Intimacy with Personal Monsters & Un-Monsters

A Monstrous Tree?

Have you ever looked at a tree and seen a monster? When I was five, I was terrorized by thinking that the giant sequoia I was about to drive through would bend over to snatch me from the back seat.

Photo Credit: Mark Crawly, flickr

As an adult, in the middle of a windy night, I was awoken by a sound like a gunshot. My car was totaled when the walnut tree I’d parked under snapped. (The insurance did not cover an ‘act of God.’) A decade or so later, I cleaned-up shattered window glass after an arborist removed a cedar tree that was growing too close to the house. While I appreciate the daily benefits of breathing, I recognize the hazards trees can cause when things go wrong.

For me, the car totaling experience resolved the age-old philosophical question about the sound a tree makes (or doesn’t make) when it falls in the woods. The same debates about the nature of reality and how it relates to experience can be applied to monsters.

Are there really extra large, hair-covered, humanoids hiding in the forests of the Pacific Northwest? Does a diabetic older man enter your house each year with the intent to delight your children? (It’s OK! He’s not a stranger, he knows what they’ve been thinking.)

historic Spanish sea monster
Historic Spanish sea monster

Monsters are grown inside an electrically charged, submerged, gelatin-like structure that everyone carries inside their skull. This magnificent organ has evolved to specialize in pattern recognition. When we see or experience something that doesn’t make sense or for which we have no prior information, our brains concoct stories that seem real and make sense.

Addiction, accidents, rejection, unrealistic expectations, loss, grief and the fear of disappearing

are a few of the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that breathe life into our own personal monsters.

chaos and the sun god
Chaos and the sun god

Because we are social creatures, our monsters can spread like a virus. Screaming fire in a crowded amphitheater or a run on the market because a rumor predicted a crash are examples of monsters gone viral.

Monsters are as adaptable. as we are. Before we understood the stages of decomposition, we thought evil spirits inhabited dead bodies, causing them to move. Every time we drop our kids off at school, we hope that a gunman doesn’t lose his marbles anywhere in the neighborhood. We worry that refugees and immigrants are taking our jobs.

With easy access to a world of information and a bit of discernment, monsters can be vaporized. Yet, instead of doing the work to accomplish this, many of us cozy up to them, inviting them to tea, and letting them share our pillow at night.

Monsters are with us to stay. Many of them are portrayed as hideous and frightful, while others are beguiling. All of them signal some kind of danger and remind us to be alert.

With certainty, we know that tomorrow’s monster will be different from today’s.

Below is a variety of contemporary and classic monster representations and lists of themes they exemplify.

istoric depiction of body parts and monster assembly in Frankenstien
A historic depiction of body parts and monster assembly in Frankenstein

 

Frankenstein

contemporary portrayal of Frankenstein monster running through the woods

  • Parental rejection
  • Grief & loss from children dying (bringing the dead back to life)
  • Love outside of acceptable social norms
  • Weariness of industrial age science

 

The Shape of Water creature

  • Disenfranchised finding a voice
  • Courage to defy authority
  • Courage to fight for justice
  • Love outside social norms

 

 

Haylee and the Travelers Stone and Haylee and the Last Traveler book cover art
Haylee and the Travelers Stone and Haylee and the Last Traveler book covers

 

Haylee in the Traveler’s Stone & the Last Traveler

  • Power of sexual attraction
  • Responsibility for dependents
  • Reconciliation of love outside expectations
  • Acceptance that all wrongs can’t be repaired

 

a lightning strike causes Adeline to stop aging in Age of Adeline
A lightning strike causes Adeline to stop aging in Age of Adeline
contemporary portrayal of a vampire - exploration of immortality
Contemporary portrayal of a vampire – exploration of immortality

Age of Adeline & Vampires

  • Power of sexual attraction/ youth
  • Societal parasite
  • Fear of death
  • Immortality exploration

 

 

P.T. Barnum style poster of Phineas Gage after his TBI
P.T. Barnum style poster of Phineas Gage after his TBI

Phineas Gage

  • Physical deformity and social rejection
  • Loss of expectations for a young life (caused by a traumatic brain injury)
  • Anger from a detrimental, permanent change of circumstances
  • Family response to long-term care requirements
  • Legendary, iconic brain science/psychology touchstone

 

Chinese Railroad Workers’ Jaingshi

  • Conquering nature
  • Facing death, injury & disfigurement
  • Removed from and longing for culture and familiar
  • Racism and social ostracization
  • Fear of being lost & forgotten
graffiti in the Donner Summit train tunnels depicts contemporary monsters
Graffiti in the Donner Summit train tunnels depicts contemporary monsters

Contemporary Train Tunnel Graffiti

Colorful monsters and beasties painted on snowshed walls at Donner Summit tell their own stories.

  • Injustice
  • Disenfranchised finding a voice
  • Addiction
  • Fear of death
  • Self-expression
  • Seizing power
  • Claiming a space in place
  • Fear of being lost and forgotten

 

Un monster collage
Un-monster collage

Lisa’s Un-Monsters

The collage reflects the ugliness and beauty of struggles with self-criticism. Matching an image to feelings allows expression of concepts that seem impossible to say out loud.

  • Unconscious, underwater, unseen, unknown, unheard
  • Exposed
  • Choking with self-doubt

 

a cairn built on top of the center shaft cap for tunnel #6 at Donner Summit
A cairn built on top of the center shaft cap for tunnel #6 at Donner Summit

Like ice sculptures, sand castles, and graffiti, monster varieties come and go. They change with what we are thinking about at a particular moment in time, and they allow us to put faces on our fears.

 

Resources:

KQED – Why Don’t Murals Get Covered by Graffiti in the Mission? – “…you first need to know that there are three groups: graffiti writers, street artists and muralists.”

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The Murder’s Maid, Erika Mailman – Historical Fiction Book Review

Legendary murder crime story with a contemporary edge.

Bridget Sullivan is the Borden family maid. She’s an Irish immigrant and a witness to rising family tensions before the famous Lizzie Borden murders.

I liked the contemporary timeline tie-in with Brook’s (barista) character.  Mailman does a superb job drawing parallels between people working in service sector jobs while illustrating the persistence of racism and prejudice over time.

Borden Murder Details Enhance Reading Experience

The fine details in the Borden story give evidence to the many hours the author logged while researching the famous murder, combing through trial documents, visiting the crime scene, and studying forensic photos. While details can sometimes bog down historical fiction pieces, Mailman uses them to enhance the reader experience.

If you enjoy thinking about historical events beyond what was recorded in history books and newspapers, or if you are a true crime, murder mystery enthusiast, you’ll enjoy The Murder’s Maid.

Mailman’s seamless storytelling, from the maid’s point of view, is fresh and immersive.

Because I have similar interests in re-examining historical events, Brook’s statement, “If you had been killed in a barbaric way, would you want strangers tramping through your house in 150 years and looking at photos of your brain spilling out of your skull?” struck a powerful chord.

When pop culture glamorizes horrific historical events, what does that say about society?

Additional Resources

The Irish filled the most menial and dangerous jobs, often at low pay. They cut canals. They dug trenches for water and sewer pipes. They laid rail lines. They cleaned houses. They slaved in textile mills. They worked as stevedores, stable workers, and blacksmiths.  – History.com – When America Despised the Irish: The 19th Century’s Refugee Crisis

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