When I was a little boy of five or six, my grandmother would sometimes tell me bedtime stories about Dracula, Jack the Ripper, and witches that caught and ate little children. She left out some details, such as the specifics of the Ripper’s methods and the fact that his victims were prostitutes, but these were suspenseful, frightening tales anyway. Dracula drank people’s blood, the kids didn’t always escape the cannibalistic old witch, and Jack really did murder his victims. The stories made me shiver; maybe I had nightmares. But they also made me think. I could, I was sure, figure out a way to escape that witch if ever I crossed her path. I wanted to be the hero who drove a stake through the bloodthirsty count’s heart. I wanted to be the detective who finally caught old Jack. Looking back, I realize that hearing about horrible things made me dream of being the one who solved the problems.
At about the same time, my grandfather on the other side of the family bought me my first comic book. It was an issue of Batman, drawn by the amazing Gene Colan, one of the finest comic artists of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. I started reading it immediately. In the story, Batman faces vampires. The issue ended with a cliffhanger, a powerful image of Batman with two little punctures in his throat after having been bitten by one of the undead. I was terrified. I wanted that wretched magazine out of my sight. Grandpa took it and gave it to the kid next door, who was a few years older than me. It wasn’t until I was eight that I took another shot at reading comics. This time, it went much better and I grew to love that medium. But despite the trauma cause by that Batman story, I later came to realize that it did a very good thing for me. Much like Grandma’s bedtime horror stories, it jolted my imagination awake, an effect that would have a major role in shaping the person I was to become as I grew older.
It wasn’t just in reading that I found violent, sometimes frightening events. I took part in them too, in the way that children have for thousands of years, by playing. My cousin and I would become Batman and Robin (after the traditional twenty minute prelude of arguing over who would get to be who) and run around punching imaginary villains.
When I was old enough to understand that my grandfather had served in World War II, I made him tell me stories about it (he left a lot out of course, I later realized). It sounded heroic to me, intriguing. I had a toy army helmet and used to crawl around the yard, hiding behind bushes evading enemy patrols and shooting at them when the opportunity arose. Grandpa joined in the game sometimes, giving me tips on strategy. He even made me a toy rifle out of wood. He saw it for what it was, a kid having fun. Sure, he’d been through Hell over in Europe, but he was able to appreciate that kids like playing soldier. He’d probably done the same in his childhood. Even as an older man, he’d sit and watch westerns and I know for a fact that he spent many hours of his childhood on a horse nobody else could see as he shot Indians.
So I, as a child, fought crime as Batman, shot Nazis in World War II, explored alien worlds as Captain Kirk, and went off on a thousand other adventures, most of which involved violence of some sort. My escapades were even assisted by a man who knew the horrors of real violence but could understand the difference between the terrible reality and the child’s impulse to fantasize.
Years later, I have good memories of those days. Even more importantly, I can look back and see how far those early imaginary experiences have taken me. I grew up to be a writer. I spend plenty of time now thinking about ways to murder people, doing research on different kinds of weapons, figuring out ways to have characters narrowly escape death, sometimes unscathed and sometimes scarred and permanently changed. Yes, there’s a lot of violent, gruesome stuff that goes on in my mind. But guess what? For one thing, it helps pay the bills! And…it goes from my mind to the page and has no effect at all on the rest of my life. In my novel, 100,000 Midnights, a young man lives a peaceful and mundane life until he’s drawn into a world beyond what he once thought existed and forced to use his wits and sometimes resort to violence to survive. Would I want to be in his shoes and have to fight and even kill to survive? No, not in reality, but I think it makes for a good story. I, and my readers, and most people can distinguish between fantasy and reality, enjoying the wonders of imagination without wanting such events to be true.
That’s right. I’ve never fired a real gun, not even once, and I have no desire to. I hate violence. I’ve been in one fight in my entire life, a seventh grade, after school fistfight. I won that fight, but I felt dirty and guilty afterwards and have never wanted to be involved in anything like it again. So here I am, decades after a childhood of pretending to shoot and fight and go to war…and what did it leave me with? I have a successful marriage, I own a house, I’m a published writer, and I’ve never been in legal trouble or intentionally harmed another human being in any way. I think I turned out all right.
With that in mind, I’ve been thinking about some recent events in the world and, specifically, in the Unites States. The shootings in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012 were an unspeakable tragedy. The massacre of all those innocent people, most of them children, is so disturbing that I can’t adequately describe how it makes me feel. In the shooting’s aftermath, the debate about gun control is loud, divisive, and prominent. I’m glad it’s being talked about. We need to examine that issue closely and decide what to do about the availability of such deadly weapons.
But I’m not writing this to talk about the politics of real weapons. Something I find very disturbing in recent years has to do with the kind of weapons that aren’t real, that can’t hurt anyone. Children are being punished for using their imaginations, and that really bothers me.
This didn’t begin in the wake of the Newtown incident, but instances of it have been all over the news since, so it’s heavily on my mind now. A seven-year-old boy in Colorado is suspended from school after throwing an imaginary grenade while pretending to save the world. A fifth-grader is scolded and searched for bringing a piece of paper shaped like a gun to school. A Pennsylvania girl of 5 is suspended after suggesting that she and her friend shoot at each other with Hello Kitty bubble guns!
