I never sleep well when I am home. This is usually due to physical—not mental—distress: in eighth grade I inherited a three-quarter sized bedframe from the eighteenth century, a Sharpless heirloom that my grandparents wanted to get rid of. Rare is the vendor in this century that sells a mattress fit to its arcane proportions, so my parents threw two futons on it and told me it was temporary. For years, my place of rest was a sunken and lumpy thing, hard on the edges and drooping in the middle. Until, finally, this fall break, I was told I was coming home to my parents’ old bed, as they had upgraded to a ludicrously large Ikea model. For the first time in years, I had a mattress. I couldn’t wait. It was going to be filled with feathers and feel like falling into a cloud. It was going to be the best sleep of my life.
I hadn’t anticipated, however, what the local news station called “a rash of breakouts” in my usually calm neighborhood of middle-class families, nice houses and decent cars. The first house hit was located a mere five-minute drive away, directly up the exact street I live on. The robbers, four males, had tied up the owners, and stolen their not-super-nice, decade-old cars. That was really scary, but I could handle it, until I was told that there had been second break-in a little farther away and that this one had involved a non-fatal shooting and a rape. Then I was terrified.
I’m a jumpy, neurotic, paranoid person, so I’m used to jolts of fear at random times, especially while trying to drift off in a creaky house on a busy street. But the fear I felt over fall break was new. It came at night instead of sleep, and it hurt. It felt like my blood had turned to heavy, hard sludge. My nerves were sharp—not sharp as in keen but sharp as in sharp (I keep using italics because I know no better way to describe the physicality of this fear, because when I see italics I think “oh I am supposed to feel this, not just think it,” and this fear was all force). It jarred, jostled, grated. I spent the week feeling it more frequently than anything else—really, I mean it: while watching TV, playing piano, eating, walking the dog, I would wonder if maybe this would be the moment the front or back door burst open and men (I imagined them masked) burst in. But because the sun was out and I had a world to live in, I made sure my face stayed calm, my voice steady. I sat on my trembling hands. It was at night that, like a football stadium, I was flooded with fear bright as a light, full force and awful.
When I was five, my mother, sister, and I came home from the gym and pulled into the garage. I was about to open the door when mother, calmly, told me not to get out of the car, and I looked and around the door leading into our house was a border of light; the door was ajar. I did not know something had gone horrifyingly wrong so much as I felt it. It turned out an old housekeeper had used her key to enter our home, steal our television, cash, and some jewelry. The trauma of this event, I think—for years I would hear burglars in the creaking of my house, a fear that has yet to completely abate—was in the violation of sanctuary. None of us had been harmed; nothing had even been broken. What had really been stolen was my faith in (read: my delusion of) home being safe and that safety being sacred. This was a luxury I had because my parents loved their children and each other and could afford to raise us comfortably. I was—and am—lucky to have had innocence that could be stripped from me in the first place. I know I am privileged in this way, I know many people in the world lack this, and I have been taught that it is this that makes people want to steal from me. It’s a suburban fear, almost sweet, and it does not make me afraid. My things are just things.
More important to me than these are certain beliefs that I hold very, very seriously, sometimes in spite of what is logical or prudent, and chief among them is the conviction that humans are naturally good and always worthy of love and mercy. Additionally, I understand that the American economic system often leaves those who commit crimes no other option, and I don’t often find within me hatred of the criminal. But these robberies seemed exercises in cruelty and terror. Men who would kick down your door and tie you up and shoot you and rape you because you had a mid-range sedan were beyond my understanding. Someone more enlightened than I am probably could forgive a violent criminal, but I felt myself fill with a pure and vitriolic hatred, and a desire to lock them up forever, if not kill them. To watch my ability to empathize and my faith in human goodness liquefied by the mere threat of pretty rote crime was profoundly disturbing. I had spent years trying to be generous, big-hearted, loving, but all of a sudden I was bitter, timid, and mean in my soul, or whatever this new me had in place of one. In my mind, in the darkness of my room, as the hours ticked away towards morning, my ears magnifying every creak tenfold, I spiraled into a fear fed by rage. It wasn’t fair that my neighborhood didn’t feel safe to me anymore. This wasn’t supposed to happen. This was my home. I wasn’t supposed to be terrified while in my own bed. It was outrageous, unjust, unthinkable. How could I be so scared in my own house? Didn’t this violate some human law?
