I've been struggling with NaNoWriMo for a couple of days for various reasons. The latest one is that a huge revelation occurred that I don't know how to process. It's so huge, yet so personal, no one else can appreciate its bigness. (If my parents were alive, I could just tell them about it, and that would probably resolve the whole thing. They would be glad for an answer to my biggest lifelong puzzle.) I thought, "Oh, I'll write down what this has been like." But it seems to be like forcing a huge amount of air through asthmatic bronchial tubes. I thought I might just record it all aloud, but l think I would start crying, not from sadness, but from being overwhelmed. I have already cried twice since my discovery. It has been many years since I was the sort of girl who cried at the drop of a hat.
And nothing you're about to read will sound the least bit overwhelming to you; I feel it as I write it, so it comes out thin and watered-down. But I have to, so I can get back to the thing.
Once a few years ago, I was walking through some woods in New Jersey (let's be perfectly clear; outside the largest urban areas, and west of the shoreline, New Jersey is made of woods. It's not at all what you think you know) and I came to this beautiful clearing. I sat on a fallen tree for awhile and contemplated things. As one does. A sort of vision came to mind that was so clear and real and detailed, I thought it must have been something I actually saw before. But I had this impression it was in Virginia or North Carolina back when it was also Virginia, where my dad's family settled when they arrived from Britain at the end of the 17th century. There was a cabin in the clearing and it was on fire, and a girl was laughing at a woman who could not rise from her four-postered curtained bed.
And the clearing looked just like where I was sitting. It felt like some sort of epiphany. I was connected to that experience. Every year after that, until I moved to Ohio in 2011, I went to the woods in August, found a clearing, and waited for it to wash over me again. Popping up or over to the woods in Southwestern Ohio isn't really a thing, so for the past two years, August has just been a month to be in. I had this idea for awhile that something in the mystery and magic of physics caused me to be connected to the girl at the cabin who watched her sister or mother burn. I had a brief notion I could be the woman who burned, but I don't really believe life and death work quite so directly.
Plus, in the dreams I had nearly nightly from age 3 or 4 to age 17, I was never in harm's way. Particularly scary dreams about fire would follow a day in which I saw smoke in the sky, or a fire on TV, or having been away from home, uncertain it would be there when I returned. A fire drill at school would trigger a bad one. But most of them were fairly inert. In all the dreams, fire burned unchecked but never seemed to actually consume anything. (In one dream, the fire wasn't unchecked; it remained a tiny flame on the hearth which never grew, and frightened me as I watched to see what would happen.) The scariest part was waking up from them, light from a window making me wonder if the trees were on fire, noises from the heater or the electricity in the walls making me wonder if something was shorting out, soon to burn throughout the house. If I was too warm, I felt the door once I worked up the nerve to get out of bed, checked for smoke coming in at the bottom before opening it. But for years, I didn't have that nerve and just had to call out to my parents, too quietly at first, then louder in panic that they might not wake to hear me.
No one did much about you if you were weird back in the 70s unless you were violent or used only the red crayon. You'd grow out of it in time. There are a couple things I'd have maybe been diagnosed with if I was a kid 30-40 years later than I was, but back then, no one was particularly curious about or patient with a weirdo. It was mostly, "How about you stop being like that now? It makes people uncomfortable." The school counselor I was made to see for a few weeks in third grade gave up fairly quickly on our Monday meetings. I have a feeling he just thought I was lame, and too smart not to stop being so. But I'll stop digressing; this isn't about the fire dreams, it's merely and probably the bigger solution to why an event triggered something that would not ever fully end, even after I was an adult and could manage it for myself. We'll get back to that.
Once, just down the street, a magnificent old house that had fallen on hard times began smoking early in the morning. I mean that quite literally. It smoked itself to destruction. I came downstairs and saw my mom on the phone, looking through the front door. A neighbor had called, worried I'd see it and freak out. I went to school thinking about that house all day, and afterwards, of course walked over to have a look at it.
You're wondering about the "of course," unless you grew up in a small town with no real system of operations and the worst volunteer fire department known to have ever existed. The house just smoked all day, and later on, there'd be a flame you could see, but it never erupted into flames until many hours later. I went over to look at it with someone, and had this vague sense that it ought to be dealt with, but didn't quite realize it was destroying itself and no one would stop it. I think later I was told "kids were playing with matches," something like that. And eventually it did burn, and some men came and sort of aimed water at it, but by morning it was a charred hull that we were no longer allowed to go near. I don't remember what I dreamed that night, but I know I did.
It probably wasn't the most recurring dream, which featured a canopy bed much like my own, but in a larger, older room, with a woman laughing as someone burned, and I wasn't either the woman or the someone; but I'd wake up hot, anyway.
What the grownups didn't know was that I was never truly afraid of a fire I could see someone start or that I could start myself. It was when it was something outside my control that I felt scared. We had a huge fireplace in our house and I enjoyed sitting by it very much. But then I worried in the middle of the night that it hadn't been extinguished properly.
At some point, I began asking questions about my dreams. Apparently, they started farther back than I was ever able to remember them, but my parents did. I asked if I'd ever seen anything like some of what I described, but no one thought so. I thought maybe they'd started after we moved when I was five, because the house we lived in before that was burned down (by actual teenagers, I was told,) shortly after the county claimed eminent domain over the property, which sits above Blue River Road in South Kansas City, on the Grandview side. But it seems they started a year or two before that. I don't remember, even now.
