| Arts & Culture
Rekindle Reading Stephen King’s ‘It’ As a Child Confused My Sense of Justice
Like Pennywise the Clown, I too was stealing childhood from those who had more of it than I did.
When my parents dumped the contents of my navy-blue backpack onto the carpet, I was just as surprised as they were to find a pile of key chains. Rylee’s rubber fox. Emma’s white plush cloud. Leah’s plastic Piglet. All of them unclipped from knapsack zippers and swiped from designated hallway cubbies. My mother, mortified. My father, curious. Their eight-year-old daughter: a thief.
What are these? My father asked, pointing to the key chains.
Key chains, I answered.
My mother sighed.
Why did you steal these?
I didn’t, I said, confident in my truth. I didn’t have any memory of stealing them. At eight, memory was truth. If I couldn’t remember something, it simply didn’t exist.
I remembered school earlier that same day—another day of turmoil in Mrs. Johns’s class. Grade-six boys pretending to stutter at me on the playground at recess. Girls in my own grade who complained to the teacher that my desk was a mess. An eighth-grade terror who told me she would murder my cat if I didn’t give her my Babybel cheese. I remembered hot tears. Thick shame. Real fear. And then—
—I was walking back down John Street toward our apartment building, my backpack jingling with each step.
The key chains weren’t worth much monetarily—probably bought from Giant Tiger checkouts and arcade claw machines and the dusty toy shelves at the convenience store—but for my classmates, they were sacred possessions. The clothes and bags and binders we brought to school silently conveyed what we liked, and what we liked was who we were.
Whatever sense of youth I had at age eight was overshadowed at home by my adult role as mediator and confidant for my parents. I knew the details of their arguments. How much they got paid and how much our rent cost. Who cheated on whom with whom. I learned to recognize the signs of an argument escalating into violence, acutely aware of when I should step in to serve as a human shield for my mother, regardless of whether she wanted me to.
I didn’t understand it then, but my childhood had been taken from me. Stealing my classmates’ key chains—symbols of their own childhood—was merely a reenactment of my trauma. Stealing what was stolen from me.
Except I genuinely couldn’t remember doing it.
I didn’t understand it then, but my childhood had been taken from me.
Standing over the stolen key chains, my father didn’t push me for a confession. He let his fury consume him when I spilled juice or left cups on nightstands or put toys in the wrong bins, but when the stakes were high, he looked at me as though he were looking at another adult—with a seriousness that made me feel both afraid and respected. He let me pick any book off his bookshelf so long as I could reach it, no matter the content. If I could read like an adult, I could handle the consequences of adult mistakes.
You should give them back, he said. Even though they probably deserved it.
Just like that, he let me choose what I would do. And I did what he would do: not the right thing, but the easy thing.
I took the key chains and hid them in my jewelry box. I unlocked my glitter-covered, multicolored kitten diary—complete with two sets of small keys—and I wrote out an inventory of each thing that I’d found in my backpack. Fox. Cloud. Piglet. Writing the items down immortalized them. If they were in my diary, I would always remember; if I remembered, they were real; if they were real, they could serve as a permanent reminder that I was bad. The record was a kind of self-punishment. Hidden from the world but visible to me.
My suffering at home was only bearable if I could justify it. I told myself that I deserved the pain because of some deep-seated deficiency in character—I was inherently bad, so bad things happened to me. I couldn’t let myself approach the possibility that, maybe, I didn’t deserve to be afraid at home all the time. That the adults were the real antagonists in the story of my life. Believing that would have dismantled my entire sense of justice.
One of the first books I chose from my father’s shelf was Stephen King’s It . I was eight—the same age I was when I first started stealing from my classmates. The book was above my reading level, but I remember learning as I went, squinting at the tiny text of the mass-market paperback and using my father’s dictionary to look up words I didn’t understand.
It spans two timelines: 1957–1958 and 1984–1985. In both periods, the town of Derry, Maine, is haunted by an alien being known as It (a shape-shifting entity that often takes the form of a clown named Pennywise), who feeds on children for an entire year between twenty-seven-year periods of hibernation. The book opens with the death of six-year-old Georgie Denbrough in 1957 and follows his older brother Bill and his misfit peers—the Losers’ Club—through the subsequent year of child killings and disappearances. Twenty-seven years later, the Losers’ Club are adults, and children begin to disappear again.
