Funny cow on a green summer meadow

by Jennifer Pruiett-Selby

The nature of my writing for young adults leads me to controversial topics. Often during research I end up lost deep in one of the many conspiracy theories readily available to suck time and energy from curious readers like me. As I began working on this column, I had just discovered a countdown website loaded with symbols attributed to the so-called Illuminati. Among them was the infamous baphomet, the all-seeing eye, and Lady Liberty—who’d somehow stabbed herself in the abdomen with her own sword. It was cryptic, a mystery, and the conspiracy forums from YouTube to Reddit were enjoying the hell out of it. Speculation ranged from political (it didn’t help that Hillary’s 9/11 episode happened right in the middle of the countdown) to claims that it was nothing more than a publicity stunt for the new season of American Horror Story. Whatever it was, YouTubers with any stake in “end times prophecy” had recorded their own interpretations for posterity.

As we sat in anticipation, life continued as usual. There’s a saying: “You know you’re a writer when you’ll do anything to avoid writing.” I’m currently invested in a book-length work, with subject matter that has become uncomfortably personal. I won’t bore you with the details, but to summarize, it’s fair to say that I’m struggling to get it onto paper. My heart rate accelerates whenever I think about it. Luckily, I have five children and my oldest plays volleyball, so distractions abound.

Over the summer, my oldest introduced me to ASMR. Actually, it was more of an “oh-God-what-is-she-talking-about-I-better-Google-it” reaction. Just the moniker ASMR sounded sexual. Maybe my initial response stems from a traumatic experience during grad school, where a guy with a goatee and no mustache stroked my thigh in an unwelcome manner while filling me in on the details of his BDSM novel. At the time, I didn’t know what that acronym meant, either. I’ve never considered myself naive, but I’ll admit, there’s much that I don’t know. I was excited to learn that ASMR was nothing at all like BDSM. I was even more delighted to find an actual scientific explanation for the tingly sensation I get whenever someone plays with my hair.

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR)—known by some as a brain orgasm—is something that many people experience, but few understand. I first experienced “the tingles” during Spanish class in high school, when a good friend sat behind me and braided my hair.

Recently, ASMR has become a serious topic of study in a much-needed area: relaxation without the use of pharmaceuticals. Even better, YouTube is a free platform for kindly souls to post hour-long videos filled with various “triggers” to elicit this involuntary response. On the plus side, ASMR videos offer a positive alternative to the ever-popular apocalyptic content.

Still, I have mixed feelings about ASMR videos, specifically the need for the companionship of total strangers to help us relax, to help us feel. We’re so bombarded with negativity that we’ve turned off our emotions. We’ve silenced them. Entertainment, as a whole, has become more outrageously violent, though one need only watch the nightly news to experience pure terror. So, those of us who require comforting find solace in these whispers, and we fall asleep to the voices of people we’ll never meet.

When we lived out on my husband’s family farm, my in-laws rented land to their neighbor. My father-in-law, a veteran who was no longer able to cultivate the land himself, had been forced to relinquish the fertile acres to someone else.

This neighbor raised goats on a lot not far from the house we lived in, one that was passed down by my husband’s grandparents after they’d moved on to the big acreage in the sky. We, being fresh from grad school and desperately unemployed, took refuge there with our children, taking in as many cats as we could. (And many more than we should’ve.) Be that as it may, the place was never home for me.

On nice days with the windows open we heard the goats, conversing in their bizarre tongue. In their enclosure, a solitary donkey stood sentry, his sole job to keep the coyotes away. One day he failed, and my daughter (who loved the goats as much as she loved all the barn kitties) happened to arrive just in time to witness a goat being ravaged by what she still swears was a werewolf. The memory remains, sore and bitter, but it has also changed her. Later, we would find dead goats, their heads stuck in the fence; they could push through but couldn’t pull back out because of their horns. And when she would see their slack bodies, their heads tangled in wire, it was never as sad for her. She had already seen the horror of a violent death. Nothing would ever compare to death at the jaws of a coyote.

We’re so bombarded with negativity that we’ve turned off our emotions. We’ve silenced them. Entertainment, as a whole, has become more outrageously violent, though one need only watch the nightly news to experience pure terror.

This summer, in the comfort of our home away from the hazards of rural life, I happened upon a game on my Kindle. The premise is to prep your doomsday bunker, with underground levels devoted to food, recreation, and various occupations. (My favorite was the karaoke room!) Little Sim-like people arrive and move in, and then they do nothing but work. All. The. Time. Much like the girl from The Ring, they never sleep. Sadly, the game crashed after I had paid actual money to expand my shelter. As I tried to log in only to find myself back where I’d started, I felt sickened by my stupidity. I had wasted time playing this ridiculous game, and I couldn’t even recoup what I’d spent. The most ironic thing: I knew the “end” would never come. I’d been waiting for some kind of disaster, some big pay-off to justify all of my effort, fully knowing the game would continue indefinitely. Like the proverbial carrot, the end is always nigh. There was no Y2K. There was no Mayan apocalypse. There is no countdown.

As the website counted down, fervor grew on the Internet’s forums. As the clock flashed down to zero, the mysterious website turned out to be a protest against abortion. Many complained about wasting their time: they had devoted their energy to trying to solve this puzzle, only to find some guy “ranting” about the loss of innocent life. Others found it disturbingly graphic. Without warning, viewers witnessed footage of actual abortions. It’s not unlike a goat in the mouth of a coyote, and every bit as savage.

The biggest tragedy of all, though, was the overall tone of disappointment. These people wanted something big to happen. They hungered for a newsworthy event, something more to discuss, something they could claim they had predicted. Even if it meant the end of us all.

But as I watched, I cried. I suppose I should blame the whisper videos (as my best friend, Brad, calls them). Because of ASMR, I’ve begun to experience actual feelings again. I can look into the eyes of complete strangers, and I can see their pain. And I can write the sorrows of my characters, but also their joy. Though, I worry. I worry that the joy is not as welcome to readers as sorrow and the pain.

If only for my own sanity, I must seek that balance. I must look into the disasters, the everlasting countdowns to an apocalypse that will never come, and see the face of true beauty there, the face of strength and resilience.

And that is what I must write, even if I am the donkey trying in vain to keep the goats safe.


Jennifer Pruiett-Selby, winner of Smartish Pace’s 2015 Beullah Rose Poetry Prize, lives in rural Iowa with her husband, poet Jason Selby, and five children. Her work has found homes with Prairie Schooner, Hobart, Calyx, Crab Creek Review, Lunch Ticket, Rust + Moth, Ember, and Red River Review.