So what about Charlie...
Of all the characters in this book, Charlie is the one that people comment on the most.
Is he a sociopath? Is Olivia just paranoid? Is he just socially inept and self-absorbed?
Sometimes I think we like things to be tied up more neatly than they ever would be in real life. The truth is, I don't think Olivia will know for certain about Charlie for a long time, if ever. Personally, I think he's a sociopath... but kind of a low grade, emotionally manipulative one, not a going-to-turn-into-a-serial-killer kind of one.
When I was writing Charlie, I was imagining an insecure, not very well-adjusted teen with a pretty self-absorbed mother. I imagined he hadn't had a consistent experience of being parented well; of knowing that he mattered. I think he's trying to get his needs met however he can, and that was largely by trying to boost his self-esteem by seeing the admiration and attachment reflected in Wolfie's response to him. But the relationship didn't really actually exist; Charlie wasn't interested in Wolfie as a person, but in how Wolfie made him feel. Having Wolfie adore him made him feel good and loved, so he was always chasing that feeling, rather than genuinely trying to connect with Wolfie. His actions were always ‘how can I get Wolfie to look at me like that, show he needs me, long for me?’ rather than ‘what would be fun for me to do with my
little brother? What is interesting for a four-year-old that I can do with him?’ I don’t mean that Charlie thought these things consciously… that’s definitely getting into pathology. We don’t often look at the dark, dysfunctional parts of ourselves. That’s human nature, right? It’s painful to think about the things we do wrong, especially if they’re painful in and of themselves. Yes, disappointing Wolife and making him upset is “bad”. But it’s awful to realise you don’t feel loved, you don’t feel good enough. Seeing your behaviour through that lens is something most people shy away from. And self-esteem is so tricky. We can’t just go to three counselling sessions and be cured. That is years of therapy for Charlie, and what teenager wants or even could afford that? Whatever we say, there’s still stigma attached to help-seeking in the form of therapy. It could serve to make Charlie feel worse, that there’s something ‘wrong’ with him that he needs such a thing. And therapy often makes us feel worse before it makes us feel better, which means people don’t always see it through.
So…what does that look like in the long-term? I don't think Charlie would deliberately hurt Wolfie, and I think Wolfie eventually would work out that this person didn't really care for him in the way that people normally do in relationships. But sibling relationships are hard. It might take Wolfie thirty years to work
that out (like it took Olivia so long to realise Hannah was not good for her). But it could also mean that the decisions Charlie makes are only looking at his needs, not Wolfie's, and at some point, that will equal harm. For example, if he's not getting the admiration he craves, perhaps he will escalate how he tries to win Wolfie over, and think introducing him to "secret"
stuff like porn at an inappropriate age will result in that hit of being chosen by Wolfie, or preferred by Wolfie, or admired/looked up to by Wolfie. People like Charlie I suspect also make use of splitting quite a lot - ie trying to get someone to align with them by setting them against other people.
I also think how that plays out over their lifetimes will be influenced by other events in Charlie's life. Maybe living with Olivia and Nick he will have an opportunity to examine his motivations. If they stick with therapy, perhaps he will confront why he behaves this way, and have an opportunity to change. But change is hard, and most of us - like Nick! - don't like to look at the painful parts of ourselves.
What did you think of Charlie as you read The Lost Boy? At the end, did you feel hopeful about their ability to move forward as a family?