In Ann Patchett’s This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage she writes about deliberately exposing herself to poison ivy in order to leave summer camp: “Like virgins to a volcano, we threw ourselves in. We rolled in it. We picked it. We rubbed it in our hair and stuffed it in our shirts and ground it into our eyes. Reader, we ate it. (…) We turned to a plant as Juliet had turned to a plant before us: to transport ourselves out of a difficult situation.”

When I was in outdoor school — a weeklong camp Corvallis middle schoolers were sent to — I did something similar. It wasn’t to escape, and I wasn’t nearly so thorough in subjecting myself to a known irritant, but I remember that as soon as we were taught about poison oak I rubbed it on my arm. I guess I was just curious about what would happen, although the rashy, itchy results were, in retrospect, boringly predictable.

I’ve successfully avoided poison oak ever since, even when hiking the Rogue where it lurks around every bend in the trail and continually readies its shiny-leafed embrace for your one misstep. But I have for some reason thought of that decades-ago decision many times over. I can’t think of another instance when I’ve done something quite that foolish in quite the same way, but the ease in which the choice was made has never fully left my mind. It’s part of the reason I shrink away from the edges of towering dropoffs: my brain instantly thinks, wouldn’t it be terrifyingly simple just to step forward instead? It’s not that I want to fall. It’s that I can’t stop imagining the little effort it would take to do so.


32 Responses to “Perverse attractions”

  1. Stacy on August 21st, 2014 6:02 pm

    I’ve had the same thought in so many situations, yet it always feels so taboo to say it. Love your writing, always have.

  2. Sara on August 21st, 2014 6:10 pm

    So often I come here to be reminded I’m not really alone in the thoughts that make me feel so very lonely. Thanks for being so transparent. I love you for it and many other things…

  3. Olivia on August 21st, 2014 7:39 pm

    I often have a similar thought when driving on a curvy road. “What if I just didn’t turn the wheel?”

  4. anonymous on August 21st, 2014 8:32 pm

    Bridges, razor blades. It’s upsetting.

  5. Anonymous, For Reasons on August 21st, 2014 8:54 pm

    Me, too. Especially on cliffs over the ocean.

    It’s called “l’appel du vide”, The Call of the Void.

  6. CourtneyinFL on August 22nd, 2014 4:02 am

    It’s as if I don’t fully trust myself in those type of situations. One slight impulse to go the other way and game over. I’m terrified by the voice that whispers, “what if?”.

  7. april on August 22nd, 2014 4:16 am

    Yes to all these thoughts and the ones above. Just that little niggling thought in the back of your brain.

  8. Marilyn on August 22nd, 2014 6:06 am

    Though I have felt those urgings in deadly dangerous situations, the ones that are even more disturbing to me are the ones that occur to me to make a situation unbearably awkward: my boss at my first job having a serious discussion with me — how hilarious and catastrophic would it feel if I leaned over and kissed him?

  9. Jen on August 22nd, 2014 7:14 am

    “the little effort it would take to do so”.

    Yes. It seems that effort is SO MUCH less than the effort spent avoiding doing so sometimes.

    I love your writing.

  10. Ris on August 22nd, 2014 7:54 am

    Oooh it is so comforting to know I am not the only person who has ever thought this…and then immediately thought “what is WRONG with me?!”

  11. Corinne on August 22nd, 2014 9:19 am

    “It’s called “l’appel du vide”, The Call of the Void.”

    Thanks. I was wondering if there was a name for it.

    Also, Linda, can you see it when I heart things on The Old Reader? I hope so, because I’m not much of a commenter but I would like to think you get to see all those kinds of reader appreciation moments.

  12. Corinne on August 22nd, 2014 9:23 am

    Also, this reminded me of this:

    Another slightly worrisome yet very common feeling.

  13. Maggie on August 22nd, 2014 9:31 am

    This is so very interesting to me because on a recent Girl Scout camping trip, we showed all the girls the places to avoid because of poison ivy, yet my daughter was totally drawn to it and wanted to “see what it was like”. I couldn’t understand it. I think maybe some people just need the experience of things, need to feel them, rather than just be told about them. That one scares me I tell ya!

  14. LD's Mom on August 22nd, 2014 9:48 am

    “It’s part of the reason I shrink away from the edges of towering dropoffs: my brain instantly thinks, wouldn’t it be terrifyingly simple just to step forward instead? It’s not that I want to fall. It’s that I can’t stop imagining the little effort it would take to do so.”
    I know EXACTLY what you mean.

  15. Alex on August 22nd, 2014 11:11 am

    I very much “get” this one. xo

  16. Phoebe on August 22nd, 2014 12:00 pm

    Yes. Exactly this. I had that same thought last night, driving up to cottage country late at night – “What if I just turned the steering wheel into the ditch, instead of keeping it steady and true”.

    “Would they call it suicide? But I’m not suicidal. It was just an experiment gone horribly wrong”. Etc.

    And I love that there’s a french expression for it. Oh the dark and twisty places we go.

