by Jill Foreman Hultin
Age 2 ½:
I woke to the sharp report of gunshots. The bedroom was unfamiliar until I remembered we were staying in my grandparents’ farmhouse while my father, newly discharged from the Army, looked for work.
Scraping frost from the window, I saw my father leaning over a ditch with his service pistol in his hand. I raced down the wooden stairs and out toward the gulley between the yard and barn where Dad was holstering his gun. He pivoted to block my sight, but I glimpsed an animal about a foot below the edge of the trench.
“What is it?” I whispered as he swung me up, holding my face tight against his shoulder.
“It’s a possum,” he said.
I scanned my memory of animals but no image appeared.
Seeing my confusion he clarified, “It’s a pest that’s been stealing your grandmother’s chickens.” As he turned to step away, I saw a furry body with tiny eyes, a long snout, slinky tail, and a gaping, bloody hole in its belly. For weeks, every time I closed my eyes my mind replayed it.
We had moved to a small house in town, and one afternoon I came in from the yard to find my mother standing near the sink, bashing the bottom of our metal wastebasket with a yardstick. She yelled at me to stay back, and I could see her hands and shirtsleeves splashed with blood. “Go to your Aunt Betty’s,” she panted, not letting up on her intense pounding. I was down the alley, across the street, and into my aunt’s arms in less than a minute, pointing and stammering that something bad was happening back home.
My aunt picked up the phone, called Mother, listened, then patted my arm and smiled. “Well, thank goodness it’s nothing to worry about. Just a mouse. Why don’t you sit down here on the porch and help me snap these beans until your mother comes?”
I helped with the beans until Mother arrived, wearing clean clothes and looking casual, as if she’d just stepped out for an afternoon walk. She stooped to give me a hug, and I glimpsed the sideways look she gave my aunt, a look adults wear when they keep secrets from children. We walked toward home.
Back in our kitchen, I noted a missing wastebasket and mop water still standing in the places where the floor was dented. When my father came home for supper, I launched into a melodramatic account of the afternoon’s events but Mother refused to elaborate, saying only, “We really need to get more traps.”
That night I lay awake straining to hear my parents through the thin curtain that separated my bedroom from the living room. Mother’s voice sounded husky as she told my father about finding a rat and six babies in the bottom of the waste bin. “Maybe they found a way in around the outdoor drain,” Dad speculated.
My picture books did not specify the differences between mice and rats, or provide a good way to judge their relative sizes. In the cauldron of my overactive imagination, they all looked a lot like that dead possum. I no longer ventured into the kitchen alone, and always made around-the-block detours of the outside drain in order to reach the backyard.
Rural villages with rundown houses, sheds, and abandoned railroad warehouses, surrounded by hundreds of acres of farmland with decaying barns, silos, and outbuildings, form a perfect ecosystem for pests of all types and sizes: mice, rats, bats, raccoons, possums, groundhogs, muskrats, porcupines, and beavers. Despite multiple traps, afternoons of hole filling, re-plastering and myriad other defenses, rodents made themselves at home in our house and yard. Mice ran across my bed at night and rolled out of kitchen cabinets in the morning; bats escaped the chimney flue, slamming and zapping their way through the living room and kitchen. Groundhogs took detours through the corn patch in the garden, roaring like cornered lions when they encountered humans. I fantasized about exploring the landscape beyond our yard, but was trapped by a semi-permanent state of terror.
The night before my first day of elementary school, Mother and Dad sat me down for a stern discussion about my extreme reactivity. “God created all the animals,” Mother reminded me, “so they’re all good. Human beings just have to adjust to living with them. ” Being kind, well-behaved and a hard worker were no longer sufficient personal standards for a girl of my advanced age, she explained. Courage and calm rationality now topped her expectations chart.
Dad warned, “You don’t want your school mates to call you a scaredy cat,” implying this would be a mark of permanent shame for the family. “Listen,” Dad said. “There are lots of things in life you can’t control—including rats and mice. Make your peace with them.”
The school years:
Comic books were strictly forbidden in our home but my new school friends had plenty of them. We poured over the fantastic stories during lunch hour, and I fell instantly in love with the way that super heroes created false identities to mask their true powers. Somewhere in second grade, a light bulb flicked on above my head as clearly as if drawn by a Marvel Comic illustrator: If Clark Kent was really just an invented cover story, perhaps I could reverse the formula, creating a formidable alter ego that my friends would admire and my parents could be proud of.
