Abandoned Toys

| December 2, 2011
lost rabbit

Chris Moffett, Central Park Zoo, NY, 2011

As an artist friend of mine pointed out in response to this photo:

On BBC crime shows, an abandoned children’s toy is always a metaphor for “something horrendous happened to a child.”

Which got me thinking. What is it about this? If it were simply a question of restraint or reserve—a discomfort in showing the horror itself—then why is it that in some sense we find this not-showing, this substitution of a lost toy for the event itself, primordially disturbing? It is as if it skips the violence or tragedy, and goes right for the loss, for the ungraspable, for the devastation that is The Unrecuperable. The event that will never be known. Is this not the horror of losing a child? Of losing one’s own childhood? Not violence but the unfathomable. Does the substitution of a toy mitigate this or confront us more directly?

At the very least, it occurred to me that the substitution is no mere accident, nor a peculiarity of British TV crime dramas. In fact we find it in the very childhood of the genre itself:

Children, of course, have a better sense of horror. Which is to say, they know something about losing toys, something that adults need children to mediate for us. Partly because they understand the ambivalence. Are not the best children’s stories the ones that explore this tension between horror and wonder?

It is not just a question of whether you have your toy or have lost it. Wonder/horror. Adults are always trying to return the doll that a child has discovered how to hurl away from themselves. Then, of course, they get exasperated when the child hurls it away yet again. As if we imagine the only pleasure were in grasping.

But children know that only when the toy is lost will it begin to have interesting adventures. That toys, in order to transport us, must be untethered…


So many toys made for children, particularly educational toys, smell of the simulation of childhood, of a simulacrum of wonder, stripped of their transport, of loss, of horrifying adventure, of difficult wonder. Is it any surprise that these toys try to escape, and like the rabbit in the photograph, prefer to play in the dirt?