Scaring the Kids

They'll Probably Need Therapy Anyway


The Nonfiction that Scared my Kid to Tears and a Recommendation

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There is nothing scarier than not being able to protect your children in what should be the safest place: your home.

Think about it. This is where the truly good supernatural horror movies really get to us. We are terrorized in our own beds, and the things that go bump in the night can get to us anywhere, even under the covers.

I think that no one did this better than Toni Collette in The Sixth Sense. Even though it’s not technically a horror movie, she was certainly trapped in her own hell as she watched her child suffer no matter where he was, even if she was right nearby. She captured the fear of a helpless parent perfectly.

Real-life Horror

So when I picked up Paradise Falls: The True Story of An Environmental Catastrophe on a whim at the library a few weeks ago, I did not expect that it would scare my children as badly as it did. Whether he meant to or not, Keith O’Brien tells a good real-life horror story.

I was sitting at breakfast with my two girls, reading the book and telling my older one about the horrifying introduction. Debbie Gallo was an eleven-year-old girl who was outside her house playing one morning. She was planning on drawing some pictures on the sidewalk with some cool white rocks she had found on the playground. They were soft and made beautiful pictures on the concrete. When she began handling them, though, her eyes began to burn, and suddenly,

…rubbing her eyes only made them worse. As she pulled her hands away, the pain came on like a wave, hot and searing. Her eyes burned as if from the inside. And then she was screaming, and she was running, stumbling across the playground, trying to find way back to her house…through a haze of tears and gauzy darkness…

Debbie Gallo couldn’t open her eyes. She couldn’t see.

For one brief and scary moment, she was blind (4).

As I was describing this to my older daughter, I had failed to notice that my youngest was quietly crying until she said, “Mom, just stop. Please stop.”

I had scared her badly without even realizing it. Sure, it was scary, but to my seven-year-old who liked to use chalk in the backyard, this seemed like the scariest thing that could ever happen to her. She realized in that moment that she might be unsafe in her home.

Of course, I stopped my story. My oldest still had questions, and I answered them out of earshot of the youngest. But as I read further into the book, which is a truly engaging read, I was reminded about how scary the world really is.

It’s Scary Because it’s True

O’Brien tells the story of Love Canal, a community on the outskirts of Niagara Falls, New York. This community lived in the shadow of Hooker Chemical, a large plant (and major employer) in the town that had been involved with illegal and reckless dumping of some heinous chemicals in the late 50s. They poured indiscriminate mixtures of chemicals–some so volatile that the soil itself caught fire spontaneously–without regard for containment or those who lived nearby. Years later, they attempted to sidestep liability by covering the site with topsoil and selling it to the local school district–along with any potential responsibility–for a buck. The school board promptly built an elementary school campus on top of the site. As you do.

The scary part comes not-so-long after that, in the late 70s, when children who lived along the perimeter of the dumping site developed rare cancers, inexplicable kidney diseases, seizure disorders, rashes and acne that defied explanation, all while the miscarriage rates for the women in close proximity to the site far exceeded that of the regular population.

Imagine that: you are forced to watch your child grow sicker and sicker, even as doctors dismiss you because, after all, you are a woman in the 70s. You know something’s wrong. You can smell it in the air and see it in spectacular and unnaturally orange, shimmering puddles that form in your yard. Your basement walls ooze black slime. But you are repeatedly told that everything is fine. Go home and try to relax.

One housewife, in particular, let the charge for Love Canal. It is worth reading this book to get to know Lois Gibbs and the other women who fought against the gaslighting (I mean, let’s call it what it was) to scream, “NO! I’m not anxious or hysterical! I’m being poisoned in my own home! My children are dying! Hooker Chemical is doing this to me and I know it!”

Turns out, she was right.

The Love Canal disaster initiated the start of the EPA’s Superfund sites, which target the most toxic of dump sites and try to mitigate the damage being done to the environment and people who live in close proximity.

The Danger in Your Backyard

Ready for your own real-life horror? Google “superfund sites” followed by your state or, even worse, your city. There are three very, very close to me. And this isn’t a problem leftover from the 70s–just yesterday, there was an article in our local paper about the Devil’s Swamp, a Superfund Site in my parish. Clean-up for the Devil’s Swamp hasn’t yet started, and the levees failed last year. What the holy hell?

My daughter wasn’t overreacting. She simply understood that the danger is real and active and closer than we realize.

Pick up the book–it’s worth your time. Follow me on any of my social media to be notified of new posts, or sign up with your email. I think you’re rad, and I’m glad you stopped by. Until next time!

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