CASE STUDIES IN ADOPTION

Note: Unless otherwise specified, the photographs below are for illustration purposes only and are not connected to the case studies provided. Examples and links to specific adoption agencies are provided for reference and not as an endorsement or condemnation of any particular agency.

AdoptiveFamilies.com

The concept of adoption has a generally positive aura. Indeed, it’s easy to find articles like Why Adopt? 23 Reasons to Adopt a Child (amerianadoptions.com). But frankly my experience of adoptions via family and friends is a mixed bag. 

The good news for writers: good, bad, or unclear outcome, adoptions are fertile ground for characters and plots.

Case 1: Desire to Adopt a Stepchild

When my husband and I married, he was a widower with a three-year-old daughter. I (foolishly) thought that by that marriage, I became his daughter’s mother. Wrong! To be her legal parent, I had to adopt her. We lived in Upstate New York, and at the time a child with a living biological parent could be adopted only if the biological parent gave up his/her parental rights.  The upshot was that my hubs signed away his parental rights and then we both adopted her!

This was an incredibly successful adoption. I told my parents, my husband’s parents, AND our daughter’s maternal grandmother that any and all of our children had to be treated equally. We subsequently had two more daughters. Words like step-mother, half-sister, etc., never crossed anyone’s lips—and I don’t think crossed anyone’s mind. When her elementary school class made family trees, hers had three branches: her biological mother, her father, and me. 

Writers note: consider such a case that did not go so well.

Case 2 A, B & C: Desire to Help a Friend or Family Member Who Isn’t in a Position to Raise a Child

2A – the biological mother of two children was murdered, and neither of the fathers was known. The maternal grandmother and her husband adopted the grandchildren. Although a financial burden, no one seemed to regret the decision.

2B – the biological parents of the child were drug addicts. The paternal grandmother went to court to get custody and eventually adopted the grandson, who grew up to be an admirable and ambitious young man.

2C – the biological parents were unmarried teenagers, not financially viable, and not psychologically well balanced enough to care for a special needs child. The paternal grandmother first won custody and then adopted her. The adopted daughter struggled through special education classes, therapy, and at age eighteen, vocational training for a sheltered work environment. The child/young adult was a constant and severe stress on the paternal grandmother and her husband’s marriage.

Writers note: consider that a biological father came forward in A; consider how the relationship between the biological parent and the grandparent might evolve in cases B & C.

AFamilyForEveryChild.com

Case 3 A & B: Desire to Give a Child Born in Another Country a Chance to Thrive

3A – the adoptive father had been a U.S. soldier who served in Viet Nam. He and his wife had three children (sons) but wanted to adopt a Vietnamese orphan. In the event, the Vietnamese orphans were so weak and sickly that the international agencies weren’t placing them. They suggested adopting a Korean orphan, and that is what they did. As adults, the children have good relationships. Although differing in political perspectives, the adoptive parents and daughter are emotionally close.

3B – the parents decided to adopt a child from a country where the majority of the population is of a different race, practices a different religion, and speaks a different language. The boy was four years old when he was adopted. The relationship between the parents and the child never settled into a comfortable family pattern. When he turned eighteen, the adopted child returned to the country of his birth and changed his name back to the one he’d had in the orphanage. The parents have not seen him since and have only occasional online contact.

Case 4 A & B: Desire to Choose the Child’s Gender

4A – a Caucasian couple had two sons. Wishing for a daughter, they conceived several times over the years but all of those pregnancies ended in miscarriages. They chose to adopt a mixed race (Irish and African American) baby daughter. The adoption was simply a part of the family structure. The child and her biological mother saw each other occasionally. The birth mother being known, there was quite a bit of info available about health issues, for example. The adoptive parents made a conscious effort to expose their daughter to African American culture and experiences.

Writers note: count the ways this might go awry as the adopted daughter goes through teenage rebellion, or is the only non-white face at family gatherings. What if one or both sons marry women who are more or less racist?

4B – a couple had two daughters. After eight years of repeated pregnancies and miscarriages, the wife had a medically necessary hysterectomy. The husband wanted a son “to carry on the family name.” They didn’t want to wait two years to adopt an infant and so applied to adopt a ten-year-old boy. A month younger than the elder daughter, he was in the same class in school as the younger daughter because his biological parents had never enrolled him in school. There was a “trial year” before the adoption could be finalized. It quickly became apparent that the boy shared no interests with the husband, nor his need for achievement. The wife resented the burden of a third child while her health was so fragile, and was fearful that the boy would replace the daughters in her husband’s affection.  The daughters acted to protect the boy from their mother. The boy’s attitude was “hunker down and get by,” because the home he’d been adopted into was much better than his previous situation. At the end of the year, both the couple and the boy agreed to finalize the adoption. In the meantime, the boy had been in school for a year under his birth name. When the husband asked whether the boy wanted to change his name, the boy said he didn’t care, that he wouldn’t be any more a member of the family one way than the other. His name wasn’t changed.

Writers note: what are the long-term implications???

Case 5 A & B: Due to Infertility or Other Reasons, a Parent Cannot Have a Biological Child

5A – After several years of marriage and extensive fertility treatments, a couple was unable to conceive. They decided to adopt.  The adoption wasn’t easy because of the adoptive parents’ ages. They decided to adopt a brother and a sister together, although they’d been told that the children were developmentally behind their ages. The adoptive mother was a psychologist and attributed that developmental lag to their early lives. As the children grew, the boy appeared to be average or a little below in intelligence. The girl suffered microcephaly. The marriage failed. The children remained with the adoptive mother. As the boy developed, she couldn’t handle him and ended up paying a lot of money to enroll him in a military school. As the girl grew, she became ever more aggressive and defiant and was expelled from school. The mother tried therapy, including residential therapy. The girl was living in a residential facility and was on her way to see a psychiatrist (as she had requested), when she said she didn’t want to go to that hospital, jumped from the back of the van, broke her neck and died immediately. The boy married and had a child and had a relationship better than ever with the adoptive mother.

5B – the adoptive mother was a single woman who wanted a child but had no desire to give birth or to involve an unnecessary man. She adopted an infant from South America and raised the girl to be Catholic, fluent in Spanish, and knowledgeable of her native country’s history and culture, in accordance with the biological mother’s wishes. The girl grew up surrounded and supported by her adopted mother’s parents and siblings. She did well at home and in school until about halfway through high school. Then, she got involved with drugs, was in and out of abusive relationships, had three children by unknown fathers, and is now serving time while her adoptive mother has custody of the children.

Writers note: where/how might these events have developed differently?

HowtoAdopt.org

Case 6 A & B: The Couple “Just Wants To”

These two will be treated together because they are related. The women are sisters, the twelfth and thirteenth children in the family. They were exceptionally close growing up. For unknown reasons, neither had a child and they and their husbands each adopted a son. The older sister’s adoption was a great success. The son thrived, both academically and professionally, married and had a daughter they named after his adoptive mother. The younger sister’s adopted son was a ne’er-do-well. He was sporadically employed, had many brushes with the law, driver’s license revoked, time in jail, drank heavily, tapped his mother for financial support, and in the view of the extended family, exploited her financially to her detriment. She never rejected him. And that was a source of tension and distance between the formerly close sisters.

Writers note: fertile ground here! Throw in Parkinson’s or some equally debilitating disease? Why not have children of their own, when all their older sisters had done so?

AdoptConnect.com

Adoption Process

The actual process of adoption varies widely among agencies and countries. However, there are some fairly consistent requirements:

  • The adoptive parent(s) must demonstrate financial stability, a permanent home, psychological maturity, etc.
  • If the adopting parents are married, there is usually a minimum amount of time they must have been married before being allowed to adopt.
  • If there are other children in the home, there is sometimes a requirement that a minimum number of years separate the biological children from the adopted children.
    • Many adoption agencies recommend not adopting a child who is older than the oldest biological child so that birth order is not disrupted.
    • The youngest child in the home is often required to be at least two or three years old before the adopted child will be placed.
  • Parent(s) must be at least eighteen years older than the adopted child.
  • Most adoption agencies perform home visits and individual interviews with each member of the family. Some require character references from friends or employers.
  • Because of the different needs of adopted children, especially older adopted children, many agencies require prospective adoptive families to attend training seminars.
  • Guides for raising adopted children and helping them adjust can be also be found online.

