It all started when Helen Ubinas, reporter, wrote to me:
My name is Helen Ubinas. I am a reporter for The Hartford Courant. I usually cover city news, but recently, I've noticed many teens (13 and up) sucking their thumbs. What struck me is that this is such a sensitive age where kids are usually so afraid of doing anything that might cause ridicule. But these kids suck their thumbs with apparently no worry.
One thing that recently struck me was one kid, about 16, who was talking about blowing someone away while sucking his thumb. Anyway, I've become really interested in doing a piece on this and was hoping that we could talk for the article. I noticed you post e-mails. I don't know if you're able to discern if any are from Connecticut, but I would love to hear from some Connecticut thumb suckers. Also, I noticed a name of a doctor who deals with adult thumb suckers, a Dr. Joseph Haraszti. Do you have a contact number for him?
By the way, The Courant is the largest daily paper in Connecticut. We also post our stories throughout the Times Mirror chain (LA Times etc. ), so there is always a chance of the stories being picked up at other major dailies. I hope you're interested in talking to me. Feel free to e-mail me. Or call.
And I wrote back:
Hi there Ms. Helen Ubinas,
I am the webmaster of the adult thumb sucking site.
If you've studied the site, you'll see that its focus concerns thumb sucking among those aged 17 and over. You indicated that you've noticed many teens sucking their thumb as if to say that you think this behavior has experienced a rise and, whether it has or hadn't, you wonder what it is in the social fabric that has changed to permit public display of this habit, since this behavior is considered somewhat socially taboo, particularly at the teen aged level. Interesting question, and, as you do, I'd wonder if this is true too, assuming your conclusions that teens are publicly thumb sucking more than ever is accurate. (By the way, how come you've noticed this? Do you come in contact with this age group often? What made you think that the behavior is on the rise, at least the public display of this behavior?)
You also contrasted, by example, a 16 old male who was threatening violence at the same time sucking his thumb and, with this juxtaposition, imply that the two behaviors, thumb sucking and a violence, defy the stereotype of each. I agree. I can only say that, as interesting a topic as teen aged thumb sucking may be, adult thumb sucking is more so since the social taboos are far more magnified at that age and the preconceived notions of what this behavior entails are called more starkly into question...and that is what I have my focus of knowledge on.
Before I look through my data, are you interested in interviewing an adult thumb sucker or a teen aged thumb sucker? If teen aged, I can be of no use to you. I think it a good idea for you to look through my site since you'll get more information there on adult thumb sucking then anywhere else in the world, including the Internet and any other public or private library. In fact, unless you have questions that the site doesn't handle, and I'd be surprised if you did, you may be able to bypass the interview altogether, since you'll find numerous statements from individuals at the site itself.
As for Dr. Joseph Haraszti, he can be reached at 626-356-xxxx. If you'd like to ask me more questions, I'd be happy to help you. If you'd prefer talking on the phone, tell me so and I will call. Thanks and, when the article comes out, would you send me a copy? H
And she answered:
I will definitely send you a copy when it comes out.
I must have misspoke. I haven't necessarily noticed an increase as much as just noticed it at all. I had never noticed teenagers sucking their thumbs in public until recently. Hence, my interest. I also found it quite fascinating that other kids made no notice of the behavior. Anyway, I would LOVE to talk to an adult thumb sucker. If you can oblige, I'd really appreciate it. I will be out of town until Friday, but maybe we can hook up then to talk? Or, if you prefer, we could do it all via e-mail?
She then went on to ask me many questions about adult thumb sucking. In answer, I replied:
OK, candid remarks. Like I've said before, I've been more focused on adult thumbsucking since I think that subject hasn't ever been studied and isn't well known at all. Additionally, since thumbsucking has been considered something that a young person does, the fact that numerous adults across the world continue this habit flies in the face of preconceived notions. I've always had an affinity for something that isn't what it appears to be, so the subject was a natural for me, especially since it's rather unique on the Web, with only one other site recently (and superficially) covering it. Of course my own thumb sucking has a lot to do with it also since the idea of the site has helped me answer questions I've wondered about previously.