When I was in the fifth grade, the teacher told us to write a story about anything. I concocted an epic battle between soldiers on an army base and the horde of ninjas who were attacking. It was violent, it was action-packed, it was pretty powerful stuff for a ten-year-old, and I was proud of it. I got an A because it was creative and I spelled everything correctly! But considering some of those news stories I just mentioned, I suspect the teacher’s reaction might have been different if I was in the fifth grade now. It was a story. That’s all it was. Not a warning, not a threat, not a terrorist manifesto, not a cry for help from a demented mind! It was an adventure story written by a kid who liked to dream.
I have to wonder what would have happened to me had I grown up in today’s immediate-suspension atmosphere. Is mentioning a gun or committing a pretend (and sometimes heroic) act of violence all it takes now for a teacher or administrator to put a permanent mark on a child’s record by suspending them? These are children using their imaginations. Do people really believe that any child who pretends to fire a gun or toss a grenade or throw a punch has the real potential to grow up to inflict bodily harm on others? Do we really think that little of the intelligence and empathy of our children that a moment of imagination must be stomped on instantly before the six-year-old who points his finger and yells, “Bang, Bang!” grows up to be a serial killer or hitman or founder of a renegade militia?
Are we to ban all types of play that contain an element of imaginary violence? Teachers should encourage children to be good to each other, teach them that real violence and real war are terrible things, but harshly punishing a child for pretending sends a very wrong message. That real violence should be avoided is what should be taught, not that thinking about it or playing at it is something that will not be tolerated. What’s the next step after that? Do we make sure kids can’t have access to books or movies or any other material that might make them think about violence? What about Shakespeare? Should we shield the kids in English class from the violent betrayal of Caesar or the suicides of Romeo and Juliet or the murderous deeds of Macbeth? Not that I’m predicting the widespread banning of books, but it falls along the same lines of logic as suspending a kid for pretending to be a soldier or a cop. We can’t deny children the right to their imaginations because a few of them are going to grow up to be criminals. That’s going to happen anyway; it’s inevitable. If we pull kids out of school and tell them that playing has consequences like that, we’re going to scare them out of using their imaginations. Do we really want to go down that road?
Honestly, we’d be better off accepting the fact that people of all ages imagine all kinds of things. Pretending and fantasizing is part of being human and includes all aspects of life. We dream about success and money and sex and love and death and fear and war and everything else that makes us who we are. Some of us use our imaginations in positive life-changing ways and share them with the world as writers or actors or artists. Others, the few who quite possibly have issues that go far deeper, lash out at their fellow human beings in the worst possible ways. But telling a little boy or girl that the imagined scenario that just went through their mind is some kind of crime risks taking more away from the world that it ensures protecting it from.
We live in a world of harsh realities, about which children must be taught the facts and guided in the essentials of behaving responsibly in such a world. But we also live in a world where stories are told, fiction is created, and art is made. The imaginary worlds created by human beings bring joy to people even when the contents of those worlds are violent or frightening. And since fiction is an altered reflection of the world we really live in, it’s often going to contain the things that exist in our world, things like guns, swords, and bombs. People fight in reality, so people fight in fiction. But we have to learn to attend to the problems of reality without stepping on the wonders of fiction. Children are exposed to guns and battles and war through fiction. They see such things in movies, read about them in books, and, being children, imitate them. So what? That’s what kids do. The vast majority of children, I think, have the sense to have fun imitating the action scenes they see on TV or film or read about without thinking it’s all right to do anything to truly harm anybody. Play, at its best, is mental exercise. The imagination is one of the most important of all the things that make a human being special. To make a leap of ridiculously lazy logic and assume that a child having a pretend adventure that involves a bit of dangerous action is a step away from shooting his classmates or becoming the next Hitler is not only absurd, it’s an excuse to say you’re addressing a situation while what you’re really doing is ignoring the real situations, the real problems you should be looking for ways to solve.
I won’t claim to know the solution to the problem of violence in society, of people who shouldn’t have deadly weapons obtaining them, of the potentially dangerous mentally ill sometimes going unnoticed until it’s too late, but I know the solution is not to extinguish the fires of imagination the moment those wonderful sparks ignite in the mind of a child. We’re putting far too much at risk if we start doing that.
In conclusion, I’d like to share the memory of a conversation I’ll always cherish. More than twenty-five years after being scared witless by that Batman comic, I got to meet the artist, Gene Colan, at the New York Comic Con. I told him exactly what had happened, how that comic had scared me, but how I later came to love his work, and how I gave that story credit for delivering a jolt to me and setting my imagination to work. I told him his work had a lot to do with me growing up to be a writer. Then, this man whose work meant so much to me smiled and said, “You know, when I was a little boy, my father took me to see Frankenstein with Boris Karloff. That movie gave me nightmares for weeks…but it made me love being scared, made me love horror, made me want to draw things that would make people feel how I felt in that dark theatre. If my work did for you what that movie did for me, I’m very happy to have accomplished that, and I wish you all the success in the world.”
I walked away from that conversation with a tear in my eye and joy in my heart. A few years later, when I heard that Gene Colan had died, I was glad I’d had a chance to have that talk with him and glad to have been part of the cycle of inspiring fear that went from Karloff to Colan to me and, hopefully, to somebody who gets a thrill or a scare out of one of my books someday. I cringe to think what might have happened if any of the links in that chain had been told it was wrong to imagine anything dark or dangerous.