Reading a book that none of my other classmates got to read felt like a special challenge. Word by word, page by page, I convinced myself that I was enjoying the experience of reading about children dragged into storm drains and teenagers having their elbows eaten. In reality, the material was not only far above my reading level but it also exposed me to a brand of detailed literary violence that genuinely confused me. At such a young age, I didn’t understand a lot of what I was reading, but I felt the disgust in my body. A heaviness in my stomach. A tightness in my throat. Still, I read on.
Maybe I was trying to prove something to myself or to my father. Not only that I was an adult who could handle this kind of material—and the kind that could mediate my parents’ arguments—but that I was the kind of human being who liked reading about violence. A bad person. The same kind who deserved violence. As King himself writes in It , “We lie best when we lie to ourselves.”
I had a lot of conversations with my father about the book as I was reading it. He was born in the early 1970s, which meant that in the eighties, when the second half of It takes place, he would have been the same age as the eleven-year-old protagonists. My father explained to me that when he was my age, children frequently went missing. They go missing now, too, he explained; we just don’t hear about it as much.
According to Statistics Canada, between 1983 and 1992, the rate of child abductions increased by 65 percent (11.8 to 19.5 per 100,000 children under sixteen). Most missing children were runaways, and the majority of child abductions were parental abductions, with custody disagreements more common after divorce became mainstream in the late 1970s. Still, high-profile child-abduction and murder cases made bigger headlines than the average runaway or domestic dispute. We had kids on posters stapled to telephone poles, my father explained. Kids on milk cartons. Kids found facedown in forests and rivers and basements. In his time, there was a real fear that he or his friends could be next. Anyone in the neighborhood could.
That’s why we always know where you are, he explained. Why Mom and I don’t let you go wherever you want for however long you’d like. It’s to keep you safe.
From clowns? I asked.
From people, he said.
This never quite made sense to me. I had never been approached by a stranger offering candy at the park or attacked by a man waiting for me in an alley. I had only ever gotten hurt at home, protecting my mother from my father. I lived with the person I was most afraid of.
My friends at school had similar experiences. Parents who hit them or older siblings who pulled out their hair or grandparents who spat vitriol at them daily. Our home lives were in constant turbulence, but we just assumed that these were normal childhood experiences.
When I started telling my friends about what I read in It , we all began to have kidnapping daydreams. Leaving our families. Our homes. Our isolated small town. We weren’t simply unafraid of being kidnapped—we fantasized about the possibilities, comparing them with glee. I brought my diary to school and each of my friends wrote their dreams on a different-colored page. Stuffed into a hot-air balloon and flown across Lake Ontario. Snatched right off the monkey bars and locked in a claw machine filled with stuffed animals. A man named Zach cut off my feet. Two women who were twins in red jackets dressed me like their triplet and changed my name.
There is a point in It where Eddie—one of the child protagonists—discovers one of his childhood’s great truths: “Grownups are the real monsters.” Like Eddie, my friends and I knew who the monsters were. And we needed other monsters to rescue us from them.
As I worked through the mystery of missing children plaguing the town of Derry, I hid from the mystery plaguing my own life. I failed school tests that I didn’t remember taking. Got pulled aside at recess for tearing off another classmate’s hat, which I had no memory of doing. I kept stealing too. From family friends and cousins and godparents. Small ceramic Christmas figurines and knitted coasters and the ballerina from the turning center of a music box. I found all these items in my backpack with no memory of how they got there.
The guilt of the stealing made me perpetually ill. I hid all the objects in my room and itemized them in my journal, one after another. The reading that I normally did as an escape soon became a reminder of my crimes. I saw myself less and less in the children of Derry and more in their tormentor: Pennywise the Clown. I was a kind of adult among my child peers, reading and conversing at a level beyond our years. I too was stealing childhood from those who had more of it than I did. My father had said that my classmates probably deserved it , and on some level, I think that I believed him. I wondered if, perhaps, Pennywise felt the same way.