I have, though, received lots of surveys from teenaged people who, actually, don't sound much different then their older brethren, so maybe my comments are accurate for them too. The overwhelming response at my site has been that thumb sucking is a behavior engaged in secretly. I hate to disappoint you but, I'm always surprised when I hear stories that this habit has had any sort of successful, public début. However, I've heard of many situations where public thumb sucking has occured (by the way, I understand England to be the premier public adult thumb sucking capital of the world), so let me gather myself here and make some heads or tails out of what you've seen.
If I were to only focus on the information I've received from people who claim to suck their thumb publicly, I would say that, as a group, it's their confident attitude combined with a well defined sense of themselves that permits this socially unacceptable behavior to, suddenly, be OK. For instance, here's a part of an interview I held, via e-mail, with a woman, aged 23, who sucks her thumb almost all the time, wherever she may be:
Webmaster: As you've seen with your parents, the great majority of people out there don't allow this behavior to be socially acceptable.
Olivia: Well, I don't really believe that my behaviour is for someone to allow or disallow. I never did, even in childhood. It's too familiar and comforting to give it up for someone else.
Webmaster: That is why we, and I'd guess you too, hide our habit, doing it only in privacy or, at most, among our very best of friends. But I suspect that you actually aren't too secretive about it, right?
Olivia: Well no, I don't hide it. My mum still disapproves but I don't give a shit, frankly. If anyone finds it offensive or weird, I guess they just get over it 'cause I've never had anyone have a problem with it.
Webmaster: What fascinates me about you, in this regard, is that you are SEEMINGLY unaffected by the social rules attached to this behavior, am I wrong?
Olivia: You are not wrong. I am pretty much unaffected.
See what I mean? It's as though the social stigma hasn't reached these people, even when parents attempt to instill it. Instead of coming away from the propaganda with the usual sense of shame, they come away with, what I believe is, an assessment that goes something like this, "Hell, I'm not hurting anyone or interfering with the rights of others, so, fuck off." It's been my observation that those who escape the chains of self-limiting values may have never actually allowed themselves to be chained in the first place. Not that the social stigmas attached to thumb sucking fall under this rubric, it just seems that those who seem less affected by mass thought, within certain undefined bounds, have allowed their creativity to spawn its own rules.
Another thing I've noticed, and this observation is anything but scientific, these kinds of individuals generally have a sense of charisma about them. Confidence does that. As a result, those in their immediate social circle are less inclined to think in terms of criticism and more inclined in terms of support. This may help to explain why they appear to be not only resistant to mockery, but place the concept of ridicule into another dimension altogether. Not to be facetious, but I suppose the rule of thumb is, if you don't want to be made fun of, act like: 1) you really know and believe in what you're doing and, 2) you don't care what anyone thinks about it since what you think of it is more important.
In terms of society, I'd have to ask what kinds of neighborhoods have you noticed open thumb sucking among teenagers? It's my general observation that different neighborhoods have variant degrees of social norms and expectations. For instance, if a woman walked naked, from the waist up, down a New York City street, say, West 55th and Central Park West, there'd be a lot of fuss surrounding her. But, take this very same woman and place her on the beach in Fire Island and nary a soul would bother. (Excuse me if I'm being somewhat provincial but, heck, I DO live near New York City so 'provincial' here is somewhat of an oxymoron, meaning, I suppose we locals just expect everyone to know where 55th is, or what Fire Island is all about. But I think you get what I'm saying.)
Another way to illustrate this concept: in some areas where the population density is higher, there will be more contact with people living on the fringe. Even if the percentage of fringe livers stays the same as it would in less populated regions (and it probably doesn't, meaning it's feasibly higher), you'd likely come into contact with them frequently, since there are increased numbers in a smaller area. What would this augmented fringe-contact do for one's tolerance for fringeful sights? I'd say that you would either get used to it (let's call this "psychological adaptation"), move from the neighborhood (allowing for more tolerant people to take your place), or go nuts (meaning that there'd be more fringe people in the neighborhood than before). Either way, there'd be more toleration for things that the general culture may normally eschew. This is perhaps one of the dynamics explaining the formation of sub-cultures in our society. It also may be the reason that thumb sucking seems to be more tolerated in certain areas than others. Of course there's the other reason.
