Phone home

“The love we do not show here on Earth is the only thing that hurts us in the after-life.” ― Steven Spielberg

“You could be happy here, I could take care of you. I wouldn’t let anybody hurt you. We could grow up together, E.T.” ― Elliott from ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’

I was four years old when my parents took me to my first horror movie.

It was 1982. Laura Branigan was belting out Gloria, unsuspecting Chicagoans were dying of cyanide-laced Tylenol, Ronald and Nancy were getting cozy in the White House, and every velour sweatshirt-wearing youth was infatuated with Stephen Spielberg’s new flick.

Naturally, my mother and father assumed I was just like every other fun-loving kid in our quaint New York City suburb. Following this logic, they wholeheartedly believed their daughter would adore the nationally-heralded blockbuster hit: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

They were wrong.

As witnessed through my hyper-vigilant, existentially-aware young eyes, E.T. was the very opposite of adorable. He was no cuddly, cute alien visitor; no magical galaxy wanderer, nor innocent foreign friend. E.T. was, at core, terrifying. And he was sent, from outer space, to kidnap me.

I emitted no wails nor screams in the movie theater; I gushed no buckets of tears down my face. Sheer panic, however, pulsated through my entire body. Seated between my mother and grandmother, their empathetic heartbeats soothing mine, I quietly burrowed myself in their arms for protection. And I continued to watch in utter terror as E.T. revived a dead chrysanthemum, faltered in health, symbiotically sickened Elliott, suffered scientific experimentation, and peddled across the moon. Given my resultant PTSD, it’s a wonder I ever ate Reese’s Pieces candy again.

The realm of fantasy play was reserved for the shimmering rocks and hallowed trees in my best friend’s backyard. Make-believe was for my grandmother’s closet, with her strings of pearls and polka-dot scarves. But that wrinkled, emaciated creature on the screen… that thing had to be real. And there was nothing that anyone could do, or say, to convince me otherwise. E.T. wanted to take me away from my family and rocket me into space. Never again would I return to this planet, let alone to my mother’s arms or my home.

I did not consciously decide to torment my parents for their epic miscalculation. I admit to no pre-meditated indictment for being cinematically-traumatized at the Pelham Picture House. My unrelenting night terrors held no pointed manipulation; nor did my utter lack of sleep, or my constant disquiet when left unattended.

As penance for her innocent transgression, my mother vigilantly adhered to my stalwart regimen of “The Nighttime E.T. Checklist,” which confirmed the following:

E.T. was not under my bed.
E.T. was not in my closet.
E.T. was not biking outside my window.
E.T. was not downstairs.
E.T. was not outside my door.
E.T. was not in the chair, hiding between my stuffed animals.

It was imperative that she repeat this checklist a minimum of seven times before shutting the light, kissing my forehead, whispering “goodnight sweetie,” and closing my door into oblivion.

The advanced portion of the evening ritual consisted of five silent beats, followed by ten minutes of holy terror, as I bellowed, “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” until she ran exhausted, frustrated, and angry (mostly at herself for buying the movie tickets…) back into my room, to once again verify that E.T. was not: under my bed, in my closet, outside my window, etc.

She never once found E.T. lurking in the shadows. But I knew the truth. As soon as my mother abandoned her post at my side, E.T. would emerge. And if granted enough time, he would abscond with me in his spaceship. With that creepy oblong alien head, he was diabolically awaiting the absolute right moment to remove me from my existence, to imprison me, to take me away.

I wished my parents could understand I was not being unreasonable or irrational. Couldn’t they see … their daughter was not safe. A powerful, unknown force wanted me gone from this world. We had to be vigilant to ensure my survival. Otherwise, absolutely everything and everyone I loved would be lost to me, forever.

Child psychologists vary in their interpretation of bedtime strategies for troubled sleepers and anxious toddlers. A popular approach is to “let the child cry until she stops.” Too heartbreaking for some parents, that methodology nonetheless statistically meets with successful results, whereupon the child eventually calms herself, stops crying, and goes to sleep, enabling a lifetime of self-soothing faculties.

I have always been one to defy statistics.

Also a talented innovator since birth, I launched an inspired sleeping arrangement in our household, whereupon my mother took up nightly residence on my bedroom floor, occupying a 3’x10’ space between my twin bed and the wall. Like a teenage slumber party, my mom layered multiple comforters, blankets and pillows, and smushed herself next to my shelf of Care Bears. And there, she remained, for the night. Many nights. An entire season of nights. My father’s snoring resounded from the adjacent room, confirming his restful repose in their king-size bed. Despite my mother’s physical discomfort on the floor, I felt comforted knowing we had collectively thwarted E.T.’s plans. He would not dare enter my room to vanish me from my existence with my mom mere inches away.

As I attempted to barricade my home from E.T.’s calculated invasion, my best friend Christina graciously invited the little devil inside her world. Betrayed at the age of four, by the pink-leotard-wearing girl around the block. Universal Pictures’ marketing department hit the motherload with Christina, as her parents filled their home with E.T. posters, stickers, t-shirts, pillows, bed linens, games, mugs, and the worst offender – a life-size E.T. plush toy. I still give her mom tremendous kudos for trying to circumvent a Pre-K societal breakdown. For every “Alison + Christina” playdate that occupied their house, the kind-hearted woman spent a good hour prepping their home for my arrival. This required hiding all E.T. paraphernalia from plain sight, covering up the wall art, and sternly reminding Christina’s older wise-cracking siblings not to point an index finger in Alison’s direction – or else. To add insult to injury, Christina demanded an E.T.-themed party in honor of her 5th birthday. To honor social graces, I attended the festivities, but sequestered myself upstairs in their kitchen, while two dozen toddlers ate an E.T.-designed cake off E.T.-imprinted plates, and received E.T.-themed goody bags.

