I know women who enjoy being alone in their homes at night. A single mother at my daughter’s preschool, for instance, says that she lives for uninterrupted hours of Andre Watt’s piano-playing when her children are elsewhere. Another, a former student of mine, binge-watches Breaking Bad while her girlfriend is out for the evening. And a third, whose husband regularly disappears for weekend hunting trips—not regularly enough, she says—spends her “alone time” completing DIY projects. These women celebrate having the house to themselves. I don’t. It’s not that I haven’t also yearned for stolen hours where I can read a book without being pulled away or watch a TV series with a plot that suits only my tastes. I have. But what I experience when I’m home alone is the antithesis of enjoyment. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, it’s closer to terror.
Case in point: my husband has ridden off on his motorcycle for a four-day “guys” trip. The sun has dropped below the horizon. I can see no farther than the Maple in my own front yard. Hours earlier, I sang my daughter to sleep in her crib. I’m alone, sitting in a chair in the living room, drinking wine, and viewing a movie. I’m having a good time, but then I spot a moth, bumping into the only lamp in my living room. It isn’t the moth that I fear, but what its presence means. Where did it come from? Is it a bad sign, like those one might find on an episode of CSI? How has the moth gotten inside? A door hasn’t been opened since I took my daughter for an afternoon walk in her stroller. The windows on the ground floor are closed and latched, a task I feel compelled to do when my husband is away, even though we live in a suburban neighborhood populated by tidy, slow-moving seniors. Surely, I would have seen the moth before this late hour. Who let it in?
I stand and turn off the movie so that I can hear what’s happening around me. The loudest sound in the house comes from my daughter’s upstairs bedroom, where her sound machine is set to “rain.” I sniff for the smell of a cigarette that my husband and I have never smoked, listen for the sound of creaking hinges, and walk into the kitchen to look for shoeprints on the clean kitchen floor. There I make a discovery: the glass patio door is unlocked, the screen door behind it slightly open. I imagine the moth flittering against the patio door, drawn to the dim light from the living room lamp. I imagine a man stepping from out of the shadows, quietly opening the door, and stepping inside, not noticing the moth on his shoulder. I know that a man is hiding inside of my home, just as I know that there’s no one in my home that’s not supposed to be. Or is there? If people always knew when intruders had broken into their homes, no one would ever die this way. I grab a chef’s knife, the knife that slices through raw chicken, bone and flesh, and return to the living room where the moth persists at the lamp. There’s only one way to be sure. I’ll have to check.
“Why does your mind go down such dark corridors?” my husband asks. I don’t entirely know why. But what I find at the end of these corridors is always the same. A man has broken into my home. I’m alone. He subdues me. Sometimes I suffer indignities and torments first, but regardless of what happens along the curve of my narrative arc, the ending—my end—never changes. I die.
I can trace the origin of my fear to the year I was nine. Every week on my family’s small Magnavox TV, aliens who looked like humans plotted how they would steal the earth’s water and use it to resuscitate their dying planet. Initially, only the aliens’ red uniforms, unmistakably designed for space travel, distinguished them from humans. Then one evening, one of the aliens became agitated; his skin stretched tight across his face as if he were riding on a rollercoaster. It tore and pulled apart, revealing the face of a lizard. The lizard man jumped on the authentic human and killed him. Disturbing transformations from humanoid into reptile were repeated weekly. The series was called V, for Visitors, and it was my father’s favorite show. He sat in his recliner, glass of Bacardi and Coke in hand, while my younger sister, Debbie, and I sat on the floor, watching through our fingers.
We used V as a code letter for anything bad. “Did you look behind the couch for V?” we said. “Better say your prayers or V might get you while you sleep.” After watching V, we ran down the dark hallway to our separate bedrooms, too frightened to check under our beds and in our toy chests for the inevitable Lizard Man. Some nights my father took advantage of our fright and hid in the laundry room closet, located in the hallway between the living room and our bedrooms. He listened for pattering feet and giggles and then lunged from out of the darkness, his large, hairy arm looking more reptilian than human. When we shrieked, he laughed and slapped his hands together. The game was supposed to be funny, everyone knew, but I hated it. It was the surprise—the scare—which amused my father and made me so mad.