Maybe, after all the years that us hapless thumb suckers have spent hiding, there's a movement going on, starting with our youth. Perhaps all the years spent in deifying Rock and Heavy Metal, fighting for the Black cause, protesting Vietnam, dying our hair green and wearing a mohican has finally reached pay dirt. Could it be that we no longer need to express ourselves just to prove that we can express ourselves? Maybe, these days, we can simply, well, BE ourselves! After all, most of us start out, some before birth, as thumb suckers, right? Maybe there's a movement afoot (athumb?...nah) that finally allows us to be who we are, and have been all along. In that case, well, it's no surprise that thumb sucking is being tolerated in all sorts of youthful circles, since the idea of an older person publicly sucking their thumb is, in a sense, a coming together, full circle, to our youthful roots.
So, yes, if what you are seeing is a true depiction of a general upward trend, I think that widespread public thumb sucking is recent.
You know, I just thought of something else. A few years back there was this pacifier craze among the youth. Did you know that? Well, anyway, there was one, especially in the UK and in many of the Black neighborhoods about our nation. I forgot how it all started. Maybe what you've witnessed is the logical fall-out. All those closeted thumb suckers decided that, "Now's my chance!" Just a thought. It is a "comfort thing", as they've told you. I don't know if the divorce rates have anything to do with it necessarily, but there's been studies that show that in certain cultures (the Mali study was the classic one for this example), where the breast is readily available and weaning may come, but only on the child's terms, thumb sucking is virtually non-existent. But I think that if older guys, say 17 and up, could have a breast on demand, smoking would be non-existent, at least for guys. It's just not realistic to expect that the typical mother, in today's society, can devote themselves like they have in these cultures. But it does say something about the origin of the need.
Yea, sucking one's thumb, especially if it's been your habit for awhile, is VERY comforting. Some liken it to the feeling one gets when meditating, REALLY meditating, not just listening, close-eyed, to some Indian music and breathing in incense. Some studies suggest that up to 90% of infants suck their thumbs or fingers at some point; so it starts off being a substitute for nutritional sucking and ends up a habit associated with things that are safe, cuddly, . . filling.
Most of us would never stop if parents weren't so fearful of the dental bills they expect to come if their progeny continues too long after the adult teeth start to kick in. So, no, I don't think that society is forcing kids to "grow up too fast", nor do I believe that sucking one's thumb is only a "kid" thing. My site really ought to prove that to anyone taking the time to thoroughly peruse it. It's a comfort thing, like smoking, overeating, watching TV and more. Only, compared to most comfort habits, it's a lot safer.
I started my web site after a guy, named Brian, decided to stop his web site, which was the first on the Net to be about adult thumb sucking. He didn't really decide to stop, his girlfriend gave him an ultimatum, it was her or the site. Apparently he'd been in contact with lots of women thumb suckers and Brian's chain decided that that was too threatening. Who knows, maybe she was on to something. He wasn't that good at it anyway: updating once or twice...total, not responding to e-mail, and so on.
When he announced his site's imminent demise, I decided to do it instead, much to the relief of a few avid followers. So, in five days, I learned about how to register a domain name, how to design web pages, how to upload them, how to register them with the proper search engines and, a few days later, how to obtain first position on the search engines that most people use. The site's was on the show "Extra" four times during the month of June in '99. Before "Extra", I was getting 60 hits a week, after the show I've been averaging 800. Right after the show it was around 2000 per week with enough surveys filled out to keep a few secretaries feeling that their future was secure, but I processed them myself. It's a good thing I don't need much sleep, I can manage the site and have a life too, wphew!
And she wrote back:
Wow. That was phenomenal.
Ok, The Hartford Courant is the oldest continuously published paper in the nation. We are the largest daily in Connecticut, with last circulation numbers being a 230,000 daily, 300,000 Sunday. These numbers change here and there, but not by much.
I am one of two primary city reporters on the city desk. Like I said, they're looking at the story for Page 1, although there is never a guarantee. Oh, also since we are a Times Mirror company, our stories often get picked up by the wires and end up all over the place, LA Times, Baltimore Sun. One of my stories ended up translated in a Mexican paper. Also, the web often picks up our pieces.
And finally, after the article appeared, Helen wrote:
Hey there, Thanks. It actually ran as the cover story of our Life section. Not the front page they first promised, but if I held out any longer, it would have been another month before they ran it. It was all over talk radio around here, and we got a lot of calls.
As a side note, I went to the doctor's yesterday and all the receptionists were talking about it too. That was cool. Anyway, again thanks for all your help. I hope you get more hits on your site!