I imagine people grew bored of my fire dreams. As I grew too old to call out for my parents and to crawl into bed with them, I just had to lie there night after night, convincing myself nothing was wrong, and if I looked out my center window, the trees would not be on fire. If we were driving back home from the city and I saw smoke on the horizon, I had to reassure myself it would not be from the charred remains of my house.
We moved again when I was 16. The dreams were less frequent, but no less difficult to handle or understand. One evening, about a year or so later, my mom got another phone call about a house burning that was being featured on the news. It was the house I'd grown up in. A fire had started in the garage and was so badly bungled by the fire department, it spread through the house, which was by then over 120 years old, and destroyed it. The only photograph I have of the house is a terrible snapshot that looks just like something which never quite existed. Okay, there are two. This one shows just part of the house with Mom and I nice and blurry in front of it.
I both love and am saddened by how terrible this photo is.
There's a lot I don't remember. I remember how it all felt because I can still feel it. For the whole rest of my life, though the dreams have been less frequent, they've included most often one which is set in that house, or along that street, and nothing is as it should be. Sometimes the whole thing is hollowed out by fire, or just fallen apart, or very, very messy. And I'm always so relieved to wake up, but still a little afraid to go back to sleep. The sense of dread never fully departs, though logic and reason allow me to bank it back down to a tolerable level.
I only just saw The Towering Inferno last year, because I didn't know how I'd feel about it. But I need as much William Holden in my life as I can have, so I finally sat through it and that was perfectly all right. Plus I enjoy setting fires, anyway; in the fireplace or the grill, candles, etc. They're a great part of life, after all, providing both warmth and cleansing. But I have spent a lot of time over the years trying to pin down why I have been oppressed by these dreams. The epiphany in the woods brought back a lot of memories to sort, and I drilled it all down to something I thought I must have seen on TV, like on Night Gallery or One Step Beyond. So for the past 5 years or so, whenever I thought of it, I'd do a web search for a description of what I thought I might have seen, but none of it was quite the thing until I was watching Sleepy Hollow with my son on Monday night.
In the episode, there was a reference to someone called a Sin Eater. I had a laugh, telling my son about the most scary thing I could remember seeing on TV as a child; a Night Gallery episode wherein Richard Thomas has to eat food off someone's body in order to take their sins before they are buried. (That's all I'm saying, because, go watch it on Hulu. Second segment. Seriously. You will never think about butter again without seeing him lick his fingers.) But when I Googled the episode, I learned it was on TV shortly before I turned seven years old! My parents were so irresponsible about that kind of thing. Who brings their kid to see The French Connection at that age, as well? And The Poseidon Adventure? I still see that poor captain's face sometimes. But I digress.
Or not, because as it turns out, that's the point. I forgive them, bless their souls. However, at some point in the late 60s, I saw something on TV that so messed with my head, I've spent the last 45 years dealing with it and trying to figure it out. After seeing the sin eater episode description, I started typing in other keywords with "Night Gallery," and this is what I saw that led me to the answer.
I found the title at IMDb, and nearly fainted. Actually, I think I shouted, which is sort of the opposite of fainting. I read the synopsis at TCM, and looked at Google Images. It was like staring Memory directly in its mad, mad face. That's when I started crying the first time.
Let me stop and point out that I totally get why this is actually hilarious, seen from above and beyond. THE DEAD WOMAN IN MY DREAMS WAS ZSA ZSA GABOR. It basically scarred me for life, so I have mixed feelings about your laughter. But here's a funny review of how the movie got made so you can laugh some more.
I cried because it was right there in B-movie purgatory this whole time, and because it was so overwhelming to discover and because I can't tell my parents the mystery has been solved, or even sort of yell at them for the tortured memories I have of film violence, which is probably why I'd hit the classic screwball comedy medication hard by the time I turned ten, and I texted someone I thought would understand how I felt but got a lame not-at-all-getting-it answer in return. Which, okay, fair enough.
So now what? Nothing, really. I just go on, same as before. How annoying, right? It isn't the end of the rainbow, or Willy Wonka's glass elevator (another movie that scarred me,) or a lottery ticket or a suddenly happy and warm life. Yet it is absolutely the answer to why this happened to me. Well, partly. I think it's safe to say most people would not have had this experience of literally thousands of nightmares about the same thing based on a movie they saw as a toddler. It's ironic that I spent so many years sleeping in a canopy bed, or else my mother knew all along and it was her secret plot to torment me, but probably not. It's ironic that the childhood homes I remember (there was one more, where I was just a baby,) both burned down shortly after I moved out. And it's true that I was such a weirdly sensitive kid that I had to shut parts of myself off to the outside in order to not continually fall apart around negative energy.
But I'm just me here now, 48 years old, and I can still feel it all yet be withdrawn from it, as I choose. So here's a thing you should watch, which is about all you need to take from this long essay or from the movie that spawned it. You need some introduction to it, though. It's a 25 minute long video review of Picture Mommy Dead, aka The Movie that Tormented My Childhood, by this guy who...is a sort of explosion of gay and nerd and self-consciousness. Mostly I want him not to sit in a chair with arms, and maybe be somewhat less arch in presentation, not project so much, however, I like how the thing is put together, and it's really worth watching just to see how drunk Wendell Corey can be and still appear on an ABC Monday Night Movie in 1966.
And so. And so, and so, and so, and so, and so.