Monsters in the walls

When I was little, a lion was living in the walls outside my room. I knew this couldn’t possibly be true, but I was also terrified any time I went into the hall because I could hear him growling.

Years later, I figured out what that sound really was. Our old Victoria-style house had a turbine vent on the roof, and when it got clogged with ice during the winter, it made a deep, ominous growling noise that seemed to be emerging from the walls.

I did not tell anybody, though, because there were actually two things I was afraid of: The lion and being told I was imagining the lion. So I quaked through many nights, terrified.

I am not mad at my parents. It was the ’70s, and parenting standards were different. I’ve done the same thing to my kids—shushing their fears, telling them not to be silly—before I knew better. 

This is one of my earliest memories, and it’s probably why I felt so deeply for the poor kid in North Carolina who turned out to have 60,000 bees living in her walls.

She, unlike me, persistently told her parents for eight months what she heard: monsters. Her parents eventually investigated and sure enough, there was a hive so gigantic that they had to tear into the walls to remove it all. Honey everywhere, dead bees everywhere. A true nightmare.

I first heard about this story because a friend pointed out that, when the bee experts removed all the bees from the toddler’s walls, the mother said to her child: “See? They’re taking the monsters away.” My friend said the mom clearly meant well, but it was a missed opportunity. Bees are not monsters! They are friends and essential to life on earth.

My friend pointed out that the kid will likely have a lifelong fear of bees since the mother affirmed for her that they are indeed monsters. And that would be a monstrous thing in itself, to live forever in fear of something you can’t escape and that is your great helper.

I think that if the child does have trauma, it will have stemmed from three possible causes: the bees themselves, of course, and perhaps the mother affirming that they are monsters. But also those eight months when no one believed her about the bee noise, even though she could hear it.

When you are consistently told, “The distressing thing is silly, and you shouldn’t be upset. You’re making it up. You can’t trust your own experience, and you should be ashamed of thinking you can”—this is a monstrous growl that reverberates well into adulthood, well into every adult relationship, well into your career, well into your understanding of faith and your sense of self. A message like that can be more life-limiting than any specific insect-phobia.

The real solution for the child, of course, would have been to strike a balance. To affirm her fear, to praise her for telling someone, and then eventually, when she was ready, to introduce her to the idea of how wonderful bees really (usually) are.

Why am I writing about this for a Catholic publication? Because I’m thinking, as I seemed doomed to be doing forever, of the sex abuse scandal.

I’m thinking about people who have been terrorized by someone representing the church, and who therefore fear or despise the Catholic Church and maybe even God himself. I’m thinking about how hard it is to respond to them with the right balance.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

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