Review by Emily Webber
We all feel fear, and many of us are plagued by irrational fears that live in the deepest parts of us, the ones we never talk about with other people. If I let myself, I can spend hours thinking about how our bodies break down—cancer, accidents, violence, and natural disasters—and fall deeper and deeper into a black hole of fear. I run through all the ways my life could be cut short, so I’m not around for my five-year-old son and all reasons he may not outlive me. I don’t share these fears with others, but sometimes I feel like my most spoken words to my son are always: be careful, be careful, be careful. I am unable to stop myself as my fear of our fragile bodies is transmitted into him.
In Jody Keisner’s essay collection, Under My Bed and Other Essays, she gives voice to her deepest fears and examines them in full. In these essays, she asks important questions about the impact of chronic stress on children, the continual violence against women, and the wounds we inflict on ourselves. Keisner also presents a very personal story of her family while exploring the roots of her anxiety and how they change shape over time. What also emerges from this collection is a beautiful portrait of motherhood and aging and how these experiences change Keisner.
In the title essay and the first in the collection, Keisner lays bare her deepest fears. She’s afraid to be alone in her home at night. Every sound, movement, and shadow mean someone bad will get into the house, and she will meet a violent end. So she stays hyper-vigilant, checks doors and locks, and lastly, always checks under the bed.
Now with blood roaring in my ears, I ran into the living room and would look behind the couch and then the chair. Check, check! Now the furnace closet. Check! The deck, the kitchen, inside the kitchen cabinets—too cramped for even the scrawniest homicidal maniac, but still I had to look—and into the bedroom to check the closet. Check, check, check, check! I saved the bed for last, getting down on my hands and knees to peer underneath. Again: Check! I was searching for a man—a Lizard Man? —who was waiting to rape or murder me, or both.,
During Keisner’s childhood, her father loses his temper quickly and is prone to violent outbursts. She is also exposed to horror shows at a young age, all contributing to a feeling that people are not what they seem, and that she can’t truly trust anyone. Keisner doesn’t just explore the personal and anecdotal. She investigates what research and science, and biology tell us. She repeatedly explores the impact of our predilection for violence and sexual harassment against women and how women learn to carry this burden throughout their lives.
While facts, statistics, and studies carry weight and provide clarity, the emotional and personal storytelling gives this memoir its real power. Keisner tells her story openly and with an eye for startling details that made me look at the prevalence of violent images and actions in a new way. For example, Keisner describes a familiar Thanksgiving tradition:
Your younger sister and you each gran a side and pull because whoever gets the longer piece wins. The wishbone easily snaps in two, sending a shiver of revulsion through your limbs. Perhaps the bone cracking represents an exercise in wish fulfillment (though your madcap wishes never will come true), or more likely, it’s an exercise in violence. Before beginning, you must first consider which spot is most vulnerable. Which spot appears weakest? Which part of a bone will bend and then give?
Each part of this three-part essay collection builds on each other and revisits themes from different life stages and angles. While the first part, Origins, mainly examines the root of Keisner’s fears from her childhood and gives glimpses of the effects later in her life, part two, Under My Skin, delves into how our physical bodies take on fear and break down. Finally, part Three, Rising, shows the long game of forgiveness, of keeping fear at bay, and how the act of caretaking helps us move forward.
Through the course of these essays, in addition to exploring Keisner’s fear and our culture of violence, a surprising and compelling narrative emerges that details the history of the women in her family, her father’s life, and Keisner’s own experiences with motherhood and adoption.
As Keisner deals with her own diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis, watches her father-in-law battle cancer, and reflects on her grandmother’s death, she describes the experience of aging and human frailty from different viewpoints.
“When you’re my age, you realize that you’re leaving parts of your life that you’ll never return to, never get back. I see my life in periods of twenty years: my childhood, my twenties, my forties—when already I didn’t want to work as physically hard at my job as I did in my twenties—and now my sixties. I have a quarter of my life left.” He uses his forefinger to wipe the skin under his eyes. I don’t know if he’s crying or just tired. “If you think about it, it’s really”—his eyes grow wide—”scary.” I not. “Lily has her entire life before her. Isn’t that amazing? he asks.
It is. Youth is associated with the body’s ability to recover and return to the healthy state it was in pre-illness, injury, or disease. It is a universal truth that at some point this will not be the case.
Keisner captures the essence of motherhood throughout this collection: to love someone means that you will live in fear and yet it will also push you past your fears. From Keisner’s writing, I see more sharply that I need to wrangle my fears to find balance in protecting my son and letting him live his life. Being a mother gives her strength to stand up to those who hurt her but also incites her to better understand and strive for reconciliation. While Keisner identifies her father’s outbursts as the origin of her fear, she digs into the details of his life. She tries to understand why he turned this way, keeping the door open to a relationship and to allow for forgiveness.
As Keisner better controls her own fear, she ends the collection with a return to focus on violence against women, recounting the stories of women who go missing. She wrestles with what to tell her daughter and when, how much to hold her close while also giving her freedom, and this brings the collection full circle as you see the cycle begin again as her daughter learns more about the world. Under My Bed offers a complex, compelling, and multi-faceted look at the origins of fear, motherhood, and forgiveness.
Under My Bed and Other Essays by Jody Keisner
University of Nebraska Press 2022
Paper. 240 pages.
Emily Webber has published fiction, essays, and reviews in the Ploughshares Blog, The Writer magazine, Five Points, Split Lip Magazine, Brevity, and elsewhere. She’s the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press. You can read more at www.emilyannwebber.com and @emilyannwebber.