But the mind is what it is, and my mind seemed to latch onto some queer things in the world and hold onto them, almost as if it relished the chance to bedevil itself.
What frightened you as a child? Can you remember specific things that did? Did you ever end up holding onto that fear, did it linger for you?
I asked Ann that question the other day and she drew a blank, found the question almost nonsensical, even. It’s not that she thought she never experienced any fears when young, but whatever they were were at best trifling things, kid stuff, and faded as quickly away as they had arisen. This didn’t surprise me about my wife for she is nothing if not eminently practical, and I think we can all agree there is precious little practical value in an irrational fear.
My own story is quite a bit different than that. I have very acute memories of what frightened me as a kid, can remember, even, the very moments these fears reared up and gripped me. And in testimony to the strength of the chords struck by them, not only do I remember the when and where of them but in my life these fears went on to propel pretty extensive actions on my part. That’s the most interesting part of this story, if you ask me. I even have a theory now about the conditions that make a person inclined to experiencing evocative, enduring fears. Mix one part vivid imagination with one part strong emotionality, and there you have it. In other words, it’s the same formula that on the positive side can dispose a young person to developing a deep infatuation with a fictional character, or with a particular song, a child friend met momentarily in a park, that equally delivers them on the dark side to moments of sudden rank terror.
First, just to be clear: I don’t characterize my early life as having been fear ridden. I may well have suffered for my fears a tad more than the average bear, but I grew up in what can only be described as an exceedingly safe environment—safe family, attentive parents, older siblings around to look out for me, safe neighborhood, safe community, etc. To have had any ongoing fears in the atmosphere in which I grew can almost be said to be an indulgence. But the mind is what it is, and my mind seemed to latch onto some queer things in the world and hold onto them, almost as if it relished the chance to bedevil itself.
Did you catch the use of that word there, queer? I use that as some of my fears were relatively unlikely, and some, downright goofy!
So, my fears, here now admitted: Vietnam, Star Trek (!), Planet of the Apes (!!), and horror films in general.
Vietnam. The fact that the Vietnam conflict ended up unleashing in me an unholy sort of terror may reflect some measure of precociousness on my part, though more likely it was just the times in which I grew up early on. I sometimes lament the fact—the awful fact—that my daughter has basically lived her 15 years of life with her country in some form of significant combat or war situation. Truth is, being born in 1964, I myself grew up through age 11 with the US slowly and then fully being embroiled in Vietnam.
In any case I was under ten years of age, generally speaking, throughout the majority of this war, and what kid that age pays any attention to world affairs? The truth of the matter is I didn’t specifically pay attention to it, but it was there in my world, everyone’s world back then, pretty much unavoidably. In particular, it showed up on the nightly news, as the anchors announced almost unfathomable American body counts for the preceding day (for perspective, the Iraq war has claimed just over 4400 American lives; Afghanistan, just over 2200. Vietnam claimed over 58,000 lives), always reported against grisly footage of soldiers hauling body bags toward copters across a field over there. And then there was Life Magazine, and Time, after the nightly news America’s next most prominent visual portals to the war over there, but ones unconstrained by network censors in what they could show. And, lordy, what they did show. I don’t know who their editors were, but they made damn certain we understood fully how shatteringly violent things were over there. I’ll bet you remember the pictures: the little girl running up the road naked, her clothes (and much of her skin) burned off by napalm; the South Vietnamese general conducting street justice with a pistol to the head of a suspected Viet Cong. I was too young back then to know not to look where I shouldn’t, and so I did. The photo of the grinning American solider walking up the trail, the heads of two Viet Cong soldiers being carried by their hair in each hand? Unfortunate for me, I stared.
It was thus a grim and irrefutable fact in my mind: I’d grow, get drafted, and go there to meet my end, and no doubt not a pretty one at that.
Let’s move onto some lighter, goofier stuff, though no less riveting for this little guy.
