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"Fear vs. The Happy Ending"

Nan was requested to write her own piece for a series of essays featured in the Michigan Quarterly Review focusing on "Secret Spaces of Childhood." Her contribution, titled "Fear vs. The Happy Ending", follows:

I suppose I was afraid all the time. I remember living in a constantly vibrant state, jangling inside, ever-vigilant, looking over my shoulder. I didn't talk about my fears to anyone - children usually don't. I lived in a leafy neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland, and my life, by any standards, was idyllic. From ages 5-9, I appear in each photograph as a smiling child with golden curls. But I look back on these years and see quite clearly that the pulse of my every day was fear.

Fear of what? Well, you could make your list. Here's a partial list of mine: 1) Mrs. Bellows, across the street, was referred to as "the crazy woman" and my friends and I would dare each other to run up on her lawn. Invariably, she came hurtling out of the house in a nightgown, screaming at us that we were terrible children and were going straight to Hell. We'd tear away, breathless, just as her nurse emerged to yank her back inside. 2) A friend of my brother's died when his sled hit a metal pole sticking out of the snow. 3) My friend Sally drowned at age 7 when her parents were foolish enough to go boating on the Chesapeake Bay during a storm. 4) Catherine, the lady who lived next door and was a surrogate grandmother to me, had a husband who was a doctor, a man with no patience for children. One day when I was touching some of his prized glass figurines, the doctor slapped me across the face. In order to retain diplomatic relations with the neighbors, my parents did not confront the doctor about this incident- it was glossed over and dropped. 5) Catherine died a year later. She drowned in the bathtub. People said it was an accident. I overheard my parents whisper that it might be "suicide." (When I was a teenager, my father confided his belief that the doctor had murdered Catherine.) 6) My brother told me he belonged to a club of eagles. He hinted they might let me join the club. The eagles would come to my window every night, he said, and watch me. If I moved even an inch, they would fly in and kill me. I was five years old. How many nights did I lie paralyzed, sweating and terrified? 7) When my brother was eleven and I was eight, he suffered an anomalous stroke and lay in a coma for two days. For me, the worst part was being alone in the house with him when he first collapsed, stumbling through the neighborhood to get help, hearing the howl of the ambulance. And then my mother came home and shook my shoulders, screaming at me, "What happened? What happened?!"

Those were some of my terrors, but every child has them- bedtime illusions of creatures perched in the dark on that corner chair, nightmares of monsters, fears of kidnapping, abandonment or that great mystery- death. And, of course, the unluckiest children deal directly with abuse. In a way, fear is the biggest revelation of childhood, the worst surprise: "Oh.. Bad things do happen." And yet somehow it's kept secret. It's all held tight to the chest. Why don't children talk about it? Wouldn't it be infinitely logical for a child to go to her parents and say, "I'm a wreck. I think eagles are going to peck my eyes out and the crazy lady across the street is going to eat me alive and how the hell could you let that doctor slap me?" Why do children keep their fears secret? Are they trying to be little adults, imitating their apparently stoic parents? Are they doubly afraid to disclose the horror lest somehow they are at fault? One thing I do know is that children have an amazing ability to disassociate, to simply block it all out. ("Hmm.. My friend just drowned. Guess I'll go out and jump rope. Now I'm jumping rope. I'm fine.") Maybe the only way a child can cope with the newly discovered terrors of the world is to simply disable them and substitute a preferred reality. In my case, I wrote. I taught myself to read and write at the kitchen table. I did it regularly and assiduously, with a child's picture dictionary beside me, copying words, sounding them out. I think when I wrote, I must have entered a safe zone. This is one of my earliest stories, written just before my seventh birthday:

Once there was a house and in that house there lived a little girl that was very good but her father said that Santa would not come and the good little girl got mad and bad and her mother and father were sad because their little girl threw her toys away she said bad words and stuck out her tongue. one day before Christmas her Daddy went to see Santa He got in his car and drove away on the way he meant a strange little man with a funny but big hat The little man said where are you going? father said to see santa. you can't go there is a bad fairy on the Road She is very mad and if she sees someone she will kill her or him. father said why? Well said the little man last night the bad fairy went to the kingdom of fairys and she said to the queen of fairys I want my golden medel for being good and the queen said No and that is how the bad fairy got mad Now tell me your story and father Told him about his little girl. When the little man heard about the little girl He went back a step. father said why are you afraid? The little man said that the queen of fairys knew the little girl and she had more Power then her-Self and if she wanted any-thing she should just say so. Father was surprised He thanked the little man and went home when he got home He said Mother where is Our little girl? Mother said She is locked in her Room. Then father told mother about the little man and the power and the fairy queen Mother ran to her little girls Room. And told her about it the little girl couldn'd believe her ears She then sat down and said I wish that Santa would come this Christmas Just as she said that a bright Light shown on her and her wish DID come true and they had a very Merry Christmas The End

What fascinates me when I reread this story is the fact that at six, I was conscious of "power," somehow aware that one needed a bold stroke in order to survive. My little heroine's world was a mess- Santa wasn't coming, a bad fairy on the road was killing people off- so she sat locked in her room until someone told her she had "power." That evidently was the pathway to a happy ending. Following is a poem I wrote at age eight:

THE Poor boy's dreams    a rhimed story

Poor little boy, I shed tears for thee 
your mother sick, Your father dead 
Be careful Boy, and cautious 
were the last words his father said.

the boy he dreamed of riches 
He dreamed of his poor mother well 
Soon she passed away, and the Boy, 
his house he had to sell.