Summary: in my experience, adoption typically isn’t about helping a mother who (for whatever reason) must give up a child. Nor is it about giving a loving home to a child (stranger) who needs it. As a writer, consider the motives of the the adult(s) seeking to adopt. And consider all the ways those motives might be frustrated.

GOOD FEET, BAD FEET

Red feet, Blue feet!

How much thought have you given to your characters’ feet? And shoes? Feet and shoes tend to go together, and both can be valuable as character details, plot devices, and sources of conflict. But let’s start with the basics. Are bare feet good or bad? Yes!

Health Concerns

The Upside of Bare Feet: 

  • Uninhibited flexibility, greater strength, and mobility of the foot.
  • Some research suggests that walking and running barefoot results in a more natural gait, allowing for a more rocking motion of the foot, eliminating hard heel strikes, generating less collision force in the foot and lower leg.
  • Many sports require going barefoot: gymnastics, martial arts, beach volleyball, and tug of war.  Rugby in South Africa is always played barefoot at the primary school level. Other sports have barefoot versions: running, hiking, and water skiing.
  • People who don’t wear shoes have a more natural toe position, not squished together.

The Downside of Bare Feet:

Hallux valgus, bunion
  • Losing protection from cuts, abrasions, bruises, hard surfaces, and extremes of heat or cold.
  • Constantly being barefoot increases likelihood of flat feet, bunions, and hammer toe.
  • Because feet are so sensitive, toe locks and striking the bottoms of the feet are often used as punishment.

Climate and Weather:

  • With no environmental need for shoes, Egyptians, Hindus, Greeks, and various African nations have historically gone barefoot.
  • Even when it isn’t necessary, people in such climates often wear ornamental footwear for special occasions.

General Symbolism

  • Baring one’s feet shows humility and subjugation.
  • Going barefoot symbolizes innocence, childhood, and freedom from constraints .
  • Bare feet are often a sign of poverty.
    • The assumption of ignorance and poor hygiene often accompanies the poverty of bare feet.
  • From Roman times on, footwear signaled wealth, power and status in most of Europe and North Africa.Shoes that are impractical or inhibit movement often signal enhanced status, such as Italian chopines, Chinese “Golden Lotus” bound feet, armored German sabatons, Polish crakows, and everything worn by Victoria Beckham.
  • Forbidding shoes marks the barefoot person as a slave or prisoner under the control of others.  Keeping prisoners barefoot is common in China, Zimbabwe, Thailand, Uganda, Iran, Pakistan, India, Congo, Malawi, Rwanda, Ivory Coast, and North Korea.

Cultural Aspects

Religion:

  • Some religious sects take a vow of poverty, including obligatory bare feet.
  • Many Buddhists go barefoot as a reminder to be concerned for Mother Nature, to lead people in the path of virtue, and to develop the Buddhist spirit.
  • Roman Catholics show respect and humility before the Pope by kissing his feet. 
  • In Judaism and some Christian denominations it is customary to go barefoot while mourning.
  • Anyone entering a mosque or a Hindu temple is expected to remove his or her shoes. Stealing shoes from such a place is often considered a desecration.
    • Hindus show love and respect to a guru by touching his bare feet. 
    • Lord Vishnu’s feet are believed to contain symbols such as conch, fish, and disc.
  • In many spiritual traditions, body and soul are connected by the soles of the feet.

Europe:

  • Wearing shoes indoors is often considered rude or unhygienic in Austria, UK, Ireland, Netherlands, and Belgium.
  • In Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal, wearing shoes indoors is expected.

Asian Countries:

  • Showing the soles of the feet is seen as an insult because the feet are seen as unclean (“You are lower than the soles of my feet”).
  • Shoes are seen as dirty and so are removed before entering a mosque, temple, or house.

China:

  • Take your shoes off when entering a house.
  • The practice of foot-binding began in the 10th century as a sign of wealth and beauty. It was outlawed by Empress Dowager Cixi in 1902 (though this was largely ignored) and successfully outlawed by Sun Yat-Sen in 1912.

Japan:

  • Never cross your feet in Japan.
  • Students take off their street shoes when entering school and wear uwabaki, soft-soled clean shoes, to the classroom. Street shoes are stored in special lockers by the school entrance.

Thailand:

  • A prisoner must be barefoot in court during penal proceedings.
  • Because the feet are the lowest part of the body, they are considered filthy.
    • Showing the soles of your feet is extremely rude, a big taboo at any time.
  • Remove your shoes before entering a school, temple, or home.
  • In some houses or schools, inside slippers (never worn outside) are allowed.

India:

  • Shoes are considered impure, so it is customary to remove footwear when entering a home or a temple.
  • Charanasparsha is a very common gesture of respect and subservience made by bowing and touching the feet of the (always superior in age and position) person being honored.

Australia:

  • It’s common for people, particularly young people, to go barefoot in public. In some regions, students attend school barefoot.

New Zealand:

  • Many people, of all races and cases, conduct daily business barefoot.
  • Barefoot is more common in rural areas and some seasons.

South Africa:

  • Walking barefoot in public is common among all ethnic groups, in rural and urban areas.
  • The National Guidelines on School Uniform lists shoes as an optional item.
  • Barefoot people are common in public, shopping malls, stores, and events.

Canada:

I assume everyone in Canada wears these all the time.
  • Take off shoes when entering a home.
  • Elementary schools require students to have indoor shoes and provide a place to store outdoor footwear. Outdoor shoes are worn in high schools.
  • Some medical facilities require patients to remove shoes for reasons of cleanliness.
  • Office workers usually wear indoor shoes in winter, outdoor shoes in summer.

United Kingdom:

  • Mostly in rural areas, children and teenagers are accepted.
  • Some schools encourage barefoot participation in indoor and outdoor physical education.
  • The National Health Service encourages people to go barefoot or wear open-toed sandals in hot weather to avoid sweaty, smelly feet.

United States:

  • Many children in rural areas, and/or those in poverty go barefoot.
  • More commonly, people wear shoes both outdoors and indoors.
  • Businesses that don’t prepare or serve food can determine dress codes that prohibit or allow bare feet.

Miscellaneous:

  • Fairies and magical creatures in several cultures leave no footprints. Checking for footprints is a common method of identifying supernatural creatures and avoiding mischief.
  • Before a baby learns to walk, stroking the bottom of their foot will cause their toes to curl up. After the baby learns to walk (and for the rest of their pedestrian life), stroking the bottom of their foot will cause their toes to curl down.
  • Ancient Egyptian believed that stepping forward with the left foot trod out evil so the heart could proceed.
  • The foot chakra is one of the most important, as it helps pass the Divine Energy to Mother Earth, making powerful grounding .
  • Having a foot fetish or kink means being sexually aroused by feet or certain parts thereof, such as toes, arches, ankles, etc.

Bottom line for writers: What are your characters’ attitudes and behaviors regarding feet and shoes? And why?

HERE’S TO HELLEBORES!

“Why hellebores?” Well might you ask. Because they are my favorite! And because they can be useful for your characters and plots.

When we moved to Ashland, Virginia, we bought an 1858 Greek Revival house on a double lot with old trees and daffodils and not much else. I searched for shade-loving, blooming, evergreen, low-maintenance plants. Voila! Hellebores. They are all of that plus, as a bonus, the blooming happens in winter and early spring.

Behold Hellebore niger, aka Christmas rose, a welcome sight come December. It’s pretty and reliable! The opening picture is from this year, New Year’s Eve. The picture just above is from 12/21/18.  Hellebore niger is the earliest blooming hellebore I’ve found.

Close on the heels of the Christmas rose is the Lenten rose (aka Hellebore orientalis) and its various hybrids. Please note: despite being called Christmas rose and Lenten rose, hellebores are only distantly related to the rose family. This picture of purple and double white hellebores is from March 3, 2019.

