AJJ's "Small Red Boy": Childhood Trauma, Recovery and Healing
I was vaguely aware of the folk punk band AJJ (formerly known as Andrew Jackson Jihad) ever since I was thirteen or so. I had an acquaintance online who really enjoyed their music, but beyond listening to one of their songs, "American Tune", a satirical take on straight white men, I didn't quite pick them up until I was fifteen. But my life changed when I decided to look through their discography.
AJJ is one of my favorite bands. I am not one for folk punk, usually, the popular bands of the genre not really meshing with me; their white boys singing too off key for my taste. But AJJ's Sean Bonnette is just the right mix of off-key vocals and genuine talent in lyric writing that hits just all the right spots for me. The lyrics always come very close to home, with honest discussions of depression and general mental health in many songs, references to parental issues and suicide scattered throughout. But the song that I related enough to make it part of my Internet persona was out of their album The Bible 2, "Small Red Boy."
"Small Red Boy" is, by all means, a narrative song. It tells of a man who found the titular small red boy inside his tummy and started to take care of him, watching him grow up, raising him up so proud and motherly. He could see himself reflected in this small red boy as he grew up, turning into a red boy himself. The lyrics are a metaphor of taking care of your own child self, giving yourself the perfect, nurturing childhood you may not have had. As someone with a laundry list of issues scattered throughout my childhood, it's not hard to say that this song changed my life.
The first verse speaks of the first encounter with the small red boy, who has three dollars in change and a Milky Way Lite, a variation that was discontinued in the 90s, putting forward the fact that it is a younger version of Sean Bonnette. Afterward, he mentions the way he had a South of Heaven shirt that was way too big for him—an album by the band Slayer, which has been referenced in previous songs. Then comes the refrain of the song: "His horns were long and sharp / And then he opened up those eyes that said: / I am, I am, I am the truth"
The small red boy being the truth has always made me think about accepting childhood for what it is. I grapple with it frequently, wishing and dreaming for a kinder, softer world, in which I had no backlogs of trauma or issues with my parents; a world where everything was okay, bubblegum-pink, where I was safe, well-adjusted, independent enough and loved correctly. What the small red boy states when he says that he is the truth, it's that it's okay that your childhood wasn't picture perfect. Whatever happened wasn't your fault. You can come out of the woods and rest your feet on the soil; you can take your childhood self, comb their hair, dress them up so gently like you wish your parents had. You can give yourself the love you had been missing. You just have to accept what you went through first.
The second verse reinforces the idea of cherishing your childhood self. "I showered him with love and adulation," it begins, calling for pampering you may not have had. "I showed him all the books that I was raised on / Your Madeleine L'Engels and D'Aulaires Mythology" is all about taking the precious moment of your childhood—books you cherished, for example—and taking them into your adult self's hands, revitalizing them in your psyche. I reread The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett recently, and I understood why nine year old me liked it so much; the reprieve of losing myself in nature, not having to be aware of what was happening in the world around me. "I swore that I was glancing in a mirror / When in the language that I taught him / Oh God, he began to speak, he said / I am, I am, I am the truth" these lines and refrain reinforce the theme of the song; taking care of your childhood self, seeing yourself reflected in them. The small red boy reminds us that we have to take in what has happened to us, let it sink in so we can truly take care of our inner child.
The third verse has always been my favorite. Every time I listen to this song, it is akin to a religious experience for me—the way the music increases its volume, the way the lyrics jump off one another to make a clear image. "And his eyes became a beacon, an LCD projector / Broadcasting all my memories in a clear and vivid picture" speaks about sinking into the childhood memories we have, treasuring them or discarding them, feeling them fill us up with joy or disgust. We can watch the LCD projector or try to turn it off. "His tongue became a staircase, his uvula the knocker / Of an ornate wooden floor that led me straight into my future"—our childhoods are our past, present and future. That is why psychotherapy centers so much around our youths; there is little you can take out of a person without knowing what they went through or didn't go through when they were young. The formative years mark a person for life. "His throat became a hallway with a thousand baby pictures" is one of the most impactful lines for me, with the way it paints a picture so perfectly. You can see the hallway with photos all over the walls, the happy moments. I was looking through an USB full of pictures of me when I was little a while ago, and broke into tears at the sight of one where my parents held three-year-old me, them smiling so brightly that I couldn't recognize them.
It continues. "And I became forgiveness / I transformed into the closure that I lost / When I learned about the tragedy of all of us / I lost it when I learned about the tragedy of all of us / Incorrigible illness in the loved ones in and out of us / I lost when I learned about the tragedy of all of us." The climax of the song can be interpreted in many ways, but I have always taken it as the fact that most people have some sort of childhood trauma in them, whether they admit it or not, and whether they are aware of it or not. Those traumas flare up from time to time, especially when raising children—I can't help but think of my emotionally closed off father, whose own father died when he was only sixteen, and of my volatile mother, whose own father was very much the same. You do not have to forgive the people who hurt you when you were a child, but sometimes letting go helps. I listen to my mother when she talks about her childhood. I add two plus two. Things make a little more sense. There is a tragedy inside all of us, loved ones and strangers alike. "I walked through the hallway to a room of only mirrors / Reflecting me in bondage so I watched myself get freer" the third verse continues, until we move into the bridge. Again, the narrative of the song envelops you and takes you into the images the lyrics create. A man, tied up and yet freer than ever. It's what it feels like every time I talk about my childhood with a friend or with my therapist; it constricts me and yet makes me feel lighter.
The bridge starts. Along with the third verse, it's very dear to me. "I let my horns grow longer / I observed my skin get redder". The narrator becomes one with his childhood self, the small red boy, fully cherishing what has made him the person he is today. "My soul became a hammer / I started to feel better / My hatred turned to pity / My resentment blossomed flowers / My bitter tasted candy / My misery was power" is an anthem of healing, of recovery. There is little good that comes with stirring in your own negative emotions forever. Eventually the bitter has to taste like candy; eventually the resentment has to blossom into flowers. Don't make your pain into something beautiful, necessarily, but tell it that it's okay to exist. Shush it. Comb its hair.
The song ends like this—"The truth in me grew brighter / My nature and my nurture / No more shame, no more fear, no more dread / I am, I am, I am the truth", a refrain that has followed me around throughout my life. The truth of one's nature and one's nurture is very important to being fully realised as a person, I think; there is little you can do without accepting who you are, where you came from, what shaped you. The saying of "no more shame, no more fear, no more dread" is repeated throughout the album this song is in, too, with a song titled after it. We should not let ourselves dwell on the misery of daily life—we have to cast away the same, the fear and the dread that follow us everywhere we go.
This song has helped me work harder on recovering. And I hope my thoughts on it can help you, too.