The Phantom Tollbooth


“Thus the allegory of the Self murdered by the not-self is perpetuated through the religious mysticism of all peoples” – Manly P. Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Ages

A tiny desk had been placed in the hallway just outside my classroom. Two equally diminished chairs completed the setting. The furniture was small because I too was small, a shy seven year-old child. It was my second year attending school in the misty hills overlooking the South Australian city of Adelaide.

I nervously shuffled in my seat and gazed at the rows of colourful school bags dangling from the hooks in the hallway, strange decorations in a ghost town. The hallway was usually the place of noisy clatter, the rush of recess, lunch and home-time. Why was I now sitting here in the strange silence, separated from the other children? Opposite me was a bespectacled man. His tall frame was painfully folded upon itself to compensate for the tiny chair he was perched upon. A stack of cards between us signalled that an explanation would be forthcoming.

With the calm demeanour of a research scientist, the man presented the cards to me, one at a time. My task was to read aloud the word on each card. The gulf of time between now and then has obscured the words. Thirty-four years later, the only word I can recall reading aloud to the man was “association”.  My responses were enough to cause an almost imperceptible disruption to the detached observations of the grown up across from me.

My teacher, Ms. Vale had suspected that the reading ability of myself and another child – Alison, were far in advance of the other students. The time spent by both myself and Alison with the mysterious inquisitor in the deserted hallway confirmed our teacher’s suspicions. What could she do to help foster our potential? While the other children were assigned home readers about “Digger the Dog”, myself and Alison were led to a tiny room, more of a crawl space, hidden behind one of the classrooms. Along the length of the room was a bookshelf. The tomes lining the space were not available to borrow like the picture books in the school library. This was rather a secret cache, only accessible by the teachers. Two small people had penetrated the veil and were now standing in the Holy of Holies, the center of knowledge and understanding!

“You can each choose a book to take home and read in your own time” stated Ms. Vale. I eagerly scanned the spines of each volume before me. One caught my eye and I removed it from the shelf. “The Phantom Tollbooth”.


The school bell sounded and I eagerly raced outside, past the huge one hundred year old Oak that stood watch over the school yard. I was a tiny acorn, flung from the mighty boughs of the tree and full of new potential. The book bouncing around in my school bag was a sign that I would germinate and grow into something as equally magisterial as the ancient tree of Stirling East Primary School.

After arriving home, I sat on my bed and began to tackle “The Phantom Tollbooth”. My young mind was buzzing in anticipation. From the blurb I had divined that the story in my hands involved a young boy who finds a small toll booth with attendant boom gate upstairs in the attic of the home he was staying in. Placing himself in his pedal powered toy car, he drives through the toll booth and is transported to another world. One of the first beings he meets is a large shaggy dog with a clock face mounted in the side of its body, a Watch Dog! To a small seven year old boy this synopsis crackled with energy.

A few pages in though I discovered that the text of “The Phantom Tollbooth” was not going to give up its secrets as readily as the back cover. There were a lot of unfamiliar words and my exploration of the story came to a halt. I needed a guide. Outside my window evening had fallen and my father had arrived home from work. Dad knew everything, didn’t he? The way he spoke about himself to his family suggested to me that was the case.

With book in hand, I went out to the living room to seek my father’s help with some of the more troublesome words. He would be impressed that his young son was trying to tackle a novel more suited for an older student. “Dad, what does this word mean?” I begged. Dad’s bloodshot eyes haughtily scanned the page. Rather than acknowledge that his son was exceptional and ambitious, my father turned his head to the direction of the kitchen and my mother. “Jen, have you seen this fucking book he is trying to read?” he angrily barked.

It did not seem possible for a seven year old to become any smaller but I managed to by shrinking before his withering dismissal and returned to my room. If my teacher Ms. Vale or the mysterious bespectacled man with the flash cards taught me the use of a dictionary, I may have safely passed through “The Phantom Tollbooth.” Rather than a dictionary as my guide, I had to settle for a monumental dick. He made it his task to keep the tollbooth’s boom gate welded shut.

