Old fears follow their familiar path

Gordon Stewart
Gordon C. Stewart is pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska.
Submitted photo

Remember the Boogie Man? The Boogie Man who would get you if you didn't watch out?

The Boogie Man lived in the cellar of the house on Hobart Road in Chestnut Hill, right across the street from Boston College, where I lived while my father was serving in World War II. My cousin Gina, nine years older, also lived in the big house with my mother and our grandparents.

It was Gina who told me about the Boogie Man. I never saw the Boogie Man. But I knew he was real. Gina said so and I loved and trusted Gina.

No one ever sees the Boogie Man. He stays hidden in the basement. He lurks in your bedroom closet or hides under your bed. He's waiting just outside the door. Or maybe he's standing right there in front of you. You can't tell because he's invisible.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

As a white child of relative privilege, I imagined what the Boogie Man looked like. Sometimes, sitting around the dining room table listening to the radio, we would hear the voice of Adolf Hitler. Fear and anxiety filled the room every time his name was mentioned. Maybe my father had gone off to kill the Boogie Man so he wouldn't come to our house.

Other times, listening to my cousin, I was convinced that the Boogie Man must be "colored," as she would say.

The first time I thought I saw the Boogie Man, he was driving a dump truck. My 5-year-old friend Teddy Bonsall and I were playing dangerously near the street, and he honked at us. We looked up, saw that a black man was driving the truck, ran all the way to Teddy's house, raced up the stairs to Teddy's room and bolted the door. We told Mrs. Bonsall that the Boogie Man was after us.

After my father defeated Hitler and the fascists, the Boogie Man became a Communist. I would watch newscasts of the Chinese Red Army marching into Korea to spread communism and take away democracy and freedom. We were at war with the Boogie Man.

In elementary school we regularly practiced protecting ourselves from threatened invasion on our own soil. At the sound of the air raid siren, we all dove under our desks. Even in elementary school, I knew that a wooden desk wouldn't protect me from a nuclear firestorm. But the drill succeeded in drilling into our young heads and hearts the dread fear of the Boogie Man.

Beyond the regular drills that reminded us of the Boogie Man in Korea, China and the Soviet Union, I learned that he might be in my own back yard or even in my house.

I would race home from school to watch the McCarthy Senate hearings, where Wisconsin's Sen. Joseph McCarthy used slander and innuendo to ruin people's reputations and careers, and look under the beds and in the closets for suspected Communists or Communist sympathizers and conspirators who would take away our freedom.

I'm older now, but I know the Boogie Man is real. He exists on the food of my psyche. He eats anxiety for breakfast and mortal fear for dinner. He sits invisibly at our tables and our televisions as we listen to the evening news.

The more anxiety we serve up, the bigger he grows. He thrives on the terrorized heart -- the terrifying fact of one's own vulnerability. He gets bigger and more dangerous when cultures and economies become insecure and need someone to blame.

He lives in the collective unconscious that projects its invisible fears onto a tangible target. Nobody ever sees the Boogie Man, but we think we do.

For my generation, he was the different-looking person who sent us running to a friend's house. He was the voice and face of Hitler and the goose-stepping storm troopers. He was Chinese soldiers marching into Korea to destroy democracy and steal our freedom. He was the Soviet Communist who made us dive under our desks in school and look in our closets to see whether Joe McCarthy was right.

Today I see evidence of the Boogie Man in strange places. I hear again the shrill voice of McCarthy shouting and screaming about government, communism, fascism, Nazism and socialism, demonizing efforts to provide universal health care as a conspiratorial plot to take away individual freedom.

I see the Boogie Man's terror in the murder of a part-time U.S. Census worker hanging from a tree alone in a dark forest, with the word "fed" scrawled on his chest.

I see it on the bumper of a big new Mercedes Benz ahead of me whose sticker equates President Obama with communism. A black president with a suspicious name, who sees government as part of the solution in a time of national crisis, gets stuck on a bumper sticker as the new Boogie Man who's going to take away your Mercedes -- or the Mercedes you wish you had, but never will.

Watching the news these days, I feel the way I did back when the dinner table in Chestnut Hill was laden with the food that fed the Boogie Man. I grow more anxious every day, not because of the Boogie Man, but because we seem so hell-bent on feeding him at our own expense.


Gordon C. Stewart is pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, and a frequent guest commentator on All Things Considered.