I realize now that my father unwittingly conditioned me to fear bedtime, similar to how Pavlov conditioned a dog to salivate at the sound of a bell, and the night my father crawled into my bedroom on elbows and knees while I lay in bed, covers pulled up to my chin, he quite possibly conditioned me to fear my own bed. He waited for the perfect moment, when my breathing was beginning to deepen, and wrapped his hand around my skinny leg. I shot up in bed and screamed. It was just a hand, my father’s hand, not the claw of a slimy carnivorous reptile. I started to cry angry tears. My father snickered despite himself. That was all, but I would not be caught by surprise again. I watched for my father in hallways and looked over my shoulder when climbing into bed.
“What is your greatest fear?” I ask the college students I teach. One of the many questions from the Proust Questionnaire, it’s a good get-to-know-you activity. I like it for reasons other than it breaks the ice. It comforts me to know that my students have irrational fears, even if they don’t act on them the same way as I do. My students’ answers are similar and often fit into neat categories: bugs (insects with stingers or more than four legs), common fears (heights, flying in airplanes, dental visits), losing loved ones (self-explanatory), extreme ways to die (being buried alive, drowning, burning to death), existential dilemmas (failure, ending up alone, disappointing one’s role models), science-fiction fantasies (zombies, robots, epidemics), aging (losing one’s ability to hear, see, walk), broad social, political, and economic fears (our country will never pay its national debt), and fears most of us find humorous (boogers, baldness, being tickled by feathers).Vanity Fair gives the Proust Questionnaire to celebrities so that we can learn that having gastrointestinal difficulties was Julia Child’s greatest fear (humorous) while snakes are Joan Didion’s (common). Meanwhile, Bette Midler fears that the greatest days of our country are past (political). Some refuse to answer the question, one assumes, because their fears are too great. When asked, Matt Damon said, “I don’t want to give it a voice.”
I, too, have worried that voicing my fear might summon it, turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or perhaps when you name your fears they can’t get you. The only time I told a classroom of students about my nighttime checks, they laughed. I saw myself through their eyes: the thirty-something college writing teacher, in her matching Ann Taylor skirt and blouse, lecturing about narrative authority by day and jerking back shower curtains by night. I laughed, too. It—I—was ridiculous. That evening, though, when my husband was working late and I was doing just the thing that when spoken about in daylight had seemed so silly—so obsessive compulsive, as one student put it—I couldn’t find the humor in it. I had something in common with the men I feared; like them, I understood that who someone is in public is not the same person someone is in private. We shape-shift given the correct environment. We never truly know the person that we’re talking to.
A few months after V had exposed its red eyes and vertical-slit pupils in our living room, my father suddenly forbade Debbie and me from riding our bicycles on the streets of our Louisville, Nebraska, neighborhood. He banned us from playing unsupervised at the nearby park. Both of my parents kept a watchful eye on us—she from the kitchen window; he from the garage—while Debbie and I played tag, stuck in our own yard. Ordinarily supportive of our kid-only adventures to the point of obliviousness, the abrupt change in my parents’ behavior was disturbing. Even without explanation, I understood that my parents believed my sister and me to be in some sort of danger, something so horrible that it couldn’t be named. But what? Several months later—and just as mysteriously—my father returned our freedoms to us.
