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Grief Eater

I watched about four episodes of HBO’s The Outsider before stopping because I was too scared. I was a grown-ass woman who was suddenly afraid of the dark and would forgo having to wash my hair in the shower for fear of closing my eyes only to open them to someone or something standing outside the shower door.

Horror and I do not a match make. I’m a wimp and have never been up for the thrill. Why then did I decide to watch a TV show based on a Stephen King book, you say? I thought it would be a dark comedy- a murder mystery meets Arrested Development kind of thing. Jason Bateman is in it, after all. It wasn’t until after I became fully engrossed in episode two with a hook line and sinker that I bothered to look it up and saw that it was, in fact, written by one of the most well-known horror authors of our time. For those of you who haven’t seen the series spoiler alert ahead:

The premise is your usual “parent's worst nightmare” scenario that our culture tends to eat right up. A young boy is found grotesquely dead. Sidenote here- as a parent now, I have to skip over these types of scenes in the same type of way that I had to skip through pretty much the entirety of Old Yeller once I got a dog. I have enough anxiety as it is, and HBO seems hell-bent on making sure that in addition to worrying about wrinkles, whether or not I sent that email, and general existential dread, I now also have to have to worry about all the crazy-ass ways my children can be maimed and harmed all day every day for the rest of my life. I digress.

The search begins for the suspected killer. A man is caught. The evidence is strong (DNA, witnesses, etc.) Until it’s not...

Suddenly multiple people report seeing the suspect in two different places. He's caught on camera in one place while seen by witnesses in the other. Meanwhile, a whirlwind of grief, revenge, and all-out tragedy impact everyone and anyone within a close radius of the murder, from the little boy's family to the suspected killer.

Around episode four is when things get weird… We are introduced to a more sinister scenario where the actual killer is not human but rather a demonic energetic force that feeds off people's grief, infecting people, shapeshifting to look, act, talk and even replicate DNA like them. Like a virus, the force can control victims, inflicting pain, whispering instructions, and forcing them to do horrible things. That and it visits people in the middle of the night, and it doesn't have a face. Now you see why I can’t sleep?

One of the private investigators assigned to the case, a brilliant woman, eventually pieces it all together and surmises that the entity is likely "El Cuco" or “Grief Eater,” a ghost-like monster found in Latin American folklore that kidnaps and eats children and then feeds off the grief, pain, and sadness associated with the horrific event. As the boy's family, friends, and those associated with his death cascade into a spiral of destruction, the entity gains strength and energy, feeding off of the grief until choosing another victim.

I threw in the towel around the time the head investigator's wife is visited in the middle of the night by face-dripping Jason Bateman-looking thing. Nope. No thanks. Being the super wimp and ultra nerd that I am, I began to think about the message behind the message in the series instead of watching anymore. What was it saying about us? About our culture? About the nature of parenthood, death, and grief? No wonder it’s one of the most popular television shows- it's tapping into something that most, if not all of us, fear.

As much as I wish I were not in this club, I count myself as a parent who feels the fragility between life and death viscerally. Being a mother of a child with a congenital heart defect means that you are constantly looking in corners for that dark shadow that has always threatened to take your child. While that darkness hasn’t always felt sinister, it has felt very, very real to me. We all fear the darkness. While yes, I am talking about death, I also am speaking about the darkness that resides within us- the places that deep-seated fear and anger fester and feed off our own grief and pain. While listening to a news story about Japanese Americans' internment during World War II, a young man discussed the lasting inherited impacts of his interned family's trauma- I had a light bulb moment. While maybe not intentional, Stephen King was hinting at something big... these grief-eating spirals of destruction are EVERYWHERE. They are in the news, in the pandemic, in our personal lives. The energies that feed off fear, grief, and pain are fat and happy but still hungry for more.

Que Viene el Coco (1799) by Goya

Around the time of the George Floyd murder and the subsequent groundswell of anti-racism protests globally, I began thinking deeper about generational trauma and how one event lasts long into the living memory of the people it touches, to their kids, and their kids' kids- like a ripple of pain that extends into the psyche of the world. Whether you believe racism is alive and well in America (it is, by the way), there is no question that populations with histories grounded in oppression have continued to experience that oppression in other forms, whether it be economic, social, health, and/or political. Various studies have been conducted researching both qualitative and quantitative impacts of the children of those who experience atrocities committed in the Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda, in addition to Native American, immigrant, and African American communities in the U.S. What they found was "the transgenerational effects are not only psychological but familial, social, cultural, neurobiological and possibly even genetic- " (Legacy of Trauma. It's like a legacy of oppression replicated again and again in different iterations and versions of itself. Pain begets pain, begets pain.

The darkest part of it is that the spiral is continued with the legacy of the oppressor as well until slavery, racism, and discrimination have shapeshifted to things like educational disparity, land access, voting rights, addiction, mental health resources, police bias and excessive force, microaggressions, and implicit biases that it ensures its continuation under the guise of progress- so many dark corners parents (BIPOC parents in particular) fear will maim and harm their children.

I cannot speak to the generational trauma of people of color in this country or those in the Indigenous, LGBTQ, or other marginalized communities who have also faced abuse (in its many forms) fed by fear- not because don't have anything to say, but because I believe my role in combating its continuation is by simply showing up, shutting up and being open to learning. I acknowledge and honor the fact that portions of my life and privilege have contributed to that spiral.

What I can speak to is understanding my own role in perpetuating pain. Starving my personal grief eaters has been one of the biggest challenges of my life- especially because they are sneaky and shapeshift into projections onto people I care about, into making fear-based choices, and reacting instead of responding. Lately, I have tried a different menu for my own monsters based on a delicious combination of compassion and respect. The ingredients are harder to come by and take a lot of work. However, when fed this diet, I find those monsters don't need to eat as much or as often, and their desire to consume my life and everyone around me dissipates. For a moment, the spiral is paused. I have to wonder if we all focused on our grief, pain, and anger like this, would they stop feeding into the bigger systemic spirals? It's not lost on me that I sound a bit idealistic here, and to be clear, I haven't perfected the diet... on occasion, I binge feed them all the things they love (a good dose of anger is to my grief eating monster what a bag of Cheetos is to me). However, the better I get to know them, the more I am aware of their destructive nature not just to me but to those around me. That awareness has power.

Newsflash. I did not finish the Outsider series. I'm a wimp and quite honestly enjoy sleeping and showering, both of which were not happening while watching. My own internal grief eaters are scary enough. I don't know how the team of investigators handled the demonic pain-eating energy. Perhaps the all-knowing Stephen King and GOAT Jason Batemen left clues about how to solve the systemic spirals of our world or transmute our pain so that it can't be passed to others. In the end, I also wonder why we consume shows like the Outsider that focus on the violent demise of others. Are we simply watching, or are we feasting?


Listening to: Eat It All, Sloppy Jitt, Eat it All, 2020

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