Sensual Monsters

Friday, March 23, 2012

Childhood and monsters; for most of us this conjures up visceral memories of particular terrors we each had to endure. Had you walked into my bedroom up until I was ten, you would have witnessed the very careful ritual placement of my stuffed animals.

They had to be touching, both my body and each other, in a complete closed ring from my head to feet. It was protection, you see, from any monsters that may happen upon me during the night. This circle of magic gave me immunity from all instances of monster related activity; be those bad dreams, creepy touching with antenna or hairy tentacles or the well known goal of any self respecting night terror:  consumption of the unwitting child.

No amount of night lights or adult reassurances could convince me of the non-existence of such beasts. They existed. I knew it, they knew it and to pretend otherwise was beyond foolish as to be foolhardy.  I knew what I felt after all, and I felt monsters to be real.

When I became a mother, I faced the monsters again.

When my daughter was three, her monsters begin to live in the closet and under her bed. Despite ( or perhaps because of)  my training in Early Childhood Education , I ignored my intuition, and  read a Parents magazine article that recommended making “Monster spray” by purchasing a small spray bottle and decorating it with glittery stickers.

(This trope is well represented in parenting advice columns in book and online form.)

You will then present it to your fearful child and empower them with the knowledge that they can concur their fears by using this “Monster Spray”. Then your child will be able to come to terms with the monsters ( which are only an manifestation of the child’s growing awareness of the dangers of the world – as they seek more and more autonomy), in a self esteem and empowering sort of way.

You will buy this rationale hook, line and sinker. You will make the bottle. You will present it to your child.

Your child will react by shrieking, “The monsters are going to eat me!” (or a reasonable facsimile with the binky in her mouth) and screaming as she runs in circles. She will then attach herself to your body and attempt to climb up onto your head as if she were an enraged cat, as she continues to scream about the monsters.

You have unwittingly acknowledged and confirmed the existence of the monsters, that you had heretofore staunchly refused to agree were real. You will have to show your child that you are throwing away the “Monster Spray” so the “monsters” won’t go all postal when they find out she has acquired a real tool of mass destruction.
Thanks Parents magazine. A real life saver there.

When “experts” discuss Monsters that populate the worlds of children, developmental psychologists may say that children are exploring ideas of power and powerlessness, or working out strong emotions like rage or hate. They may suggest ways to help the child rationalize (or more honestly minimize) the emotion, or otherwise empower the child to take “control” of the monster with the use of tools such as “monster spray”. Others may suggest ways to make the monsters “allies”, by using literature which strips the monster of its fearsome qualities and conveys that the monster is just like us despite terrifying appearances.
(Example - Gruffalo, oh there are billions of books in this style)
Others will write about how monsters help to teach a child “what is “real” and what is “not real”; what is benign, and what not. (Oates, 1994) Implicit in this statement is to suggest that it is through monsters that we come understand the difference between fantasy and reality. (or perhaps children are not smart enough to distinguish?)

Yet, what if this is not the entirety of purpose for monsters in the lives of children? Perhaps we must entertain the idea that Monsters, with all of their messy secretions, slimy tentacles, dripping fangs and insatiable hunger for the flesh of children supply a particular embodied feeling within the child. As such, Monsters may act as vectors of sensorial experience that is both desired (and one might argue needed) and actively being socialized against in day to day experiences.

There are always monsters in the lives of children. No matter what geographic location, age of child, socio-economic status, race, religion or gender of child; There are always monsters.  Yet the world view of adults and the lived experience of children never quite match up on this particular issue.

Despite countless studies tracing the genetic factors, called neuroticism or “trait anxiety” in the literature, or “learning experiences” in which the child acquires the fear through a negative experience or negative information, Adults have never quite figured out the WHY of monsters. It is, all the experts agree, all in their “heads” after all….but what else? Why so persistent? Why so prevalent? Why so pervasive?

For the adult, Descarte steps in and declares “You can master this irrational fear. It is all in your head, therefore YOU can control it. Stop feeling it and think about it.”

This is, of course, immensely comforting to the adult. As well socialized members of our society, we rely on our ability to decentralize from our bodies, denying the lived experience of what our sensory system may be screaming at us in anger, frustration and panic. 

For the child, it is a much more complex proposition. Children rely on their senses to get their information about the world.  It is no secret that even Piaget – the father of individual cognitive developmental island – labeled the first phase of development the sensorimotor stage. In this stage (lasting until 18 months of so) the child explores everything through their senses. Nothing can be licked, tasted, touched, heard, felt, or seen enough.
But why? Why are babies built that way?

In an interview with a young reader and parent, the topic of Coraline came up. This book was one identified as one that “terrified” the young reader (aged 11). When asked why the book caused such terror, the child responded that it was the “Other Mother” character; she didn’t like the idea of her mother disappearing and a replica appearing in her mothers place. Within this interview the mother asked the child why? Why would she be afraid of a replica? How would she even know it was a replica? The child’s response?