Although the flowers and foliage of most hellebores are similar, the Stinking hellebore (Hellebore foetidae) is distinctively different. Its leaves are narrow and knife-like, and cluster at the ends of stalks. The flowers are smaller and droopy, and mostly a pale green.

Hellebores bloom throughout the spring, in a riot of colors. They bloom until the heat of June or July do them in. At that point they drop seeds, and where they are happy, they spread into lovely clumps.

Although they need water during droughts, they are low maintenance. Prune browned-off leaves and dry flowers at will. There are supposed to be a couple of insects and a fungus or so that can attack them, but I’ve never had either. Animals—deer, rabbits, etc.—usually don’t chomp on hellebores because of the (dis)taste of the leaves.

So no wonder I (as well as real gardeners) love hellebores!  But why would a writer care?

All parts of all hellebores are toxic! 

Smart rabbits eat only non-toxic plants in your garden!

Somehow, this did not come to my attention when I wrote My Poison Garden last fall. (How could that have happened?)

Although poisoning is rare, it does occur through ingestion of large quantities, and it can be fatal.

  • Symptoms can include any of the following 
    • Burning of the mouth and throat
    • Excess salivation
    • Vomiting
    • Abdominal cramping
    • Diarrhea
    • Nerve system dysfunction
    • Possibly even depression!
  • The roots contain cardiac glycosides.
  • Leaves and sap contain high levels of ranunculin and protoanemonin.

How might a character be induced to ingest large quantities of a foul tasting plant? 

All you can eat ranunculin and protoanemonin!

Dermatitis is fairly common, caused by handling the plants without protection.  Contact with leaves, stems, flowers, and sap can cause irritation and burning on the skin. Minimal exposure should cause a mild, short-lived irritation and can be treated by washing with soap and water. How might a scene be affected by a character suffering contact dermatitis?

This is a hellebore that is black, not a Black hellebore.

Although hybrids that look nearly black have been developed, historically Black hellebore is another name for Hellebore niger, the white blooming Christmas rose. Black hellebore was used by the the ancient Greeks and Romans to treat paralysis, gout, insanity, and other diseases.  Beware: it can also cause tinnitus, vertigo, stupor, thirst, difficulty breathing, vomiting, catharsis, slowing of the heart rate, including collapse and death from cardiac arrest. Not quite so serious: can cause burning of the eyes, mouth, and throat; or oral ulceration, gastroenteritis, a hematemesis. Could the toxicity of hellebores create an illusion of a chronic disease or disorder of unknown origin?

Folklore and legend vary from the sacred to the dark arts. Could your plot take elements from these?

  • According to legend, a young girl who had no gift to give the Christ child in Bethlehem wept, and her tears falling into the snow sprouted the Christmas rose.
  • Witches are reputed to use hellebores in summoning demons.
  • Heracles/ Hercules killed his children in a fit of madness but was cured by using hellebore.
  • Greek besiegers of Kirrha (585 BC) used hellebore to poison the city’s water supply, overcoming the defenders weakened by diarrhea.

Bottom line for gardeners and writers: get thee hellebores!

Poisonous flowers make lovely Christmas cards!

THE ORIGINAL TWO-FACE

painting by Tommy Grist

No news here: January is named for the ancient Roman deity Janus

Although the date on which the new year “begins” has bounced around a bit (including Christmas, March 1, March 25, and Easter in the Christian calendar) the month of January has always been associated with Janus, the personification of transition and reflection.

The Janus Gates in Rome were traditionally opened in times of war and closed in times of peace.

In Ancient Rome, Janus was associated with doorways, gates, arches, and temporal transitions. Two faces on a single neck, facing opposite directions, represent his ability to see both past and future. His double face has also been seen as representing the end and the beginning of the year.

Another symbol of the new year from Roman and Greek mythology is the image of Jupiter/ Zeus slaying his father Saturn/ Kronos with a scythe. In doing so, according to legend, he freed his siblings and allowed a new generation of gods to assume control.

In short, there is a long tradition of the transition to a new year being an occasion to review the year(s) past and contemplate the year ahead. 

Writers: consider the character who mourns the loss of the year past, who dreads the year ahead—or both. By its very nature, a transition involves uncertainty, vulnerability, and promise.

Improve your ability to break out of jail, just like the comic book Janus!

Recently, my youngest daughter texted, “I’m not a big fan of resolutions. (In my mind they always seem to a passive aggressive indictment of who you are—you should be better!) But I do like to look back on the past year and set goals for the next. I guess it’s semantics, really.” Semantics or not, I think it says a lot about how one approaches the new year: a time to fix, repair, improve or as an opportunity to accomplish something(s).

And that brings me to the Sankofa bird. (There is a second symbol of Sankofa, a stylized heart, but here I will focus on the bird because of its parallels with Janus.) Sankofa is a word in the Twi language of Ghana that translates loosely as “Go back and get it.” The basic elements of the Sankofa bird symbol are a plump bird whose body and feet face forward, long swan-like neck burns the head backwards, and an egg either on the bird’s back or in its mouth.

Even the loose translation from Twi can be interpreted several ways:

  • Go back and get it
  • Look, see, and take
  • Learn from the past
  • Looking back to look forward
  • Recognizing the knowledge and experiences of those who helped you achieve what you have
  • It is not an abomination to return and take what you forgot
  • All of these have basically the same meaning: gather good lessons from the past and use them to achieve future goals.
The Sankofa African Dance and Drum Ensemble

Bottom line for writers: Possible transitions for your characters are infinite: new job, relationship, location, loss of a loved one, landmark birthday, etc. Most years are a mix of good and bad: which weighs more heavily in your character’s review? Is s/he approaching the new year (or the time ahead) with hope and energy? Is s/he learning from the past or stymied by it?

2020 seems a perfect time to bring Janus and Sankofa into your characters’ lives!

GREETINGS!

The first known pre-printed Christmas card was published in London in 1843, for Sir Henry Cole to send to family and friends.

We in the U.S. are highly aware of greeting cards at this time of year—both the receiving and the sending. Dunbar and Hill (2003) conducted a study on social networks by studying Christmas card lists. They found that each household receives about 150 Christmas Cards, and sends an average of about 68 cards. Clearly, people are receiving more than they give! (Don’t ask me to explain how those numbers work.) The study did not include cards for Hanukkah, Solstice, Yule, Kwanzaa, and New Years, but all of these together make for a very busy Postal Service throughout December.

Since holiday-specific greeting cards are so widespread in the US at the moment, it’s worth taking a moment to think of how they might feature in your writing. If you’re already sick of holiday cheer, just wait for St. Valentine’s Day to be shoved down your throat!

Motivation Behind Christmas Cards  

According to my reading, Sir Henry Cole (see above) resorted to creating Christmas Cards because he had too many friends to write individual notes. I venture to assert that the time crunch is still a major factor in sending a greeting card rather than a letter. But that leaves open the question of who gets on someone’s card list in the first place. I seem to recall that once upon a time, cards were for people seldom seen—and thus unavailable to greet personally. Today?

  • Family
  • Friends
  • Neighbors
  • Work colleagues
  • Clients
  • Church family
  • Teachers
  • Students
  • Doctors/ nurses
  • Residents of nursing homes or hospitals
  • Active military
  • Members of social groups
  • Those who sent cards last year
  • That one person you don’t really like but gets a card just so you can use up the last of the 12-pack of cards you bought

This increasingly vague list leaves plenty of room for confusion and accidentally hurt feelings. Consider someone who sends a card but doesn’t receive one in return. Consider a child arguing with a parent over whether online cards are a suitable replacement for paper cards. If you really want to jerk some tears, consider an elderly character sending out cards to peers and seeing the list shrink a little more every year.

What Type of Card?

There is a huge variety of cards available, and the type of card sent could reveal as much about a character as the people they send those cards to. Religious ones, humorous ones, nature scenes, musical ones, pop-up ones. The first personalized Christmas card was sent in 1891 by Annie Oakley. She was doing sharp-shooter exhibitions in Scotland and sent cards back to friends and family in the U.S. featuring her picture—wearing tartan!

