I had a few weird beliefs as a child. Some of the stranger ones were: that my grandmother was alive at the same time as Jesus; that the place where I lived constituted the whole world; and that there were about a hundred people in the world and I knew most of them.
I also believed there were lions in Tasmania. When I watched ‘Kimba the White Lion’ or an African wildlife documentary, I thought the African jungle was part of Tasmania. I couldn’t see it, of course, because of the hills around Launceston. But if I climbed one of them, there it would be: Africa. And not only Africa, but America, too, and Israel and Egypt and all the other countries that I’d heard about. They were all there, just beyond the horizon.
And over there, in Africa, the animals roamed. Not just wallabies and possums, but monkeys, elephants, and giraffes. And lions.
The thought of lions scared me rigid. It wasn’t their teeth or the way they shredded their prey — it was their roar. They just opened their mouths as if to yawn and out it rolled, a peal of thunder, as easy as undoing a zipper. As if the lion was saying, I’ve finished my meal of gazelle or antelope or whatever it was, and I’ll just lie here, toss my Barry Gibb mane, have a bit of a stretch and a yawn, and let out a giant rrrooaaAAAAGHGH to let you all know I’m the king, in case you’d forgotten.
As a child, I had a recurring nightmare in which a lion was eating through a wall of our house. I’d flee into another room and slam the door shut, but the lion would eat through the door. I’d run outside, and it would follow me, roaring and chomping through doors and walls and fences. I’d try to escape by climbing into our late ‘60s Holden Premier, locking the doors, and curling up in a ball on the floor, hoping it wouldn’t find me.
Eventually, things would quieten and I’d lift my head to peek. There it would be at the car window, watching me as I cowered, whiskers twitching and golden mane swinging like it was in a shampoo ad. The car would rock as it pawed at the light blue duco. It would open its mouth and roar, and I’d see its uvula and right down its throat.
I’d bring my arms up over my head and hide my face until I heard the metal of the car door crumple and the lion chomping and chewing again. I’d scramble to the other side, and shake the door handle, trying to open it. It would eventually give and I’d hurl myself out, running as fast as I could, screaming, ‘Help! Help! A lion is chasing me.’ People would stop and stare as I scuttled down the street in my smocked dress and Mary Janes, chased by a lolloping lion.
I’d feel the lion’s breath on my neck and turn every now and then to see it galloping behind, stretching out its forelegs, its muscles undulating under its coat. I’d will my legs to move faster and wish it would chase someone else, but it never did.
Then I’d wake, my hair wet and the sheets matted from crying and tossing in my sleep. I’d lie panting, overcome with relief that it was over. The nightmare had ended.
Around this time, we took holidays in our caravan at Sandy Cape on the north coast of Tasmania. Our campsite was at the base of a hill. Half-way up the hill, Dad dug a hole, around which he erected sheets of tin for a dunny. I refused to use it, not only because of the pong, but because I was convinced the jungles of Africa were at the top of the hill and those lions would sneak down and get me while I was otherwise occupied.
Each morning when I woke, I feared opening my eyes in case a lion was peering through the window. When Dad went shooting one night up over the hill, I begged him not to go.
‘There are lions,’ I said.
‘Don’t be silly. There are no lions in Tasmania,’ he said.
‘How do you know?’
‘I just know. Everybody knows.’
‘Because there are no lions in Tasmania.’
‘What if they’ve come over from Africa?’
‘They can’t. Africa is miles and miles away, across a huge ocean.’
‘Are you sure?’
The next day when I woke, I checked that Dad was there, in his camp-stretcher, alive and in one piece.
‘Did you see any lions?’
‘’Course not. There aren’t any. C’mon, I’ll show you.’
‘No. No. I can’t,’ I said, shaking my head, my legs jiggling.
‘Come on. I’ll take you up there and show you there aren’t any lions.’
‘What if there are?’
‘There aren’t. I’ve been up there.’
I let him take my hand and we walked up the sandy track through the scrub, past the stinking dunny, and further up. As we neared the top of the hill, I tugged at his arm. ‘I don’t want to go up there.’
‘Come here.’ He hoisted me into his arms and carried me the rest of the way. I wrapped my legs around his waist, squeezing tight with my knees, and buried my head between his neck and shoulder. I didn’t look. When he stopped, I kept my head down and my eyes squeezed shut.
