Published on April 23, 2019
Self-Harm Versus the Greater Good: Greta Thunberg and Child Activism
Greta is eleven years old and has gone two months without eating. Her heart rate and blood pressure show clear signs of starvation. She has stopped speaking to anyone but her parents and younger sister, Beata.
After years of depression, eating disorders, and anxiety attacks, she finally receives a medical diagnosis: Asperger’s syndrome, high-functioning autism, and OCD. She also suffers from selective mutism—which explains why she sometimes can’t speak to anyone outside her closest family. When she wants to tell a climate researcher that she plans a school strike on behalf of the environment, she speaks through her father.
The book Scenes from the Heart (“Scener från Hjärtat,” 2018) recounts these medical difficulties and the events that led to Greta Thunberg’s now-famous “school strike for climate,” in which hundreds of thousands of children have refused to attend school to protest about government inaction over climate change. Greta herself strikes every Friday and spent three weeks sitting outside the Swedish Parliament at the beginning of the school year. Written by her family—mother, father, Beata and Greta—the story is told in the voice of Greta’s mother, the opera soprano Malena Ernman, who was a celebrity in Europe long before her daughter’s fame. Although the book is only available in Swedish for the time being, it is already being translated into numerous languages—a development that reflects the global fascination with Thunberg’s campaign.
We are offered a story of “a family in crisis and a planet in crisis”—two phenomena that are presented as inextricably linked. The book posits that oppression of women, minorities, and people with disabilities stem from the same overarching root problem as climate change: an unsustainable way of life. The family’s private crisis and the global climate crisis, the authors argue, are simply symptoms of the same systemic disorder.
Greta is not alone in her mental suffering, according to the book. Her sister Beata, who was 12 when the book was written, lives with ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome, and OCD. She is prone to sudden outbursts of anger, during which she screams obscenities at her mother. What would normally be a 10-minute walk to dance class takes almost an hour because Beata insists on walking with her left foot in front, refuses to step on certain parts of the sidewalk, and demands that her mother walk the same way. She also insists that her mother wait outside during class—she isn’t allowed to move, even to go to the bathroom. The child still ends up weeping in her mother’s arms.
Like many parents of children with similar diagnoses, Greta and Beata’s parents fight hard for their daughters to receive the right care and assistance in school. When Greta refuses to eat they do everything they can to save her from starving herself. Her father begs their doctor to save Beata from whatever it is that plagues her. To read the story is heart-wrenching, many times over.
And yet as someone who does not share the family’s political views—that the girls’ problems are inextricable from the climate crisis, and that the cure is to “change the system”—I wonder whether the world needs to know the intimate details about the lives of these two anguished young girls.