At 11 :30 p.m. on a pitch black night, I was in a small cabin overlooking Frenchman’s Bay on Mount Desert Island in Maine. The cabin was along a road where there were other houses, but it was at the bottom of a long driveway — really just a path hacked through the woods — and was extremely isolated. There was no telephone, no television, and the radio picked up only a single insipid “top forty” station. From the living room, where he slept on a daybed, my twelve-year-old son said goodnight and turned off his lamp. I noticed how quiet it was, the only sound an occasional breeze blowing through the trees. I was feeling a vague unease, a slight tension all over my body, but ignored it to continue reading. After half an hour, I put down my book, turned off the light, and stared toward the ceiling into the darkness and the quiet.
As if from out of the night, I felt descend on me an anxiety I’d felt before (that vague unease was the first sign; I should not have ignored it), but that I was powerless to prevent. It had a physical side — breathlessness, a tension that locked onto my body and seemed to be trying to lift me out of bed, a pounding heart, a cold sweat that broke out in a flash all over me — but also, more terrifyingly, a mental side, in which images raced through my mind under no control whatsoever. At times my consciousness was just able to emerge from this maelstrom — like a drowning man raising first his nostrils, then his mouth, from the whirlpool — then it would be sucked back in.
I was picturing a succession of terrible catastrophes, envisioning the smallest details. What if, during the night, I had a heart attack, and my son woke up to find me dead? There would be a long period when he thought I was sleeping, a period when he got bored waiting for me, then hungry. He would have a bowl of cereal, read for a while. Finally he would come into the bedroom to find I had died. That would be a terrible moment — alone in a strange house with his father dead — but soon he would begin to think what to do. He would run up the driveway to the road, make a decision about which way to turn. If he went to the right, as I knew from the run I took every day, he would come to a series of driveways like our own, long steep descents to cabins that might or might not be vacant, on that June day a couple of weeks before the season opened. If he was lucky enough to go to the left, he would find houses closer to the road that I knew to be occupied. He would be meeting strangers, with all the hazards that such encounters imply. Eventually he would find somebody, tell what had happened and seek medical aid. An ambulance would come to the cabin to find that I really was dead. My son would have to call his mother in North Carolina to tell her what had happened. He would be hundreds of miles from home, and utterly alone.
What if — and this seemed far worse — I awoke that night in the midst of a heart attack, and called to my son for help? He would dash out of the house with all the same choices, except in the pitch black, when everyone was asleep. The trip up the rocky winding driveway would be treacherous. The road at the top would be shaded by trees, unillumined by the moon or stars. All the houses he came to would be dark, and he would be arousing the inhabitants from sleep. What if they took him for an intruder or a thief? I didn’t know whether those houses had phones, or whether their inhabitants would be willing to go out in their cars to reach one. I had no idea where there was a hospital or a doctor. The trip my son was on would certainly be futile. He would wonder the whole time if he shouldn’t come back and see me before I died.
Although my anxieties arose out of my fear of having a heart attack, it also seemed to me that the anxieties themselves — in a piece of irony worthy of somebody like Hitchcock — could bring one about. I knew the symptoms of a coronary and could produce them in myself at will. It was easy to move from that to worse things. What if the anxieties themselves drove me crazy (just a few months before, in a period of intense stress, I’d had three consecutive nights of sleeplessness, and on the third night, amid a welter of bizarre images, had thought I might be going out of my mind), if I decided that anything was better than that kind of terror and that I would prefer to kill myself? What if my son woke up to find me with my throat slit and the room splattered with blood, or, worse yet, woke up while I was still dying? What if — the worst possibility — I felt that anything was better than such terror and simultaneously realized that concern for my son was the cause of it, if in some moment of madness and inner pain I killed him? I cringe to write these words, what people would call unthinkable, but the point is that I did think it, on the night of my anxieties: I pictured a series of horrible scenes in which I attacked my son and he struggled to get away from me. As a matter of fact, such things happen between parents and children all the time. What drives people to them, except madness? And what better conditions for producing madness than a pitch black cabin on a dead quiet island in Maine?
It is interesting to me precisely what fantasies I had. A woman friend to whom I told the whole story when I got back had had a similar experience at an isolated beach cottage with her two sons, in the off season when there was no telephone and nobody around. She had eventually gone home two days early, a possibility I seriously considered. What she had feared was that an intruder would come in and kill her and the boys. That possibility crossed my mind in Maine, but didn’t capture my imagination. If somebody had come to kill my son and me, I would have done everything I could to prevent it, and if we had died I would have been blameless. What I feared was a catastrophe that I would cause. The real source of my anxiety was guilt. I was afraid of the evil that was inside me.
All of these anxieties raced through my mind in seconds, a much shorter time than it takes to read them. I’d had such attacks of anxiety before, and knew that what I had to do was get in touch with reality: turn on the light, walk around the room, perhaps write what I was feeling in my journal. Such measures would not work instantly, and there was no guarantee they would work at all (there was always the possibility that writing about my fears would make them worse), but there was no alternative. Lying there trembling in the dark — by that time I was shaking as if I were freezing to death — wasn’t doing any good.
Several months before, my wife and I had separated, not angrily or dramatically, but with the residual bitterness that accompanies any split. It was not long afterward that I decided to go to Maine with my son, partly in order to do something new, to dramatize how my life was different, but also to do something wonderful, to show that I could take as good a vacation as a single parent as when I was married. I’d show my son a marvelous time. I’d show him the best time he’d ever had in his life.
