I forgot about that little quirk of mine, something that I did until I outgrew it.
“You’ve always been a poor sleeper,” my Mom might say to explain, or “You just have a very active imagination.” When the reason I slept so poorly was that I couldn’t wake up from my dreams sometimes.
Last weekend my husband and I met my sister and her family in southern Utah for the St. George Parade of Homes. I also wanted to interview an Uncle and an Aunt who live there to see if they might have insight into my Great-aunt Glenna.
It had been years since I’d seen either one of my relatives for no reason other than time has sent us in different directions. My first interview was on Friday with my *Uncle L.D (not his real name).
“When do you get into town?” L.D asked the Wednesday before.
“Around 1:00,” I said.
“Okay, we’ll see you at 1:00.”
It’s strange to be in the presence of people who knew you well as a child but who, as an adult, are strangers. I was nervous. What did my Uncle expect from me? Would he be surprised at how old I’ve gotten? Would he only want to reminisce about past family reunions? Would he open up to me, a perfect stranger now?
As I stepped out of my car, what-if questions exploded in my brain, igniting my fight, flight, or freeze response. I had two backup plans—I could simply not show up or else get the hell out of there before L.D. could answer his front door.
“You made it!” he said and led me inside to an office off the foyer. He handed me two sheets of paper. A single-spaced write-up of everything he knew about his Aunt Glenna and her life.
“Now these stories are just that. You probably can’t authenticate them,” L.D told me. “Paragraph one…”
As my Uncle read from his set of pages and I followed along from mine, I realized two things—These were the same stories about Glenna that I had heard–oral histories and family folklore passed around family reunions like a dessert tray. And other than dates or existing places, nothing could be verified, nothing concrete.
After a while, the conversation changed from following the two-paged script to other things. Things that, although associated with Glenna’s life, only left more questions.
My Great-aunt Glenna had faced every type of abuse imaginable. It was a heavy admission (without specifics) that I hadn’t expected, even though I suspected as much, even though I had understood it as a possible component to what had made Glenna go insane. However, it was something else to hear that Glenna’s secret was told to my Uncle by his Dad, my Grandfather, and Glenna’s youngest brother.
Then, perhaps tired of the sensitive topic we’d tripped into, or else exhausted from hearing ourselves speak, we said our goodbyes.
“Send me that medical release form,” Uncle L.D called, and I promised I would.
Although I enjoyed my second interview with my *Aunt La (not her real name), she provided little insight into who Glenna might have been. My Auntie had been very young and terrified of the old lady, as much as I was.
“I don’t know,” La told me, “Aunt Glenna would just sit in the corner, watching everybody else. That’s just who she was.”
On Sunday, while driving the four hours home, the red desert sprinting by the driver’s side window, followed by forked Joshua trees, and then the occasional deer carcass thrown to the side of the road as the elevation climbed, I remembered something.
I was familiar with what it was like being stuck inside myself, of being awake but not entirely.
After my husband and I pulled into the driveway and WebMD confirmed it, I most likely experienced night terrors as a child.
When I was young, after I fell asleep, something would compel me to get up. Suddenly, I was hypersensitive and moving down the hallway in a trance, searching for something (probably my Mom).
I don’t remember the dreams specifically, just the residue of being pursued by a mob out to get me. I was asleep, although my body was moving, and my eyes were open.
And then, just as suddenly, I was awake, confused and in the family room, or on the bathroom floor, or I awoke lying in a ball in the hallway, to my Dad shaking me awake. (I have the vague sense that someone found me in the car in the garage—though I don’t know if that happened to my brother, also a sleepwalker, or to me.)
I have no memory of those dreams, only impressions of bad people coming for me and that I couldn’t hide, and I couldn’t make my mouth work to scream for help. I was scared, stuck, locked inside my body, captured in a nightmare.
Reading the diagnosis, I made another connection that made my stomach drop. Is this how it was for my Great-aunt Glenna? Was she trapped inside her body, too? Was she held hostage inside herself, forced to keep watching? Was she both asleep and awake—alive and not, witnessing a terrifying scene in front of her of in-patients roaming the halls like zombies, nurses hunting down screaming people, hurling them to the floor, and binding them in straitjackets? Was this her world? Was she frightened?
I don’t know what Glenna saw or felt. I may never know. Perhaps this is all Glenna will ever be, just another story, one passed down from generation to generation, immortalized by rumor, but nothing concrete.
I don’t know what I might learn about Glenna, her story may forever be unclear, but I’m going to try and find out as much as I can.