Rumors about aliens and flying saucers flooded the school the year I went into eighth grade. First there was a story about a man who lived up on Highway 50 near Weeki Wachee. John Reeves claimed he’d been taken up in a space ship by aliens landing in the woods behind his house. He built a model of the saucer right there on the side of the highway. It became a rite of passage for county kids to work up the nerve to go talk to Reeves. Of course everyone thought he was touched in the head.
Next, a rumor spread that aliens were going to make a mass landing and take away all children between the ages of 12 and 18. Everyone talked about it excitedly, making plans to be “the first to get aboard,” and laughing gaily at the prospect of freedom from parental restriction.
Could it be true? I clearly remember the day this “alien rapture” was supposed to occur. Sitting in my algebra class, one chair removed from the window behind me, I kept glancing backward through the window at the sky about every five minutes.
I felt relieved when the “appointed hour” passed with no sign of aliens. Everyone else was disappointed. But I started watching the sky out the window every night, trying to detect any strange lights moving in an “odd” way. Can’t say I ever noted any, other than ordinary planes. Good! I didn’t want to know anything about aliens.
Back in 2000, around the time of my high school class reunion, I talked to one of my companions from those days about this “UFO fever” that we had experienced as kids. She told me about an event that happened to her at about the same time. She had been riding in the car with her mother driving; they were taking one of her girlfriends home after a sleep-over. Up ahead on the side of the road, there appeared to be two children waving at their car. As they approached, they also saw a bright light in the woods some distance away. Her mother asked in an upset way “what are those little kids doing out at night on this road?” (It was a lonely, limerock road through the woods). She started to slow down, and my friend said she suddenly panicked and started crying and begging her mother not to stop. As she was telling me this part of the memory, she burst into tears and could not continue. I asked her “well, what happened?” She could only shake her head and say “I don’t know, I don’t know. I just know that every time I think about it I get scared and start to cry.” Then, she wouldn’t talk about it anymore.
I was fourteen years old. I began to feel acutely “displaced”. I woke up at night on several occasions not knowing who I was or where I was. I got out of bed, so unfamiliar with the room that I bumped into things. A sensation of panic accompanied these bizarre episodes: I needed to find someone, but I didn’t know who. It was disorienting, to say the least. This happened when I woke from deep sleep, and the feeling only lasted for a short while. Did everyone experience similar disorientation when they woke up in the night?
I tried to ask Mother if this had ever happened to her.
She told me thinking about such things was silly and a waste of time. “Don’t let your wild imagination run away with you,” she said. “Don’t you have chores to do?”
I tried to talk to my brother, but he was preoccupied with girls and cars. He had no time for me.
I began to feel out of time and out of place at home and at school. One day I sat in science class with a book on medieval history hidden behind my textbook when suddenly a flying blackboard eraser bounced off my head.
“Laura,” the teacher asked in a dry voice, “do you think that book is going to earn you an A in my class? Let’s take a good long look at this girl,” he told everyone. “A perfect example of the waste of a good mind.”
I wasn’t being deliberately bad. The class lagged so far behind what I already knew, and my mind raced far ahead of the others. The real questions of life waited to be solved, with so many clues to follow, and I felt I had no time to spend on the life cycle of a frog. I could not forget that at every moment, someone was in pain, some child had lost a parent, some husband was gazing upon the face of his wife for the last time.
All the history accumulating in my head seemed like the biography of the Devil. Humanity was powerless against cosmic catastrophes, military onslaughts, social injustice, personal and familial misfortunes, and a host of other assaults against existence too numerous to list. Death and destruction come to all, both rich and poor, free and slave, young and old, good and evil, with an arbitrariness and insouciance that, when contemplated even momentarily, sears the soul with terror. People have seen their fields and cattle laid waste by drought and disease, loved ones tormented and decimated by illness or human cruelty, a life’s work reduced to nothing in an instant by uncontrollable events.
The rapacious movements of hungry tribes, invading and conquering and destroying in the darkness of prehistory; the bloodbaths of the crusades of Catholic Europe against “infidels,” the stalking “noonday terror” of the Inquisition, where martyrs quenched the flames with their blood; the raging holocaust of modern genocide; war, famine, pestilence; all produced an intolerable sense of indefensibility against the Evil that clearly exists in our world.
As I contemplated the facts of history, I came face to face with a dreadful reality, forced to look at the evidence that human beings are in the iron grip of an existence with no real care or concern for pain and suffering. I could write until the end of the world, using oceans of ink and forests of paper, and never fully convey the Pain and Terror I felt at facing this fact of arbitrary evil. For me, it was personal. For me, it was related to the Face at the Window and the Hound of Hell at my heels.