It did not. Of course it did not. My sheltered upbringing is an exception, not the human norm. There are people who live in places where this kind of threat is part of everyday life: where fear is not the unfamiliar tingling pain I was feeling, but something to be choked down every morning and slept through in spite of every night. I could see how fear could make you quiet, so as not to be noticed; or aggressive, so that threats would seem small in comparison to the force of your energy; how it made you shrink from those you loved because you needed your energy to stay calm, or lie to them so they wouldn’t worry; how it could make you fold your true self away, forget what made you really happy because it would feel like the ability to procure your own safety was all that mattered. Certain humans, I know, swell with courage in response to sustained fear, turn confident, golden, mighty with love and determination to find good in spite of it all. Certain humans become great. I am not among them.
I was not going to triumph over my fear. I was terrified, and I was going to have to re-cultivate my blissful ignorance if I was ever going to sleep. I oscillated between two approaches, neither successful. The first was to remember that I was a special, wonderful human—or that’s what my mom said—that I was destined for greatness, and that there was no way something like this could happen to someone like me. But nothing in this logic rang true to me: I was quaking in my bed like a neurotic baby, never more convinced that I was entirely unexceptional. The alternative, convincing myself I was too normal to be the victim of a crime was, for obvious reasons, pretty logically inconsistent. A couple hundred rounds of this usually exhausted me, and I would sleep until I started awake the next morning, my first thought: “I’m okay.”
I found myself, therefore, craving an external source of calm. I believe in some kind of abstract divinity because I am full of abstract fears about death and the abyss and chaos, but these are entirely different from the basic, elemental fear I was feeling now. Imagine my surprise when conventional, historical conceptions of the divine—which I usually find antiquated, inaccurate, and narrow—suddenly made sense. The various wagers and bargains, the shows of devotion and the displays of love that seem ridiculous to any twenty-first century human worth her salt, if she is a true member of the atomized masses, anesthetized by the comforts of modern life, only needed to be spiced with a little terror to become instantly palatable. When you can click on Buzzfeed and refresh your Twitter endlessly it’s easy to forget the world is a place filled with suffering, that one day you will die, and it will probably hurt. When you live under the constant fear that invaders will pillage your village and rape your wife and kidnap your children, it’s much harder. And in the face of inexplicable sorrow and violence and fear, piety soothes like nothing else. It’s easy to fall asleep at night when you know you’ve done the best you possibly can by your god, that you’ve loved him as much as you humanly could, and that because he exists he will be pleased by your devotion and because he is all-powerful he will protect you from pain. I wanted to burn incense, to chant spells, to kill a heathen and mount his head on a stake, to build a temple out of gold. I lay awake in my comfortable suburban home in a medium-sized city in only semi-darkness, surrounded by everything that’s supposed to make me different from savages who thought God could control rains and storms and Mongol hordes, and felt this desire almost instinctively, overwhelmingly.
My one comfort was that I would return to Princeton shortly. There, men with guns are actually just men with hammers fixing faulty doors. I was going to be safe and well-rested, because I have a single in a triple and roommates in the same room and there are only three proxes that can get into my room at all and you need a prox to get into the building in the first place. I was counting down the days until we left Indiana, and then, the day before our departure—finally—they caught three of the four guys (students, horrified parents whispered, from the local public high school) and I finally slept, and came back to school closer to calm than I had been in weeks and climbed into bed to sleep a good long sleep.
But—and who is surprised—sleep still didn’t come. My mind had finally detached itself from a day of driving and a week of stress when I heard pounding on a door, though I couldn’t tell if it was to my room or not. My neighbors are mostly dudes and seem to be heavy drinkers, and—on top of all that—I live directly across from a men’s bathroom. This is all to say I’ve gotten used to things that go bump in the Saturday night, but after a week of instant terror in response to any unidentified noises, I jolted right back into my familiar sleeplessness at the sound. The pounding was substantially loud, almost greedy in its noise, in how it sucked up the sweet, empty calmness of a night in Pyne and made it suddenly awful. The fist thumped heavily against the surface, over and over again, swung by someone who was angry and wanted to be heard and didn’t care it was three a.m. I didn’t even have to get out of bed to check if it was for me. The noise may have been out there, but the fear was already inside.