  17. honeybecke on August 22nd, 2014 12:12 pm

    When I was a child growing up on an island we used ferries as a major mode of transportation. I can still remember the first time I felt how easy it would be to simply just jump in. The thought hit me so quickly it took my breath away and made my stomach flip over on itself nervously. I still, to this day, get that nervous rushing feeling while (cautiously, carefully) standing on the deck of a boat or ferry.

  18. jody on August 22nd, 2014 8:38 pm

    There’s a part in the movie “The Vanishing” (Kiefer Sutherland and Sandra Bullock) that talks about this. I think, in the movie, part of what makes the crazy guy crazy is that he DOESN’T stop or make a different decision when faced with that moment. I saw that movie probably 15 years ago, but that scene has always stuck with me and it came immediately to mind when reading this post.

  19. Taryn on August 22nd, 2014 9:53 pm

    I think these things too–a RR bridge I drive under nearly every day & I think most times I drive under it, I could just turn the wheel & drive straight into the side of it. I don’t and wouldn’t but I could. And I’ve often thought it a little twisted I’m even thinking that. Or someone mentioned tiny animals–I’ve thought, I could just squish it so easily, but I don’t. But I could!

  20. H on August 23rd, 2014 1:34 pm

    I am afraid of cliffs and steep ledges because I am worried I’ll accidentally but deliberately step off the edge. I’m not sure how that would happen. I guess I’m afraid I’ll think “what if” if I get too close.

  21. nine on August 23rd, 2014 7:21 pm

    Uh. I’m not sure if I should share this (I GUESS I’M GOING TO THO) but Corinne’s nervio link made me have a flashback to the really effed up cold open for the Supernatural episode “My Bloody Valentine.”

    Warning: blood, gore, Supernatural, effed-up-ed-ness, whoop whoop whoop

  22. Ashleas on August 24th, 2014 1:20 pm

    As someone who has been dealing with Depression, oftentimes unsuccessfully and trying to find positives in a life that seems so very bland and opposite of what I want, I know that call far too often. The saying ‘a cry for help’ to describe radical actions someone might take fits me all to well. I feel so guilty about it too because my depressed brain seems to just want attention – my depression I believe stems from the incredible loneliness my own introversion makes me feel.

    Some days it seems like I would need to just turn the wheel to get someone to realize the loneliness I struggle to express.

  23. MassHole on August 25th, 2014 9:00 am


  24. Maggie on August 25th, 2014 11:09 am

    Just this weekend I was walking on by the river with Youngest. Where we were walking is at least 20 ft about the river – which is very deep at that point. There are guardrails and everything, but Youngest immediately headed over to start climbing them. I said not to climb those and even though she is only 5 we had a pretty heavy talk about what would happen if she just jumped in. L’appel du vide already.

  25. Becky Mochaface on August 25th, 2014 11:15 am

    I’ve had many similar thoughts. Thank you for saying it. I’m not alone, and neither are you.

  26. Kristin on August 25th, 2014 3:04 pm

    Oh, yeah, I TOTALLY know what you mean. In fact, just the other day, I was putting tools away near a large picture window we have in our kitchen. I said to my partner, “What if I threw this hammer through this window right now? Isn’t that crazy? Every day, we just CHOOSE to not do the most destructive things!” She was like, “Why would you do that, though?” (No imagination, this one…) I was like, “Just to make a different choice… To see what would happen next.” She was like, “But you know it would break…” And I was like, “Yeah, but I don’t know what that would FEEL like.”

  27. Kristin on August 25th, 2014 3:10 pm

    Also, not to keep prattling on, but I did the poison ivy thing, too! I was highly allergic to it as a kid and had many, many natural/accidental bouts of it. Well, once in 5th grade, I decided I could rully use a couple days off school, went across the street, picked some, and rubbed that shit all over my face and arms. Worked like a charm, too! ;)

  28. Shawna on August 27th, 2014 9:08 am

    I work at the very end of a hallway in a cube farm, and while walking to my desk I often picture how people would react if I cartwheeled there instead. They’d see me cartwheel past their cube opening in their peripheral vision for only a fraction of a second… would they even believe their eyes?

    I suspect the fact that I could not pull off one good cartwheel, let alone a long, straight line of them, to save my life is the only thing that’s stopping me.

  29. Pete on August 28th, 2014 1:07 pm

    Cliffs and poison ivy that’s not much of a risk. What if we don’t use birth control tonight?

  30. Erica on September 2nd, 2014 8:17 am

    So glad to have a name for these moments – and to know I am not alone. I gasped when I read your post.

  31. Laura on September 3rd, 2014 6:38 pm

    @shawna– the cartwheel fantasy is awesome!
    I didn’t go to church for three weeks due to an overwhelming desire to yell “fuck” during a moment of silence. I’d start thinking about it, and it would make me laugh — and then I could not turn off the thought. I knew I wouldn’t do it, but… what if I did? I have the same urge at PTO meetings.

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