I’ve never been afraid of the Mafia, but when my parents were informed that the house that they were on the verge of buying was a Mafia safe house, I was thrilled. Even after someone explained to me that it was a safe house for the Mafia, not a safe house from the Mafia, I remained convinced that we’d be safer there than anywhere else in New England. Better the Mafia you know than the Mafia you don’t, I thought. My parents were not so sure, so we moved to a tiny Massachusetts town where our greatest causes for concern are that the garbage disposal company is in cahoots with the Irish mob and that mysterious trucks from a swimming pool company roar ominously down our dead-end country road several times a day.
A few years prior on the other side of the country, we almost moved into the house whose exterior was used for the Palmer House in the 1990s series Twin Peaks. As if this weren’t exciting enough, the town was also home to four prisons. At the age of ten, I didn’t quite get why this caused my mother so much worry. Growing up, I spent hours imagining how I would escape prison, devising schemes wilder than the Count of Monte Cristo’s. I was often a captive soldier in my brothers’ war games, or one of Robin Hood’s men imprisoned by the Sheriff of Nottingham, or a hobbit in the hands of trolls and Orcs, or an Elizabethan Catholic hiding from the Anglicans. The toy towns my siblings and I constructed invariably included a church, a saloon, and a lockup that would have made Guantanamo look like a gingerbread house. If I ended up in prison, I thought, I’d be out before long. It was a few years before I realized that my mother’s fear was not that her children would end up on the inside, but that someone else would end up on the outside. (Let it be noted that I still think I could escape from prison. Easily.)
I once tried to make a list of my own fears—and what was on that list, you ask? Let it suffice to say that if I had been roaming the earth when God sent the mighty rains, I would have taken my chances with the flood rather than set foot on Noah’s Ark. My childhood nightmares were filled with coyotes, bears, whales, bats, owls, snakes, panthers, and, above all, gorillas. The horror of gorillas runs in the family. My brother, two years older than me, would wander into a sibling’s or parents’ room in the middle of the night, and, greeted by either loving concern or an exasperated “What-the-hell-are-you-doing-go-back-to-bed-or-I’ll-give-you-something-to-be-afraid-of”, he would say, plaintively: “I can’t stop thinking about gorillas.” I don’t know what he was thinking about, but my own intrusive, primate thoughts almost always involved being taken captive and kept in the jungle. I was sure I could escape from a maximum-security prison, but I had no hope of escaping from a gorilla.
I’ve often wondered if my brother’s and my shared fear of gorillas had anything to do with the three gorilla statues in a neighbor’s yard, or with the Kix-like cereal called Gorilla Munch. But I loved the gorilla statues. They were a neighborhood spectacle. They weren’t just any gorillas; their owners dressed them up. Taking a family walk to see them was a treat, not a punishment. The gorilla on the box of Gorilla Munch, though, still gives me the creeps. He stares me down and looks like he’s going to leap off the box and pummel me, or, worse, pick me up, toss me over his shoulder, carry me off to his tree in the jungle, and peel me like a banana. But am I afraid of the Munch Gorilla because I’m afraid of gorillas, or am I afraid of gorillas because of the Munch Gorilla? As one of my Civ professors used to say at the end of his lectures: “Anyway, things to think about…”