‘See, there are no lions,’ he said. ‘Have a look for yourself.’
I shook my head.
‘Come on.’ He nudged me with his shoulder.
I gripped his neck. ‘Don’t let me go.’
‘I won’t. Just open your eyes and have a look.’
‘There aren’t any lions?’
‘Nope. No lions.’
I kept my chin tucked tight against his shoulder and opened my eyes to a squint. Grass — normal grass, not jungle grass. I lifted my chin a little. More grass and scrub, just like around Launceston and nothing like Africa. Finally, I raised my head fully. It was all normal, brown bush, like I’d seen everywhere else. No jungle. No Africa.
And no lions.
‘There are no lions,’ I said.
‘No, definitely no lions,’ said Dad.
I have never been one to believe what I was told; I’ve always liked proof and evidence. So thanks, Dad, for taking me up there and showing me there was only bush at the top of that hill, with no lions and no Africa.
I think the nightmares stopped soon after that.
Are there things you know now that you didn’t know as a child? Did you have some funny or weird beliefs? What about irrational childhood fears or a recurrent nightmare? (Or am I just strange? Don’t answer that…) I’d love to hear about them.
I think its a lovely idea – lions in Tasmania but having nightmares about it – not lovely at all. My miniature lion kept me company when I was a child, my russet coloured tomcat that I imagined had a large lion dad and mum because he had just appeared one day, out of the blue, unlike any cat we had ever owned. I also saw red beetles on my lawn at dawn but no one else ever did – so yes – childhood is always a strange country to visit, don’t you think? I do love this story, by the way, Louise, so beautiful, evocative and truth bearing.
Thanks, Rashida. I never mentioned my childhood fears for years because I was embarrassed once I realised how stupid they were. I thought I was quite strange until I had my own children and they began to have their own fears, and come out with funny interpretations of the world. Then I thought I must have been normal. Normal-ish, anyway…
Oh, and I would love to hear more about those red beetles…
Gosh…sounds pretty traumatic. How did you react the first time you saw a lion in a zoo? Or have you not had that experience yet?
I’m thinking of a sort of SNAG lion (SNAL?) standing there on the hill with a trembling lip, saying “We’re not all like that, you know…”
I love the image of a SNAL on the hill. I can see him now, straight from having his mane coiffed. Maybe I need to insert a disclaimer in the post, apologising for any offence to SNAL’s.
Oh, and I got over my fear of lions. At least I can cope when I see one in a zoo. Haven’t met one in the wild yet, and if I did, I suspect that fear would return.
The lion in your picture looks like a SNAL to me. I’m sure he’s lovely once you get to know him…
Looks can be deceiving, Glen… I wouldn’t go near him if I were you.
Terrific blog Louise! Wow, what an imagination you had as a child. But it’s interesting that as children, how what we imagine can be become so real and overwhelming. When I was a kid, I feared the devil. That the devil was going to visit me at night and tear me to shreds. Spent a whole year in my parents’ bed. Poor Dad had to sleep in my bed.
Fear of the Devil — you weren’t brought up Catholic by any chance were you, Marlish? Fear of Satan — that’s another blog post or ten. All these fairytales and Bible stories that play with children’s imaginations and run amok, wrecking their sleep. Thanks for joining in the discussion.
Yes, Louise, Catholic upbringing. Had nuns all the way through my education, instilling the fear, etc.
Gave up on all when I turned 16.
Only Catholicism can instil that sort of fear!
My own experience of Catholicism was somewhat different. I came along too late to be taught by sadistic nuns or to hear the Mass spoken in Latin, with the priest’s face hidden from view. In fact, Catholic education in the eighties had incorporated various ideas that I would later come to recognise as being essentially Protestant, such as an individual’s personal relationship with God via private prayer and, I suppose, Reconciliation. But certainly the primacy of the sacraments, and in particular the Eucharist, has never wavered. And then there are those various other moral dilemmas that Catholicism throws at you (I won’t name them – I’m sure you can guess) that can be extremely hard to shrug off. Apart from that, however, I’d say that there were surely worse or sparser regimes that I might have had to develop a moral compass under, at least in the way it was presented to me at the time. But I’d also add that I’m glad my belief structure has matured beyond it since then.