What my parents were afraid to tell us then was that it was the fall of the Nebraska Boy Snatcher. John Joubert, an enlisted young man, was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue—a mere twenty minutes from my grandparents’ home and forty from ours—when he snatched and then killed first one boy and then the other. (The first boy he had killed in Maine over a year earlier.) I was well into my teenage years when I finally put two and two together, having read about Joubert in one of the books that lay in stacks on the steps leading upstairs to my bedroom. Buried Dreams: Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer; Edward Gein: America’s Most Bizarre Murderer; Confessions of Son of Sam, and so on. The books belonged to my sister and were part of her criminal psychology school project, which had been teacher and parent sanctioned. As if I were still in morning marching band practice, wielding my flute and cummerbund, I high-stepped over the books when going up the stairs. I hated when they were open to the pictures of the killers inside, since I felt like they could see me from wherever they were (earth or hell), and I kicked them shut or down to the landing. Too frequently, my curiosity got me and then I brought one to my bedroom, reading random paragraphs until my idealistic worldview was sullied. Clever nicknames were given for the serial killer’s preference for weapons, methods and places of killing, and sexual turn-ons. Hammer Killer. Railroad Killer. Monster of the Rivers. The Shoe Fetish Slayer. Half of the murder cases hadn’t been solved and so could be attributed to no one, yet these men had enough horrific murders pinned on them to earn their nicknames. The books made it clear that the vast majority of serial killers were male and the vast majority of victims were female: Arthur Shawcross (14 women dead), Robert Hansen (15 women dead), Earle Nelson (22 women dead). There was the rare survivor, too, whose testimonies I gulped down like air, like this one from The Stranger Beside Me: Ted Bundy, The Shocking Inside Story: “When I woke up about four, I saw him standing in the doorway. I saw his profile. There was a light shining through from the living room where he’d left his flashlight on. He came over and sat on my bed and told me to relax, that he wouldn’t hurt me.” Bundy was a liar and hurt the woman, though unlike at least thirty-five others, she lived to tell her tale.
Serial killers were a fact of life, Debbie said. They didn’t frighten her, they captivated her. (My sister now works as a clinical psychologist. Perhaps my father’s nighttime pranks conditioned a fear response in her, too, but instead of fearing killers, she learned to analyze them.) She read her books because they made her feel prepared. Prepared for what? I wondered. An encounter with the Schoolgirl Killer? There were too many man-monsters. Some were serving life in prison. How many walked the streets, or worse yet, walked my street? I could think of at least one. I took some small amount of guilty comfort in knowing that Joubert targeted boys, the same way I took comfort when a serial killer targeted landladies (The Dark Strangler; 22 dead) or prostitutes (The Riverside Prostitute Killer; 19 dead)—groupings I didn’t belong to. But Joubert frightened me because he had been so close at a time when I had been so naïve.
Initially my sister’s research was limited to library books, but due to her persistence, she eventually met Pat Thomas, the Sarpy County Chief of Police in the Joubert case. “When I asked John what he would do if we released him today,” Pat told my sister, “He said, ‘Well, I’d go out and find another boy and kill him.’ He said it just the same way I might say, ‘I’m headed to the grocery store to buy some peas.’” Pat said my sister should hope to never meet a man that evil. Debbie was unafraid of the possibility. I, on the other hand, feared what would happen if one of the Lady Killers described in my sister’s books wandered into our own boring backyard. I imagined the thousands of bodies of young women and girls, stuffed into garbage sacks, or left naked by the side of the road, or buried in a basement. I could hear their choked-off warnings: Watch out for him!
The first time I lived alone was the spring I graduated college. My post-college job at a restaurant and bar meant I often worked until 2 a.m. After my waitressing shifts, I came home to an empty one-bedroom apartment in southwest Omaha. I had a new bedtime routine. Before removing my uniform, I opened the coat closet and made a mental note. Check! Next, I went into the bathroom and yanked back the shower curtain. Check! Now into the living room where I’d look behind the couch and then the chair. Check, check! Now the furnace closet where only the scrawniest homicidal maniac could fit. Check! The patio, the kitchen, inside the kitchen cabinets—which even I recognized as a space no one could squeeze into, but still I had to look—and into the bedroom. Check, check, check, check! I saved the bed for last, getting down on my hands and knees to peer underneath. Check! I was searching for a man (a lizard man?) who was waiting to rape me or murder me, or both. When the complex manager refused to install extra locks onto my door, my parents brought over a contraption called a Master Lock Security Bar. It looked like a long robotic arm, and its job was to keep others—“What others?” my mother asked. “You live alone with your cat!”—from opening my bedroom door while I was sleeping. My cat was as cowardly as I had suddenly become. The sound of a creaking floorboard sent us both scrambling to our feet. I was only satisfied after my father attempted to shove my door open with the mechanism in place, panting and cursing from the exertion.
