“Here,” Thea said, stopping in front of a house on the corner two blocks down. “This is the place I always dream about. I can see it from my window when I’m sleeping.”
She was zipping down our street on her scooter. I was pushing Simon in the stroller, trying to let her have enough freedom to zip, but not so much freedom that she might get hurt.
She pointed to a wooden arbor, white roses climbing up its sides. It was the kind of place I dreamed about, not literally, but I think in the same way she meant, when I was a little girl. I looked back toward our house, trying to figure out if there were any way she could see this far from her bedroom window. It seemed impossible. Still, I understood. She saw it when she was sleeping in the same way I saw honeysuckle and secret gardens and mazes made of topiaries from inside my own childhood bedroom.
A few weeks later, I was pushing Thea and Simon in the jogging stroller on a warm summer morning. We ran past her preschool teacher’s house (“There’s Ms. Dee’s house!”) and continued to a narrow paved path that runs between the town dump and the senior center. The path is bordered by chain-link fences on either side, dark, overgrown with garden-variety New England weeds, and only about a hundred meters long.
“This is a magic path!” Thea exclaimed. Which was exactly why I’d taken us down it.
One evening late that summer, we packed up for a family picnic at the beach. As we walked up the wooden boardwalk from the parking lot to the sand, she warned my husband Nick: “Be careful. Fairies live here.”
“Where?” he asked.
“Underneath this bridge. They only live in places where it’s dark.”
“How many fairies live here?” This would not have been my follow-up question.
“So many. Thousands.”
In “Childhood’s False Eden,” poet Louise Bogan quotes Katherine Mansfield’s translator: “She had the privilege . . . of living in a fairyland, in the midst of a strange little phantasmagoria of which she was at once the creator and the dupe.” Later in the essay, Bogan, who had her own troubled childhood, reminds us that “childhood, prolonged, cannot remain a fairyland. It becomes a hell.” Bogan was referring to the way in which Mansfield’s life, though it may have been marked by a kind of artificially prolonged innocence that seemed like a fairyland, turned dark.
It’s nothing new to point out that fairy tales are dark, and although we imagine they were written for children, they are often cruel, sexual, gruesome. After Thea was born, I thought seriously for the first time about why fairy tales are this way, interrogating my own impulse to shelter my new daughter from anything even suggestive of suffering. It was my mom who explained that these stories are meant to be instructive. A childhood without loss, of siblings or parents, is a historical and global exception.
It was easy for me to tell myself my daughter wasn’t yet aware of darkness, and for this reason, that I should continue to shield her from fairy tales, to avoid detailed answers to her three-year-old questions about cemeteries. I admit I have done just that. I didn’t let her watch movies or TV until she was four, and we had never read from my childhood collection of fairy tales whose illustrated damsels in pointy hats were icons of my early literary imagination. And yet, in something that seems part a product of cultural ether, part inherited memory, and part collective unconscious, magic, dreams, fairies, and their underlying darkness are already part of the way Thea’s making sense of the real and imaginary worlds she inhabits.
One of my favorite games to play as a young girl was some version of orphanhood. I was lost in the woods and had to survive on berries. I was fleeing a wicked city and had to use the scraps of fabric in the basement to make new clothes. This kind of game was only possible because I lived in a comfortable house with my two loving, healthy parents, but I’ve thought more and more about the ways that even young children begin to understand that someday they’ll need to navigate the world alone. When I was a little girl playing at scavenging in the woods and transforming the child’s things I had access to into tools of survival, I was mesmerized by books like The Secret Garden and Mandy. In these books, girls lived wild and sad, but self-sufficient, in cottages and gardens, surrounded by beauty they’d nurtured. Orphan is a word we associate with children, but most of us—hopefully, even—will be someday. A thing we try not to dream about.
There’s a certain kind of space that gives me a haunted, satisfied, slightly frightened feeling. Sometimes the feeling is so strong that it’s all I can remember about a place: the corner of a canyon in Saint George, Utah; a dirt road I once ran down while working as a field organizer for the Kerry campaign in rural West Virginia; the basement of the house we rented when I was seven.
Sometimes, though, these places are so proximal to my everyday life that I can seek them out on a weekend’s long run. I can update the memory of a dark valley on the edge of my otherwise bright, clean, suburban town and investigate: Does it still feel haunted? (Yes.)
There’s a small private road that cuts through the street behind my physical therapist’s office. Sometimes the easiest way to fit everything into a day of writing and child-rearing is to combine the trip to physical therapy with a quick run before my appointment. On foggy, midwinter afternoons, I almost always find myself making a familiar right turn past the Private Road sign, realizing that without planning it, I’ve ended up running past the overgrown tennis court (now so overgrown it’s hard to tell if it ever even was a tennis court, though I swear I remember from some other run, some other year, that the rectangle enclosed behind this high fence really was a tennis court).
