Study Guide

Al Capone Does My Shirts Guilt and Blame

By Gennifer Choldenko

Guilt and Blame

What child doesn't have a brother or sister? Half the world has seven or eight. Having a brother didn't make Natalie the way she is. One look at the two of them together and that big-shot psychiatrist would have known that. (4.28)

Moose overhears a conversation when he's a little kid about him and his sister. They're discussing when Natalie started showing symptoms of autism—which is about the time that Moose was born. They're also discussing how a sibling will affect Natalie's way of life. Poor Moose misunderstands this and thinks that Natalie's problems are his fault.

My father told me having Natalie as a sister is like playing ball when you're 100 times better than your opponent. You'll always win, but it will make you feel like a louse. I didn't see what that had to do with my sister ruining my stuff and my mother going mute. But it was pretty clear that getting mad at Natalie was the only thing that would never be forgiven. (5.24)

Having a sister like Natalie calls for a lot of responsibility. You can't play with her like other sisters—Mr. Flanagan compares it to playing a game with someone when you know you're always going to win. Sure you can go on and win… but it isn't going to feel good.

"Mrs. Kelly said we can't let ourselves get in Natalie's way. She said we're the stumbling block. If Natalie's going to change, we have to change first."

I blow air out of my mouth like I'm whistling with no sound. "So now it's our fault? (13.17-18)

Moose gets really angry over Mrs. Kelly's words because he feels like Natalie's therapist is blaming the family for her problems. This is a sensitive spot for him because they've spent so much of their lives loving and taking care of her. Much as they might need some help or support, letting go of some of this responsibility is hard.

I've never walked over here and suddenly it seems like a bad idea. I'm wondering if maybe I should turn around when I see a huge chain-link fence that blocks our path. (15.75)

Moose's guilt nags at him when the whole convict-baseball ordeal starts. He feels guilty dragging Natalie along when he knows that his attention won't be totally on her. He has a feeling that if he neglects watching out for her, something bad is going to happen.

I go home like I'm supposed to, but the second my mom leaves, I let Natalie get her buttons and I give her as much lemon cake as she wants. I'm not sorry about it either. (18.40)

This is pretty much the only instance where Moose isn't plagued by guilt. When his mom's schedule makes it impossible for him to play ball with his friends after school, she hits a nerve, and Moose is so outraged that he deliberately gives Natalie all the things that Mom doesn't want her to have, without feeling any guilt whatsoever. Payback.

The warden's eyebrows wag. He rolls his tongue over his teeth. "The one thing I've never had patience for is a person who blames someone else to lessen her own culpability. I can't tell you how disappointed I am to see you behave this way, young lady." (19.42)

Such injustice. The poor kids of Alcatraz are getting into trouble for something that they didn't do. Piper did it, and her dad is the one they're in trouble with, which only makes things worse. He's guilt-tripping the kids by telling them not to shift blame away from themselves… which is exactly what his daughter is doing. Ugh.

"I don't want you to be a snitch? This isn't some schoolyard game. I almost lost my job here, Moose. Do you know what that means to us?"

I look out at the darkening sky. "If you lost your job, we could go home." (20.50-51)

Mr. Flanagan puts the weight of the world on his son's shoulders. After the whole debacle with the laundry service, Moose's dad tells him that the whole family could be in trouble if he makes the wrong move. That's a lot of blame to put on a twelve-year-old—but it's also the truth. Moose has to think more carefully about his actions than other kids his age, because there could be serious consequences.

Calm down, I tell myself. Nothing happened. My mind flashes on the greasy-haired con holding my sister's hand, and a sick feeling comes over me. My mouth tastes like curdled milk.

I don't know what happened. I wasn't there. (27.3-4)

Moose feels major guilt when he finds his sister with the convict. He can't believe that Natalie might be in a really bad situation—and it's his fault. What's worse is that Moose doesn't even know what's actually happened because he wasn't there. So this is really like a double dose of guilt.

"Did I cause Natalie to be the way she is?" The question seems to come from somewhere deep inside of me.

"Something I did? You said she got worse when she was three. That's when I was born. Was it me?" I concentrate on the rug. (31.22-23)

This is a really important moment: We find out that Moose has been carrying guilt over Natalie's problems all along. He's never had the nerve to ask about it, though, because he's been afraid that it was true. Needless to say, when Moose finds out that he has nothing to feel guilty about, it's a major relief.

"People know, Mom. They know."

"They don't know!" she cries, tears streaming down her face. "You don't know! She won't have a chance at sixteen. No one will take her. No one cares about an adult that isn't right. It's only kids who have a chance. It's too late if she's sixteen. Don't you see?"

"Yeah, but Mom, you can't pretend! It's worse. People know—" (35.14-16)

Moose blames his mom for living in a fantasy world about Natalie. She's been pretending that Natalie is ten for years, because it's hard to acknowledge that she's growing up physically but not mentally. Moose sees that pretending Natalie is younger isn't going to help her grow. He needs Mom to also see this, though, and the only way to get her to is to make her feel guilty.

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