I let my parents believe that I wanted the extra security because I lived in an apartment complex notorious for its parties. My nightly ritual stayed my secret because I didn’t want to be confronted about it. My fear of male intruders contradicted the feminists I had fallen in love with during college; in the words of a Margaret Atwood character, “This above all, to refuse to be a victim. Unless I can do that I can nothing.” I perceived my fear as my character flaw, but my behavior seemed reasonable to me. I was a young woman, living alone on the first floor of an apartment building with an unsecured front door. Other women were likely not engaging in similar nighttime rituals, but I didn’t care. Weren’t women alone at night, thousands of them, typing in an office after dark, clicking heels on the cement of a parking garage, fumbling for keys in an apartment complex hallway, unaware that someone was watching?
Men have invaded my sleep from the time I was a little girl. I dream about a man chasing me through unlit parking lots and deserted homes. The man is a dark shape in an alley, a monster at the bottom of the stairs, a volcano of evil in a flannel shirt and grease-stained jeans, always faceless. “Why do you think some man is out to get you?” Debbie asks when I call her following a night of unrest. Ignoring the emphasis she places on you, as if I think I’m hot stuff to be the chosen victim, I confess that I don’t know. “Try to get a good look at him,” she suggests. “Imagine him a figure in a wax museum.” He turns his head before I can see. I hide in a closet and bury myself in clothing belonging to a young girl. Sometimes I fly out of a window, but I can’t outrun him; the ground is black tar, the stairs too many to climb, the doors bolted shut. I wake in a sweat, switch on a light. I look around the room to see if everything is in its place. In the aftermath of these dreams, I squeeze tight the ring rosary I keep under my pillow. I pray.
I want to be clear: I don’t fear all men. I have always loved men. I enjoy and seek out their company. What I fear is a very specific man. A nomad who knows how to cover his tracks, one who meets a woman and thinks about snuffing the life out of her. Such a man reaches mythological proportions in my mind, howling at full moons, except the man I fear prunes hedges, bags groceries, and pumps gas into his truck, folding into the crowd. He is ordinary only in how predictably his heart propels blood through his veins. Unlike the rest of us who struggle with our inner spiritual conflicts between the good and evil halves of our soul, who feel remorse when we kill a living thing without ritual, prayer, or reason, this man transcends our fear of mortality by seeing a human not as “living,” but as “thing.” I draw a line under his name in a newspaper article or book, hoping this act of identifying empowers me—instead of making me neurotic. I bear witness to how he—the abuser, rapist, the serial killer—is parodied, studied, documented, made into T-shirt designs and sold on trading cards, written into song lyrics, personified in movie characters, glamorized, fetishized, and stigmatized. Hiding behind this kitsch cultural obsession is a fear and loathing that is universally human: fear of the body’s defenselessness against violation and death.
I understand that the statistical probability of a serial killer breaking into my home and murdering me is lower than the probability of me being struck dead by lightning. The former Chief of the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, John Douglas, once said, “A very conservative estimate is that there are between 35-50 active serial killers in the United States.” Serial killers are cagey, though, and other reliable sources argue that the number of serial killers walking around the nation on any given day is likely in the hundreds. When I was in my early thirties, an eleven year-old boy and his family’s housekeeper were slain in the small historic neighborhood in Omaha where I again lived alone. The police had a sketch of the man they suspected in the double-homicide, which had occurred in a home that I frequently passed on my morning walks. Two days later, a rapist surfaced (resurfaced, but the police didn’t know this yet) in my neighborhood. I had a teaching career I loved but no roommate. Even if leaving my apartment for a quick trip to the basement to use the communal laundry room, I secured my doors and windows. I did my checks. What would I do if I my eyes ever met someone else’s during these checks? I planned to do as a dear friend described: go bat-shit-crazy. I knew where to locate the knives and scissors in my apartment. I imagined myself kicking a groin and scratching eyes. But I had no other weapons; I had no other plans. Meanwhile, The Midtown Rapist—as he was nicknamed—assaulted another woman. And then another. One women was molested in an apartment a block away from mine, and like the other victims (and like me) she was young and unwed. A newspaper blurb read: “He’s a patient man who watches and waits for his victims late at night.” A Patient Man, I thought, it sounds like the overly ironic title of a Lifetime movie.