It’s not all atmospheric with these haunted places, though. Even in bright sunlight filtering dappled through spring trees, the overgrown easement that was surely once an old country road makes the hair on my arms stand straight up.
When I asked my mom if she’d ever walked down this road, she knew exactly where I meant. “Something happened there,” she said. I nodded. “Maybe just unrealized dreams and sorrow. But it feels like something more.”
One year the juniors in the AP English class I taught went in together on an end-of-year gift for me. They bought the oversize hardcover edition of Carl Jung’s Red Book released in 2009. We’d talked about archetypal literary analysis when we read The Scarlet Letter, and, I guess even more than I’d realized, my fascination with and confusion by Jung had made an impression. This class was small and intimate, made up of kind, interesting students who went on to become artists, activists, writers, therapists, academics. We’d grappled with the anima and the shadow together, individuation and lucid dreams, we’d used Jung’s definition of dreams as myths on a personal scale as a way to crack open the novels we read. On the day they gave me the book, we pored over it together.
According to Jung, whose dreams, like mine and Thea’s, were populated by gardens and orphans (but also snakes and demons and poison and water and gods and Christ), certain recognizable settings and characters and plots are so universal as to exist on a primitive, subconscious level. Jung believed all humans shared some, or all, of this primal understanding of symbols and that our visceral response to these archetypes is part of what connects us deeply to one another. Gardens, orphans, snakes, are the places all of us have always dreamed about. Which is why they are the staples of fairy tales and myths.
I’d heard that reading The Red Book would be disturbing, and it is. The book’s chapters bear titles like “The Castle in the Forest,” “Death,” “The Opening of the Egg,” and “The Gift of Magic.” Jung felt he couldn’t interrogate his own subconscious without the visuals that accompany the text, and writing about the book feels impossible without including the accompanying images. Jung was trained as an artist and the reproductions of his drawings are beautiful and frightening. These images were carefully scanned from Jung’s original “red book” in a secret archive in Switzerland. His beautiful calligraphic German writing is reproduced next to his drawings. These drawings are of mandalas, trees, lakes, and monsters, and though they are images Jung recalled from his dreams, they are places and things I too have dreamed about.
Jung believed the personal version of a myth is a dream. Maybe this is why the place Thea always dreamed about, although specific, was also immediately recognizable to me. Roses, like the ones Thea says she can see from her bedroom window, with their delicate beauty and their dangerous thorns, adorn fairy tales, fables, and myths across cultures and centuries. When Thea said she dreamed about them, she did not mean she saw them in her sleep, having glimpsed them out the window before I tucked her in, but rather meant something broader, older, more universal.
In The Red Book, Jung recalls a dream in which he was playing with his children in a grandly decorated castle hall when a bird landed on the table, turned into an eight-year-old blond child, and said “Only in the first hour of the night can I become human, while the male dove is busy with the twelve dead.” I wonder if being steeped in his own study of alchemy, symbols, and mythology so saturated Jung’s life that his dreams had to reflect that worldview. And, as those who opposed publishing Jung’s Red Book pointed out, there’s something deeply invasive about making a man’s private torments (Jung felt he was documenting his own psychological demise and hoped that in doing so, he might see a way to treat himself) public—it’s voyeuristic at best, possibly even exploitative.
Whether Jung himself wanted the book published was the subject of controversy in his family and the psychotherapy community. It was certainly intended as a project to analyze his own torment, a dive into his own subconscious. After all the years he spent interrogating and often debasing his own intellect, character, and soul, in the book’s epigraph, Jung explains: “the years . . . when I pursued the inner images, were the most important time of my life.” He hoped that by writing through his own psychoanalytic struggles, in a sort of dialectic form that allowed him to be both patient and analyst, he might reveal (at least to himself, if not to the public) a greater truth than he’d previously been able to access.
Deep in the woods of northwest Connecticut, just off where the Appalachian Trail briefly cuts through the state, are the ruins of what was once called Dudleytown. The mythology of Dudleytown is outsize and hard to distinguish from the facts about a settlement that really did once exist on this rocky section of wooded land near Cornwall. Crops never grew, either because of the angle of the hills and subsequent limited hours of daylight, or because of nefarious forces. The land has been uninhabited since the early years of the twentieth century either because it is inhospitable or because it is haunted. Visitors are unwelcome, either because the ruins are on private land or because of secret occult rituals happening there. Blurring the lines between these two would-be distinct options are some strange facts. For example, the land is owned by a private organization, and that organization is called the Dark Entry Forest Association. The first time I tried to go to Dudleytown, my friend Stephanie’s GPS malfunctioned and sent us driving in circles in the foothills of the Berkshires. The area is remote—certainly cell service must not be strong there.
