Anxiety and Children’s Books: Or Fear Itself

miss clavell

Waking one morning with a feeling of alarm. I suddenly remembered the image of Miss Clavell who ran the orphanage in which the insouciant Madeline was tucked.

Hair straying from her bun. Miss Clavell sits upright in a white nightdress—the emblem of maternal terror. In that old house in Paris, one stately with rhyming lines, children have returned for decades to enjoy Madeline who is not “afraid of mice, winter snow and ice and to the tiger in the zoo…says pooh-pooh.
Both children and parents seek and order there. The children are numbered and cared for. Madeline makes every fear comes out right.
 
I identify with Miss Clavell. She who wakes in the night and knows “something is not right.” She doesn’t think this, she knows it. That is the feeling of true anxiety. It is not a feeling—it feels like a truth on the border of consciousness. Something terrible about to be remembered.
 
Similarly my daughter re-read a book about three gophers trying to find their home approximately several hundred times. There was nothing spectacular about the book (“May We Sleep Here Tonight“).  It was a prolonged tale of suspense as rabbits, raccoon, gophers all open the door to a snug cavt of person will this be and systematically pile into bed, seeking shelter from a storm. But the question looms whose house is this? 
Each time the door opens, the bell rings, the whiskers twitch or noses quiver.
 
And, indeed, it turns out to be the home of a huge bear. Fears are confirmed. Animals that had snuggled now scuttle to the bottom of the bear’s huge bed in hiding. But the bear, because this is a children’s book, turns out to be jolly and comforting. After preparing hot soup all around the final page of the book shows the bear in bed with all the animals, enormous paws wrapped round them. Even the bear needs comfort too.
 
Who wants to be Miss Clavell in the middle of the night, who wants as John Berryman said, to wake up wondering who is missing? Recently my daughter told me she didn’t want to grow up. At first I feared as mother—therapist too—this was she start of some pathology. But then I realized, who does?
 
If children are afraid the outside world may be frightening and practice at mastering it—adults continue this. The fear of losing a precious person, the fear of feeling that fear holds many people in its paws. That is, as Delmore Schwartz wrote, “the heavy bear who goes with me.” The mother’s fear that something essential is missing; the daughter’s fear that she is not good enough—the fear of feeling a fear we cannot withstand links so many patients that I see. And I, as Miss Clavell, fear that ‘something is not right’ and count the days or times or tasks. To miss that fear would be a consequential relief. MY hope for my child and others is that they are not accompanied by that early morning call to arms. That fall into the preverbal state of aloneness where we need our mother but have only a cry to bring her forth.
 
A lifetime of anxiety has left me quite aware of waking to a world, which seems suddenly not level. Perhaps this experience drew me to become a psychologist, feeling that the need to reassure or undo the ravages anxiety causes is a great gift.

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