The Healing Power of Dark Stories
Last week’s attacks in Paris were the latest in a particularly gruesome series of events that have dominated the news. In the past two weeks alone, we’ve seen the downing of an Egyptian airplane, suicide bombings of civilians in Jordan, and racially-motivated gun threats at a college campus at the University of Missouri.
We’ve always lived in a world where violence is unpredictable.
However, the type of indiscriminate violence we’re seeing now seems to be the new normal. Many parents wonder how we can help our younger kids grapple with pervasive, anxiety-provoking news of the horrors tugging at the edges of our lives. The approaches we tend to use fall into one of two categories: sheltering kids from the news or providing practical tools to help them protect themselves.
I want to propose that a third tool – unfiltered fantasies of darkness and disorder – is equally important, and to pay tribute to one of the masters of that form.
Our instincts are usually to shield our kids from the news completely, though this is hardly possible. Our children overhear whispered phone conversations, peek over our shoulders when we’re online, catch snippets on the radio, read headlines on the papers at the bus stop, or hear about it from their teachers or friends at school.
There’s a practical approach which is best exemplified by the lockdown drills held in schools across the country. They are my children’s version of the “duck and cover” drills practiced at the end of the Cold War, when “the Russians” and nuclear war were perceived as looming threats. But most kids – especially younger kids – can’t cognitively process what these drills are supposed to be protecting them from.
They also don’t understand the complexity of the violence they hear about in the news.
Children’s books – especially relatable stories that address feelings of grief and anger while reinforcing the message that adults are doing everything they can to protect their kids – also fall into this category of practical tools.
Sometimes, though, kids need to connect with their more unconscious and darker feelings.
In these moments, it’s useful to reach for unconventional narratives and imagery that reflect their lived reality.
At home, we have a signed lithograph of one of Maurice Sendak’s lesser-known illustrations, from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s book Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories. It’s a profoundly unsettling image of a man with horns, bat wings, and goat’s feet, eyes wide open and staring, sticking out his tongue.
I always thought it was creepy, if a little bit whimsical – a fitting image for a Jewish folk tradition that's steeped in both humor and the supernatural.
Yet it was only a few years ago, when I went to an exhibit on Sendak at the Jewish Museum in San Francisco, that I got the full story on this image and understood the full terror of it.
The image of the winged devil, Sendak noted, is Hitler–evil incarnate, who appears in the guise of a villager with his Nazi elves to slaughter the Jews in the shtetls.
As the child of Jewish immigrants, stories of shtetl life and the Holocaust loomed large in Sendak’s life, especially his childhood. He also felt traumatized by the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby in 1932, an event that shaped later stories such as Outside Over There, in which the baby is taken away by goblins.
Sendak understood that children are defenseless and that adults have a hard time accepting it. He once commented to cartoonist Art Spiegelman,“Childhood is deep and rich. It’s vital, mysterious and profound. I remember my own childhood vividly. I knew terrible things...But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew...It would scare them.”
“Childhood is deep and rich. It’s vital, mysterious and profound. I remember my own childhood vividly. I knew terrible things...But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew...It would scare them.”
Sendak’s books are filled with monsters, changelings, goblins, and strange, oversized men baking a boy into cake. They don’t feature tidy resolutions to conflicts or direct negotiations with adults.
The humanity and complexity with which Sendak portrays children–their fears, their emotions and their power – taps directly into the unconscious mind of kids. This is why his stories have been handed down from generation to generation.
Adults can’t ever truly protect children. From an early age, Sendak knew this. And so, he created worlds in which they defend themselves.
Of course, in our own childhoods, we were often able to conjure up actual people and places to the angst that kept us up at night – even if they were as abstract and implausible a threat as “the Russians” were when I was a schoolchild.
Today’s devils and monsters who wreak terror in our schools and cities–well, they could be anybody. What remains the same is our inability to protect our children, and the continued need for storytellers like Sendak to construct narratives that tap into the complex psyches of young children.
We desperately need these monsters, and we need our children to feel they can slay them, even if only in their dreams.