Return to Where the Wild Things Are

Sendak teaches that to tame hurtful feelings, sorrow no less than anger, we must face them.  Sweep those feelings under the rug, and the very rug itself will writhe with undulating monsters, if not by day, then by night.

At aged six or so, my dreams began as I disappeared through the headboard of my bed.   My headboard was made of black, shiny plastic, think patent leather, but cheaper, with a mirror like surface.  I thought I could make out my reflection.  Like Alice, but before I’d heard of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, I’d somehow slip from my bed into an alternate world in my headboard’s reflection. 

In those dreams, I never walked or ran, but flew, sometimes, and usually at the start, exhilarated, covering vast distances with a bird’s eye view.   But the dreams that began in hope, invariably turned ugly, and ugly in a way that made me ashamed.  Someone I loved, I recall it often being my Grandfather, would change in the course of the dream from benign friend and protector to something evil, out to destroy me.  He would become recognizably my Grandfather, but at the same time not him.  

I would fly home, but there were no soft landings for me.  Every time, my flight would culminate in a terrifying fall from a dark unfathomable height, anticipating a crushing collision with the ground.  I’d survive, heart pounding, by waking.  The emotions were powerful: joy, an emerging power and control, betrayal as my world’s sham and ugliness revealed itself, hatred for the evil, shame, for hating those closest to me (or was it their doppelgangers, how could I know?), terror as I fled and fell from the sky into the abyss.

Children’s literature tends to be didactic and uplifting.  Anger, a sense of betrayal, hatred and shame.  These emotions from my dreams, if they appear, are framed as things to be voiced carefully and brought under the control of labels; it’s only a dream.  Children’s stories, even fairy tales, have as their narrative arc a challenge that the protagonist somehow overcomes.  The monster in the closet is exposed as a hanging suit of clothes and defanged, made mundane.  The hero does not make friends with the monster and become one him or herself.  He or she defeats the monster with grit and bravery, or escapes through guile.  The monster remains Other.

Sendak’s wild things are different.  When my sons were small, they’d listen eagerly to all sorts of stories.  They delighted in the shadows cast by Good Night Moon, shushed to sleep.  Dr. Seuss’s plucky heroes set to rhyme took them places they’d want to go.  They were consumed by The Very Hungry Caterpillar.  But only Sendak drove them wild.  Only Sendak made them monsters and invited them to “roar their terrible roar.”

In Sendak’s classic Where the Wild Things Are, the monsters are not so much vanquished as enlisted, magnifying and making flesh Max’s anger.  Max, our hero, makes mischief and is sent to bed without his supper, rage at his Mom simmering.  Like my nightly trips through the headboard to a magical but sinister world, Max sails off to meet the Wild Things where he becomes their King and leads them in a multipage Wild Rumpus that is only pictures, no words.  My sons, gleeful, would act out this part of the book, roaring, dancing and jumping on the bed. 

Triumphant, angry Max, who deserved his punishment but is no less angry for that, is able to leave his Wild acolytes, who loved him so much they made him King, and return to where his supper awaits.  Mom still loves him best, despite his mischief, and despite his anger.  Max’s anger is dramatic and powerful, even fun.  But it does not destroy his world, the Mom he loves or the love she feels for him.

My nightmares were different.  In my pre-Sendak childhood, I returned from dreams trembling and perspiring to my bed, afraid and ashamed to give voice to my terrible journey.  I squirmed when I thought of my “evil” grandfather, the one he became in my dream.  What could it mean?  Could I trust my loved one?

Nat Hentoff, on January 14, 1966, wrote a remarkable profile of Sendak for the New Yorker.  In it Sendak recounts a letter he received from a young fan:

How much does it cost to get to where the wild things are? If it is not too expensive my sister and I want to spend the summer there. Please answer soon.

If only I could have faced the emotions in my dreams with such equanimity.

Sendak himself was struck by the power of his Wild Things:

Some [children]have sent me drawings of their own wild things, and they make mine look like cuddly fuzzballs. My wild things have big teeth. Some of their wild things not only have big teeth but are chewing on children. I have yet to hear of a child who was frightened by the book. Adults who are troubled by it forget that Max is having a fine time. He’s in control.

I’m recently a grandparent.  My wife and I admire the new baby and tell each other, conventionally, how adorable.  We have grown up fantasies that our grandchild will be kind, joyful, smiling and empathetic.  We’ll teach the babe to share and put the concerns of others ahead of herself.  She will be a comfort to her parents in their old age, a servant to the poor, a lover of animals, a miniature Franciscan. 

But might our new dear grandchild meet us in some dreamworld where we too are transformed into monsters?  Might she wake ashamed and confused by the strangeness of her dream and the strength of her feelings, so wildly out of whack with her waking take on the two of us? It makes one wonder, why did my dreaming childhood self transform my kind grandfather into a threatening presence, one seemingly sent to destroy me.

Wondering thus, I recalled that around the time of those strange dreams, age seven or so, I’d been taken by surprise by the death of that same grandfather’s wife, my mother’s Mom, my beloved Grandma Helen.  She had been mortally ill for years with breast cancer, enduring horrific surgery and its aftermath during my childhood.  But I knew none of this.  Her cancelled visits were explained as bouts of “arthritis.”  Mere days before her death, I was taken to “say goodbye” at her deathbed, where she lay, sedated and unresponsive, already strange to me.  I had been betrayed; my reality was not what I thought.  I can conceive of no other reason why I would have dreamt of my Grandfather likewise betraying me, transforming not to a corpse but to a ghoul.

The heart of Where the Wild Things Are is Max’s Mom’s determination not to betray him. In Sendak’s book, Max’s anger at his mother is celebrated, amplified, made flesh in a dreamworld from which he can return, no less loved for having raged.  He could trust that his loved ones might oppose his will, but they would not abandon him; supper awaited him on his return. 

Had my parents been as generous with my sorrow, as Max’s Mom was with his anger, I might have flown across the nocturnal sky from sleep to wakefulness without confronting my grandfather’s chilling metamorphosis. If he could die without warning like my grandmother, how could I trust him?  Sendak teaches that to tame hurtful feelings, sorrow no less than anger, we must face them.  Sweep those feelings under the rug, and the very rug itself will writhe with undulating monsters, if not by day, then by night.

What would my sorrow at my grandmother’s impending death have looked like, illustrated by Maurice Sendak?  I’ll never know.  But as my granddaughter grows, I do know how to help her face her feelings.  She will hear about Max.  And I will bid her “roar her terrible roar.”  “Jump up on the bed,“ I’ll say.  Now, “Let the Wild Rumpus Start.”

Marc I. Machiz–Contributor
Marc spent his career as an advocate for participants in employee benefit plans, primarily by practicing law. He has three sons with his wife Jean, of 37 years and they are looking forward to welcoming their first grandchild. In semi-retirement, Marc plays tennis, advocates for immigrant rights and has founded a mediation and expert witness business, Justician Mediation, LLC.

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