I really needed an answer. Because if I didn’t find it, I was sure that the Face would return, and the Hound would run me down and destroy me.
I began to have recurrent dreams of another life when pain had reached a summit of intensity: landscapes laid bare by violence, skies of destruction, bloated bodies floating in pools of blood, and serpents everywhere. And me, in the dream, in a small boat paddling for dear life to find a place of rest, an Ark of safety.
My brother had a job after school, doing yard work for an old man who lived up in Aripeka. This gentleman often drove my brother and his bicycle home after a hard day trimming trees or hauling brush. He was lonely and liked to visit a bit with us and sometimes Mom would invite him to stay for dinner. He was so appreciative. He soon became aware that I was a reader. He had an extensive library of old and rare books and invited me to come to his house to read them, though I would not be allowed to take them out.
What a treasure trove!
Books lined every wall of the front room.
The old fellow’s mother had been an early 20th century occultist, acquainted with many of the movers and shakers of the British Society for Psychical Research. She’d collected proceedings, research, analyses, everything related to the mysteries of the occult imaginable! Volumes of case histories of poltergeists, apparent hauntings, magic practices from around the world, Hawaiian Huna to Haitian Voodoo. Studies of mediums and old photographs of ectoplasm produced from their bodies. Cases of psychokinesis, telepathy, clairvoyance. And they weren’t just stories, they were investigated, annotated cases with long analyses, giving insight and assessments of how such events could be explained in scientific terms.
In one large book on miracles of Catholic saints, the same rational analysis was applied. Christianity stood alone in declaring that, if anomalous events occurred outside approved church doctrines, they were Satanic delusions and imitations.
I compared descriptions of “holy” miracles of Christianity to “demonic manifestations”. I had to admit there was little difference except what a group of people decided to believe. I kept thinking I’d find “smoking gun” evidence that Christianity was “right,” and all other views were wrong. But I never found it.
Even Jesus himself was accused, by officials of the “standard religion” of his time and place, of casting out demons by the power of Satan. His answer, that a “house divided against itself cannot stand,” pretty well established the idea that a miracle is a miracle no matter what the context.
So, the “Satanic Delusion” theory of the casting out of demons didn’t hold water. On the other hand, I noticed that Jesus did label other kinds of miracles as “lying wonders” of false prophets in the desert claiming to have dibs on Jesus. With a sense of shock, I saw that many ideas of Christianity could be attributed to “false prophets in the desert,” since their main claim to fame was that “Jesus is here and nowhere else”. I began to see that many of the religious teachings of my childhood were fraudulent.
I felt that I had reached the end of the line. None of the religions, none of the occult studies could answer my question about human suffering, the nature of Evil, or why evil existed in the first place. This question was so compelling, and so generally ignored, that I simply could not comprehend how humanity could continue to exist without an explanation for this problem. No one could explain to me how a child who had essentially done nothing wrong could be terrorized by a Face at the window and pursued by the Hound of Hell.
People around me believed firmly that evil would never enter their lives. Evil was something that happened to others. I couldn’t grasp how easily they avoided the question, how they could say, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, Blessed be the name of the Lord”. Didn’t they see this impossible contradiction? God, as he was described and promoted, could not possibly be responsible for the things attributed to Him. Or worse, if he was responsible, then we had a serious problem, because it meant that God himself was capable of evil.
In Tom French’s article in the St. Petersburg Times, he makes much of the idea that in the extremity of my despair over this problem I decided to climb a tree to face the power of a raging hurricane.
“Think of it as a love story like no other. […] For Laura Knight, it started […] several decades ago, when she was a child growing up on the west coast of Florida. Even then, she lived on curiosity. That is where it really began: with Laura’s monstrous, breathtaking, epic curiosity. From early on, she refused to believe in randomness. She was sure there were cosmic blueprints, an underlying grid of meaning, and she wanted in on it. She devoured libraries of books. She immersed herself in particle physics. She pored through Freud and Jung. She studied Greek to aid her reading of the New Testament. She longed to understand the matrix of the tides, the language of the periodic table, the seductive progression of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.
“But understanding these things was not enough. Laura hungered not just to comprehend, but to experience.
“So one day she climbed into the storm.
“It was 1966, and Hurricane Alma was spinning cartwheels in the Gulf of Mexico. At the time, Laura was 14 years old and living with her family on a farm in northern Pasco County, outside Hudson, less than half a mile from the coast. She had heard on the radio that Alma was generating mountainous waves, and she wanted to behold their ferocity for herself. She asked her mother to take her to the beach, but the answer was no.
