The Owl In The Kitchen: A Life Touched By Nightmare

Ruminant With A View

by Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

TEANECK New Jersey—(Weekly Hubris)—6/27/11—My first memories feature fear. Fear, solitude, “unreality,” the night, and unconsciousness. Or a type of consciousness, a species of unreality we choose to call, in the West, “dreaming.” My first memories are of nightmares. My first memories are nightmares. They live on, 54, 55 years after the fact. What does it mean that I cannot, will not, forget them?

I was told, so often, in infancy, in early, early childhood, about my paternal grandfather’s holding me up to look over a fence at rabbits, that, for a long time, I believed that was my first memory. Peaceful. Secure. Held aloft, and conscious. In the light. In someone’s safe arms. “Don’t you remember?” “You remember, don’t you?” But it was not true. My first memory is of a dream that came so early I had no language for it, or in it, and there were no rabbits.

Johann Heinrich Füssli’s “The Nightmare”
Johann Heinrich Füssli’s “The Nightmare”

I am alone, on a vast, dark plain, between two advancing armies; or two advancing forces. Multitudes which will clash just where I am standing. I know this, and flutter back and forth; first, in one direction; then, the other. The dream recurs, but always ends before the inevitable. (I woke, to dream it all again. And again and again.)

In my second dream, my second memory—and I am by now a toddler in a crib—my stuffed animals, piled at the head of the bed, piled as high as the crib’s headboard, collapse on me in my sleep, and smother me. Once I know such a thing can happen, how can I sleep? Ever again? How can a toddler “imagine” her own obliteration? What force hardwired that into my still-soft head?

My parents, who first read Dr. Spock when his book appeared, and followed him to the letter, were later seduced by West-Coast behaviorists of the early 1950s, who “instructed” them to put “the infant” down, make certain everything round and about was safe, and then not come when their baby cried. I haven’t looked into this philosophy of child-rearing too closely, as I wonder how anyone could accept , put into practice, let alone develop , this theory. How my particular parents, who’d waited 13 years for what would be their only child, could bring themselves not to come to me.

My mother said, later, that she stood outside my bedroom door and wrung her hands, herself crying. But the doctors. . . . The doctors must be right. What could she know, at 31, 32, the first-time mother; a woman who, herself, had had no mothering to speak of?

She was amazed at my crying. Amazed that I did not stop. That I could cry for hours and hours. Believing, night after night, that someone would come. Eventually. Everything round and about was not safe, patently, if no one came when I cried.

Mixed messages. Early. I love you, my child; but you can cry till you have a stroke at one, at two, at three, and no one will come. We will not come.

They were part and parcel of one of my country’s many little “experiments.” What happens if we isolate new parents, two by two, with their infants, in “single-family homes”? No grannies. No aunts. Not even a compassionate gay uncle. In my case, not even a sibling. Let’s see how this works, how things turn out in a generation or so.

When I visited my grandparents, who lived on the other side of the continent, I was attached to one wide, grandmotherly hip or the other, inseparable. But then came the inevitable flight home to Los Angeles. My empty, dark bedroom. My unattended screams. In the morning, when the bars of the crib finally slid down, and the arms returned, like a dog, I was simply grateful. You came back? You’re still alive? It’s a miracle.

Night, the dark, separation, solitude, bed, sleep, dreaming: it all became a horror. A banal horror that recurred every evening at 7 or 8 p.m. World without end. When I could walk, my nightmares drove me down the dark hall into my parents’ bed and, for an instant, before sleep snuffed out my lights, I would reach out a limb, this way, that way, and be safe.

Still, I knew that, at the end of the hall, in the kitchen, beyond the breakfast table I had once tipped over, by accident, when it had just been heavily set for dinner, there lived a ten-foot-tall owl that was only real at night. It would devour me if I came near it, if I took too long in the hall.

And, outside my bedroom windows, in 1950s Pasadena, California, stood a line of nocturnal elephants, who hung their trunks through my green-flowered café curtains. I was terrified of the owl; but not of the elephants. The elephants were my only nighttime gift in childhood and, to this day, I know they were real, as real as anything else. Their benign trunks could not reach me in my bed, but I knew these pachyderms meant me no harm.

My parents relented, they told me, when I began to walk. But, by then, it was too late: I’d got the message. Someone—authority, science—could override common sense, millennia of mammalian common sense and mother-love. Instinct. All those psychologists who did the studies with the infant monkeys and the “stick mothers, the “padded stick mothers”? Who were those monsters in white coats? The lab monkeys and I grew to toddlerhood knowing one thing for certain: we would never be safe. The world is not a safe place. Basically, despite all the rocky-road ice-cream and the tennis lessons and the sunshine, even Southern California sucked.