Star Trek. This one happened in an instant, and if I were so inclined I could look up the very date it happened, based on the episode. I’m guessing it was in the third season, in 1968, when I was four, memory being pretty sketch before then. If my memory does hold, I believe I was allowed to stay up a bit later this night since I’d taken a good nap that day. My dad was flipping through channels and happened upon Star Trek at the beginning of an episode. Maybe he thought it amusing to see how I’d respond to this slice of sci fi. The usual suspects—Kirk, Bones, Spock—had just transported down to a facility on a planet or maybe onto another ship, I don’t remember which. What I do remember, all too well, is the woman they happened upon in their search. She looked normal enough, that is until she tried to communicate with the crew. It was then that her face washed over with these garish swirling colors, and out of her mouth came this inhuman grinding, croaking sound that was simply NOT RIGHT to my impressionable little mind. She was being possessed by something, and my inability to grasp what this meant (let alone its fictional nature) left me only able to experience the raw and alien fact of it as a harrowing rebuke to what little sense of the world I’d developed to then. I don’t think we stayed on that channel much longer—I’m sure my horrified reaction made for a quick change—and oh, by the way, thanks for nothing, Dad—the damage was done and I slept like shit that night.
Planet of the Apes. I guess you could say I had a vulnerability for the wrong things coming out of the wrong mouths, given the Star Trek story and now this. My terror at the concept of speaking apes also happened in an instant. A commercial for one of the entries in that five part series (and yes, I can recite them without hesitation—Planet, Beneath, Escape, Conquest, Battle) came on the tv one day while I was watching. At first, the images piqued my interest since these many and various apes were curiously dressed, and behaving vaguely, like…people? Congrat’s to the marketing team that edited the commercial (though I doubt a 4 or 5 year old was their real target), for when the first ape talked, my soul pretty much left my body shrieking in horror. I guess when you’re that young you’re pretty sensitive to getting your sense for the real world right, and every alarm in my system was blaring as this very primitive WRONG! WRONG! WRONG! flashed red in my eyes. More shitty sleep ensued.
Finally, horror films. Let’s cut to the chase. It was that scene in The Birds—you know the one. Older woman goes to visit her neighbor, enters through the kitchen, which looks perfectly normal…except…the tea cups dangling from little hooks are all…broken? She moves on to the next room, and there’s her neighbor, ol’ Bill, let’s call him, sitting on the floor in the midst a violently trashed bedroom, a few dead birds strewn about, ol’ Bill’s mouth hanging slack, and his eyeballs? They’s good and gone, bloody streaks coursing down from where they used to be before The Birds got ‘em.
This was a few years after the Star Trek and POTA episodes, years in which I’d worked to rebuild my sense for the world, slowly cobbling together again my confidence in knowing how things worked, what was real and what wasn’t. Interplanetary travel? Ha! No such thing! Talking apes? Puh-LEASE! Just great makeup! And now, here it apparently was the case that the very much of-this-world birds outside were prone to going both apeshit and specifically after my eyes. Well done, you terribly effective fat British masochist.
As immediately cathartic as that little romp through the past just was, the truth of the matter—which I alluded to as the most interesting aspect of all of this—is that in the years between back then and now there were long episodes during which I sought to master all of these fears. Not that it was a conscious choice, not that I grew fed up by them and one day decided, that’s it, I’m going to rid myself of them. By the time this will to mastery happened, these fears had long since faded, shrank, and largely been put away on a mental shelf somewhere. They obviously retained a certain power, though, and so it was more an unconscious process wherein I eventually “stumbled” upon an interest in learning about these things, an inclination at the time I didn’t even associate with the original fear itself. So, yes, I became something of a Trekkie—bought books, built models, talked geek with other Trekkies. I read all of the POTA books (the original, by French author Pierre Boulle, who also wrote Bridge Over The River Kwai , is really an exceptional piece of sci fi writing), then ingested the short-lived POTA magazine, with all of its “behind the scenes” coverage of the making of the films. Horror films? Bought book after book about the history of the horror film industry, its stars, directors, origins, themes, all the better to get on top of the fact that these were products of human imagination, I suppose. And Vietnam? I became a flat out student of the conflict, reading very major book on it (Rumor of War, Dispatches, 13th Valley, A Bright Shining Lie, Vietnam by Karnow, etc), taking a college course about it, and ended up working with Vietnam vets, even, during my years of clinical work while a grad student. To this day, if I meet a guy roughly 10 years older than me, I can’t help but ask them, “What was your draft number? How’d that go? What was life like for you during that time? Did you lose any friends?”
Overcoming fears through a compensatory effort at mastery of them is an old concept in psychology, I know. I’m not a bad case study on the matter.