“As Laura recalls it, she made her move late that afternoon. Her mother dozed off while working on a crossword puzzle – all these years later, Laura is still astonished that the woman actually labored over something so mundane in the middle of such a spectacular day – and Laura grabbed binoculars and slipped outside. She headed for her favorite tree, a towering camphor she had often climbed to gaze out into the gulf, ideal for what she had in mind now. Slowly she fought her way toward the tree, leaning her body against the wind and the rain, walking unsteadily through a sea of mud and debris. Around her she could smell the unmistakable ozone perfume – earthy, pungent, almost sulfurous – of Alma, making her presence known. [Not a bad description for how it feels to walk in a hurricane.]
“When Laura finally made it to the tree, she climbed until she reached her usual vantage point, a three-branch fork that formed a natural cradle near the top, some 30 feet off the ground. [It was probably more like 15 feet.]Wedging herself in, she took her place in the heart of the maelstrom. The camphor pitched violently; the wind whistled and cried; the rain pounded into her, pushing against her eyelids and into her mouth. Peering westward through the rain-splattered binoculars, she could just make out the black, seething expanse of the Gulf. [It was actually very dark gray.]
“Inside, Laura willed herself into stillness. When she had stepped out of the house, a part of her was afraid. But now she had ascended to a place above fear. As the hurricane rocked her in her cradle, engulfing her and the rest of the visible world, she was transported into a heightened state of both perfect calm and absolute exhilaration. She had become the eye of the storm, the consciousness inside the chaos. She was not afraid to die.
“In that moment, the questions of Laura’s life- questions that would run through all the years stretching before her – announced themselves once and for all. Was it brave of her to venture out into the hurricane? Or was it foolish? Was it proof of something wonderful inside her, or an early sign of something not quite right?” [Thomas French, St. Petersburg Times, 02/13/00]
I’ll spare the reader the part about “riding the storm in ecstasy”. My object here is to clarify that the act Tom saw as the great symbol of my life process, was merely another in a constant series of interactions with the natural world that I sought in order to come to some understanding of God. It was probably a little foolhardy, but no more so than many acts of many other kids my age who had more guts than good sense.
“Was it an “early sign of something not quite right,” as Tom asks?
Well, that depends. From my perspective, people around me claimed to talk to God, to get answers from God, to be guided by God, and to be absolutely certain that God existed in a personally interactive way.
Many Christians claimed to hear God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit, but I did not: at least not in any way I could accept as being provable and not imagination, corruption or deception. I saw increasing proof that Christian teachings promulgated in the faith of my childhood were definitely not supported by external evidence. These religious beliefs seemed delusional to me.
The diagnostic manual of mental disorders consulted by psychiatrists, known in the trade as the DMS III, defines delusion as “false belief based on an incorrect inference about external reality”. A delusion is firmly sustained, despite “incontrovertible proof to the contrary”. The belief that one interacts with “spirits” is defined as a “delusion of being controlled, in which feelings, impulses, thoughts or actions are experienced as being not one’s own, as being imposed by some external force”. Sounds like someone who’s got religion. But “religious context” is excluded from this definition: “This does not include the mere conviction that one is acting as an agent of God.” One has to wonder why “mental health” professionals believe it is acceptable to be deluded by religion, but that it is pathological in any other context.
I was coming to the idea that a delusion was being imposed on humanity, and I didn’t like it.
I observed, I read, I searched. I was determined to make the connection so that I could hear God speak to me. I had been calling for years, and I needed to know I was heard. I needed an answer.
What I was really doing in that tree was calling out to God.
I was not happy to give up my faith. Or to think that all I’d been taught was a lie. And I was putting forth the effort to give this God every chance to give me a single clue.
Was the child crazy who saw that the emperor was naked?
This search had a profound effect on me. At first, I had straight A’s, consistent scores in the top percentile on every test, awards for essays and regular contributions to the school newspaper. I gradually became a withdrawn, angst ridden “rebel without a cause” who refused to participate in class or turn in homework. I was failing in school. My teachers were concerned; the principal was concerned; my mother was advised I had a problem. At their conference they agreed I should be tested and interviewed by a psychiatrist to resolve the dilemma, this “waste of a good mind”.
In the doctor’s office in Tampa, I was sullen and uncommunicative. But in the testing room, they presented me with intriguing puzzles and tests. Well, of all things I do like, puzzles and tests are pretty much at the top of the list. Any kind of challenge of mind, skill or speed of solution is fun for me. I never could understand “test anxiety,” because I especially liked to take tests “cold,” without studying. I liked to compete against my own personal best, because I never even considered outdoing anyone else. I’d made up my mind to be uncooperative, but I couldn’t resist such fun.