We erect walls of ritual against fear, we humans; like dykes against the flood. I carried around with me a little, down-filled pillow. For decades. Its insides had the gritty, lumpy consistency of granola, and it was as foul-smelling as something once, long ago, alive (the scent that wafts out of a seashell containing a dead snail or hermit crab) by the time I abandoned it. I also charmed my parents, my baby-sitters, visiting relatives, anyone, into staying, sitting on my bed, as long as I could; as long as they would, at night. “Read me another story.” “Bring me a glass of water. Of milk. Of ginger-ale.” “Leave the light on in the hall.” “Sing to me.” “Are you there?” “Where?”

For half my life, for over half my life now, I have been alone in the dark. Awake. As terrified, much of the time, as someone interred alive. And, when not alone in the dark, I am still alone, my loved one sleeping peacefully beside me.

I know the owl is still in the kitchen.

When I was ten, I went to Greece with my parents. My father had received a grant to write a book and to teach there, and I was thrown into a culture where no one was ever really alone. Especially children. Children went out at night with their parents and, when they got tired, they were put down to sleep along a line of chairs, all the adults’ coats beneath and above them. Older women cosseted me. Not with gifts, but with the heat of their bodies pressed close. I began to re-learn the art of sleeping in Greece. Still, when we were home, in Athens, just the three of us, the nightmares returned for me, but I found that I could simply wake up, get up, turn on a light, study or write, and wait for exhaustion, which banished all consciousness. There were crafty ways to be alone and asleep.

By the time we returned to America, and the culture of solitude, the culture of “a room of one’s own,” I believe my heart had simply broken wide open. What they call full-blown panic attacks set upon me. I hyperventilated. My lips turned blue. I passed out. My father, a therapist, knew about breathing into a paper bag. After a year in the new city, Chicago, the new school, the panic eased back, like a wave, but with every major upheaval in my life—and life is all and everywhere upheaval—the panic attacks would return, at last hardening into agoraphobia when I was in my late 30s.

I was “saved,” at 40, by the emergency of my mother’s cancer, which gave me an existential choice: get well, and help your mother; or continue down into the dark, and immobility, and leave your mother without an advocate. I asked for help from a member of my mother’s cancer support group, who gave me a series of cassette tapes (this was 1992) made by a marketing man who’d got the low-down on panic attacks and how to “get around” them, and I willed myself to recover, for the time being.

Two years ago, I underwent a sleep study, and was diagnosed with “just about every sleep disorder from which human beings can suffer” (my specialist’s words)—Stage Four sleep disorders, sleep apnea, bruxism, nightmares, periodic limb movement (apparently, in sleep, I twitch like a drop of water on a hot stove). Drugs were prescribed, by the very tender professional who read my results. And they worked, for a while. I went down into oblivion at will, every night. And slept. But drugs were never in Mother Nature’s original plan and, soon enough, the drugs would not put me to sleep, and yet kept me from waking, or allowed me to wake at intervals, my nights again shattered by dreams.

Listening to other people’s dreams is one of the most tedious human duties on the planet, even if they’re spine-tinglingly sexual in nature. It’s a passive activity right up there with having your friend’s eight-year-old son recount, blow by blow, the plot of the latest super-hero film. I really try to avoid telling my dreams to anyone. They lose everything, including their menace, in translation. Only Kafka really got this genre down. Kafka, and those anonymous bards who spin out urban legends. The young couple necking in the car who hear a noise, get spooked, drive off, and later discover the serial killer’s arm attached to the passenger side door.

I’ll be very brief. My nightmares recur, and they would frighten no one but me. They almost always involve what I’d call “architecture.” And I am someone who is, for example, very disturbed by the paintings of de Chirico, so, of course, my dreamscapes resemble de Chirico’s cityscapes.

I’m trying to get back into a house my former husband, a Greek photographer, and I owned (though we never owned such a house, in reality), but other people have moved in and taken over the residence. All of my things, our things, have been relegated to a storage room I can see into but cannot access. Decades have passed. Centuries pass. The city, Athens, Greece, ages, and everything in the storage room disintegrates. Like Woolf’s Orlando, I walk the streets, an inhabitant of the 19th and 20th and 21st centuries . . . locked out, un-housed, dis-embodied.

There are many, many variations. In one, I wake—really, I wake—and turn to my sleeping husband, Dean, and say, “We must go back to Mykonos and claim our plot of land, the one by the sea. It’s been stolen, and we have only so many years before the current ‘owners’ build a hotel on it, and we will have lost it forever.” It takes long minutes for me to convince myself I have awakened from a dream; that the reality of which I speak, so frantically, is simply a fragment of anxious fog, a phantasm.

