Getting to know your nightmares

Anna Quindlen

October 31, 1991|By Anna Quindlen

I KNOW a lot about bats. It's not as if I'm Merlin D. Tuttle, but I do know more than your average layman about roosting and hibernation, mating and echolocation, the Mexican free-tailed and the naked bulldog, the pipistrelles and the rousettes, the pollinators and the insectivores.

Until last year I was afraid of bats, as so many people are, and I couldn't tell a flying fox from a Flying Wallenda. But that was before I was asked to read "America's Neighborhood Bats" aloud. Before Santa Claus got a request for a bat detector. Before I flew to Toronto for a daylong bat conference and saw the small white scar on the palm of one scientist that marked the spot where an over-eager vampire bat had scented snack time.

Before bats became one little boy's reason for living.

Ten years ago, when dinosaurs began to make their greatest comeback in 100,000 years, everyone wondered what the appeal was for kids. It was simple. Big. Ugly. Reptiles. Three little words that mean "I love you" if you happen to be 6. I know, because I was 6 once, and I would have killed for an iguana.

There was good reason for parents to love dinosaurs, too. Dinosaurs are extinct. No child can demand a dinosaur house nailed to a backyard tree. No child can deliver severe little lectures on the threat of humans to brachiosaurs. No child can ask to go to Canada to hand-feed mealworms to a triceratops.

"The only flying mammal," my son will say offhandedly if asked about the appeal of bats, the insouciance belying the monomania. This is a boy pained by the persistence of the legend that bats get into your hair. This is a boy who composes letters to Dr. Tuttle, the man who founded Bat Conservation International -- Are we members? Are you kidding? -- and who is to bats what Harry Winston is to diamonds. "I bet you think flying foxes echolocate," is his idea of a conversational gambit. Four times a year Bats magazine comes in the mail.

I am convinced that these childhood manias are more than simply the convergence of a curious human and an animal curiosity. Children adopt their fears. Dinosaurs are monsters. Bats are the shadows of night. Godzilla and Dracula. Love them; learn them. Octopi are shy. So are gorillas. The danger ebbs. The threat fades. And one more dark corner of a dark world is made manageable. This is what Halloween is all about: look, Ma -- terror! And it's all done with masks!

The classic children's book about this is Mercer Mayer's "There's a Nightmare in My Closet." The little boy shoots the Nightmare and the Nightmare begins to cry. The Nightmare is big and goofy, with an overbite and spots, and the only way the boy can get him to stop crying is to tuck him into bed and sleep next to him. The Nightmare you know is no longer a Nightmare.

This is a concept that is at the root of much useful therapy, but the truth is that adults don't use it as much as they might. Instead of adopting their nightmares, they deny or ignore them. Of course, the nightmares of adults become more complicated than those of children, not classifiable as herbivorous or carnivorous, reptile or rodent.

When I was a kid, after dinosaurs, before boys, I spent a year collecting butterflies, which is a vainglorious enterprise. Specimen jar, pins, ether: by the time you kill and mount what you catch, it has lost that very thing that made it worth having. I knew this only as a vague sense of disappointment at age 10; not until later did I recognize it as a metaphor for much of life.

Embracing bats is an obvious way to conquer things that go bump in the night, although bats don't go bump because their remarkable sonar stops them from flying into things. When one little boy held his first bat in Toronto, a big brown bat with a body like a mink pompon, he put any last vestige of nightmare to bed once and for all.

He says he wants to be a bat scientist someday just as I once said I wanted to be a paleontologist. What I have left from my paleontology days is some knowledge about dinosaurs, which lay fallow until great reptiles came back into vogue, and an abiding belief that the more you know about scary things, the better off you are. I don't know what my son will retain from his batmania. If nothing else, he's given his mother a continuing education.

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