When he was four years old, Chris had a piece of blue cloth he took everywhere with him, which he called Boo-Boo. Now 60, a retired teacher, husband and father of three adult children, he still remembers the feeling of safety he found when he gently rubbed the soft fabric against his face or between his fingers. “My Boo-Boo provided me with the comfort and security I craved. I wanted it with me, a bit like I wanted my mum with me all the time when I was little,” he says.
Shortly before Chris’s first day at school, his mother told him that he could not take his Boo-Boo with him and that he should throw it into their fire. “I can see it now, the lounge and the open fire, my mum telling me that I had to throw this Boo-Boo in. I couldn’t have it any more, I had to grow up. I can’t remember whether I cried or not, I can just feel the anguish. I had a sense of loss, an emptiness, without understanding.”
This piece of cloth had meaning and power and was always with him, whether he was in bed, walking around the house or playing with friends – “a bit like Linus”, he says. It was through Linus, the best friend of Charlie Brown and the younger brother of Lucy van Pelt in the comic strip Peanuts, that the cartoonist Charles M Schulz popularised the term “security blanket” – Linus was rarely seen without his.
From the Schulz Museum in California, the cartoonist’s widow, Jean, tells me that this idea came from her husband’s youngest child, Jill, who used to carry a blanket everywhere. “In fact, she would get out of her bed and sleep curled up on the floor with her blanket outside of the parents’ room,” she says. “So, that’s kind of sweet – talk about security.”
The exhibition Good Grief, Charlie Brown!, on display at Somerset House in London until 3 March 2019, shows that Schulz had a profound understanding of loss, childhood and the human condition. His depiction of the attachment Linus feels for his security blanket touched something in his readers – and in Guardian readers, too. When we asked readers about their favourite earliest possession, we received stories and photographs of teddies and blankets that had been literally loved to bits.
Catherine Jones, 45, from Hull, has Teddy, whom she was given in her first year of primary school. Ian Robertson, 50, from Whistable in Kent, clung to Panda “even after my brother chewed one of his eyes out and spat it from the family Vauxhall Viva as we were heading up the M6”; he now occupies the best chair in his house. Rachel, 45, from Farnham in Surrey, was given Dog after her grandmother died, so he reminds her of precious family ties.
The origins of Ann Bradley’s Teddy are lost in family lore – it was a gift from either her mother or her grandmother – but she has gone on to comfort the 58-year-old from Swindon, as well as her daughter and now her new granddaughter. Flora, who is originally from Scotland and lives in London, has had a collection of muslin cloths, or Bubbys, for 25 years. She does not sleep as well without them, so she cannot see herself “parting ways with my beloved Bubbys any time soon”.
Linus’s security blanket made its first appearance in Peanuts on 1 June 1954, three years after the paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote his seminal paper on these “transitional objects”, as he called them; he would later ask Schulz for permission to use Linus’s blanket as an illustration of his theory.
The transition in Winnicott’s “transitional object” refers to the shift every infant must make, as he wrote, “from a state of being merged with the mother to a state of being in relation to the mother as something outside and separate”. Angela Joyce, the chair of the Winnicott Trust and a fellow of the British Psychoanalytical Society, explains that, for Winnicott: “There isn’t much distinction, from the baby’s point of view, between the self and the other; it’s a very merged-in space.” But as the baby develops, as his or her body, memory and interests in the objects and people around them mature, “many choose something that becomes special and is used at times of separation”.
A transitional object tends to be chosen in the first six months of life and to have qualities reminiscent of the mother: it is soft; it can be stroked, cuddled and bitten; and, on a symbolic level, it links to maternal care. This helps to smooth the edges of the mother’s absence. As gaps between feeds grow, Joyce explains, “space opens up between baby and mother, occupied by this special object”. Possessions such as Chris’s Boo-Boo help an infant to navigate the experience of difference and separation from the mother, inside whom they spent the first nine months of their existence, so that (with apologies to the Spice Girls) one can become two.
Winnicott also described it as “the first ‘not me’ possession”, but often the boundary between the self and the other can seem porous – as it did for Mike Graham. Graham, 72, is a retired teacher, pub landlord, political adviser and stained-glass window-maker, who lives in Cumbria with his wife and Ted, “not a teddy bear as such, but a green panda”, he explains.
“I was born just after the war when things were tight,” he says. “Because my mother couldn’t afford a teddy bear, one of her nursing colleagues made Ted out of the only material she had – a kind of green hessian, with black felt eyepatches. At present, he looks very dishevelled.” He has been in Graham’s life for seven decades: “He was a very, very significant part of my childhood for a while and he’s part of me.”