I was brought up Catholic, too, and brainwashed, I mean, educated by the Catholic system — hence the preoccupation with Jesus and thinking Israel was part of Tassie. I could say a lot that is negative, but I won’t start as it’s already late. Instead, I will say something positive — hang on, I’ll think of something in a minute… still thinking… oh yes (I’m being serious now) — they instilled in me an awareness for the poor and underprivileged that I don’t think other Christian religions, except the Salvos, do nearly as well. They do have other social justice issues, however, but I’ll save that for a blog post where I want to have a rant!
Oh, and I’ve thought of a couple of other good things: churches have fantastic acoustics and I like the sound of the organ. I think the Anglicans do sacred music better though.
Fortunately for me, when I was young, I was spared the kind of brutality that they meted out only a couple of decades earlier. I do understand that the clergy and its teachings could be, and were, pretty nasty. My mother and aunts seem not to be especially troubled by it, at least not in ways that they might recognise and admit to. But I can’t be certain about that. They’re all still practicing in the faith, too, which I don’t.
Speaking of ‘the way things used to be’, I’m sometimes amazed that the way children were routinely subjected to corporal punishment by teachers and parents didn’t cause mass trauma amongst those generations. I might be wrong, but it would seem that it hasn’t. And again, that’s not to diminish your own objections to what you went through.
I think Glen, that many people keep their past traumas to themselves. Normally I never say a word about the Catholic Church, or any religion for that matter. Yet it does manifest itself in my behaviour – a couple of years back I assaulted some Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to our door. They never went to the cops, but it sure shook me up and I took myself off for some counselling. The verdict – anger from early childhood trauma at the hands of the Catholic Church. Now, not in a million years would people who know me believe that I was capable of assaulting two adult people. Good thing is, the JW’s haven’t darkened my front door since. Glen just remember – “There is no art to knowing the mind’s construction by the face.” Macbeth, Shakespeare. And as no visible signs of mass trauma, why is depression becoming a number one health issue in this country and growing at a rate of 2% per year. And let’s not forget all the other social ills, like gambling, alcoholism, etc.
It was the level and degree of the manifestations that I was getting at. The skyrocketing levels of depression in the community might or might not have something to do with childhood corporal punishment and religious upbringings. But I still think that, as far as those unfortunate aspects of child-rearing are concerned (leaving aside sexual abuse, of course), people seem to be pretty resilient. I would have expected far more instances of what happened with you and your JW’s in connection with all that rotten hell-fire and brimstone stuff, and cuts across the hand (or the bottom) at the front of the class. Then again, a lot of the latter-day effects probably go unnoticed and unrecorded, too. I only know that my own parents haven’t been particularly scarred by having been hit by their teachers. I have a feeling that I would be nowhere near as calm about it if a similar thing had happened to me.
BTW, I’m guessing your JW’s were pretty aggravating individuals, right? I’m also guessing that they were too embarassed to take it any further afterwards…
Hi Glen, aren’t all JW’s aggravating?
I’ve come across a lot of damaged people Glen…but then again I am fifty-seven years of age. Cuts across the bottom or hands in front of a class was nothing to compared to what I witnessed as a kid. Also I must admit my situation was compounded by other factors which have made me come to loathe religion.
Anyway I better scram Glen and do some work. Nice chatting to you. Cheers Marlish
I love discussions like this! I do actually have a draft blog post titled The Good and the Bad on my feelings about the Catholic Church. My schooling was in the ’70s and ’80s, at an all-girls’ Catholic school, so we just got whacked with the metre ruler across the palms and behind and made to lengthen our skirts. The nuns instilled fear in us, that’s for sure, but it was more on matters to do with the pelvis. We were meant to style ourselves on the Virgin, of course. I laugh now, but I sure had quite a few hang-ups back then…
How did a post about a childhood fear of lions result in a critique of not only the Catholic Church’s practices, but the JW’s?!
Did you notice my veiled reference to ‘the pelvis’ earlier?
If only you’d known a few SNALs back then, you could have got a pride of them to frighten away all the authority figures and then just had fun with them afterwards…
I did notice your veiled reference, but I thought it might be to do with Pell and the current inquiry.
And, yes, if only my lions had been SNALs, and turned my nightmares into dreams.
(I’m sickened by how corny that line is…)
SNALs and tigers and bears…oh my…