Sunday, March 20, 2011

Of Children and Monsters

I don’t like to be scared. When I was ten, the PTA put on a haunted house at the local municipal building. Terrified, I refused to go inside, even after it was explained to me that the “monsters” were just other kids’ dads in costume and the eyeballs you had to touch were really peeled grapes. I was still walking the hazy childhood boundary between fantasy and reality, unclear about what was possible and what wasn’t. Perhaps, because I was already a fearful child and hated being this way, I couldn’t understand why anyone would intentionally seek out this sensation.

I still don’t quite get the fear-as-amusement industry. I don’t watch horror films. I don’t read Stephen King. And I don’t do amusement park rides that involve dropping from great heights, turning upside down, or scrambling my internal organs. My overactive imagination presents me with enough frightful scenarios to maintain a steady flow of adrenaline in my bloodstream. Another jolt just might push me over the edge.

Sophia, on the other hand, seems to enjoy the feeling of fear. On our way to the library this week she said, “Mom (note, no longer Mommy), I want some SCARY stories. Stories with monsters. And stories about crazy families.” Her desire to chase down what scares her is a thing that separates us. A way we live differently in the world. Sophia is seeking to gain mastery over her fear, and I do what I can to avoid mine.

It all started with a book about monsters that Kevin read to Sophia at a neighbor’s house. The next morning, Sophia told me, excitedly, that there were monsters in her closet. I’ve had experience with this. There were never monsters in my closet, but my sister had some rather tenacious alligators under her bed. Initially, they were kept at bay with special weapons that my father supplied, but eventually, Jennifer made peace with her alligators, even came to embrace them. She drew pictures of them and collected alligator chotchkes.

Perhaps I could have used a monster or two.

I peeked into Sophia’s closet. “Oh yes,” I said. “I see them. They are having quite a time of it.”

“What are the doing?” Sophia asked.

“It looks like they are having a party. They’ve dressed up in your fanciest clothes and they are eating cupcakes.”

“Really?” Sophia’s eyes widened.

“MmmHmm. Yes, oh, and what’s that?” I cupped my hand to my ear, “they want to thank you for such a lovely time. They say they really appreciate you letting them have your closet for the night, but they have to be going.”

Sophia looked apprehensive. “Are they friendly?”

“Hold on a sec. Let me ask them. Excuse me, monsters, but are you the friendly sort or are you mean monsters? Okay. I’ll ask….They say they are very friendly and would like to know if they can come back some time.”


“She said yes,” I told the closet, and then I waved goodbye to the monsters as they walked out the door. “Come back soon,” I called after them.

“They were very friendly,” Sophia shook her head approvingly.

“Yes. They were exceptionally nice monsters.”

At the library, we discovered, there were volumes of unscary monster books. We took out about five and have been reading them obsessively ever since.

Okay. So this particular bugbear was easy to tackle. What haunts me now is her fear yet unformed. How do I walk her through fear of bullies, fear of war, fear of disaster, and fear of death—what do I do when she encounters the real things there are to be afraid of? How do I help her to understand the dark side of existence? As a parent, you want to always be able to protect your child, to be able to magically transform the malignant into the benign. To make sense of the senseless.

But we can’t.

I fear the day when Sophia faces something ugly that I won’t be able to turn into a happy fiction.

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