Until Graham was about eight, he chatted to Ted every night in bed. “I can remember I really thought I talked to him. He’s a superb listener.” He would tell him significant things that had happened that day, as a way of sorting things out in his mind, before falling asleep hugging Ted.
Although Ted faded into the background of Graham’s life as he grew older, his significance has never waned and reasserts itself at times of distress. Graham was living in the West Indies with his first wife, a diplomat, when he found out she had had an affair. He swiftly left the country. “I was very upset. I packed a suitcase – it wasn’t even full – and I packed him. I didn’t get the rest of my belongings for months. But he was a part of me and it was important that I didn’t lose him,” he says. Ted still represents “stability and durability. Things may change, but he won’t – and that’s still a source of comfort when times are difficult.”
In Winnicott’s theory, these possessions are about more than comfort: they lead to play, which is fundamental to the development of a healthy mind. In what he calls “the intermediate space” that opens up between mother and baby, occupied and stretched by the transitional object, the child’s imagination and creativity grow. “It is good to remember always that playing itself is a therapy,” Winnicott wrote.
Saskia was happy and playful at home, growing up in a loving and supportive family, but school was difficult. She was highly academic, but struggled socially. In her 20s, she was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. Annie was not only a comfort, Saskia believes, but also helped her develop her artistic side. “I was a quirky, creative kid. I talked to Annie, played games with her, wrote stories,” she says. This kind of play, she thinks, teaches children “to see the world through the eyes of someone else. I always wonder if the toys and stories helped me with empathy, which is difficult for a lot of autistic people.”
While Saskia and Graham no longer cling to Annie and Ted as they used to, Anindita Roulet’s need for her Kaporji remains as strong as ever. Roulet, a 46-year-old English tutor, lives with her husband and her two teenage children outside Paris. She was born in London but moved to India to live with her grandparents in the east Indian city of Jamshedpur when she was one year old, because her parents were struggling to manage. She has no memories of it, but says: “I’ve seen some photos and I certainly look like I was having a whale of a time. It’s quite an idyllic life and a deeply affectionate family. I suspect I was spoilt rotten.”
So it continued: “After one piece disintegrated, another would replace it – always a piece of my granny’s sari and no one else’s,” she says. “My mum would stick pieces in the washing machine to get it softer and softer, so that when I needed a replacement it wasn’t too stiff.” Her memory of the year spent with her grandmother faded, but her attachment to her Kaporji did not. When a sari ran out, her grandmother would send more or they would be collected during visits back to India every few years. “I’m still sleeping with it. I know it’s ridiculous, at 46, but I can’t quite give it up,” she says.
“It’s very soft and I hold it in a fist in my right hand. My fingers sink into it and it feels really reassuring. Most nights, I will lose it for a moment as I loosen my grip in my sleep, but I always retrieve it and wake up with it in the morning,” says Roulet. Her husband thinks it is hysterical, but she has never let any man come between her and her Kaporji. “I very clearly explained I’m not clingy when it comes to the person sharing my bed, but definitely when it comes to my Kaporji. I don’t think I left any room for argument,” she says, laughing.
She did not remain as close with her grandmother, whom she saw only every few years and who has since died from dementia, but they always shared this bond, although they never spoke of it. “At the end, she was forgetting things, but every time I visited she would open her drawer and take out a sari. She never forgot that,” she says. “I’m very grateful for the fact that I have this connection, this thread – several threads – that run through our lives together.”
The meaning of these transitional objects can resonate in adulthood for others, too. Occasionally, Graham will talk to Ted, who now sits on a bookcase near his chair. “Now and again, something will happen of significance and I’ll sit him on my lap and say: ‘What do you think about that, Ted?’ Or it can be a silent chat. I don’t have to say any words. It sounds daft, but I’m not ashamed of it; I realise what a part of me he is,” he says.
For Saskia, it is the memories evoked by her doll that have significance. “My mum working so hard, and late, still thinking of me on her way home. Family holidays, stupid games with my brother. My nan, who had arthritis, knitting her a scarf and trying to sew her head back on,” she says. “The older you get, the more meaningful these objects become in a different way.”
“It was February and it was snowing and I had no towel. I stripped down to my underpants and went into the freezing sea; I swam out there and got it back, because it all came rushing back to me – I understood, I just knew where she was. Maybe I was reliving that loss, of throwing my Boo-Boo into the fire. Until this conversation, I’d never put the two together.”
The meaning of these objects lives on long after we have outgrown them – whether we realise it or not. What made Linus compelling, according to Schulz’s widow Jean, is that, through him, her husband was able to indicate that security is not just about a little child with a blanket. “There is one comic strip that I love,” she says – one that is on display in the London exhibition. “Linus is fighting with Snoopy for his blanket and when he finally gets it back, he says something like: “Security must be won over and over and over again.”
Some names have been changed