When I was six years old I saw my first zombie. It was on Creature Features late one night while my parents were out. Night of the Living Dead. The menacing, unstoppable hoards terrified me and held me riveted to my seat. The people were trapped in a house, surrounded, unable to sleep and the zombie plague was spreading among them already. The situation looked hopeless.
My parents came home and pulled me out of the room, horrified that I had been subjected to such terrors. The older kids of the families we lived with in the commune were scolded. I was put to bed. I wasn’t able to see the end of the movie where the survivors were rescued. Where the zombie hoards were killed and burned in piles. In my mind, for the rest of my childhood, zombies walked the world as soon as night fell. My only protection was to be under the covers. Never look out the window in the dark.
Lately I’ve been noticing how foreign other people can seem to me. Especially in groups. Faced with a hoard of humans all I see are a wall of eyes. Suspect. Perhaps menacing. Certainly unknowable. There are good reasons for this in my mind. I had a childhood filled with a long history of bad experiences at the hands of other people: teased at school, ditched and taunted by older kids, tricked, manipulated, damaged, humiliated. My adult life has echoed with similar themes.
In Jewish folklore there is a character known as a golem, an animated anthropomorphic being created entirely from inanimate matter. As Adam was created by Yaweh from earth, so golem are created from mud by holy men. They are set in motion by writing “truth” on their foreheads. They can move, but not speak. Not think. Some Jewish friends of mine call non-Jews by a derivative word, goyim. I have heard from some of them talk about how they learned to see the world of non-Jews. As something somewhat less than human. Fit for manual labor. Filled with crazy ideas. Goyishe nachas.
I’m not a Jew, but I can relate.
Mary Shelley created Frankenstein. In her story, he was the golem, created from dead parts and reanimated by the holy scientist of the modern age. But in the end, he was turned to monster by the ignorant hoards of villagers, who persecuted him out of their own fear and misunderstanding. The mob was the real monster.
Australian philosopher, David Chalmers writes of the “philosophical zombie“. A “hypothetical person who lacks full consciousness but has the biology or behavior of a normal human being.” I’m pretty sure this is how I see the world of humans outside my own head.
Even lovers of mine. Or perhaps especially lovers of mine. Each person is quantified by a list of positive and negative characteristics. Assets. Liabilities. 1) handsome 2) too tall 3) smart 4) smart ass 5) does dishes 6) stares at other women while talking to me 7) sexy hands 8 laughs like a dolphin. Almost nothing on the list ever has anything to do with who they really are. I’m fairly certain I have no idea who they are. It’s hard to get to know someone when all you see is a wall of eyes while you worry if your lipstick is smeared. Hard to value someone else when your first instinct is to tally up the social currency of being seen with them on your arm.
It doesn’t seem to matter that I am no model of perfection myself. These are my delusions, and apparently they are certain I walk the earth a gorgeous living goddess.
Lately I’ve been practicing being part of the human race, if I can. I speak to strangers and try to ask them real questions about themselves. To listen to their answers as if my life depended on it. I am beginning to suspect that it does. If I see someone I immediately assess as frighteningly flawed in some key way, I make myself look at them until I see the beauty behind their eyes. Each time I do this I am surprised to discover that afterward I cannot see them any other way.
I still believe other people are dangerous, unpredictable, suspect. There is no magic tonic to swallow to change my past. But perhaps I can learn to see the difference between a hand open in friendship and one clenched around a torch or pitchfork. Perhaps a wall of eyes doesn’t have to look as if it’s thinking with one mind “brains!”.
Today I am wandering out among the zombie hoards. The flesh I save may be my own.