Big Tent Childhood: Growing up in the Circus

Just about everyone has heard the old joke about running away and joining the circus. But what if your parents are the ones in the circus?

Some circus kids run away to a more normal life. Others join their parents under the Big Top. And some, like Christian Bale, seek out an even bigger spotlight and become A-list performers.

Bale's unconventional childhood came to light earlier this week when he was arrested by London police for allegedly assaulting his mother and sister. His mother, Jenny, is a former circus performer who worked as a clown and a dancer, riding elephants and introducing circus acts.

His father, David, ran away from his South African home in his teens to see the world and became a Royal Air Force pilot in Britain before taking a series of odd jobs that moved the family all over England and Portugal.

Bale was 2 when the family left Wales, where he was born, and took up their nomadic lifestyle. The Batman star has said he lived in 15 different towns by the time he was 15. He recalled in interviews being part of a circus caravan at age 7, surrounded by beautiful women wearing fishnet stockings and peacock head-dresses. His first kiss, he told a reporter, was with a young Polish trapeze artist called Barta.

"Circus performers do live outside the bounds and rules of society," said psychoanalyst and family therapist Bethany Marshall. "They don't put down roots, they don't give their children normal environments to grow up in. The children experience repeated losses: They're never in one school, they don't make consistent friends. In some ways, it's inherent disregard for the children. And maybe that disregard carried over into the current situation."

The current situation Marshall refers to is Bale's arrest on Tuesday for allegedly assaulting his mother and one of his three older sisters, Sharon. He was grilled by cops for four hours before he was released without being formally charged. Bale said through his lawyers that the allegations were false.

It remains unclear what happened between Bale and his mother and sister, but British newspapers are reporting that Bale shoved either his sister or mother during a heated argument in his swanky suite at the five-star Dorchester Hotel on Sunday, the night before the red-carpeted London premiere of "The Dark Knight."

The family feud, according to the British papers, was sparked after Sharon asked to borrow money and mother Jenny insulted Bale's wife Sibi, a former model and assistant to Winona Ryder.

A friend of Bale's told the Daily Mail, "Things got out of control and he now says he wishes he just left the room. Normally Christian would just call a friend and go out to a pub to cool off. But he was literally trapped into this confrontation with his mother and sister because there was an army of paparazzi and fans outside."

Marshall wonders if Bale's mother, a former performer, may have been jealous of her son's success.

"She had to know this was going to hit the tabloids," she said. "Given that she was a performer and she brings charges just prior to one of the biggest nights of his life, it makes you wonder, 'What are the family dynamics?'"

The dynamics are different in circus families but not necessarily worse than in more conventional ones.

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