Can You Hear Me?

GQ India|October 2019

Can You Hear Me?
From her school strike last August to the meetings with world leaders and legislators ever since, this year one voice proved louder than the rest: that of the teen Swede speaking up for Mother Earth. And for all of us
Stuart McGurk

The story of Greta Thunberg, now 16, has been much told, but rarely well. She is the Swedish schoolgirl who, in August last year, decided to school strike for climate and sparked a global movement – about 1.6 million people in 133 countries. The one who has covered Time magazine met Obama and been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The one who has given speeches at the UN, Davos and the British parliament. The one who has become a symbol for a generation not being listened to by a generation that won’t have to suffer the consequences of not listening. We have ten years, she will often say in her speeches, to stave off a chain reaction that will forever alter the future of our planet. If we only start listening when she’s 26, it’ll already be too late.

All of this you can find on the internet. It’s only a google away – knock yourself out.

The question is, which version of the above is true? The cynical version has it that it is her parents who have pushed her into this, writing her speeches and pimping their daughter to promote their cause.

The optimistic version has it the other way around: that it’s her mother, Malena Ernman, who gave up her opera career for her daughter by agreeing to no longer fly. And how she did it not for the planet, but for her daughter, who was depressed, not eating, not talking, and for whom the cause became a path to recovery.

The truth, as it often tends to, lies somewhere in between.

The first thing Greta Thunberg tells GQ is what she’s had for breakfast. This isn’t a genuine question on our part – in fact, it’s a mic test – but the answer is telling. She ate bread “that was about to go off” with some hummus “that was about to go off too.”

Thunberg often credits her Asperger’s syndrome as her superpower rather than a setback: she sees the world more clearly. And so she can’t understand why we’re ignoring what should be the front page on every day’s papers. As she put it in a speech in Parliament Square in London on October 31, 2018, “I have Asperger’s syndrome and, to me, almost everything is black or white. I think, in many ways, that we autistic are the normal ones and the rest of the people are pretty strange. They keep saying that climate change is an existential threat and the most important issue of all. And yet, they just carry on like before.”

Hence the school strike for climate, refusing to fly and a breakfast that was about to go off. How was it? “It was OK,” she replies in her matter-of-fact way. “It filled me up.”

Food is partly how all this began. Thunberg is even smaller than you might suspect, child-slight and not yet five feet. She looks more like 12 than 16. This is the result of a bout of severe depression when she was 11 and a serious eating disorder that followed. In two months, she lost ten kilos and stopped talking.

Scenes From The Heart, the family’s memoir, mostly written by her mother, details their trauma. It’s a Tuesday morning in November 2014. Two months earlier, Thunberg had stopped eating. And so now, by the dining table, an A3 sheet hangs on the wall, on which they note what Thunberg eats, how much, how long it takes and how many bites it requires. They’ve begged, pleaded, bribed, cried and threatened, but have found a sort of stealth surveillance the best method. After breakfast, they write, “Breakfast: 1/3 banana. Time: 53 minutes”.

Time passes like this for a while. Hospital appointments and tests, counseling sessions. On the A3 sheet, they write things like “A banana. 25 minutes” and “An avocado with 25 grams of rice. 30 minutes”. Finally, she is given Sertraline for her depression and the long road back begins. The weight loss stops. They start to write things like “salmon” and “croquettes” on the sheet.

By the time she returns to school, there’s hope. But while Thunberg has always been a smart child – she has a photographic memory, can recite every world capital, can even name all the elements, though she struggles with the pronunciation – it’s the other children that prove to be the problem.

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October 2019