As I worked through the mystery of missing children plaguing the town of Derry, I hid from the mystery plaguing my own life.
Much to my relief, my kleptomania stopped when I became a teenager. My brain latched onto different, less risky coping mechanisms. There’s a clear social difference between a child who steals things and a teenager who does the same: children are innocent and redeemable, while teenagers are regarded as inherently mischievous and dangerous. The older I got, the more difficult it would have been to steal without getting caught. As King writes, “What can be done when you’re eleven can often never be done again.”
When I was a kid, I let the guilt of stealing warp my sense of self. I was irredeemable, regardless of why I did what I did. The guilt remains all these years later, but as I’ve gotten older, something else has formed alongside it: pity.
In 2017, a new film adaptation of It was released, a star-studded instant hit that brought a new readership to the horror classic. When the first trailer dropped—a snippet of the book’s opening scene with young Georgie and his paper boat—I suddenly remembered reading the book for the first time.
I was visiting my mom at the time, and I spent the week poring through boxes of my old school assignments and childhood toys. With each box I opened, I thought, This must be the one with the stolen objects , but it never was. I spent all seven days meticulously searching for even one item that I had stolen as a child, without a plan for what I would do with anything I found. Did I think I could just look up my old classmates on Facebook and message them one by one, offer up their long-forgotten key chains, and ask their forgiveness? Would that provide me with closure? Or, perhaps, was I trying to prove to myself that the stealing had ever really happened at all? My childhood memories were mostly blurry and incoherent. Regardless of what I was looking for—forgiveness or proof or closure—I kept seeking it.
What I did find was my old diary. Yellow and pink. Covered in glitter and cat stickers. A small lock fixed to its side. It didn’t take me too long to figure out that I didn’t even need the keys that went with it—a button on the back of the lock propelled the book open.
I flipped through daily entries on the multicolored pages. Short paragraphs in my typical child handwriting—half cursive, half print, slanting across the page like a Jenga tower about to fall— recounting hikes with my father or birthday parties I didn’t get invited to.
Then I found the first inventory of things I had stolen. Rylee’s rubber fox. Emma’s white plush cloud. Leah’s plastic Piglet. Below it was a sentence in completely different handwriting. Childlike, but in perfect print. Much neater than mine, each letter properly bordered by lines above and below.
Dear Diary thanksgiving is only 6 days away and my mom and dad at the party together I am afraid that they will fight I hope it’s okay.
I was only able to understand this diary entry years later, equipped with my diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder—a disorder characterized by several distinct personality states within one body, often separated by amnesia. To cope with the stressors of my home environment when I was young, my sense of self had split into parts. Ramona was one of them. I couldn’t remember stealing from my classmates because I was not myself in those moments—I was her.
A shared body means a shared responsibility for that body’s actions. As separate as Ramona and I are, we carry the burden of our theft together. We’ve yet to find closure, as I never did find the stolen key chains and I was never able to get in touch with my former classmates.
There is something uniquely terrifying about the seemingly perpetual waiting that occurs between having something taken from you and knowing whether you will ever get it back. It is a waiting wrapped up in both fantasizing and mourning. It’s a living, breathing fear that does not give its subjects rest. It’s the fear that plagues the town of Derry. When we read King’s work, we live with Georgie’s family in that place of unknowing, with the immense pain that accompanies the sliver of hope that maybe, just maybe, their son will return unharmed.
Though I’m in therapy for my dissociative disorder, there’s no guarantee that I will ever process enough of my childhood trauma to get my lost memories back, and it’s unlikely that I’ll get to a point in my therapy journey where I feel as though my childhood—stolen from me by those with more power—will return to me somehow. I still don’t know where the stolen key chains are, either, and I don’t know if I ever will.
But, within that limbo, I’m trying to heal. To find acceptance where there is no closure. To find solace in that not-knowing. In the decades between each revival of Pennywise’s curse, life in Derry goes on. People work and mourn and live, despite their past traumas and their fear of what’s to come. The healing journey is one of constant motion, carrying us deeper and deeper within ourselves. Like rainwater down a storm drain, carrying a paper boat.