Should a character send a generic card with vaguely wintry scenes and vague wishes for general well-being? What about a character sending explicitly religious cards to recipients of a different faith or no faith at all? Why would a character choose to make dozens of cards by hand rather than grabbing a box off the drugstore shelf? Some families include newsletters with the card, letting friends and families know what they’ve been doing since last year’s holiday card. Why would a character send newsletters or photo collage cards?

Meaning of Holiday Cards for the Recipient 

When I was growing up, my mother, aunts, etc., knew exactly how many cards they received and how many they sent—sort of like being able to cite how many trick-or-treaters came by on Halloween. Christmas cards were typically displayed on stair banisters, windowsills, archways, mantels, etc. 

Could receiving holiday cards be a bad or unpleasant experience? What about a character receiving a card from someone they dislike? How about siblings or friends who see messages of boasting and rivalry in personalized cards? What might a character think after sending out dozens of cards and receiving none in return? How would someone who hates the entire holiday season react to all those reminders in the mail?

According to anthropologists, the number of holiday cards you receive reflects how many people care about you. That’s the premise of a 2003 study of social network size carried out by evolutionary anthropologists Robin Hill of the University of Durham and Robin Dunbar of Oxford and published in the journal Human Nature.  “In Western societies…the exchange of Christmas cards represents the one time of year when individuals make an effort to contact all those individuals within their social network whose relationships they value.”

Maybe I’m just being defensive, but I refuse to measure my circle of caring family and friends by the handful of seasonal greetings I receive. Just saying.

Holiday Cards are Big Business

Getting a definite count is tricky, depending on the year and what cards are included in the count. For example, one study asserted that 6.5 billion greeting cards are bought each year, at a total cost of more than U.S. $7 billion.  On the other hand, sales of holiday cards in the U.S. dropped from 1.8 billion in 2009 to 1.5 billion in 2011. Christmas Cards account for 61% of seasonal greeting card sales, followed by St. Valentine’s Day at a distant second of 25%.

And that doesn’t even include the USPS revenue! Imagine what a postal worker, especially a letter carrier, thinks about all that extra volume moving around the country. Both of the holidays most frequently celebrated with extra paper and postage happen during some of the most unpleasant weather. Do the holiday bonuses outweigh the extra weight in the satchel?

2019 UNICEF cards

And FYI: only 15% of cards are bought by men. Millions of dollars are raised for charities by Christmas Cards each year. For example, UNICEF launched their charity Christmas card program in 1949. Schools, research institutions, hospitals, food banks, and lots of other community organizations raise funds by selling holiday cards.

Some organizations also send cards to donors to encourage continued support the following year. Does it really count as a holiday greeting if it’s a reminder to send a check?

Well, I seem to have been caught up in a seasonal issue.  But bottom line for writers: what are your character’s attitudes and behaviors regarding holiday greeting cards?  Any phenomenon as ubiquitous as this can contribute to your characters and/or plots.

It’s the 5th night of Hanukkah!

INSIDE A MIND WITH PTSD

Today’s blog is written by a fellow writer who wishes to remain anonymous for privacy reasons.

Among the many odd things I’ve done in my life, one that has had the most lasting impact is being a linguistic and cultural ambassador posted to a country that shall remain nameless here. Because of various regional disputes, a massive prison outbreak, less-than-polite national elections and regime changes, and a general culture of aggressiveness, I found myself living in conditions that were much more dangerous than I’d been led to expect.

When I eventually returned home, among the souvenirs and keepsakes I brought back with me, I found in my luggage a serious case of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). As Vivian’s blog is for writers and writing, I thought perhaps a guided tour inside the warped and broken mind of a person with PTSD might be of interest to you all.

Please keep hands and arms inside the cart at all times, and don’t feed the negativity gremlins as we go past.

Very Important Disclaimer: Neither Vivian Lawry nor this guest author are psychiatric professionals or are qualified to provide medical assistance. The information contained herein is not intended to be used for diagnostic or treatment purposes in any way, shape, or form.

This is basically what the inside of my mind looks like.
(It’s actually the Soul Cairn from the Dawnstar plug-in to Elder Scrolls IV: Skyrim by Bethesda.)

Before the ride begins in earnest, you can look to your left for some basic information about PTSD. The most common association people have with PTSD is of veterans of military combat, but it can result from many different experiences, including natural disasters, abusive relationships, assault (sexual or otherwise), prolonged insecurity, traffic collisions, and so on. People can even develop second-hand PTSD from witnessing these events in other people’s lives. A patient may develop PTSD immediately after an event, but sometimes symptoms don’t appear until well after the event itself.

Common symptoms of PTSD. As soon as I can cultivate a substance abuse problem, I’ll have BINGO! (That’s how it works, right?)

With all of these possibilities, there are loads of ways in which the inclusion of a character experiencing PTSD can enrich, complicate, drive, or drive, or even resolve your writing. There is a lot of information available about the causes and effects of PTSD, but remember that each case is different. Every person will have different triggers, coping mechanisms, involuntary reactions, etc.

You may notice the cart shaking violently as we enter the tunnel; this is simply the result of uneven neural pathways, nothing to be alarmed about.

As a writer and a reader, I’ve found myself thinking of ways in which my warped thoughts and behaviors could fit in with other common narrative techniques. I have also found some absolutely infuriating stories out there in which a character has a traumatic experience (usually rape or sexual assault) simply so the hero can come to the rescue or to establish a villain as a villain… and victimized character goes right back to skipping through the tulips. Don’t be that writer!

If you look out on either side of the cart, you may be able to make out (through the erratic strobe lights and general gloom) a few of the ways common behaviors of characters with PTSD could be very useful in your writing. Please remember that these are only glimpses from one mind and do not necessarily reflect every patient. Also, hold on to the lap bar as there are some sharp curves coming up.

Unreliable Narrator: What I see and hear is always filtered through the PTSD in my mind. If a story is told from the point of view of a character with PTSD, this is a good way to demonstrate the disconnect from reality. If another character is getting information from a character with PTSD, it could skew everyone’s opinions and affect the plot moving forward.

What it feels like to walk down the street.
  • Social interactions are a minefield of side-stepping physical attacks (handshakes, hugs, pats on the back).
  • Random strangers only ever approach me with violent intentions, such as petting my dog, asking me to reach something off a high shelf, or walking past me on a narrow sidewalk.
  • People waiting in parked cars are obviously armed, most likely on the lookout for potential victims.
  • Anyone who stands in a doorway must be trying to block the exit or prevent escape.
  • An approach from behind must be someone trying to sneak up on me, and anyone who surprises me from behind is an attacker and will be punched.
  • This isn’t helped by chronic sleep deprivation giving me the same symptoms as early-onset Alzheimer’s: How can I be trusted to provide accurate information when I lose time and forget everything?

Mistaken Motivations: Objectively, I know there is nothing wrong with mental illness, nor should there be any shame attached. Still, I try to hide it or play it off as no big deal. As a result, family, friends, and strangers all have reason to assume my coping behaviors are something very different. Having a character reveal midway through or near the end of a story that their actions were motivated by coping mechanisms could be a plot twist, a clue for investigators, a reset of other characters’ attitudes, or plenty of other ways of adding narrative interest.

  • Friends frequently ask if I’m cold because I can’t stop shaking.
  • Constantly scanning for threats and possible exits sometimes makes me look like I’m trying to find someone or looking for an excuse to leave a boring conversation.
  • Being hyper-vigilant in general makes me look twitchy, itchy, over-caffeinated, or paranoid, depending on who is providing their opinion.
  • My brother thought he’d done something to offend me when I repeatedly moved away from him or left the room when he entered.
  • After I repeatedly panicked and cancelled plans at the last minute, many friends thought I was just blowing them off.
  • Arriving late to social gatherings, hiding in the corner, and leaving early have all led acquaintances to assume I’m too stuck-up to mingle.
  • To make it through particularly important events that I cannot miss, I’ve sometimes taken extra doses of anti-anxiety medication. My slurred speech, unfocused gaze, less than ideal balance, and inability to follow conversation looks an awful lot like I’ve shown up to the baptism or wedding drunk as a skunk.
  • I escape to the bathroom a lot when things get overwhelming, sometimes for extended periods of time. Most of my family now thinks I have severe digestive issues.

