You know that story about the woman with a green ribbon around her neck? In case your childhood wasn’t haunted by it as mine was, here’s the basic plot: a girl named Jenny always wears a green ribbon around her neck. She meets a boy named Alfred, and they become friendly. He asks her about the green ribbon, but she says he has to wait to find out why she always wears it. Years later they end up getting married, but still she withholds the reason behind the ribbon. Finally, as an old, sick woman lying in bed, Jenny tells Alfred that’s she’s ready to share her secret with him, saying that if he unties the ribbon he’ll see why she couldn’t reveal the truth earlier. And guess what? Her head falls off. Right off her body and onto the floor by the bedside.
As a child, I remember reading that story and being completely petrified (there’s actually a Buzzfeed article devoted to this topic, so I’m definitely not alone with these feelings about a horror story clothed in a children’s book binding). There is just so much about the story that’s disturbing. Well, somehow that same book of stories from my childhood turned up among our Halloween collection, and Arlo chose it for bedtime on a night when Brian was reading. It looks innocuous enough; the first words on the front cover are “An I Can Read Book”, and it carries on its back the badge of “An ALA Notable Children’s Book” for “Ages 4 to 8”. Brian hadn’t ever read this story collection before, and I didn’t remember that the green ribbon one was among them, so on we went with it. He even dimmed the lights for effect as suggested by this foreword:
Later that night, Summerly (who’s eight) came downstairs for her “mommy time” and I intuited that something was off. When she told me about feeling afraid after hearing the green ribbon story, I immediately remembered my feelings about it and told her it had scared me too. Then she ran to the basement for something she’d left there, and when she walked back down the hall I saw that usually fearless child get so spooked (by a shadowy balloon on the floor) that I could tell the effect on her was pretty significant. We discussed it some more, and eventually Liam (who’s ten) came down to tell us that he was afraid too. (Arlo, by the way, who’s five, seemed entirely unfazed.)
I’m all for having my kids learn hard lessons and discuss topics that might be uncomfortable. I want them to feel all the feelings so we can unpackage them and turn them over and over, inspecting every angle, until we understand them as best we can. I want my kids to be exposed to the realities of life, as age-appropriate, and reality too frequently comes with fear riding on its shoulders and waving a flag. Although I didn’t think that this particular story was a piece that did anything to improve the complicated puzzle of growing up at this point in their lives, the damage was already done. After we’d talked it to a point that felt right, I told them I knew exactly what to do, and I have two cultural references to support and guide this decision. In The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food, what does Mama Bear do with the Sugar Balls and the Choco-Chums to help put them out of her family members’ minds? She puts them in the freezer. What does Joey from “Friends” do with the copy of The Shining that scares him when he’s reading it and the copy of Little Women that makes him feel so sad? Into the freezer they go. We’re not going to deny or hide from unpleasant feelings, but it makes perfect sense to me to put the the concrete cause of them on ice while we think and talk about them, to put some distance between the mind and the root of its unrest. Chill what chills, then warm up the gears of thought and discussion. Use some freezer space; make some mental space.
We’re living in a pandemic. Donald Trump is up for reelection. The world is broken in so many ways: racially, socially, environmentally, educationally, economically, to name a few. There is so much to fear, and we can’t hunt down the causes and stash them all in a deep freezer while we fix every problem afflicting humankind. But we can put a scary story, one that is definitely fictitious, on the other side of the freezer door while we work on empowering ourselves to treat our fear with enough respect that it won’t consume or immobilize our minds.
Now, allow me to rewrite that foreword from the book:
“Some people like scary stories because they enjoy feeling excited by grotesque or macabre ideas. Some people don’t. Even if there is no real danger, fiction can make people feel afraid, and that’s ok. Sometimes the most unfavorable time to read scary stories is at night or in the dark, because fear tends to amplify under those conditions. I’d suggest, if you are under the age of 18, that you go directly to the freezer, place this book inside, and choose another book. Hell, help yourself to a frozen treat while you’re down there to enjoy while you read a lovely Halloween book (I’m recommending Birdie’s Happiest Halloween and The Biggest Pumpkin Ever). Just don’t forget to brush your teeth again before bed, and everyone will have a good time.”