Looking back through my adult eyes I can see that approaching a man who would punctuate his working day with equal doses of ‘No-doze’ pills and Jack Daniels for help was perhaps not the best option, but if a small boy cannot seek guidance from his own father, what else is he meant to do? Hindsight leads me to believe that my father may not have known himself what the challenging word was. Surely this was a crushing blow to his self-styled image as a high-flying entrepreneur?

The waxing moon outside was shining down on this dysfunctional, domestic tableaux. Baby Moses had drifted across the water into the bulrushes, destined for greatness. However, rather than being found by Pharaoh’s daughter, he was discovered by a wild beast. After baying uncontrollably at the moon, the lupine creature then turned and savaged the baby, drowning his tiny corpse in the shallow waters. The Hero’s journey did not even have a chance to begin.

The early phase of our short lives is signposted by seemingly innocuous events that are actually monumental in importance. These are times of flux and uncertainty. One path leads to a world of enchantment, the other the tar pit and bramble patch. My existence since that fateful day has been characterised by a sense of dislocation and of not knowing what I really want to do with my life. I start one thing only to stop part way through and discard it, looking for some new novelty. I approach the tollbooth, unable to open it. At fourty-one years of age, this approach to my life has worn me down. Well, it cannot really be called my life can it? Life did not even begin for me. My potential for greatness was identified by my teacher yet subsequently extinguished by a man who identified this same life force as an existential threat. I have been walking in a death-like state ever since.

What of my young, exceptional classmate Alison? When these painful memories leave me broken upon the wheel, my thoughts turn to her. Did she return home with her chosen book to find the opposite? Was she nurtured by supportive parents? Perhaps like young Lucy in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” she passed through the back of the wardrobe into a land of magic and adventure?

It is fitting that I never ended up reading “The Phantom Tollbooth” as my journey never began. I now close my eyes, inhale deeply and the Phantom Tollbooth materialises before me, a flashing red light mounted outside the tiny guard house, overlooks the boom gate. The light changes to green and the boom gate lifts. I have waited long enough. It is now time to embark on my journey….

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4 Replies to “The Phantom Tollbooth”

  1. WOW Tim WOW! What an exceptionally eloquent, heart-wrenchingly poignant post. The visual imagery you have created is absolutely amazing. I can just see that little boy, his chest puffed out full of pride, The Phantom Tollbooth grasped firmly in his little hand, walking up to his father only to have his innocence shattered into a million tiny fragments. My heart ached reading that story but is now filled with the hope that the little boy may now achieve all that the world had intended for him to do.

  2. Thank you for writing this. This resonates with me and my relationship with my father.

    For me, a lot of it came down to the lack of elders and initiation in Western hegemonic late-capitalist culture, though the words elder and initiation are bandied around a lot and it seems distasteful to write them here. I think I was also suicidal and desperate for most of my teens and early adulthood, so I kept looking for the enchanted land because that was the only thing that had a glimmer of reality.

    The only thing that really started to help me was learning to get back into my body and dissolve what I had internalized as ‘being me,’ much of which came from my father’s sense of himself and his sense of being a man. I used a qigong form and a release/dissolving technique called the Sedona Method, but everyone’s knot is different and unties in its own way. I certainly don’t have any special wisdom but I am slowly learning to dissolve my dad’s model of traumatized masculinity and find my own way.

    Anyway best of luck, I think there are always more doors to initiation or the numinous.

    1. I’m glad you dropped by Ryan. The fact that my little post resonates with another male is the highest compliment!

      Thank you for sharing the path you have chosen to aid you in ‘undoing’ the false self. The Sedona Method sounds like it is worth investigating. As far as masculinity is concerned, I intend to further explore the subject in the coming weeks…

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