Soul-Searching with Andre Dubus
I sit on my bed in the dark and hear my closet door creak open ever so slightly. I look up and see a figure perched in the opening of the door frame, cloaked and silent. When I lurch to turn on the light, the figure turns into the inflatable golf club I won at an arcade that summer. And so I turn off the light and avert my eyes from what I know has become the silent figure again.
I imagine my fear and this figure, one resting inside me and one resting across the room, quietly assuring each other of their coexistence, their symbiotic relationship. I am the gracious host, feeding them every cooked up fantasy and nightmare I could imagine. Every night I let them exist and thrive in the comfort of my home while I pull my blanket over my head, convinced somehow that this is the solution to my fear of the dark.
In 1961, a young writer named Andre Dubus recounts in an essay how he wakes in his bed to a young ghost on a Marine ship. He switches the light on and off and watches the drunk and grinning ghost appear and disappear in front of him. Unafraid, Dubus doesn’t see a terrorizing and insidious figure, but a young man. So, rather than pulling his blanket over his head, or running away down the hall, he faces him and opens his mouth to ask: “What do you want?” Before he gets a chance to speak, however, the ghost vanishes as quickly as he came. Dubus takes a deep breath and lies down, drifting into a slumber.
Before reading this essay, all the representations I had seen of the fear of the dark--mostly in movies--were either meant to comfort children or to scare the shit out of adults. Because of this, I kept my own fear to myself, embarrassed to admit that as a nineteen-year-old I was still affected by what I perceived as a strictly childhood fear. We all know the image of a child asking a parent to check under the bed for monsters. That would not be me; I was a man. I would check under the bed all by myself. And so I spent years searching under my bed before discovering Dubus in the summer after my sophomore year in college. He treated fear with the same and equal compassion as one would associate with love, not as a childish skin to be shed in adulthood.
In Dubus’s world, ghosts drift in the corridors not to terrorize humanity, but to beg to be understood.
Dubus, a devout Catholic, lived a life in the mode of empathy and holiness that perhaps is only achieved by those who believe in salvation through a higher authority. Stemming from his profound religiosity is a kind of writing that becomes a sacrament between himself and his reader, imbued with the constant struggle to understand the incomprehensible. In his own words, Dubus reflects on his encounter with the ghost in saying:
“I have of course thought much about that night, from time to time in the past twenty-two years, and my only answer is this: the ghost did not mean to frighten me, but meant instead to convey his own need. For when I first saw him, then quickly saw him again, swaying drunkenly, with that grin widening into his bloated cheeks, he made me want to help him to find his way to his room. He looked only young and friendly and absolutely helpless.”
In stark contrast to my own dealings with fear, Dubus finds comfort in his struggle. He writes of his ears not with embarrassment, but with the same empathy and compassion he finds in his writing about Catholicism. Dubus’s world, even in its darkest hours, is not a place to be feared, but rather welcomed with open arms; it is a place pleading to be understood, even when incomprehensibility forces itself on the moment. In Dubus’s world, ghosts drift in the corridors not to terrorize humanity, but to beg to be understood.
Dubus—incredibly—doesn’t distance himself from his fear, but rather the opposite: he marries himself to it. The ghost in front of him, young, friendly, helpless, and in need, is in a way a reflection of Dubus himself. And isn’t it a reflection of all of us, too? Who are we if not people groping for meaning in an incomprehensible world, looking for others to help us find our way? Our fears, whether they manifest themselves as ghosts, the dark, or spiders are the darker halves of our own selves, the halves that we have yet to shed light on.
I put down the book and thought back to the nights I spent in my bedroom with the figure in my closet, and to one winter night in the woods of Sewickley, Pennsylvania, where I trudged with three friends and my brother with nothing better to do, trespassing through a snowy wooded property. As we took an abandoned canoe out onto a small reservoir of water that hadn’t yet frozen over, I felt something lurking in the shadows.
After a roundabout in the canoe, we docked and continued our trek on foot, and I let my laughter and animation veil my fear as branches cracked and snow crunched under footsteps. At one point I needed to pee and so walked off the trail on my own and stared off into the dark of the woods. As I peed I felt a pair eyes from a window lock on my figure. Yet, I tried to concentrate on the melting snow and the rising steam from the urine instead.
A moment later I heard the cracking of a branch, and in a panic I fell in the snow, smacking my head and covering myself in my own piss. I pulled my pants up and sprinted away, and when I reached my friends I told them we needed to get the fuck out of there.
Why can’t fear be all of those things as well? A darkness within our selves that is intertwined with the possibility of wonder and mystery.
So, on that nighttime excursion with my high school friends, what exactly had I been afraid of encountering in the shadows? If, when I fell, the eyes I had imagined staring at me had manifested into a real figure, I likely would have seen—had I stuck around long enough—a reflection of myself in some way: a figure, nervous and silently pleading with their eyes to not be hurt, helplessly stirring in the cold night trying to convey their own need of comfort and care.
Perhaps that was the same reflection that had stood in my closet at night, paralyzed by its own fear; the same reflection that, when I switched on the light, simply transformed back into my inflatable golf club, too nervous and skeptical of confrontation. In all the moments where fear had dogged me, I simply needed to open my arms and embrace it. I would have realized that I held myself.
In truth, reading Dubus’s essay that evening didn’t wash away my fear of… anything. The same anxiety to turn a corner into a dark hallway, to turn off the light, or to go outside at night, remained. Yet Dubus gave me a vocabulary and an understanding of fear that I would have never encountered if not for him. Love is mysterious, wonderful, and hard work. Why can’t fear be all of those things as well? A darkness within our selves that is intertwined with the possibility of wonder and mystery.
That summer I started to go on nightly walks. I would tie my shoes, open my front door, and step outside, looking out at the faint light cast by the moon over my driveway. The same webbed shadows I’d known for years would beckon me forward. And every night—to be sure—I imagined what hooded Freddy Kreuger-type would be waiting for me at the end of the street.
He would be lit only halfway by the gross white light of the street lamps, a bloody knife in hand. And yet despite Freddy Kreuger and the bloody knife, I smiled as I ran back through my front door on my return, eager to go out again the next night. I realized soon that my walks were a nightly ritual, an admission of my fear and a recognition of both myself and the reflection of myself in the shadows.
Dubus’s sacrament of writing had translated into my walks. I had finally begun not to view my fear as a death-sentence, but rather something to be claimed, empathized with, and ultimately, grateful for. Both those walks and my fear of the dark that accompanied them were an acknowledgement of life, even if I believed occasionally that I was risking death. In the denial of my fear to myself and to my friends, I was denying part of my life.
In the rejection of ourselves, our whole selves, we will often be left running away from our fears in pee-soaked clothes. And yet, in the act of a nighttime stroll, and in the sacred acceptance of our whole selves, we’ll find the figures standing in front of us to be what we knew and wanted them to be: our darker halves conveying their need, youthful and helpless.