Affects in My Life: In order to be diagnosed as a disorder (the D in PTSD) a patient must have symptoms severe enough to disrupt their ability to live a normal life. A character who develops PTSD midway through a narrative would almost certainly show changes in behaviors. These are some of mine.

This is perfectly normal.
  • Chronic insomnia and nightmares: Years later, I still sleep in a separate room from my spouse, with the lights on, with distracting or soothing music playing… and I still manage to wake the household at least once a month by screaming in my sleep.
  • My ability to concentrate and complete tasks on time severely impacted my job. Twice, I responded to a coworker trying to get my attention by panicking and attacking them. Going into the office grew increasingly difficult as it became harder to leave the house. I am now unemployed.
  • Weeks at a time go by when I cannot leave my house, even to go into the backyard. I feel threatened every time I open the door.
  • Side effects from different medications I’ve tried have included weight gain, headaches, heartburn, memory loss, drowsiness, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseam. These could also be examples of mistaken motivations!
  • I no longer participate in hobbies I once did, especially anything that involves leaving the house or interacting with other people.
  • Suicide and suicide attempts are very common among patients with PTSD.

Anxiety Attacks, Panic Attacks, and Flashbacks: These can be triggered by almost anything, depending on the person and the situation. Smelling cigarette smoke, walking on an icy sidewalk, being in a room of people speaking another language I only halfway understand… any of these can send me spiraling. Being under stress increases the chance that something will hit that switch.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we’d like to remind you at this time that motion sickness bags can be found under your seats and to hold on tightly.

It doesn’t look quite as cute when I do it.
  • Anxiety or Panic Attack: It’s really bizarre to be terrified and not know why. Why is my heart racing? Why can’t I breathe? Why can I not stop screaming? When I have an anxiety attack, I don’t think rationally but I can speak and respond to people around me. When I have a panic attack, it feels like I’m about to die. I can’t feel anything but the absolute terror that completely takes over my body. Usually, I am able to leave a situation when I feel one of these about to happen so that I can mentally implode in the peace and quiet of a public urinal.
  • Flashback: These are even more bizarre. Anxiety attacks often segue into flashbacks. I am completely unaware of my surroundings and respond to threats that are long gone. I’ll switch languages to talk to people who aren’t there; I’ll be able to smell the food or feel the cold from specific memories. Sometimes, I have flashbacks that aren’t tied to precise events, more an amalgamation of similar threats that get lumped together in my head. It’s very embarrassing to come out of it and realize that I’m hiding behind a clothes rack in Target, desperately fighting off the attack of a stiff coat sleeve.

Treatment Options: There are many different types of treatments for PTSD, with varying degrees of accessibility, cost, success, and side effects. I’ve tried just about everything: some worked, some did not, some worked at first and then stopped. I can’t stress enough that every person will respond differently to different treatments. The information here is simply what undergoing the treatments felt like for me.

He still can’t change the printer cartridges.
  • Therapy Animal: My dog trained himself to be a therapy dog because he was just that awesome. Before I was eventually laid off, my boss let me bring my dog into the office with me. He learned to impose himself between me and anyone getting too close to my personal space. When I had anxiety attacks, he’d put his head in my lap and nudge my hand until I pet him. Focusing on the feeling of his fur, his cold nose, his super stinky breath worked to calm me down and remind me that I was safe. He passed away in April, and it felt like going through all the trauma again.
  • TMS (Trans-Cranial Magnetic Stimulation): It felt a bit like sitting in the dentist’s chair while a woodpecker tapped on my head. I went every day for three months, and the only side effect was a minor headache when I first started.
  • EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing): My eyesight is so bad that I couldn’t do the actual eye movement part of it; I held a buzzer in each hand and felt the vibrations in alternating hands at different speeds. In each session, I relived particularly traumatic events over and over while the therapist guided me through sense memories and varied the speed of the buzzing. By the time the hour was up, I was usually an exhausted, damp, shaking mess running to the bathroom to vomit.
  • Medication: I think by now I’ve tried every different medication type on the market. I can’t even pronounce most of them and have to stutter and hope at the pharmacy. Most gave some relief for a little while and then stopped working.
    • There is now a way in which doctors can send a sample of your DNA to a lab, where people in white coats and shiny goggles can magically determine which medicines will or won’t work for you. I have no idea how they do it; I assume it involves cauldrons and eyes or tails of newts.
  • Ketamine: I was very hesitant to try this method because there have been so few long-term studies. When I started, I went in every day for a week and a half. After that, I went in every three to four weeks depending on how the doctor thinks I’m doing. Ketamine treatment is available through aerosol or intravenously. I sit in a comfy chair with a needle in my arm for about an hour while geometry loses all meaning and everything becomes either fascinating or hilarious. Everything in the universe swirls in front of my face, and the feeling of my hair is the most amazing sensation I can remember. According to the nurse, I tend to wax rhapsodic about how much I love every person who comes through the door. For some reason, they won’t let me drive afterwards!
  • Healing Crystals/ Salt Lamps/ Essential Oils: I had a lumpy pillow, a pink wall, and everything tasted like lavender.
  • PTSD is expensive!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour through the mess inside my head. Please wait for the ride to come to a complete stop before unbuckling safety harnesses. Be sure to gather all personal items and take them with you as you exit down the ramp to your right. Don’t forget to check the photo booth for a hilarious souvenir memento of your trip. You can also find resources for actual help; as I’m sure you remember, this has just been an example of some personal experiences for your writing toolbox.

SIX FEET UNDER – OR NOT (ILLEGAL EDITION)

In my last blog, I explored ways in which human corpses can legally be disposed of before they start to get whiffy. Or after they’ve gotten a bit whiffy. But what if a body needs to be disposed of without attracting the attention of certain authority figures? Never fear! There are plenty of options available for what I’m sure is your perfectly legitimate reason for secretly removing a corpse.

Why Dispose of a Body Illegally? 

  • To prevent, hinder, or delay discovery of the body
  • To prevent identification of the body
  • To prevent autopsy
  • To avoid causing changes in things lie pension payments, social security, insurance payouts, etc. that may be affected by death or the cause of death (e.g., suicide or illegal activities)

Animals Love People

Never Trust a Pig Farmer

To quote Snatch’s Brick Top, “[Pigs] will go through bone like butter.” You can find lots of stories online about pigs eating their owners who collapsed inside the pig enclosure, and of serial killers who disposed of victims this way. Pigs offer both speed and thoroughness. How fast and how thorough? An average American man is 5’9” and carries 195.5 pounds of flesh and bone. For a hungry pig, that’s a week, maybe a week and a half of munching.

With impeccable table manners, of course!

How long it takes for the body to be turned into unidentifiable pig manure depends on the size of the dead body and of the pig. A general estimation for how much food a pig eats is about 5–6 pounds per 100 pounds of pig every day. The weight range for a domestic pig is around 110–770 pounds, but the heaviest recorded pig tipped the scales at 2552 pounds. So the range is 5–150 pounds a day.

Taking the average of everything—the average human body weighs 137 pounds, the average pig is 440 pounds, eating 5.5 pounds per 100 pounds of body-weight, means 24.2 pounds consumed per day—yields 137/24.2 = 5.66 days for the average pig eating an average amount consuming the average human body. But according to a Canadian agriculture development agency, fully grown boars don’t eat nearly as much as lactating sows, which can eat 10-14 pounds in one sitting.


To be as efficient as possible (and kind to the pigs) remove the parts they can’t digest: hair and teeth, and cut the body into pieces.

Feed it to the ‘Gators

That’s a watermelon, not blood.

Another animal that can be quite helpful for disposing of a body is the alligator. Like pigs, alligators have no problem eating any kind of meat they can get their teeth on. Because alligators are cold-blooded, their feeding habits and digestive rates vary with the temperature outside, so this method of illegal corpse removal is largely limited to very hot regions of the world.