None of this is pleasant. OK, it beats pancreatic cancer. It’s not Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It’s not Dean’s glaucoma or Anne’s migraines or Walter’s torn, shredded, rotator cuff. And I’m 56, not 96. But, for a writer, for someone who likes to use her mind to create new forms, new entities, with words, it’s a sort of abomination. Writers need to be in the driver’s seat, at least some of the time, even if it’s the so-called Shadow Self who’s holding the pen, pounding the keys.

My nightmares, instead, come like Coleridge’s opium dreams. Living through them is to ride the dragon through emotional hell. It’s all about loss, desolation, rejection, unease, shape-shifting—it puts me right back where I was at three months, or three years, on a darkling plain between two advancing armies. Where the hell does this stuff come from, and why won’t it go back, and stay there?

The owl, patently, the ten-foot-tall owl, with its unimaginable wingspan, does not belong in my kitchen, and never did (damn it and the green horse it rode in on). But here I am, much more than half my life over, and more, God willing, to come, and the owl is still there. But the elephants are gone.

Editor’s Note: This column was excerpted from Ruminant With A View: “Bush in a Dress,” “The Assassination of Barack Obama,” Jeremiah, The Baptist” & Other Nightmares. In the interim between its first appearance and now, the author has learned that her baroque and paralyzing nightmares are a product of faulty Stage Four sleep, when “circuits” to her so-called Lizard Brain should be “offline” but, in her case, are not. Clonazepam has helped but, just last night, for example, she was trying to sail a land-yacht (literally) along the highways of Los Angeles, with predictable results. You just can’t make this stuff up . . . at least while awake. For those who want to read a bit more about sleep:


Elizabeth Boleman-Herring, Publishing-Editor of “Weekly Hubris,” considers herself an Outsider Artist (of Ink). The most recent of her 15-odd books is The Visitors’ Book (or Silva Rerum): An Erotic Fable, now available in a third edition on Kindle. Thirty years an academic, she has also worked steadily as a founding-editor of journals, magazines, and newspapers in her two homelands, Greece, and America. Three other hats Boleman-Herring has at times worn are those of a Traditional Usui Reiki Master, an Iyengar-Style Yoga teacher, a HuffPost columnist and, as “Bebe Herring,” a jazz lyricist for the likes of Thelonious Monk, Kenny Dorham, and Bill Evans. (Her online Greek travel guide is still accessible at, and her memoir, Greek Unorthodox: Bande a Part & A Farewell To Ikaros, is available through Boleman-Herring makes her home with the Rev. Robin White; jazz trumpeter Dean Pratt (leader of the eponymous Dean Pratt Big Band); Calliope; and Scout . . . in her beloved Up-Country South Carolina, the state James Louis Petigru opined was “too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.” (Author Photos by Robin White. Author Head Shot Augment: René Laanen.)


  • barbara K.

    Dear Elizabeth, you are AWESOME… everything you write and applaud your courage to “let it all hang out”. Just got a long email from Diana from Andros and have had a long chat with Judy in Athens , this a.m. Ca. time, about 8p.m. her time…while watching the horrific activities on T.V. as was she…my heart aches for my friends and others caught up in the events of the day. I know of what you speak when it came to Dr. Spock (met him many years later in Vancouver, Canada and certainly he had reconsidered some of his earlier ideas)…fortunately for my children they had a real GREEK husband and I had my Mother, Aunts and MY Grandparents around all still clinging on to their “foreign” backgrounds and OLD COUNTRY ideas….PERASTIKA …lots of love. Barb

  • eboleman-herring

    Thank you, Barbara! You know, I figure that, as a woman writer about to turn 60, if I can write vividly about what’s really happened/happening to me in my own life, and it resonates with a reader facing something similar, why the hell not get it out there?! Soooooo many human beings suffer horrors daily with nightmares and with panic. Our troops will now be coming back from The Loooong War in Pakghaniraq with nightmares and panic. And there IS help for all of us. You just have to realize what $#@% is hitting your fan, and read something that describes your situation. At least, that’s my hope. Meanwhile, I’m on a one-woman campaign: PICK UP YOUR CRYING INFANT & CUDDLE IT! How COULD we ever, as parents, grandparents, etc., etc., have forgot to do THAT?? Love you, Elizabeth

  • Janet Granuzzo

    You are an amazing person and quite an inspiration to me. What you went and go through, because I know panic NEVER goes away, and is horrible. First of all, you have described similar circumstances that I too have had and relate to. Different reasons, but same feelings. One thing for me was when they used to do the nuclear raid drills. I was in kindergarten and would get a panic attack and cry and cry. Forever more certain sirens send me right into an attack. No drug can stop it. I to am on the same med. Also, I never could go to sleep on my own because of fear. I was told to let my babies cry and I could not do that. No one was there for me growing up and I was going to be there for my kids. Thank you for opening up and sharing, exposing yourself to the world. Thank you again for asking me to be your friend.