In the weeks leading up to Halloween, No Trespassing signs line the roads in proximity to any trail visitors might use to hike, but the Spring day I visited Dudleytown was beautiful and sunny. We parked in the proper parking lot and did our trespassing only at the very end when we veered right just over a stream to walk about two hundred meters off trail. Sunlight filtered through new leaves and birds chirped (I’d read they wouldn’t, that Dudleytown is eerily quiet in stark contrast with the lively woods that surround it). The foundations of homes, the town’s church and school, old stone walls, are all still visible if you look carefully, but it’s startling how quickly nature has reclaimed the area. A hundred years doesn’t seem long enough to make a stone-built town nearly undetectable.
I’m sure Dudleytown, or any Connecticut trail, would feel different at four o’clock on a late-autumn afternoon, the sun red and dropping below the horizon already, but on this spring day it felt peaceful and interesting and storied, not haunted. I looked at the stone foundations and willed them into a place of archetypal loss and sorrow, but truthfully I brought that to the forest myself, and the darkness of Dudleytown’s legend, the curious ghost hunters, teenagers, and believers in hauntedness it draws, are separate from whatever darkness may belong to the lives that unfolded on that land.
Last spring, I went to hear a local artist, MaryEllen Hendricks, talk about her Thin Places Project. She had asked friends and strangers to name a place where the distance between the spiritual and physical world feels thin and then photographed these places and printed them on silk. Before beginning a slide show of her photographs, she passed out little cards for us to record our own thin places. The first image she projected was taken in the same place I’d written on my own card.
I’d seen the orchard for the first time on a beautiful March day, tree frogs chirping, unseasonable spring like warmth in what was still New England winter. Although I visited the orchard with a friend, I’d felt profoundly lonely that day, that month, that year. Those moments, though, in the orchard, felt bright. And haunted. But a bright, open, sunny haunted.
I don’t remember if my friend told me what he knew of the orchard’s history or if I pieced it together later from online searches—just like the road with the abandoned tennis court, nothing dark or even remarkable, just an old orchard that was now part of a multi-town land preserve.
Hendricks never used the word haunted, and I know that in Celtic theology, thin places are locations of proximity to God—to good—which feels quite different from haunting. But the lines between my haunted valley roads, abandoned tennis courts, that frightening road in West Virginia, and thin places are blurry. Dudleytown did not feel thin, though maybe in some way its visitors, with their rituals and fear, might create a different sort of opening there. Maybe all haunted places are thin but not all thin places are haunted. There is darkness even in the divine, the spiritual, but not all spirituality is dark.
Summer turned to fall, and where we live in New England, the woods really do look enchanted for a few weeks every year. One late-October weekend, while Dark Entry Road must have been carefully patrolled, my kids and I were driving through a nor’easter on winding country highways to a farm where they’d be attending a birthday party. Just after Simon fell asleep in his car seat, Thea looked out from the back seat at houses built before the Revolutionary War, past roads with names like Gallows Hill and Musket Ridge. There were no other cars on the road when she asked, “Is this a secret place?” I think she meant a thin place. She was awed, not scared, and I knew she meant the road, narrow, winding, dark, lightly traveled, but I also felt something else in her question. Is there a secret in this darkness? I also heard, or imagined I did, the relief of seeing something familiar that until just that moment had been outside the grasp of memory.
Bogan’s comment about Mansfield’s prolonged fairyland made sense to me in one way before I had children—that being stuck in childhood after one had outgrown it was a sort of purgatory and a strange corruption of the order of things. After I had children though, I understood in a visceral way how tempting it is to inadvertently make that hell. Bogan isn’t putting hell and fairylands in opposition, but instead making a more subtle point: that the darkness, what Jung came to identify as the “shadow” archetype, the awareness of loss has always already been a part of fantasy—even for children too young to articulate this darkness. And to deny children a way to explore that is wrong.
That fall, my dad and I took Thea to see a children’s theater production of Charlotte’s Web. My dad read me the book—many times—when I was little, and I’d watched the 1970s animated movie over and over again. We drove from Connecticut to Tribeca, Thea asking over and over again when we’d be in New York City. When the play started, I was alarmed to realize I’d forgotten something so essential to the plot: Charlotte dies at the end. Her egg sac and her writing for Wilbur are her life’s work. In the dark theater, I turned to my dad, tears running from my eyes, and saw he was crying too. Thea shout-whispered, oblivious: “Where’s Fern?”
Not long after we saw the play, I started reading the book to Thea, a chapter or two at a time. I was delighted by White’s humor and vocabulary; the book felt like such a rare thing in children’s literature: carefully constructed and smart but also innocent, sweet even, but not saccharine. Thea would ask all sorts of questions—why would Fern’s brother be sent to bed without supper? What is supper?
