We all love Greta Thunberg, some for different reasons. But some of us worry about her.
The autobiographical Scenes from the Heart (“Scener från Hjärtat,” 2018) by Melana Ernman, climate activist Greta Thunberg’s mother, recounts the 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 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.
Greta herself strikes every Friday and spent three weeks sitting outside the Swedish Parliament at the beginning of the school year.
It is a story of “a family in crisis and a planet in crisis”—two phenomena that are presented as linked. The book notes that the 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 are simply symptoms of the same systemic disorder.
Greta’s sister Beata, who was 12 when the book was written, also 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.
It has been less than a year since Scenes from the Heart was published and, during that time, Greta has become a global celebrity. This week, she was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time Magazine. She has briefly met the Pope, who encouraged her to “Keep doing what you’re doing.” She has received numerous awards, including, most recently, the German Golden Camera award. She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She has been featured and interviewed in most of the world’s leading media. She has appeared on a panel with the UN Secretary General António Guterres, addressed the European Parliament, and lunched with the Financial Times.
But it this really appropriate?
In Scenes from the Heart, when Greta eventually starts eating again, she only allows herself certain foods. Her mother has to prepare the same food every day for Greta to bring to school and keep in the school refrigerator: pancakes filled with rice. Greta will eat them only if there is no sticker with her name on the container: stickers, paper, and newspapers trigger Greta’s OCD against eating.
“I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day,” Greta said when she addressed the world’s leaders in Davos.
Given the child’s history of precisely that—fear and panic—the adult response should perhaps not be “You go, girl” (the words of Madeleine Albright when she was asked what she thinks of Greta’s school strike), but something considerably more cautious and reflective.
Greta was recently named ”Woman of the Year” by a Swedish newspaper. But she is not a woman, she is a child. Is it time we stopped to ask if we are using her, failing her, and even sacrificing her, for a movement?