The afternoon before my anxious night, we’d experienced the kind of classic moment that comes up in a vacation whether the parent is single or not. The pleasures of Mount Desert Island are largely active pleasures. There are beautiful trails to hike, lakes to canoe. My son is not normally too active — his idea of a perfect day is to sit around drawing and reading, maybe build a model, watch an occasional television show — but he had agreed to take a bike ride on the island’s carriage paths because he wanted to try a ten-speed trail bike. We had rented our ten-speeds from a typical biker, who would probably have considered a ride up Mt. Everest a pleasant excursion. He said the highway up to the paths was “a little steep,” but that we would enjoy them once we got there.
Inside of five minutes we were trudging in the glaring sun up an incredibly steep hill, pushing our bikes, with no idea how far we had to go. The hill kept curving and rising as far as we could see. I personally felt we should be pedaling, that in the lowest ten-speed gear any hill was accessible, that my son was being lazy or contrary (just as he resisted so many of my suggestions for things to do) by not pedaling, but he said he couldn’t do it, and there was no answer to that. We’d been walking ten minutes when the entrance to Acadia National Park came into view, and I had to turn back to tell him that wasn’t our entrance (I had purposely not been looking back at him), that we still had farther to go. “Then how far is it?” he shouted, looking hot and tired and sweaty, and I shouted, “How should I know? All I know is what he told me,” not shouting what I really wanted to: Why do you have to be so lazy? Why can’t you pedal any better than that, if you’re so anxious to have a ten-speed trail bike? Why don’t you put out a little effort, so we can take this trip and have a good time? Why do you have to be so stubborn? (Just like your mother!)
Actually, of course, I was disappointed and frightened. I hadn’t been looking back at my son because I was afraid of what I might see. There was a part of me that was desperate for that excursion to go well. My reputation as a good parent was at stake. It was beginning to look as if it might be not only a failure, but a total disaster; we might wind up stranded on a sun-baked highway.
The excursion itself had a happy ending. We made it up to the carriage paths, and a friendly motorist in the parking lot gave my son a cherry soda, which did much to rejuvenate him. The ride on the paths, though sometimes difficult, was beautiful and exhilarating, and when I gave my son the choice, at the two-mile mark, of going back or going for another four, he chose to go on. When we got back to the parking lot, I rode back to the bike shop alone, picked up our rented station wagon and came back to take his bike in the car, as we should have done in the first place (if we hadn’t rented our bikes from a lunatic). In the end, I could point to that excursion as a triumphant success in my quest for a wonderful vacation.
But what I saw that night — in the midst of my terrible anxieties, once I turned on the light and put myself in touch with reality — was that my fantasies were just an extreme expression of fears I’d had earlier in the day but had not allowed myself to feel. They expressed the fear that my vacation would turn out to be not a wonderful experience but a terrible catastrophe. I would be the cause of that catastrophe. And its victim — the person to whom I hadn’t adequately expressed my anger and frustration, but to whom my fantasies expressed it in a most dramatic way — would be my son.
My fantasies also reflected the most traumatic event of my own life, my father’s death when I was sixteen. I suppose I have as much fear of death as anyone, but I am not much conscious of fearing it for myself; what I am afraid of (the way my fear expresses itself) is that I will do to my son what my father did to me, I will leave him to face the perils of the world alone. Someday I will undoubtedly do exactly that. It is the pain I would most like to spare him.
No doubt my fantasies also expressed guilt about the failures of my marriage, and the effect they may have had on my son. The most notable experience of such anxieties earlier in my life had occurred in a similar situation (an earlier stage of the same situation) when my wife had said she no longer wanted to go home with me at Christmas time, and I had decided to take my son by myself. On that occasion there had been similar pressure to have a wonderful time anyway, to show I could do it all myself; there had been the added pressure of being around my mother with my son (and, for that matter, around my son with my mother). In the same way as in Maine I had planned marvelous outings that had not turned out as I had hoped. Since my mother lived in a high-rise apartment, my fantasies had been even more spectacular: I had imagined that somehow, by accident or design, I would plunge from her seventh-story window to my death in the parking lot below. It was questionable whether my body would even have fit through the window in my bedroom. That didn’t make my fears any less real.
My experience in Maine finally made me realize, somewhat sheepishly, my limitations as a single parent. I’d never had such fantasies when my wife and I were together. It was as if she protected me from them, or from a part of myself. I was the one on vacations who wanted to do things, to get out and go somewhere, to get our money’s worth; she was the one who made sure we weren’t trying too much. She would certainly have questioned the idea of that bike ride in the first place; she would have questioned more carefully the man who rented us the bikes; she would have been more tolerant of my son’s limitations, protected him against my demands. It was she on vacations who kept me from making too many demands (I always thought she was keeping us from having a really good vacation). Now I would have to look inside myself for that more careful, caring part. I would have to let it grow in me.
What I ultimately found most disturbing was the way I’d been using my son to prove something for myself. My son is a sedentary boy; he is possessed of the languorous inertia that afflicts many adolescents; he does need to be urged to do things. But my wish to have a great vacation, to prove to somebody — myself? my wife? the world? — that I could create a really worthwhile experience, took no account of the experience he wanted to have, or that he really was having. I was being a wonderful father at the expense of my son. I think of all the other parents in the world who push their children into things in order to compensate for their own inadequacies. They are also often known as wonderful parents. I wonder what their children think. I believe I would like to be a little less wonderful, and a little more who I am.