Although alligators are much less likely to attack humans than Hollywood would like you to believe, they are perfectly happy to eat meat that stays still. When available, human carrion suits them just fine.

As with pigs, it is safest to remove identifying markers like teeth and hair, as well as bits that are most likely to break off and wash up where they can be found (hands and feet, fingers and toes). Chop up the rest into chunks an alligator can swallow in one gulp, and toss it all into the scrum.

The movie based on the life of Joe Ball,

Perhaps the most notorious criminal to use this particular method of hiding the bodies was Joe Ball, eventually known as the “Bluebeard of Texas” or simply “Alligator Man.” In the early part of the twentieth century, he is known to have killed at least two and possibly as many as twenty women and fed their bodies to his pet alligators. Joe Ball shot himself rather than be taken in by the police, so the exact details remain speculative.

But he’s not the only one! In 2018, a woman in Fort Bend, Texas was convicted of trying to feed her victim’s body to alligators. A Spring Break partier was abducted and allegedly dumped in an alligator swamp in 2009. Her body was never found.

Illegal disposal of bodies in water—to dispose of the evidence?

Underwater Sculpture by Jason deClairs Taylor
(Not actual mafia hits)
  • Dumping in a river, hoping it will wash away, is the method most likely to be quickly discovered because the body gets washed up on the river bank or hung up on some obstacle—or is seen just floating.
  • A large lake or ocean is more likely to hide the body, if it is properly weighed down. Even so, the body may wash ashore, get caught in fishing nets or lines, or be discovered by divers.
  • Swamps have the double benefit of being largely impassable and having a plethora of bacteria and scavenging animals to aid in decomposition.
These are the cement shoes they’re always talking about, right?
  • Weighing bodies:
    • the Mafia is infamous for encasing the feet of victims in concrete;
    • a variation on that is attaching concrete blocks to the body;
    • the Chicago overcoat involves wrapping heavy chains around the victim;
    • in Venice, barrels filled with a human body and concrete are sometimes found in the canals.

Methods of illegal disposal used in actual cases and in fiction (according to Wikipedia):

  • Illegal use of conventional methods, commonly burial in a place unlikely to draw attention, or water disposal (e.g. Cleveland Torso Murderer)
  • Dissolution was used by Jeffrey Dahmer, smashing or dissolving the skeleton
  • Cannibalism (e.g. Jeffrey Dahmer)
  • Grinding into small pieces for disposal in nature, disposal via a sewer system, or use as fertilizer
  • Boiling (used by Futoshi Matsunaga and Dennis Nilsen)
  • Encasing in concrete (e.g. murder of Junko Furuta)
  • Hiding in trash or landfill (e.g. murder of David Stackdisappearance of Natalee Holloway)
  • Feeding to animals (e.g. pigs or flesh-eating insects; used by Ted Bundy and Robert Pickton)
  • Abandonment in an area where the body can degrade significantly before being discovered, if ever, such as a remote area (e.g. West Mesa murders), cave, abandoned well, abandoned mine, or a neglected or hazardous third-party property (known as a dump job); sometimes dropped in an easily discovered but out-of-the-way location to obscure the identity of the murderer (e.g. Fountain Avenue, Brooklyn)
  • Dropping into a destructive or impassible natural hazard, such as a volcano, quicksand, or crevasse
  • Destruction by industrial process, such as machinery, chemical bath, molten metal, or a junked car
  • Injection into the legitimate body disposal system (e.g. morgue, funeral home, cemetery, crematorium, funeral pyre, cadaver donation) or killings at a health care facility (e.g. Ann Arbor Hospital Murders and Dr. X killings)
  • Burning, often in a building (e.g. possibly the Clinton Avenue Five)
  • Disguising as animal flesh (e.g. abattoir, food waste, food; as Katherine Knight did)
  • Attachment to a vehicle travelling to a distant place
  • Creating false evidence of the circumstances of death and letting investigators dispose of the body, possibly obscuring identity
  • Indefinite storage (e.g. in a freezer or refrigerator, as in the murder of Paul Marshall Johnson, Jr.)
Surveillance footage allegedly showing two people dumping the body of a third on a street in Harlem.

When I started this blog, I envisioned a few headings, each with a few bullets below. But it just grew! I hope it held your personal interest and/or generated some plot ideas!

In Scotland, cadaver dogs are trained to sniff out corpses underwater. Don’t try dumping bodies in Loch Ness, because this fluffy giant will find it. And you.

FUNNY FIXATION OR OCD?

OCD, like love and hate, is a label thrown around pretty loosely, often for humorous effect. People with fixations on organization, precise routines, hygiene, perfectionism, etc. are frequently referred to as “acting so OCD” or “showing their inner OCD.” Marketing campaigns turn OCD into a punchline to sell products like Obsessive Christmas Disorder pajamas or Khlo-CD organizational apps.

Hilarious, no?

There is a significant difference between people with odd quirks and people who have a diagnosable mental illness. Both can be useful characters for writers, albeit in very different ways. Characters who have fixations, quirks, rituals, or habits that interrupt a scene or cause awkward situations can be a source of amusement for writers. Characters who actually have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can be a source of tension, tragedy, or demonstrated compassion for writers, but the actual mental illness is not amusing.

Confusing retail workers is a sign of having too much time on one’s hands rather than having a debilitating mental illness. (Disclaimer: This blog is not affiliated with any retail chain or candy brand.)

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, recurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions that s/he feels the urge to repeat over and over). The line between having a personality quirks and a mental disorder can be hard to find, but it generally comes down to quality of life. Dr. Steven Brodsky points out that actual OCD will “impair social or occupational function or involve frequent excessive distress” in the lives of those suffering from it.

  • Obsessions—repeated thoughts, urges, or mental images—are private, and thus no one knows about them but the person unless they’re talked about. These uncomfortable thoughts cause anxiety.
  • Compulsions are typically (but not always) public, as is any behavior that happens the presence of others. The repetitive behaviors are an attempt to deal with the anxiety the obsessive thoughts create.

Could you benefit from an O and/or C character? Although people/characters can exhibit symptoms of obsessions, compulsions, or both, thoughts and behaviors typically occur together. See the end of this blog for specific prompts.

Detective Adrian Monk from Monk, Physicist Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, and Chef Monica Geller from Friends

Consider Monk, The Big Bang Theory, and Friends. All three shows feature characters who exhibit signs of obsessions and compulsive behaviors, usually to the sound of the laugh-track. All three characters are referred to by others as “obsessive,” “OCD,” or some variation thereof, but none experience the pain that comes along with mental illness (which I can only imagine would be heightened by hearing laughing crowds).

Obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors become part of a vicious cycle in the minds of people with OCD. Most people with OCD realize that their thoughts and behaviors are irrational, but they are unable to break the cycle. Children often don’t perceive their abnormality; symptoms are noticed by parents and/or teachers.

In contrast, “neat freaks” and people with fixations often enjoy performing the behavior in question (such as alphabetizing books), enjoy the results (such as having a tidy apartment), have had the behavior drummed into them (such as rewinding video tapes after working at Blockbuster for years [I realize that I’m dating myself]), or out of practical necessity.

An over-organized closet may be a necessity for a working mother of two, saving endless headaches on school mornings.