My new persona didn’t blink or back down in the face of playground dares. I climbed trees beyond where the big boys stopped, carried live snakes around like a sideshow carny, and ran repeatedly across the narrow ledge over the forbidden millrace where many children had drowned. I gloried in the truth that every parent fears: stupid behavior yields immediate, reinforcing payoffs. It was freeing to realize that some things frightening to others did not frighten me.
The shallowness of my empowerment and self-confidence was exposed during my senior year when the chemistry teacher announced we’d be doing an experiment with live rats. Previously my biggest worry had been a borderline A. Now I was gripped by the dual terrors of touching a rat and having classmates witness my cowardice.
“OK,” I breathed silently. “Take two of faking bravura.” I made myself unlatch the cage and reach for the rat, but at the first touch of the quivering white fur and a direct look into burning red eyes, I came completely undone. I have no detailed memory of what actually happened, but when awareness returned, I was sitting at a lab table sobbing hysterically, while Mr. Smithers thumped my back as if expecting I would simply cough up my fear. The rat, the cage, and rest of the class had disappeared. I got an alternative assignment, a B in the course, and the full catastrophe of exposed weakness. Dad had accurately predicted the perils of being a scaredy cat.
I wakened struggling with my husband who had trapped my flailing hands to one side and was wiping my face with a corner of the sheet. “They’re biting me,” I cried. “I’m running as fast as I can but they’re climbing up my legs and arms, and I can’t shake them off.”
“It’s all right,” he soothed. “There’s nothing biting you. It’s just one of your dreams. “
Despite twenty years of adulthood and children of my own, this is the third week of waking with night terrors. Finally my husband insisted, “These dreams need daytime attention.”
At my first meeting with a therapist, I protested, “This makes no sense. I’m a rational person.”
“Classic phobia, “ he pronounced with worrisome relish. “Traumatic exposure at a young age, gruesome visuals exacerbated by violence. Standard course of desensitization will free you from it. “
His glib prescription underplayed the unpleasantness of the treatment, which was remarkably similar to my chemistry lab disaster. He placed me in a room with a rat that was moved closer and closer each visit until I finally had to hold it for twenty minutes, feeling the rat’s rapid heartbeat in sync with my own. I was deeply shaken but not hysterical.
“Mastery,” I thought.
“Good to go,” pronounced the therapist.
Life was good. My family was thriving, and I had a growing business that I loved. Nevertheless, the dreams began again, as vivid and disturbing as the pre-therapy symptoms of a decade past. I consulted a new clinician, a woman who seemed skillful and discerning. We reviewed the checklist: no obvious sources of anxiety or unusual stress; no exceptional pressure at work or unreasonable personal expectations; no physical exposure to rodents. “Nothing’s wrong, “ I maintained.
After several sessions she broached a theory. “Your subconscious is obviously perceiving something you’re missing. Perhaps,” she offered, “Fate has transformed your unproductive phobia into a more useful anxiety and is appointing a rat as your guardian and spirit guide.”
I looked at her in disbelief. “Fate could not be that cruel,” I said. But in the following year, after learning that a favored employee has abused my trust and a client relationship, I found myself reconsidering the psychologist’s suggestion.
Over the next two decades, the dreams periodically recurred, each time alerting me to a challenge that had not yet surfaced in my consciousness: a sociopathic client; a friend with a terminal illness; a life-changing opportunity that required moving to a new city. I began to trust their portentousness, recalling my father’s words: “Make peace with what you can’t control.”
I live in the city now, far from my mid-western roots. But in the evenings as I cross the flower-bordered path that slices diagonally through Washington Square Park, it’s not unusual to feel a whir of air near my feet or to hear the click of sharp nails on the pavement. In those moments, it’s as if the years of therapy and disciplined efforts at self-regulation never happened, and I still scream like a girl—a very, very young one.
Jill Foreman Hultin is a strategic consultant to government, non-profit and for-profit organizations. She has also directed and produced several award-winning films and television programs. Her writing includes a chapter in the civil rights memoir, Journeys that Opened Up the World, an essay in the Temple University Journal of Ecumenical Studies, and a nonfiction essay to be published in the fall 2013 issue of Kansas City Voices.