I can’t recall when exactly I started sleeping on my own again. Or when I was brave enough to perform the nighttime checklist by myself (but I did continue to check…for a lot longer than I care to admit). The haunting threat of ET lingered for years, concurrent with my belief in Santa Claus. Perhaps the turning point was the shocking revelation that my mother often crept into her own room in the middle of the night to continue her nightly repose in her grown-up bed. My developing mind had to wrestle with the cognitive dissonance that I was objectively left unattended most of the night, and yet nonetheless, awoke safe and sound in my bed, on the planet Earth, the next morning. Despite the diatribe my mom received when I discovered her underhanded tactics, that may have been the proof I needed to risk the nights alone.

Two decades later, as a college graduate spending quality time alone with my mother over a game of Trivial Pursuit, I landed on a pie-piece for Arts & Entertainment. Drawing a card from the overused deck, my mother first read the question silently to herself, shook her head, sighed, and then resigned herself to read my match-point query out-loud.

Mom: “What popular movie was banned in Sweden for children under the age of 11, because of its threatening and frightening content?”

Me: “What? I have no idea. I never get a good question when it matters.”

Mom: “Think about it. You know the answer.”

Me: “No I don’t! Sweden? What the hell. Why would I know that?”

Mom: “REALLY. THINK. ABOUT. IT.”

Me: “I have no idea. Star Wars?”

(No. It wasn’t Star Wars.)

My taunting cries of “I TOLD YOU!” could be heard several blocks away for hours, after she reluctantly revealed the answer:

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

“Sweden knows!” I exclaimed. “Sweden understands me!”

Subsequent research unearthed quite the fun fact: Sweden wasn’t the only country to issue this decree. Most of Scandinavia seemed overtly concerned that this “family friendly” film would traumatize an entire generation of their blond-haired, blue-eyed citizens. If only this level of artistic censorship had existed in the United States, I would have been spared years of anguish (and maybe my mother would have gotten to sleep before 1983).

It’s now 2019, almost four decades since my E.T.-induced night terrors. The irony here is: my agonizing fear has actually come true, just in a context and role reversal twist that was astronomically wilder than even my untamed childhood imagination.

For the last four years, I’ve been a stranger in my own strange land. Tossed and turned and spinning, I was thrown out of my former life, city, and home by an energetic force much greater than myself; a force I cannot seem to control despite my intellect and resourcefulness; a power that is omnipresent and yet invisible. And I’m not the only one. I’ve been poked and prodded by medical science; and I’ve been experimented upon by strangers and friends, without my knowledge nor consent. I’ve sought asylum from kind-hearted, compassionate souls along the way.

Turns out, I am not so different from E.T. Maybe my youthful intuition knew what was in store. Despite Sweden’s solidarity, maybe a prescient mind was the reason for my unrest.

The modern world around me now looks and feels different, wrong, foreign. It’s a place I no longer comprehend, and where survival takes precedence over living. And what is mind-numbingly baffling is: this is, in fact, still my planet. I did not crash elsewhere in the galaxy, after traveling light-years on a spaceship. I have been here, in place, this whole time. And yet the world shifted around me. The energy changed. Literally. With environmental hazards, toxins, and artificial electromagnetic fields that do not mesh with everyone’s body, but which very much make me sick and dysfunctional.

The paradox is: I am here, but no longer able to be here. Despite my birth on this planet, I am now one of many positioned as “foreign.” As “alien.” And the problem is, I can’t get back home. Because, my home, and my world, has forever vanished under a cloud of electrosmog. (But hurrah! Everyone gets to have free Wi-Fi and live without cords! Yes, that’s totally worth the cost of individual life and liberty…)

E.T. wasn’t human, but he had every right to his existence. In whatever way we can understand “life” beyond the concept of Earth, E.T. was after all, a living being, made from matter and propelled by laws of physics.

The radiant heart inside his tiny skeletal chest beat with that collective, undefinable ethos:

Love.

The glowing touch of his finger illuminated what binds the universe together as one:

Energy.

E.T.’s right to live, to be happy, to be safe, and to be home, is the right we all share. It is unjust to have all of that taken away, without due process, without recourse, and without ample and affordable opportunity for sanctuary. But, that’s where we are. Whether people want to admit that or not.

For me, the three most chilling lines of Spielberg’s movie were as follows:

“E.T. phone home.”

Haunted by E.T.’s freakish mechanical tonality, and his melancholy eyes, I could hear that phrase echo in my childhood nightmares for months. Now at the age of forty, that line is only unnerving because it is so personally heartbreaking. I may not use a rigged up Speak & Spell, but I’ve got my own concoction of wires, cords and electronic devices that connect me through the digital lines to my erstwhile home, the great metropolis of New York City, an unsafe terrain pulsating with radiofrequencies and electromagnetics that would have shocked even Tesla.

Since I can no longer actually be home, I am left with one recourse:

Phone home.

And that’s what I do.

So, I call…

My mom.

There are no more nighttime checklists, but I need to hear her voice again at night. I ask for reassurance: “Will everything be ok? Will I wake up in the morning?”

She says yes, but I don’t always believe her.

I’m old enough now to know the difference between a movie screen and the real world.

That the life we are living was not fabricated in a Hollywood studio.

That our technologies and gadgets aren’t merely special effects and fake animations.

That in reality, it’s quite possible E.T. never returns home, no matter how many times he calls, or how hard he tries. Because “home” no longer exists.

Now that is truly terrifying.

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