The Big Idea: Jody Keiser

Author Jody Keisner comes to us today with some classic advice: face your fears. Or at least, don’t ignore them. Open up about them! Explore them. That’s exactly what she does in her memoir, Under My Bed.


My Big Idea started as My Big Humiliation.

“What is your greatest fear?” I asked the room of college students on the first day of a creative writing class. The question was from the Proust Questionnaire, named after the French essayist and novelist Marcel Proust. I used the questionnaire to break-the-ice and create a sense of intimacy, which was crucial since we’d be reading about each other’s personal lives for most of the semester. Composed of questions ranging from “What is your idea of perfect happiness?” to “What is the trait you most deplore in others?”, it was thought to uncover someone’s true self. 

Though I’d been answering the questions along with my students for as many years as I’d been teaching, I’d never revealed my true self, at least concerning fear. My greatest fear was also what I then perceived as my greatest humiliation. And so, I kept this part of myself hidden: I was a thirty-something woman living in the quiet, middle-class suburbs, who was afraid of being alone in her home at night. In other areas of my life, I felt daring, tough, and a little wild, just not in my own house. Only my husband and sister knew my secret.

One year, without forethought, instead of my usual vague answer, I blurted the truth:

My fear arrives out of nowhere. I’m reading a book or drinking a glass of wine, supposedly enjoying “me time,” when I’m startled by the creak of a floorboard or a doorknob rattling. The normal sounds of a normal house settling—or unsettling. The feeling that I’m not alone overwhelms me. There’s only one way to be sure. I have to check.

I saw my absurdity through my students’ eyes as I stood before them in my Ann Taylor skirt and coordinating blouse and told them how I opened closets, tugged back shower curtains, looked behind the couches and chairs, checked every latch on every window and door, and finally got down on my hands and knees and peered under my bed. I was looking for a prowler, a man waiting to rape or murder me. I felt childish and exposed. Why did I tell them? 

After a moment of silence that felt like years, the unexpected happened. Well, first the expected happened and they laughed. But then a handful of young women admitted experiencing a similar anxiety on occasion. Most of my students didn’t think I was absurd—though, as one student said, perhaps I was a touch obsessive-compulsive—and one student approached me after class to discuss her own under-the-bed checking. The male students in the room were more apt to confess humorous fears, like being frightened of boogers or death-by-zombies, though one acknowledged being “spooked” after watching horror movies. My students and I talked about how although girls and woman are assaulted—and murdered—every day in this country, I was greatly overestimating the probability of it happening to me. 

Still, my being vulnerable and open with them about my odd behavior invited them to be more vulnerable in their writing, flaws and all, which made their work more compelling. Which, of course, was exactly what I needed to do with the memoir I was writing, too.

Under My Bed and Other Essays was born out of a need to understand this anxious, hidden part of myself and the origin stories of all my greatest fears. From there it grew into an exploration of how fear carried on in my life and, more broadly and universally, the lives of all of us and especially women and mothers. Through my research and writing, I came to understand that my fears weren’t entirely illogical and didn’t really “arrive out of nowhere.” They came—as many fears and anxieties do—from a whole host of interconnected places, such as:

  • media and film portrayals of horror and tragedy (“the chest chomp” scene in John Carpenter’s The Thing makes a cameo appearance in my memoir)
  • proximity to danger (John Joubert, aka the Nebraska Boy Snatcher, lived within ten minutes of my childhood home)
  • brain changes during pregnancy (scientists say that when a woman is pregnant, the part of the brain responsible for anxiety and fear increases in activity)
  • family trauma (I grew up with a father who had an explosive temper, though he has mellowed over the years)
  • mothering young girls (what do we teach our daughters about living in a society that teaches them to ignore their anger and rebellion and instead to always be accommodating and polite?)
  • the cultural objectification and sexualization of the female body (the nationally covered murder of solo runner Mollie Tibbetts, as but one example of thousands)

I was, for once, revealing my authentic self, searching out the darkest corridors of my mind, and in doing so, I uncovered an opportunity to connect with readers as they, too, struggled to keep their greatest fears from getting close to them. 

In a recent post on this blog, Patrick O’Leary writes: “As the shrink says in my Door Number Three, ‘The only terror that heals. The terror of being yourself.’” The act of writing this book and being myself helped me to overcome fear. I will, however, never live completely without it. Does anyone? Should we even want to? Fear compels us to act and make change.

Naming my fears was ultimately empowering for me, as I hope it will be for readers. I didn’t neglect the flip side of the coin in my memoir-in-essays: stories of hope, triumph, and love. Ultimately, it wasn’t only fear that propelled my writing—it was also fear’s antidote: curiosity. My beloved grandmother used to say, “Don’t be afraid. Try everything once.”

In memoir writing, the courage to be vulnerable is everything.


Under My Bed and Other Essays: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s|University of Nebraska Press|The Bookworm

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