He worked an honest living, but 
he dreamed most all the time 
of kings and knights and princesses 
and costly cups of wine.

He dreamed of birds that sang sweetly 
and of Birds that went coo coo 
and one day it Happened, Yes! 
His dreams, they did come true

The End

In this one, life's about as rotten as it gets, but there's that happy ending again. As I read through the folders of my old stories and poems, over and over the little girls or boys I created were surrounded with horrendous dangers and sorrows, but I always made them end up "happily ever after." I suppose part of this may have been a by-product of growing up in the 50's, but my gut feeling is that happy endings simply quelled my fears. If I wrote them, then, on some level of reality, they existed. Following is something I wrote at age nine. I have no idea what it is, but I copy it here exactly:

a gun came through the door, she saw it. She stood motionlist, sacred to breath. Suddenly the door opened. She was frantic, she didn't know what to do. There, at the door stood a, why, it was her dog Bingo, with her little boy Bill and his play gun.

It was dark as he walked down the street. He heard a noise, It was a sort of a cracky noise. He tried not to scare himself, but all he could think of was ghosts, and robbers, and witches, suddenly he saw it. It was a begger. He gave him a dollar and went home.

And terrors dissolve, over and over. Perhaps the core of fear is helplessness: something awful stands in my doorway and I can't do a damn thing about it. A child has to do something about it, and I think writing made me strong, gave me armor. As a little girl, I would acknowledge that scary, jangling world out there and then proceed to surmount it. With a pencil and paper, I could call the shots, I could make justice prevail. Fear may be a secret space where children dwell, but in order to survive, don't all children create an ancillary secret space for masteringthat fear? Lord, there are a million scary things out there, all quite real- a child could spend 24 hours a day trembling with that discovery. Or he could find a safe zone, a space where he'sgot the power. It's like a key clicking in a lock, a silent voice whispering, "This is you. This is your territory. This is how you take command." I found it with writing. Other children build complex Legos, or play basketball or paint or ice skate, tell jokes, play the piano. (And, of course, today there are the inevitable computer games, where God knows it's easy enough to pulverize the bad guys). Ideally, though, a child finds a space where his or her unique gift reigns and empowers: suddenly your head's high, you've found your niche, that thing that makes you the cowboy on his horse, the soldier planting his flag at the top of the hill. The happy secret space is the one where you're in charge.

Today I write for a living. The Scarlet Pimpernel, a musical for which I wrote book and lyrics, opened on Broadway in the Fall of 1997. And, oh yes, The Scarlet Pimpernel has a classic happy ending where good triumphs, the villain is foiled, and the hero and heroine quite literally sail off into the sunset. Am I still then just a child smacking back the danger? Recently I was sent a copy of a letter from the Scarlet Pimpernel Web Site. The letter was from one Pimpernel fan to another, and the last line read, "Remember- the good guy always wins in the end!" Not only am I still insisting on the happy endings, but apparently lots of other adults out there are still needing them. Those secret spaces of childhood never really go away. We just tend to tackle them with a bit more sophistication.


As I write this, I'm in Arizona on a ranch. There is much about this place that is "a secret space." I came here by myself for a week's vacation. I'm about to go into a dining room full of families and couples where I won't know a soul. I ride horses every day. Their hooves stumble on the rocks, and the wranglers warn us how easily a horse can spook and buck. When I lope, it's a challenge to stay in the saddle. I've now heard several anecdotes about the bite of the Black Widow spider, and how you should shake your boots out each morning. Believe me, in the mornings I am shaking out every stitch of clothing I own. I also listen carefully to the snake instructions: "Ya meet a rattlesnake on the path, ya just back up, reeeal slow" All of this is very very very very scary. And I sit here, looking out on the desert, writing.

Nan Knighton 
Final Draft: January, 2000

"Secret Spaces of Childhood" was a special two-part series published by the Michigan Quarterly Review. Nan's contribution was included in the Summer 2000 issue (volume 39, issue 3, guest editor Elizabeth Goodenough).

The series, including Nan's piece, is available in book form - also titled Secret Spaces of Childhood. This was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2003, again edited by Elizabeth Goodenough. More information is available on the University of Michigan Press website, and the volume is available for purchase from Amazon

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