  • eboleman-herring

    Hi, Janet, and thanks for writing in! We must have gone to the same kindergarten. What were they THINKING? I mean, HELLO!, like my little wooden desk’s going to protect me against Armageddon?! But panic CAN go away. It can try to sneak back, but it CAN go away. That fellow in my mother’s cancer support group–he and my mother both died, but I lived on, without panic, thanks to Jerry–gave me truly brainless series of behavioral modification tapes which, somehow, worked for me. I was over-breathing, and the tape “told” me, simply, to “pair” another behavior–raising my thumb–to the over-breathing, when it began. That conscious control, that awareness, would short-circuit the panic for me. The technique’s widely taught by psychologists today. Also, I find I cannot panic AND sing, so I break into song when I feel panicky. Which is usually in my car, for some reason. (New Jersey drivers spring to mind.) The thing is, Janet, help isn’t going to arrive. You have to go get it. You have to google it and get the $#@^ tapes, or find the therapist who knows the right techniques. You and I have a propensity for it, hard-wired, but it CAN be beaten back, through sheer force of will and crafty behavioral trickery. I’m living proof. Now . . . the nightmares are a bit trickier. Love you, Kiddo! e

  • Ginger Berglund

    Clonazepam can be very helpful. I’ve used it for unrelenting pain and spasming. However, it eventually sapped my memory to such a degree I could not find words I needed to speak. Had to choose, pain or memory? As a worshiper of Mnemosyne, I choose to be in pain. I’ve learned from a counselor that one’s mind develops a story or dream to explain pain, so one’s dreams can become very violent as one tries to “explain” the pain to oneself.

    Have you considered doing the journaling of dreams and daytime dialogue with the dream’s characters to become lucid while dreaming? I highly recommend it! Fantastic feeling, downright euphoric for me. When my son had nightmares at 5-6, we used those strategies. Took some time (the “magic” and powerful feelings from a dream are actually sometimes difficult to “let go” and tell). He finally trained himself to recognize that he was in a dream, stand his ground, and ask the scary elements what they wanted. He was ecstatic when he made it happen. He became very self-actualizing and independent. Never woke us up again re: nightmares…sigh… Thank you so much for sharing your experiences! I duked my son’s dad out when he tried to pull that “let him cry” thing on me. ;>

  • eboleman-herring

    Darling Ginger, my Dad was a psychoanalyst, and I began therapy at 10. I don’t think there’s anything I haven’t “tried” vis-a-vis my nightmares, but they are not “normal” dreams. They’re the product of dreaming during REM sleep–very Abbie Normal; very much a matter of an oddly hardwired brain. These are NOT useful dreams, but, instead, dreams that can actually engender post-traumatic-stress. I am virtually awake, moving, acting out these dreams, and my heart rate–due to terror–rises to dangerous levels. The clonazepam does zip to my memory, or IQ, or verbal functioning, oddly enough. But it DOES take me to a place too deep for the “pavor noctis,” or night terrors. My sleep study stunned my sleep specialist: I get NO Stage 4 sleep unmedicated. Fortunately, there seem to be few of “us” in this predicament, but I wish to God there’d been more knowledge to help me much earlier. I’m turning 60 in September, and have had a stab at normal sleep for just a few years, now. I’m currently writing three books, publishing a magazine, writing lyrics, and answering mail—and thanking God for Clonazepam and 10mg, nightly, of Melatonin.

    In MY dreams, by the way, the “scary elements” often actually murdered me. I KNEW what they wanted. These were “Lizard Brain” dreams, as my psycho-pharmacologist phrases it. Of no help to anyone. It used to take me about four hours in the morning to stop reliving them. And now, they’re history.

    I’m a Reiki Master who’s ALL for Western medicine, when it’s called for. In my case–with no thyroid, a faulty mitral valve, a broken back, no Stage Four sleep, and bruxism–DRUGS are just the thing. :-)

    Our ancient ancestors had the good sense to chew on willow bark when they had headaches. I don’t go to bed without my chemical armor.

    Love you, My Dear,