Most People with OCD Fall Into One of the Following Categories (in no particular order)

  • Washers are afraid of contamination. They usually have cleaning or hand-washing compulsions. Many refuse to wear anything someone else has worn, take their own sheets to hotels/motels, etc.
    • Washing your hands before and after eating is just being extra hygienic; washing your hands until they are raw and cracked is a probable sign of OCD.
Artwork by NeverStayDead
  • Checkers repeatedly check things (motion-sensor lights turned on, car locked) they associate with safety. They might keep guns or other weapons that are checked for accessibility, condition, etc.
    • Jiggling the door handle after locking it could be a funny quirk; checking the lights, the thermostat, the window latches, and everything else repeatedly until you’re late for work is a sign of unhealthy compulsion.
  • Doubters and sinners are afraid that if everything isn’t perfect or done just so something terrible will happen or they will be punished. Dressing, undressing, bathing, eating must be done in precisely the same way, for example. Or furniture cannot be moved. Cars must always be the same make.
    • This can also take the form of rituals that must be completed regardless of convenience or safety, such as always taking seven steps at a time or touching every surface in a room, including the hot stove top.
  • Counters and arrangers are obsessed with order and symmetry, perhaps including superstitions about certain numbers, colors, or arrangements. For example, counting all the angles in a room, or the number of furniture legs.
    • Being unable to enter rooms painted blue or walk without counting sets of four steps sounds amusing… until the door out of the burning house is in a blue room five steps away.
  • Hoarders keep things they neither need nor use. They fear that getting rid of anything will cause something bad to happen, or it will be needed later. These people are often co-diagnosed with other disorders, such as depression, PTSD, ADHD, compulsive buying, or kleptomania. They might engage in skin-picking.

OCD symptoms may come and go over time. Added stressors increase symptoms.

It’s a vicious circle: obsessive thoughts trigger anxiety, which leads to compulsive behavior to try to curb the anxiety, and the behavior is followed by temporary relief.

Writers consider the following:

  • A person who actually is threatened in some way while others dismiss the anxiety and precautions as being silly fixations
  • A character whose compulsive behaviors are humorous and the source of derision/ joking among coworkers or friends/ acquaintances
  • A character whose compulsive behaviors embarrass children or other family members
  • A person whose compulsive behaviors put the family in financial jeopardy
  • A person whose compulsive behavior leads neighbors, classmates, and others to ostracize the person AND his/her family
  • A character who keeps obsessive thoughts private, doesn’t act on them, and the strain leads to withdrawal from intimate relationships
  • A character whose obsessions get them into medical or legal trouble
  • A character whose OCD has become so severe that they are unable to leave the house or keep a job

Bottom line for writers: OCD characters can provide tension, tragedy, and plot development; fixated or quirky characters can provide humor. There is a big difference.

YOU SAY “SQUIRRELLY” LIKE IT’S A BAD THING!

Writers take note: a squirrelly character could be an excellent choice!

Squirrel Traits and Characteristics directly relevant to humans:

  • Active: Squirrels are always on the go, climbing, running, jumping, chasing other squirrels. Their bodies are made for action, so they are seldom seen sitting quietly.
  • Fast: They move quickly and have fast reaction times, responding immediately to alarm calls, for example.
  • Resourceful: Squirrels gather food year round and store enough for winter. They take advantage of varied sources of food and shelter.

Squirrel origins. The word “squirrel” appeared as early as 1327.  Archaeological evidence indicates that squirrels originated in this (Virginia/Carolina) region of North America some 35-40 million years ago. Modern squirrels are divided into some 289 species. I’m going to focus on Eastern Gray Squirrels for two reasons: (1) they are the most numerous group; and (2) those are the ones in my back yard!

Squirrel habitat. Gray squirrels are tree-dweller. They build nests (called dreys) in the forks of tree branches. They use twigs and leaves, sometimes take over bird’s nests, or inhabit a permanent den hollowed out in the trunk or large branch of a tree. Wherever the nest, it is likely lined with moss, thistledown, dry grass, and feather insulation.

When access can be gained, they will take up residence in the walls or attics of houses—the scrabbling around driving the human inhabitants nuts, resulting in extreme (and often expensive) efforts to get rid of the invaders and block future access. But it’s worth it, because among other things, squirrels gnaw on electrical cords creating a fire hazard.

Consider the factors shaping your character’s habitat.

Squirrel diet. Squirrels are predominantly vegetarian, eating tree buds, berries, many types of seeds and acorns, nuts (walnuts, peanuts, hazelnuts, and others) and some types of  woods fungi. They can damage trees by tearing the bark and eating the soft tissue underneath. They raid gardens for tomatoes, corn, strawberries, and other garden crops. They cannot digest cellulose.

What I find especially frustrating, they often don’t actually eat what they damage, merely taking a bite or two and leaving the rest. Sometimes they eat tomato seeds and leave the pulp. They’ve been known to nibble my decorative pumpkins, taking a few bites and returning over time to take a few more bites, each time nibbling in a fresh spot.

If driven to it by hunger or other conditions, they prey upon insects, frogs, small rodents (including other squirrels), small birds, birds’ eggs. They will gnaw on bones, antlers, and turtle shells, possibly as a source of minerals scarce in their normal diet.

When opportunity arises, they will raid bird feeders for millet, corn, sunflower seeds, etc. Hanging out around bird feeders means opportunistic squirrels are perfectly situated in the middle of a relatively high bird population, increasing their ability to raid nests, eggs, and nestlings.

What characterizes your character’s diet—and why?  Omnivore, herbivore, carnivore. Exploratory, picky. Eat to live, live to eat.
Gray squirrels are scatter-hoarders.  They hoard food in numerous small caches for later recovery. Each squirrel is estimated to make several thousand caches each season! Recent research indicates that squirrels can remember and recover up to 90% of the food they bury. This is probably a combination of excellent spatial memory and sense of smell.

The amount of food they have to hide no doubt explains why squirrels are constantly digging in my patio pots and flower beds! Even as I type they are uprooting pansies and breaking off the green stalks that would otherwise become daffodils.

Is your character a hoarder? Of what? Where? How?
Squirrels are smart and devious.  In order to keep other animals from digging up their food caches, they sometimes pretend to bury it. They prepare the spot as usual, pretend to put the food in while actually concealing it in their mouths, and then covering the hole as if the food were there. They also hide behind vegetation while burying food or hide it high up in trees. These behaviors appeared to be learned.

How does your character treat coworkers? Family? Friends?

Reproduction.  Grey squirrels can breed twice a year when fully mature (if food is abundant), once in the spring for younger females. These squirrels are polygynousi.e., competing males form a hierarchy of dominance and the female mates with multiple males depending on the hierarchy. Five days before a female enters estrus, she may attract up to 34 males from up to 500 meters away.

Typically one to four kits are born in each litter, hairless, blind, and deaf. They begin to leave the nest around 12 weeks. Only 25% of the kits survives to one year of age. More than half die the next year. After that, mortality is about 30% of the survivors per year.  An adult typically lives about 6 years in the wild, though it can be as many as 12.

Communication. Squirrels use both sounds and body language to communicate. They squeak, utter a low-pitched noise, a chatter, a raspy “mehr mehr mehr” as well as “kuk” or “quaa” (vocals warning of predators). Biologists describe an affectionate coo-purring sound used between a mother and her kits and by males when they court a female during mating season.

Squirrels also communicate by tail-flicking, facial expressions, and other gestures. The relative reliance on vocal versus physical signals depends on ambient noise and sight-lines.

Human communication: verbal (the words said), paralanguage (how it’s said), and body language (posture, gesture, facial expression)

And one very special talent. Gray squirrels are one of very few mammalian species that can descend a tree head-first. It does this by rotating its back feet 180 degrees so the backward-facing claws can grip the tree bark. The benefit of this ability isn’t limited to trees. Squirrels are incredibly athletic, jumping among tree limbs or from trees to other object, and gasping with both front and back paws allows them to climb slim poles and hang both upside-down and right-side-up. In my back yard, and I presume other places, a tree branch bouncing and swinging in the morning sun is the signal that a squirrel is about to jump from the tree to the bird feeder—where it grasps whatever comes first to hand.

The beauty of gray squirrels. Gray squirrels have silky fur and bushy tails. They have predominantly gray fur with a white underside, but (like the gray wolf) can exhibit colors variations: brownish, black, and white. Squirrels that are almost entirely black predominant in certain geographic areas, specifically in the north, where it appears that their dark color is a survival adaptation to cold temperatures.

Albinos are present throughout nature, including among gray squirrels. Albinos squirrels have pure white fur with red eyes. White squirrels, on the other hand, are a genetic variation of the eastern gray squirrel, white but usually with a small patch of gray head patch and dorsal stripe. AND it has dark eyes.

