In Defense of The Runaway Bunny

Last week I was inspired by Mallory Ortberg's adept and lovely interpretation of The Runaway Bunny to construct a defense of this oft-maligned children's book.  Ortberg's interpretation, part of The Toast's excellent creepy children's story series, was meant not as a commentary or criticism of the original but merely as an exercise in gorgeous perversion. Nonetheless, The Runaway Bunny is widely criticized. In fact, I never read The Runaway Bunny as a child and first encountered it as the butt of grown-up jokes about a children's book that attempted to sweeten up fanatical codependency with illustrated rabbits. 

In the book, the titular bunny tells his mother he dreams of running away, but she counters every fantasy of escape with one of capture.

"I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you."

"If you become a fish in a trout stream," said his mother, "I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you."

"If you become a fisherman,” said the little bunny, "I will become a rock on the mountain, high above you."

"If you become a rock on the mountain high above me," said his mother, "I will be a mountain climber, and I will climb to where you are."

He wants to be a flower in a garden, he wants to be in the circus.  On and on, to the ends of the earth, wherever this little bunny goes, his mother will follow. It seems he will never be free of her. At last, he gives up and decides he'll just stay home. His mother rewards his acquiescence with a carrot. Fin.

This mother bunny sounds like the sort of parent who would ride along in your limo at prom, camp out on the floor of your dorm room, who would just "accidentally" bump into you on your honeymoon. She sounds like a devouring succubus, like a Freudian case study. She sounds like a nut.

The first point to make here is that this is a baby rabbit. He's not at prom, he's not in college. He can't even tie his own little bunny shoes. He's young and young children love to run away. They do it because they're feeling angry, or brave, or neglected, or proud, or sometimes just because they can. After all, the physical ability to run at all is still pretty novel.

So they run away, stopping every dozen feet or so to make sure their parents are still back there watching them. This is not The Fugitive. Trust me, if that little bunny were to jump into the trout stream and his mother wasn't right there with the fishing pole, he would freak out.  Then he would drown.

Many children's games revolve around the thrill of being free, but it's only fun to be free if you know you'll be fed. That's why it's called Hide and Seek and not Hide and Perish. Even a toddler is smart enough to know they couldn't survive in the world alone and they don't really want to try. They want to be allowed to think about trying. The mother bunny never says, "Can you shut up about becoming a rock already?" She never even says, "You know, I hate to burst your bubble, but rabbits aren't strong swimmers." She lets him dream.

My four-year-old daughter loves to daydream about her adult life. She will be a single mother of four children; she will own and operate a 24-hour veterinary clinic; her hobbies will include scuba diving and amateur paleontology; she will serve herself at mealtimes ("serving yourself" is the kids' wildest, most transgressive dream). She also expects that she will do all this while still living at home with me (which, given economic trends, is not entirely unreasonable). She can more easily imagine herself hauling four children around the world searching for dinosaur bones than imagine not waking up every morning to the same four walls.

But she's four. The bunny is little. What happens when the bunny is all grown up and ready to leave home and his crazy mother is still cutting the crusts off his bread?

I was an anxious, fearful child. I was afraid of all the usual things kids are afraid of, plus a lot of bonus things that only I even considered being afraid of. I was like a child prodigy for terror. The world was full of teachers that could punish you and bridges that could collapse and ice cream truck drivers that were really kidnappers and Satanists in the public parks (remember, this was the eighties). But even when I was sick with anxiety (and quite literally so, as evidenced by eighteen years of psychosomatic digestive problems) I knew I could always go home. Home was like the base in tag – it was a neutral zone, a place no one could touch me. I know not every child has a home like that, of course, but I expect every child would like one. 

Have you ever seen a toddler try to use a playground swing? Now imagine that the swing is a trapeze and the toddler is a rabbit. Not a pretty scene, is it? That rabbit is going to want to go home at some point for a carrot break.

But someday that baby rabbit isn't going to be able to go home. He'll be away at college, or on study-abroad, or in hospice, or in jail. He may not be able to make it back to his mother, and his mother may not be able to tight-rope walk back to him. Someday my daughter may not be able to continue living in Los Angeles while pursuing her avid interest in deep-water diving. Someday she may not be able to afford to live in California after she's run her veterinary clinic into the ground going on expensive paleontological safaris. Someday this house will be gone. Someday I'll be dead.

But I'm not too worried about that. In fact I don't feel anxious anymore, even when I'm miles away from home and family. Compared to my childhood self, I'm practically a stunt woman. I blatantly drive on bridges! I boldly frequent parks! Day to day, I rarely feel afraid of anything. I grew up, moved away, and discovered that home was a thing I could carry with me.

In my favorite illustration from The Runaway Bunny the little bunny has turned himself into a sailboat that's floating out on the open ocean, and his mother is the wind that's blowing his sails. She's in the background, part of the landscape. She's wind, so he may not even see her, though he feels her everywhere. The moral of The Runaway Bunny is not that wherever the little bunny goes, his mother will follow him. It's that wherever he goes, she'll already be there.