My seventeen year old daughter Riley said something horrifying to her three year old cousin, Ila. Riley said that if Ila wandered away from where they were playing outside, a man who would find her and user bones as blocks.
“You said that?” my wife asked. “Why would you say that?”
Riley was confused that we were horrified. “Did anyone hear you say that?” my wife asked.
It struck us as both a weird thing to say to a child, and yet it was the kind of thing that people in my family said to their children. It was the kind of thing adults have always said to children. These things had been said to me. And in hearing her say it, I wondered if I had said similar things to my daughter? Why wouldn’t I have? Riley seemed to think this is what you do with children: Scare the hell out of them. You tell them about the Bogeyman, Slender Man, or Struwwelpeter. You engage in ambient child abuse through mythology.
Riley seemed confused. She said she had been told as a child if she didn’t behave a man would come and put her into a hole in his back. She said this in a matter of fact way. She had been told this, and we tell kids that monstrous things will happen to them at the hands of supernatural forces because that is what happens when you misbehave.
Yet what Riley had said about the man using Ila’s bones as blocks was clearly made up on the spot. Why would she make something like this up on the spot? Who told tell her a story about a man with a hole in his back that would imprison children in his body cavity if they did bad things?
Riley said that was us. It was some adult. We had told her this. My wife said, “I didn’t say anything like this.”
In the moment of round robin denial, I said, “I didn’t say something like that. It’s horrifying.” But later I thought about it. Had I? I mean, I could have. Before I had, had a child I had a very fuzzy idea of what it meant to be a child. My own parents felt that childhood was a dangerous myth that put young people in danger. In their world, a child was just an adult who as three years old. Growing up, I had never seen the kind of nurturing, protective, (maybe too-protective) attitude that parents had toward child and even the concept of childhood. The idea that something like Free Range Children needed to exist was absurd where I grew up. We were told to get out from under foot. Get out of the house and play. If we stuck around the house, we ended up doing chores. I was expected to turn up at dusk.
When my daughter was born, my attitude about childhood and adulthood changed because I was forced to examine what my attitudes even were. Part of this was due to the parenting classes offered through my Health Co Op that taught a form of parenting called attachment parenting, an approach used by Dr. Sears. Sears promoted attentive engagement with your child and close physical contact. Anticipate your child’s needs and provide a nurturing ting safe environment for the child to gain the confidence their needs would be met, and they were fundamentally safe. His approach seemed very logical. My parents practiced, I guess, a kind of proximity parenting, and a discipline inspired as much by Max Ernst as John B. Watson’s Behaviorism. Even though they were self-professed hippies, they weren’t into Dr. Spock. They were in the barn. I was in the barn. There was food in the pantry and the orchard. I could eat if I was hungry. I was raised in the barn.
As soon as my daughter was born, this changed. She had not existed. Then she was a kind of diaphanous figure in the amniotic void of an ultrasound in the physical reality of my wife’s womb. It took her nine months to grow a person inside of her body. The unreality of pregnancy turned very real. When our daughter came out into the world, she was coated in fluid, her eyes were closed, and she needed everything short of her own capacity to pump blood through her heart and air through her lungs. Anything short of nurture from that point forward seemed cruel. I was quick to yield completely to the myths of childhood, to the social contract, to the demands of Dr. Sears, to the responsibilities of adulthood and at times the crushing conformity that is required by a parent who needs to provide medical care, nutritious food, opportunity to their child. Nine months was just the warm up to the decades required.
Why then tell a small person who is still sorting out that airplanes fly, clouds are fluffy, and so that there are also men who kill you and use your bones for play things? Why tell them men would place your entire body into their bodily cavities? Who had told my daughter this disgusting and horrifying lie? This freaky fairy tale?
It was likely a someone from my side of the family. And among my side of the family it was likely a Briggs. My mother’s side of the family made up psychological torments, but only in the lines of what was materially possible. My father, however, would tell an old story he had heard on a Alfred Hitchcock radio show as a child about a fireplace in a cabin in the woods. A travel comes into the cabin and builds a fire. As he is warming myself by then fire, a voice calls out, “down comes the leg,” and then there was a leg dancing in the fire. And then a voice calls out, “downs come the other leg!” This became a catch phrase when I was growing up, “Down comes the other leg!” This would be the alarm when something surreal in real life was happening, which in my father’s world was often the case. During the cluster of the story the entire body comes down with the climax happening when “Down comes the head!”
There was in my father’s family a number of malevolent figures that my dad and uncle would talk about. That is the underpinnings of these figures were grossly allegorical and the crude allegory made them approachable as fantasy figures. We could just as easily make up own figures. (And we did later with figures like the Main in Plaid). Yet a the time I first heard of the Pernicorn or even the Sasquatch they seemed as real as any other thing adults told me.
For a six year old, they were no less real than other figures, such as Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, Jack Frost, bobcats, bears, and other spirits and animals in the forest. These figures for as long as I could remember as I could remember where balanced between myth and reality. The question of their existence was part of their existence. They were at once musical and cynical, at once a product of the imagination and a product of critical inquiry.
These figures seemed at once made up and also like they have come form something or meant more than just pure whimsy. Whimsy in my father’s family was used as a kind of weapon. This is one of the comforts of Trout Mask Replica to me. Captain Beefheart’s masterpiece is partly a masterpiece because it embodies the drunk uncle on acid and PCP aesthetic that my father and uncle delighted in when I was a child in Snoqualmie in the 1970s. (This is aesthetic is not isolated to the Snoqualime in the 1970s.) There is in that album a sequence where Beefheart and his cohorts record their interactions with some relatively straight neighbors during the cult like period of rehearsing the album. “It’s a bush recording. We’re out recording the bush.”
Hair Pie: Bake 1
Girl: We just moved in around here. We heard you play, so we decided we’d come up and find out who it was
Captain Beefheart: O, ho, yes. Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band.
Captain Beefheart: Yeah
Captain Beefheart: Where did you move here from?
Girl: Oh, just from–
Captain Beefheart: Reseda?
Captain Beefheart: She’s nice…
Captain Beefheart: What do you think?
Visitors together: Sounds good.
Captain Beefheart: It’s a bush recording. We’re out recording the bush. Name of the composition is “Mea… Neon Meat Dream of an Octafish.”
Captain Beefheart: No! It’s: ‘Hair Pie’
Girl: Looks you don’t find the drummer now.
For some reason we make up bogeyman for our children. I don’t know if is the children that need them however.