“Your smell. She wouldn't smell like You”

Newborns can detect the smell of their mother very soon post delivery.  Studies done on newborns within a half an hour of delivery show that if isolated and given a choice between the shirts of two newly delivered mothers, they will turn their heads towards the smell of their mother.  Other studies have reported that it is the sense of smell which leads a newborn infant to the nipple of it’s mother, given it’s very limited visual abilities.

How do infants do this? There is evidence that the smell of our mothers is centered in the "flavor" of the amniotic fluid. We learn our mothers smell, in utero, by tasting her through the amniotic fluid.

So, obviously, we come hard wired to discern and Prefer the smell of our mothers - a little  evolutionary gift passed down. Which makes unlimited sense. Our sense of smell ( which develops as one of the very first senses to come "online" as it were)

Touch is the first sense that is wired - then vestibular (bouncing and rolling, so our sense of if we are upright or not) then smell and taste come hand in hand ( same epithelial cells make the nose and palate) with hearing wiring synapses afterward. Sight is the very last one because we can't hook up the synapses until we have experience seeing, and the womb is a terrible place to be able to see clearly. 

All of this to say, of course the senses of Fear/Monsters/Abject/Wonder comes from and through our senses. As beings who have been marinating in the “smell” of our mother (including her fears, stress and everything else that she experiences while pregnant) since the moment of our conception, the idea that you would Know your mother by smell makes infinite sense.

In discussing another book  -Outside over there -identified as “terrifying” by the same young reader, the question of Why the book provoked such a strong feeling was raised:

As the reader turned to a specific page, she pointed to the picture of the changeling ice baby left in the place of the real baby. “THAT”, she said. “That is what freaked me out. That baby.  It doesn’t look natural. And Ida (the sister) HUGS it. She touches that thing and still doesn’t know it isn’t right! I couldn’t even look at that book again.”

The reader, once again, identifies sensory experience: Sight. Touch.  Ida, the older sister in the book, sees and then holds the ice baby and doesn’t initially recognize that it is not her flesh and blood sister.
This reader is squarely in the midst of the phenonomology of fear  (Davidson 2000):

Adults spend much of their time socializing young children away from the messages of their body and specifically their sensorial system:
 “Stop licking, stop touching, stop sniffing, stop tasting, don't eavesdrop, don’t masturbate, don’t pick your nose!  Don’t SAY that person is fat! Give your strange smelling aunt a kiss. You’re not hungry now, it isn’t dinner time, You MUST eat now because it is meal TIME!
How do we survive our own socialization? Honestly!
Yet, one of the reasons this socialization takes so LONG is that we are teaching children to “over rule” their emotions AND sensory experiences.  Children emerge from the womb primed to experience life through their senses…and we spend the rest of their lives attempting to strip it away. (See Mark Johnson’s work on Embodied Meaning)

Monsters of childhood could well be the last vestiges of the sensual for the child.

When observing a research group of kindergarten (5 year old) girls, I noted their outdoor play around a book – “Go away - Big Green Monster”. Despite the “purpose” of the book (to strip the monster of it’s terrifying attributes), the girls were not using the “monster” in that manner. They had no need to dis-empower the monster.

The green monster became stand in for expressing emotions and movements, physically,  that may have been frowned on in other types of play.  That is to say, when the girls PLAYED Green monster…. they could growl at each other, make threatening movements with claws and bared teeth, they could swipe at each other with hooked fingernails, and roar.  They could kick over people’s structures because they were the Monster, and not beholden to convention.  They did not have to abide by the same decorum rules that governed their social world – and their peers generally accepted the fact that they were “monsters” ( and often Animals) as reason for the behavior.

When outside, they would approach the hedge where the Green Monster “lived” and was reported to have eaten cats and threaten it – then flee when any member claimed to spot the monster, shrieking and screaming in terror….only to repeat this action, over and over. (Later that year, the Green Monster faded, and Voldemort rose as stand in for their Monster)

Have you ever observed a group of children entering a playground?

The BURST of noise is incredible: Screaming, shouting, yelling, singing, hollering – It can feel like a primal release, particularly if the children have been in school for any length of time. If you watch those children at play , the zigzagging movements, the touching, the grabbing, the dodging and weaving – For adults watching, this can feel overwhelming, dangerous, UNSAFE.   

 Not for the children – they are completely at ease in this cacophony of sound and movement. In the words of David Jardine (1997, 2005), “Giddy sensation, this. Like little bellybreath tingles on downarcing childgiggle swingsets….out of school, I had some secret not-school knowledges children were secreting away into bodily recesses at recess. Each of us knows something of this, down on hands and knees with yer snout in the tall grasses in intimate bug worlds and dirt smells, know-ing something, something carnal, that no one seems able to admit.”
Yet our praktagnosia ( PP: 140), that practical bodily (rather than symbolically mediated) understanding , through which our body has access to its world, can/is often damaged or even lost.

(part of the talk I gave today on Monsters in the lives of Young Children at the ICFA conference  I am not entirely sure they got me - as I was not really in their overall genre of literature criticism....but a couple of people seemed to enjoy it. Not to mention that I have a more performance conversational storytelling style to my presentations versus a read paper kind of thing...)

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