Next we looked at inkblots. Well, heck, that’s fun too! I liked seeing images in clouds, too, and this was just a variation on that pastime. I was having a great time. This was certainly more fun than sitting in a boring classroom hearing the teacher endlessly droning on about topics that meant nothing in the great scheme of the universe.
I took an MMPI, a personality inventory, then several versions of IQ tests, word associations, you name it. I worked for about eight hours at a time, three days in a row. At the end, I had a long interview with the psychiatrist (he’s a famous guy now, but back then, he was just getting started). We got along just fine, shared philosophical views, bounced literary allusions off one another. This turned out to be the first intelligent conversation I’d ever had. Finally, he set up a meeting with my mother, the school counselor and me.
The counselor arrived looking smug. He had really shiny, slicked back hair and a squatty face like an Addams Family grandpa. I’m sure he was expecting a list of corrective actions and remedial tutoring to implement, so he was practically wringing his hands in anticipation. It was the first year we even had a “school counselor,” and he was anxious to prove that his position was extremely important. For months he’d sidled up to students, suggesting if they had “any problems at all, come see me! I’m always available!” Most kids didn’t know what to make of the idea of a school counselor. We unanimously thought he was “creepy”. But state law mandated that we have one, and in a small school in a small town, I don’t think we had too many applicants.
Mother was, of course, embarrassed to be in this position. I’m sure she thought this reflected badly on her mothering. Maybe her own lifestyle contributed to The Problem, so there was surely some guilt. I can’t say if she felt guilty because she truly felt bad, or if she felt guilty because she’d been “caught”.
From my point of view, the whole human race was screwed, and nothing mattered any more. On the other hand, I was a little nervous that this doctor, who I liked very much, had penetrated my shell and discovered the tracks of the Face at the Window, and that he would betray me. He was, after all, a member of the “adult world”.
The Shrink looked at the counselor, my mother and then me. He sighed and opened the folder on his desk, and began to list all the tests and resulting scores, assessments, and so on. The numbers were nonsense to me, but I did notice the counselor’s puzzled look. Finally, at the end of this recitation, the doctor closed the folder. “Mrs. Knight, your daughter’s only real problem is that she’s smarter than her teachers, and probably smarter than all of us here in this room.”
Mother looked confused. The counselor was dumbfounded. I felt a little sorry for him.
The unfortunate result of this little episode was to confirm my idea that going to school was a complete waste of time. It also didn’t do much to improve my opinion of teachers who were doing their best, and were, indeed, perfectly adequate for the majority of students. And finally, it put the last brick in the wall between me and other kids my own age. It drove home the point that I was too different to fit in. Being a “brain” did not make me feel special. It made me feel awful. And the fallout was not long in coming.
One day not long after, my brother’s friends were discussing King Arthur’s knights, about which they knew nothing. I interjected a comment, just trying to be helpful, and my brother snapped at me, “Go away. Nobody likes a walking encyclopedia.”
It was true. Nobody did. Except on test days when the seats near me in class became very popular.
So began the long years of alternating between “acting dumb” and trying to be “normal,” or being a rebellious and sarcastic know-it-all.
Of course, the idea that I was “smarter” made me even less tolerant of the controls my mother attempted to impose on me. The conflict between us intensified. One day, when she took out the strop, I took it away from her.
“If you ever try to use that on me again,” I told her, “I will use it on you.”
Fortunately, at about this time, I was given a piano.
I’d taken lessons at boarding school. I detested practicing, but rapidly picked up enough basics so that now, with a piano and no worries about disturbing any neighbors, I could play all I wanted. A teacher came once a week and I made rapid progress. She was an elderly lady, very pleased to have an easy student. After she died, I played on alone. I didn’t like drills and technical exercises, so I worked my way through complicated pieces a little at a time, often having to make up my own fingering because my fingers were short.
I spent as much time as possible in a fantasy world of marvels. As I played my piano, I dreamed of The One who would be passing by and hear the distant strains of music. He’d pause and listen with enchantment, compelled to seek out the source of such magic. He’d know me instantly as The One he was looking for. Together we could solve the problems of God and the Universe, and most especially why very bad things happen to innocent people, including a little girl who saw a face at the window and was kidnapped, and couldn’t remember that whole part of her life.
Then, I would go to the mirror and come back to reality. There was my plain face, my shapeless and lumpy 15-year-old body, and the extreme unlikelihood there was any handsome prince out there waiting to rescue that damsel!
I wrote in my notebook: Being fifteen is an awkward state; too old for toys, too young to date…