My paranoia reached a fever-pitch. I never stayed on campus after dark. I never left my then-fiancé’s house without an escort to my car. I never parked next to a white van when I shopped (incidentally, my husband drives a white van for his job; he calls it “The Kidnapper.”) I lived with a lot of “I nevers.” I never felt safe. A tree branch scratching my window or my cat plopping onto the wood floors from a chair sent me barreling out of bed, ready to face the improbable. I had long ago crossed a line into unhealthy fearing and there was no turning back. I stopped sleeping through the night. I wanted to see him coming, whoever he was. I surrendered to over-the-counter sleeping pills, and when they failed, I sought a prescription to knock me out. When nothing else reassured me, I slept with a knife under my pillow. I became a woman who behaved like she was next.
But I wasn’t next. In the midst of my internal calamity, my fiancé and I bought a house in a neighborhood farther west, a solid thirty-minute drive from my apartment, and where we still live today. I knew that I had escaped, and that first night, worn out from carrying boxes and furniture up and down stairs, I fell asleep without doing my checks. It was that simple and also that complicated. Soon after, my fiancé and I were married. We were newly in love, and during those first few months, neither of us were often by ourselves; I was never by myself at night. Even my dreams empowered me.
I feel my way along an endless white hallway, palms out. A man is shouting. No, now he is laughing. I look outside of the house through the only window. I see him standing in a sandlot nearby. I run to the roof and lift my arms. I fly. The man pursues me, running below me on the ground. I fly around a cul-de-sac, a neighborhood of pastel homes. In each yard, a different woman in a flowered housedress plays with a small child. I call out to each duo; I scream for help. The children hear something. They look away from their mothers and up at the sky, but they see nothing. The man is closer. He is running and he has grown King-Kong size. Before he grabs me, I am back in the house. I look out the window and see the man in the sandlot. He shrinks to normal size. There is a grey truck in the sandlot. I will it to move with my mind. It runs over the man and kills him.
For nearly a year, my fearing disappeared, my public and private persona something close to harmony. Other women were not so lucky. The Midtown Rapist created his legend. He sexually assaulted eleven women by the time the police caught up to him. The man who had committed the double-homicide wouldn’t reemerge until five years later. That it had been a hard time in my life but an even harder time for those other women was not lost on me.
I wish I lived in a world where women and girls aren’t abused and murdered. But I don’t. So when I’m alone and triggered, I do my checks. As with the evening, my fear returns in the shape of a moth. I leave the living room and pass the closet in the den, a closet with room for hide-and-seek, a space I would normally check. My intuition propels me downstairs toward the spare room that my husband has converted into his office. Kick the shins, knees, or groin, I think. A gym trainer once told me that I have powerful legs, and I’m foolishly counting on them. From the bottom of the stairs I see the desk that my husband has fashioned from an old metal door and two filing cabinets. Things are in their places. And then in the unlit space behind the door to my husband’s office, I see something: an outline of a body wearing a green, hooded sweatshirt. I gasp. My knees buckle. It’s him. I feel it. The lizard man, the Midtown Rapist, my father, too. I have to satisfy the urge. I have to scratch. I push the door with an arm weak with panic and someone pushes back. Electricity travels from my head to my stomach. I might throw up. I force myself into the room, whipping the door toward me, where I’m confronted by a housecoat and a green sweatshirt, hanging on a new hook on the wall. No body, no man, no monster. Only me, shuddering and wondering: if there had been someone, would I have run up the stairs and out the front door, screaming into the street like a true coward, my only child left behind? Or would I have fought until I finally reached the end of this story, his and mine?
Later that night, with my daughter asleep in her crib in the room across the hall from mine, and my husband thousands of miles away, I enter my bedroom. Before I can begin the descent into the dark, swirling tunnels of sleep, I get down on my hands and knees and look under my bed. It’s a hard habit to break.
Jody Keisner is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her most recent work has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Brevity, River Teeth’s Beautiful Things, Brain, Child, Literary Mama, New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. She is working on a collection of essays that explores the physical and psychological landscapes of fear, of which “Under My Bed” is a part.