The first time we read the book, I grew increasingly worried as we neared the end. I knew Thea hadn’t understood what happened in the play but I thought that the intimacy of reading about Charlotte’s death might make it unavoidable or even traumatic. Yet, after days of methodically reading a chapter or two a day, the book suddenly disappeared the day I’d thought we’d begin the final chapter. By the time it turned up, weeks later, we’d lost momentum and so started back at the beginning again. I read once that children often approach frightening topics like grief and loss by walking right up to what they can tolerate to understand and then backing away.
Thea is sensitive, especially about getting older. I know it sounds like I’m projecting, and because I myself have become so much more sentimental about aging since I had children, it’s possible that some of the feelings I ascribe to her are either imagined or an unfair result of some subconscious anxiety I’ve passed along to her. But, since she was very young, I’ve noticed a deep-seated resistance to change that is more whimsical and nostalgic than stubborn. I bought her new socks—low-cut like the ones I wear with my running shoes but sparkly since she’s four—and she refused to wear them. “They make me look like I’m in elementary school,” she told me sadly.
After we almost finished reading Charlotte’s Web, we watched the 1973 movie I remember from my own childhood. Thea started calling herself Fern and loved reenacting the scene where Fern sings to Wilbur. She asked me to do her hair like Fern’s and for a dress as beautiful as the one Fern wears to the fair (as a little girl, I also loved that outfit, a pink dress whose sash matched Fern’s hair bow). We’ve often walked to and from preschool with a stuffed pig in a doll stroller.
Like the book, the movie, particularly its soundtrack, has held up well, and like the book, the questions it has prompted have been mostly fun to answer. Why does the song at the beginning have parts of all the other songs in it? What does Wilbur mean when he says “we’ve got lots in common where it really counts”? Why do those men dance and sing with canes? She didn’t ask any of the questions I’d been afraid she might: what exactly Charlotte was trying to save Wilbur from, where Charlotte goes after the fair, or even why Mr. Arable is carrying an ax at the beginning of the story. I wasn’t even sure she knew what the word killed meant.
The other night I was cooking dinner and we were, as usual, listening to the soundtrack. Thea was calling herself Fern and Simon Avery when Charlotte’s sad, wonderfully seventies ballad “Mother Earth and Father Time” came on. Thea said, “Mama, do you like this song?”
“I do. Do you?”
“I think it’s sad.” It is sad, which is why I like it. My favorite lines are “how very special are we / for just a moment to be / part of life’s eternal rhyme.” Of course.
“What do you think is sad about it?”
“But the words aren’t sad,” I lied, and immediately wished I’d thought of something truer to say by way of explanation.
The second time we started the novel, we read it all the way through. This time, Thea fixated on the scene where Fern’s mother goes to visit the pediatrician, asking him if she should be concerned that Fern’s spending all her time with animals she believes can talk. Dr. Dorian’s response is full of admiring wonder. He says that it’s not the writing in the web that’s a miracle, but the web itself. And he suggests that it’s likely the animals in the barn cellar really can talk, only adults are too self-absorbed to notice:
“I never heard one say anything,” he replied. “But that proves nothing. It is quite possible that an animal has spoken civilly to me and that I didn’t catch the remark because I wasn’t paying attention. Children pay better attention than grownups. If Fern says that the animals in Zuckerman’s barn talk, I’m quite ready to believe her.”
White is gently (and like everything in the book, it really does feel gentle) mocking Mrs. Arable for her failure to understand the magical, full world Fern inhabits when she’s on the farm, but he’s also refuting her assumption that her adult perspective is the way that Fern ought to experience the world.
When we read that Fern began to visit the barn less frequently, Thea grew concerned. “Where’s Fern?” she asked insistently in each scene where Wilbur appeared without her. “When is Fern coming back?” Although she’s cast herself as Fern and sees the book as a story about Fern, here she saw herself as Wilbur, fearing that one day, I would not come back. Of course she’s Fern to Wilbur, Wilbur only to Charlotte. My parents are Charlotte to me, an acknowledgment that the tearful eye contact I made with my dad had communicated. Thea didn’t need to know the word killed—though I suspect she did know it somehow, even if I’d never taught it to her—to understand the inevitability of loss that saturates the book.
When “Mother Earth and Father Time” came on, Thea told me again that it was sad.
“It is,” I agreed again.
“The notes are sad.”
I didn’t want to lie this time. I flipped back through rusty music lesson memory, trying to remember what it was about minor keys. Was the song even in a minor key? And what exactly was a key, anyway? Undeterred by my incomplete understanding, I offered: “I think that’s because it’s in a minor key.”
This seemed to satisfy Thea, and then she asked, again, for confirmation: “But you like this song?”
“It is kind of sad. But sometimes sad things can be beautiful.”
She seemed satisfied. I think she already understood what I did about the song, even if she couldn’t or wouldn’t fully articulate it. And, in that same way, she knows that fairies live in darkness and the path to the dump is magic and Gallows Hill Road is secret. The places we always dream about.