In general, white squirrels are at a disadvantage, rejected by other squirrels and easily sighted by predators. However, in certain geographic areas, humans have taken a hand and allow white squirrels to thrive: Brevard, North Carolina; Marionville, Missouri, Olney, Illinois; Kenton, Tennessee; and Exeter, Ontario. The premier location seems to be Brevard, where one in three squirrels is white, the highest percentage white of any known squirrel colony. In 1986, Brevard passed an ordinance making the city a sanctuary for white squirrels, and now they celebrate a White Squirrel Festival.

I was fortunate enough to see a white squirrel in my back yard.—which makes me part of a (somewhat) elite club. Even though a white squirrel is still basically a talented tree rat, it has symbolism on its side. In folklore all-white animals have long been seen as portents of good luck, symbols of purity, and even visitors from the realms of gods and spirits.

This would naturally segue smoothly into a discussion of squirrel symbolism, but that turns out to be way too expansive for this blog. There are numerous online discussions of squirrels as totems, spirit animals, and animals of power. There is even an essay on the meaning of a squirrel appearing in dreams, depending on how and what it’s doing.

Writers: consider reading up a bit on squirrel symbolism because all of these articles describe the behaviors/characteristics of people with a squirrel connection.

DEATH TRAP

Who doesn’t want people to be safe in their homes? Writers!  Injury and death are bread and butter for writer. But even if you aren’t a writer, you should read what follows to help protect yourself and your family from these dangers. I’ll start with the more innocuous or less common hazards. Consider the following.

Accidents

  • Extension cords:
    • Extension cords cause about 3300 residential fires each year, injuring or killing more than 300 people. If used continuously, insulation deteriorates fast. Even if not in use, extension cords left lying around can present a hanging or choking hazard for children.
  • Mothballs:
    • They are actually little balls of pesticide. They can cause a breakdown in red blood cells in children with certain genetic diseases (such as Glucose-6 Phosphate Dehydrogenase Deficiency). In addition, exposure can lead to nausea, vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, headaches, and eye and nasal irritation in humans; kidney and liver damage in pets.  
    • Mothballs can be huffed for a brief high caused by the dichlorobenzene or naphthalene, either of which can lead to addiction, brain damage, and death.
    • NB, not as common in homes as they used to be.
  • Humidifiers: 
    • Water left to sit in the humidifier for long periods of time become rife with mold spores, fungus, and bacteria.
    • Ultrasonic humidifiers can be particularly dangerous, because they aerosolize and disperse as a mist everything that might be in water, including chemicals, minerals, bacteria, and mold.
  • Pressed wood: 
    • Products made from hardwood plywood, particleboard, or fiberboard are often made with formaldehyde. Prolonged exposure can cause watery eyes, burns ins eyes and/or throat, asthma attacks, and cancer in animals and perhaps in humans.
This little party crasher might be hanging around in your living room.
  • Carpeting:
    • New carpet can emit potentially dangerous chemicals  called volatile organic components. Any carpet can trap dust mites, pet dander, mold, dirt, etc., all of which are hard on respiratory systems.
  • Lead:
    • Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body, often over months or years. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems.
    • Lead paint was commonly used in homes built before 1978. Toys and furniture made in countries with less stringent health safety protocols may still be covered in lead paint.
    • In very old houses (1920s and earlier), original plumbing may be made of lead, causing all the water coming into the house to be contaminated.
    • Children younger than 6 years are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development. At very high levels, lead poisoning can be fatal.
  • Polycarbonate plastics:
    • This is most dangerous when used to make food storage containers. The problem is the degradation of the chemical bisphenol (BPA) when it comes in contact with water. Health agencies have gone back and forth on the dangers of BPA, but studies have linked it to disruptions in the endocrine system and ultimately to cancer.
  • Flame retardants, which seem like they are good things, actually have a downside: most contain toxins that have been linked to cancer, birth defects, diminished I.Q., and other problems.
  • Space heaters:
    • More than 25,000 home fires every year, especially those that don’t have an emergency tip-over feature and don’t have eating element guards. They are especially dangerous for children and pets.
  • Houseplants:
    • Many common varieties of houseplants, kept for air purification, beautification, or even medicinal purposes, are toxic to humans and animals in the wrong context. While most adults can be trusted not to eat the leaves, chew on the roots, or drink the water from random pots around the house, the same may not be true of children and pets.
    • Philodendron, peace lilies, oleanders, pothos, and caladium are among the most common houseplants, and all are poisonous to humans and pets.
  • Christmas trees:
    • The combination of dry winter air, hot light bulbs, and paper or wooden ornaments make for a perfect storm of conflagration. Add in tinsel, paper-wrapped boxes, and the tendency of many families to leave the tree lights on overnight, and it’s surprising that there aren’t even more house fires and deaths every year.
    • Fires caused by Christmas trees are among the most deadly house fires: approximately one out of every 34 home fires caused by a Christmas tree results in a death.
    • Decorative or scented holiday candles can be quite deadly as well. The top three days for fires caused by unsafe candles are Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.
Asbestos removal is a very complicated process.
  • Other possibilities: 
    • Asbestos, carbon dioxide, radon, cuts, slip and fall accidents, carbon monoxide, unbalanced heavy furniture, stairs, throw rugs, icy walkways, mixing up the sugar and the rat poison…
I’m not sure if this counts as a home injury or a vehicle accident.

Leading Causes of Unintentional Home Injury

Children and the elderly are at greatest risk.

  1. Falls: more than 40% of nonfatal home injuries; more than one third of unintentional home injury deaths.
  2. Poisoning: most unintentional home poisoning deaths are of adults and are caused by heroin, appetite suppressants, pain killers, and narcotics. Other frequent poisons are amphetamines, caffeine, antidepressants, alcohol, motor vehicle exhaust gas, etc.
    • Children under 5 have the highest rates of non-fatal poisoning, often from exposure to substances not typically thoughts of as poisonous.
    • “Hidden” poisons can be found in household and cleaning products; personal care and beauty products; medicines, vitamins, plants, and lead paint.
  3. Fires/burns: the third leading cause of unintentional home injury and death. Death rate is highest among senior citizens and —again—children under five. A huge percentage of burns are from hot water. Depending on water heater settings, tap water can be hot enough to cause second-degree burns.
  4. Choking and suffocation: the leading cause of death for infants under the age of one. An average of one child a month dies due to strangulation from a window chord.
  5. Drowning/submersion: 80% are children under age 4, mostly in bathtubs and swimming pools. Because they are top-heavy, a toddler can drown in a bucket, in as little as two inches of water.
Two inches of water or six feet of bubbles!

Intentional Harm

People are more likely to be killed by people they know than by a stranger, and it will probably be in the victim’s home. 

As of 2017, 12.3% of homicide victims were killed by family members, 28.0% were killed by someone they knew other than family, and only 9.7% were killed by strangers. In 50% of cases, the relationship between the victim and the offender were unknown. Chances are, at least some of those were family or acquaintance homicides.

Approximately 39% of victims were murdered during arguments or as a result of romantic triangles. Another 24.7% of murders were committed in conjunction with another crime such as rape, robbery, burglary, etc.

More than 72% of the known weapon homicides involved firearms, primarily handguns.

  • Violence against women—Domestic violence is the #1 cause of injury to women, more than all the rapes, muggings, and car accidents in a given year.
    • One out of every four women in the U.S. will be injured by a husband/lover during her lifetime.
    • 64% of women killed each year are murdered by family or lovers.
  • Violence against children—Calls to Child Protective Services received 3-4 million reports of alleged abuse in 2011: 79% neglect, 18% physical abuse, 9% sexual abuse.
    • Babies under the age of one were assaulted most often. Of child victims in 2011, 82% were younger than four.
    • Children in violent homes have sleeping, eating, and attention problems.
    • Abused children are more withdrawn, anxious, and depressed than non-abused children.
Pictured above: not a neglected or abused child. Still, railings are a good thing.

Bottom Line For Writers: whether accidental or intentional, injury and death are fertile ground for tension, emotion, and upping the stakes. 

This definitely looks intentional.