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  • Writer's pictureMj Pettengill

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

As far as I know, everyone fears him—the fictional wolf that shows up in numerous, age-old, ominous stories, such as Aesop’s Fables and Grimms’ Fairy Tales. The Big Bad Wolf is well-known, a generic archetype of a threat, the quintessential, predatory antagonist.


We don’t really know all of the details, nor do we have to. It’s simple; we know enough. The innocent, unassuming child is skipping along an enchanted pathway in the woods when he suddenly appears, not as a wolf at first, but in a clever disguise. What a shock when he exposes his sharp teeth and evil intentions, upon discovering that this is not one’s sweet and loving grandmother. 


Who is the prey? Of course, we know of them as the societal weak—the unprotected children, the poor and disadvantaged, the elderly, (usually women and girls). For some reason, they are portrayed as easily fooled and vulnerable. Why?

Until setting out to research a nineteenth-century, anonymous gravesite, I never fully comprehended the depth of intergenerational and societal collective fear and trauma, or the transmission of memory carefully woven into the fabric of our culture. This factor is present around the globe. For it is impossible to escape our past, even when we are no longer consciously aware of it.


Much of my work has emerged from the circumstances surrounding New Hampshire County Poor Farms in the 1870s, which are directly connected to the reconstruction period following the American Civil War—the horrific devastation of the loss and displacement of so many. I will cover this vast subject in other offerings. This essay is about the echoes of shame and fear that dwell within our beings without our knowledge or permission.


I was instantly aware of the call of the 298. They had been lost, forgotten, and hidden for about 150 years. They were the numbered souls. Where their names should have been recorded, were nothing but blank pages. But, that’s history. Those pages have been filled in and a memorial placed at the site. Other agencies, outside of the county and town, keep the records. So, let’s get back to the subject of collective shame and fear.


When I asked the local gatekeepers about the identities of those buried there, I was met with resistance. This is not new. It is addressed in my books, and I talk about it at my lectures and discussions. People often ask, “why?”


At first, I was taken aback. However, as time went on, I began to understand. Instead of being frustrated and inflamed, I realized that this shutting out was not intentional. Those who I expected to cooperate and welcome me (and their forgotten ghosts) with open arms, needed help pinning down the Big Bad Wolf. Patience and compassion were necessary. I would not go away or give up.

Once I discovered 268 names, I insisted on mentioning them. I wanted to know them and how one became a pauper, referred to as an inmate. It was time to raise them up from the deepest shadows and into the light. What were their crimes? Poverty, old age, sickness, mental or physically handicapped, homelessness, orphaned, pregnant and alone?


So, back to the gatekeepers. They knew enough to fear the Big Bad Wolf. They trusted the fear and shame that knocked on the door. What did he carry in his basket? No one knew, really. They only knew that it was bad. In their gut, were two primary reactions that rose up at the mere thought of the abandoned, anonymous graves:

(1) Fear. How dreadful to end up being incarcerated at the poor farm. The family name would be forever tarnished.


(2) Shame. We couldn’t take care of our grandmother or disabled uncle. They are so old; we don’t have the means.

* We had a poor crop this year and will not make it through the winter. 

* Our daughter is pregnant and unwed. We cannot face the town-folk with this scandal.


* If I leave the baby on the doorstep, will he be fed, loved, or placed out?

* He lost his arm in an accident.


* What is epilepsy? I’m afraid.

* What will they think of us? We can bring them there. We will close the door and try to forget their fate.


Therefore, one generation continues to pass the torch to the next. The cycle continues. The names, the stories, the details slowly vanish, while the fear and shame survive. The desire to forget, to wash away the dirt that clings to our skin, makes its way into our bones. When the day comes—when that woman knocks on the door and starts asking questions—she becomes suspect. It is only natural to close the door, to look the other way.


Who is she?

Why does she want to know?

In our deepest selves, we know who is buried there—those numbered souls—but we are wired to forget. We want to run away from whatever is hidden in the earth, and we are not quite sure why.


This is our shared past. It does not go away and is doomed to repeat itself if we do not dare to look. I make sure to express the importance of acknowledgment over judgment. We were not there. However, we cannot and will not learn from our past if we cover our eyes, ears, minds, and hearts. We must rip off the bandaid. It is time to restore their simple names, identities, and places that they held in our collective history. 


The shared attitude that we have about the poor, the elderly, the unwed girls who carry a child within, orphans, the homeless—the list goes on—is perpetuated by an unwillingness to look, to see.


I am grateful that this resistance, this fear of the wolf, only drove me further along and helped me to define my purpose. The wolf became an unexpected ally. Everything that occurred in my life, and the work that has followed and continues, prepared me for this. I have never been a victim, only a student turned master. On an ancestral, cultural, and social collective level, I will teach those who wish to learn. It brings about healing. My work has clearly exhibited that social events and memories are transmitted from one generation to the next. 


In this case, the fear and shame carried on without the names and specific stories. To release the stigma and carry on, the 298, were conveniently and systematically erased. Now, years later, they have been reclaimed. They have a voice. Together, we have taken an authentic journey of acceptance and belonging. They have been re-membered.

Many, who once closed the door and asked me to refrain from mentioning the names of the paupers, have found peace. The fear and shame have been met with acknowledgment. The light has rushed in where it was once too dark to see. This Big Bad Wolf has dashed off into the wild, where he belongs, no longer taking the blame for what we dared not own.  Mj Pettengill Etched in Granite Historical Fiction Series (Image: CCO)


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