Fear in Our Apocalyptic Age

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Fear? Tell me about it. Unfortunately, I’m so old that I’m not sure I really remember what I felt when, along with millions of other schoolchildren of the 1950s, I ducked and covered like Bert the Turtle, huddling under my desk while sirens howled outside the classroom window. We were, of course, being prepared to protect ourselves from the nuclear obliteration of New York City. But let me tell you, I do remember those desks and they did not exactly instill a sense of confidence in a child.

Don’t by the way think that, from personal fallout shelters to fashion tips for the apocalypse, adults weren’t subjected to similar visions of “safety” so hollow as to inspire fear. A government-sponsored civil defense manual of that moment, How to Survive an Atomic Bomb, was typical enough in suggesting that men, in danger of being “caught outdoors in a sudden attack,” should wear wide-brimmed fedoras, which would give them “at least some protection from the ‘heat flash’” of a nuclear explosion. For women, as Paul Boyer pointed out in By the Bomb’s Early Light, his classic book on post-Hiroshima nuclear fallout in American society, “stockings and long-sleeved dresses” were de rigueur for a nuclear event.

No kidding. That really was the prosaic 1950s version of the end of everything. I can hardly believe I lived through such an era of half-expressed, yet genuinely horrific fears, no less that from my school years into adulthood I had recurring nightmares filled with mushroom clouds and post-apocalyptic nuclear landscapes, or that I plunged with relish into the era's pulp science fiction filled with survivor colonies and mutants galore. In the style of parenting of that moment, most children, I suspect, were left on their own to struggle with the prospective obliteration of all life on planet Earth. I still remember how shocking and yet eerily familiar it seemed when, on October 22, 1962, President John Kennedy addressed the American people, essentially informing us that we might be at the edge of oblivion in what came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. For many of us -- I was then just starting college -- it seemed as if the secular equivalent of prophesy was finally coming true and that we would all momentarily be toast.

In those years, I can’t remember a single conversation with my parents about the nuclear drills at school (even though they obviously heard the same sirens), or for that matter about nuclear war. (My best friend, then and now, assures me that his experience was no different.) We lived, my parents and I, in silence through the early years of what might be called the first age of the apocalypse, that moment when the power to destroy all life had fallen from the hands of the gods into distinctly human ones. We still live in such an age.

TomDispatch regular Frida Berrigan, far younger than I, had quite a different childhood, as well as parents who couldn’t have answered her nuclear questions more bluntly or graphically, as she explains in “Kids’ Questions on a Lockdown Planet.” The results, it seems, were no less scary or unnerving than the silence that lay at the heart of what, in my life, could truly be called the “nuclear” family.

I took my own path to Hiroshima and into parenthood as well, and so into the eternally knotty problem of how to talk (or not talk) to your children about the primal fears of our distinctly apocalyptic age. Up to a certain moment, your kids have a kind of blind faith in your ability to know, a faith that -- as I experienced many times and Berrigan describes today -- can tie you in knots of authoritative lunacy on subjects about which you know next to nothing or about which you are at least as unnerved as they are. How to sort out such a world, whether for your own children, yourself, or the rest of us is, of course, the question and the conundrum for 2016 and beyond.

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