling details.

The nature and the desirability of adulthood is not a straightforward matter in an age in which it is quite possible to spin out childhood to the end of one’s days. Is this good for society? Is it good for the individual? These are non-trivial questions and the answer has to be, as in so many matters: it depends. I feel Sarner is right to believe that there is such a being as a mature adult with a well-preserved and nourishing inner child, rare as this ideal may be. But her book suggests that as a society we are bad at producing these – and that there are too many stranded unhappily in the outreaches of childhood, unable to find any new and sustaining ground.

• When I Grow Up: Conversations With Adults in Search of Adulthood by Moya Sarner is published by Scribe (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.