Memory of Terror

I read Tralee Pearce’s article about children and upsetting news with a combination of relief and recognition.  It is interesting that one aspect of children’s exposure to news about natural disasters is through schools’ fundraising efforts, and that has certainly been the case for our two eldest.  My sons, thankfully, have not shown any signs of having difficulty coping with news about the events around the world for which our family and their school fundraise.  I have lived in both Haiti and Japan, so the disasters hit close to (a previous) home.  We worked as a family to raise money for the relief efforts, and we discussed what had happened and how our efforts could begin to help.  Almost all of the kids’ exposure to these events, though, would have been aural.  The children do not yet use the internet at home, and we do not have television on at all during the week, so they would not have seen any news footage of the devastation.  (They use their precious television time on the weekend for cartoons and sports highlights.)  They might have seen the images on the front page of the newspaper, but if they did, they did not comment or show any signs of having difficulty with what they saw. 

Relief, then, that the boys have been able to participate in doing good and not be affected negatively by their awareness of disaster.  The recognition is of my own terror in childhood.

When I was seven years old, my mother and brother and I lived with my grandmother in Yorkshire for a few months while my father was finishing up work in Haiti and transitioning to the next job in Saudi Arabia.  

During our time there, a serial rapist and murderer was on the loose, and the tabloids called him the Yorkshire Ripper.   He was in the middle of what would be a six-year killing spree, so had an established track record of crime, but had not yet been caught.

I could read at that age, so I imagine I must have seen and read the headlines.   I would also certainly have seen the television news.  There was one television, it was on all afternoon and evening, and it dominated the living space of my grandmother’s cramped house.  I have no specific memory of how the information about this man was imparted to me, and I know that I did not understand the sexual aspect of the crimes, but I understood what murder was well enough and I understood that the only people in danger were female.   I also remember my utter terror of going upstairs to bed alone in case he could get into the house and kill me.   I would begin to feel nauseous every night right after dinner, because bedtime loomed and I was terrified of what came next.  My mother and grandmother were able to calm me by keeping the hall lights on and door at the bottom of the stairs open so that I could hear their voices or the sound of the television as I fell asleep.  I remember laying very still every night and listening intently for any sound that was not from the light and safety of the adults downstairs. 

My fear eventually bubbled over into hysteria one night when my mother went out to a pub with her cousins, leaving my brother and me with my grandmother.  I cried all evening as she got ready, wailed that I didn’t want her to go out, filled up with more and more panic as the time drew near for her to leave, and had to be pried off of her, crying hysterically, as she went out the door.  I had a new fear; I was afraid she would be killed.  Here’s the thing: I did not tell anyone why I did not want her to go out.  I knew that if I spoke my fear out loud, it would be laughed off.  A part of me knew it was irrational, but a bigger part of me was terrified nonetheless. 

This, I think, is the great difficulty with children’s anxiety: we cannot know how deep it goes or how deeply our reasoning will penetrate if and when they tell us what scares them.  One more good reason to keep the television off.  Pierce’s article asks “How much upsetting news should children see?”  I say, “None.”  Keep the television off and talk about the news of the day instead.  I don’t want the boys to grow up in an insular bubble, but I remember my own terror and am glad our house does not have a television as a part of our daily engagement with the world.