Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it,
#ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
By Roxanne Fequiere
The very first thing that I can recall fearing—viscerally, with all the requisite stomach drops and involuntary cringing included—is the possibility of a violent home invasion. At the time, my family would gather to watch television in what we collectively referred to as the playroom, upstairs and at the opposite end of the house from my bedroom. After the credits rolled on whatever sitcom we’d all enjoyed, my parents would send my brothers and me to bed, at which point I’d begin to panic and beg to stay right where I was. Both my brothers’ bedrooms were upstairs; to take myself to bed, I had to venture downstairs and through our dark kitchen, dining room and hallway to make it to my room, where I’d lay alone in pitch black silence until the point at which my parents decided to head down to their own room. The thought of it was unbearable. I mean, we’d been upstairs for hours. Who was to say that I wouldn’t walk downstairs and run smack into a burglar, mid-crime?
“There are no burglars downstairs,” my mother would say with more than a hint of exasperation in her voice. “If you’re scared, turn the lights on as you go.” It was useless advice. What good would it do to have the lights on or off if I encountered a man with a knife or a gun? Her offers to walk me downstairs and tuck me in were well-intentioned but equally unhelpful. Once she made her way back upstairs, I’d be just as vulnerable to whoever might decide to break and enter. Eventually, tired of trying to reason with me, my mother came up with a compromise. When bedtime rolled around, I could take up temporary residence at the foot of my brother’s bed. Then, when my parents went downstairs, they would carry me downstairs and put me in my own bed, thereby eliminating the possibility of me running into a criminal on the prowl.
The specificity and clarity of my fear at such a young age—though the timeline is hazy, I believe I was between the ages of four and six—is jarring. Maybe I’d overheard one too many violent stories on the nightly news, but something seems off about the fact that I was terrified of running into someone armed and dangerous in my kitchen during a time when other kids were concerned about monsters under the bed. Then again, in spite of my mother’s dismissal of this particular fear, she was a high-strung woman that worried aloud about, at various points: kidnappings, the dangers of letting her children stay at a friend’s house overnight (or, really, even for a visit), drug dealers, child abuse, large crowds, and generally not being aware of your children’s whereabouts at all times. For her, our home was the only place on earth where we were unequivocally safe. My impressionable young mind saw no reason to indulge in such foolish certainties.
In the years since, I’ve acquired many more fears, some of which are rooted in reality and others that are absurd but rattle me just the same. Many of my fears, try as I might to rid myself of them, are the very same ones I used to scoff at mother for clinging to, though I make a conscious effort not to let them infringe upon my daily life; some are ones that I managed to develop all on my own. I remain fearful of a home invasion, although my apartment is just small enough that I don’t have to do a nightly run-through when I come home in the evenings; I’m afraid of large insects; I’m afraid of getting shot up in a movie theater; I’m afraid of natural disasters; of drowning; of losing control of my mind. I’m afraid of sexual assault. As someone who’s never done anything more intense than have a couple wisdom teeth removed, I’m afraid of being operated on. I’m afraid of failure and mediocrity, in all the pernicious ways my brain manages to reinterpret small mistakes and unavoidable obstacles as such. At one time, I was afraid of sloths (I managed to overcome that fear).
I don’t know if the above list renders me above or below average, fear-wise, but with some or all of these anxieties swirling around my head at any given moment, it does call into question my occasional indulgence in scary books, films, and TV shows. What possesses me to deliberately engage with hair-raising narratives when simply making my way through the world seems to scare me just fine?
I have vivid memories of silently scorning my mother for her habit of watching Unsolved Mysteries. All it took was one episode to keep me up late at night pondering the existence of UFOs or ghosts—this, in addition to my standard burglar fears. It was annoying—but it was also entertaining. I grew to enjoy the show despite the chills it gave me, and developed a system for mitigating the fears it brought with it. If an episode dealt with, say, the possible existence of a ghost residing in a Chicago home, I could sleep easy. Chicago was hundreds of miles from New York! Yes, there could be ghosts in New York, maybe even in my own house, but this episode was about Chicago, and in order to enjoy the thrill of the tale, I learned to perform a kind of mental negotiation for my own sake. In this way, I find that I’m now able to engage with a lot of true crime stories as well—it already happened, and if we’re lucky, the perpetrator is behind bars. I don’t do well with “murderer still at large” stories.
But perhaps that’s too simple an explanation—or too muddled a justification—for my continued fascination with harrowing tales. In a way, seeking out stories that grapple with the exact fears that keep me up at night or cast a light on ones I’ve yet to even consider is a way of steeling myself against the possibility of meeting the same fate. Should I ever find myself face to face with a madman, I imagine there’s likely not much I can do to extricate myself from the situation, but to read about madmen is to, admittedly falsely, shore up my knowledge about how to avoid them in the first place. If my fears are a potent blend of the rational and irrational, it only makes sense that my coping mechanisms ought to be a little of both, as well.
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.