In her monthly column The Moon in Full, Nina MacLaughlin illuminates humanity’s long-standing lunar fascination. Each installment is published in advance of the full moon.
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Good Shepherd, 1902–03, oil on canvas, 30 1/4 x 36 1/4″. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Tootsie Roll Tom showed up at all the Little League games in the town where I grew up. Soccer games, too. He kept Tootsie Rolls in his pockets and in a small canvas satchel he wore on his shoulder. He arrived on his bicycle and kids surrounded him as he pulled the Tootsie Rolls from his pockets and his pouch and placed the candy in their eager palms. He was well loved in the town. In the town there was also a psychiatric hospital, formerly known as an insane asylum. My mom called it the loony bin, and she was not the only one. The rumor was that Tootsie Roll Tom lived there. He lived there but was not secured to a bed in a room with bars on the windows; he was allowed to ride his bicycle around the town, and wave at everyone he saw, and give candy to the children who crowded around him like hungry, happy little goslings. He had an open, friendly face. He was not too tall and he wore his socks pulled up. The town honored him with a day named after him, embodying a spirit of warmth, welcome, and generosity that the town fathers and mothers wanted to celebrate. The state shuttered the psychiatric hospital almost two decades ago (where did the patients go?) and a redevelopment project might turn the asylum to condos. The rumor was—I heard it in middle school from one of the older middle schoolers—the rumor was that Tootsie Roll Tom was in the institution, if he was, because he had raped his mother.
It’s rumored that emergency rooms and psychiatric wards are more active at the full moon. It’s rumored that crime spikes. It’s rumored that people get a little crazed and don’t know what to do with their bodies. You’ve heard these rumors. From bartenders and nurses and nursery school teachers. Maybe you’ve felt it your very self. I saw a neighbor on the street and asked how she was doing. “It’s the full moon, you know,” she said, “so I feel completely demented.” It made news that a town in England put more cops on patrol on full moons. Sylvia Plath knew: the moon “drags the sea after it like a dark crime.”
Of all months, I suspected July, with its thick sour heat, its stewy dead light, must have the most crime, and the full moon in July, the big Thunder Moon, must be one of the crimiest times of the year. Sticky-thighed July, when walls of heat press in, shortening tempers, contorting perspective, squeezing the pouches that hold the dark urges where pressure builds like a blister until dark ashy oozings seep from apertures otherwise pinched. July is the month that crouches behind a tree in the dark, having soaked for a year in sour milk, all its flesh molded and rotting. It waits for you to pass by the tree then pushes itself against you, its slick, rotting skin on your skin. No knives, no guns, just a stinking all-wrongness and you can’t get the smell off.
But I was wrong. There’s no crime spike in July. Different kinds of crimes across seasons, yes: crimes to bodies in summer, crimes to objects in winter. And more dangerous times of day exist: keep your wits with you between 11 P.M. and midnight. But July is no safer or more dangerous than any other month. And as for the moon having any impact at all on criminality, on lunacy, on any sort of behavioral erratics: there’s no correlation.
I sat in the kitchen of my father and stepmother’s house recently and when my stepmother walked into the room I told her that it turns out it’s a myth that the moon effects anything.
“Not homicide?” she said. She knew the rumors.
“Emergency room visits?”
“More babies born?”
“This is what I’m reading.”
Psychiatrists, scientists, criminologists, in study after study, say the full moon has no bearing on behavior or human biology. They talk of “illusory correlation,” the perception of an association that does not, in fact, exist. You feel a little strange on the full moon? Emotions a little churnier? You’re a little more excitable? Lustier? Sleepless? Altered in a way you can’t quite put words to? It’s argued that you feel all those things at other moments in the month but take note of the full moon because full moons are memorable, and then make a mistaken connection. I hated learning this. One argument suggested that horror movies are part of what’s tricked us into thinking the full moon affects us. But, I want to say, but hang on—couldn’t it be argued that horror movies don’t make us feel spooky about the moon, the full moon makes us feel spooky, so directors represent this shared ancient experience of mystery? Couldn’t that be it? What do I know?
As I repeated “no correlation” in the kitchen, a child tantrum began to thunder through my mind, a bashing frustration and disappointment. This can’t be right, I thought. We go untouched by lunar forces? I want there to be correlation, my mind whined. The feeling came from a young place, and it was strong.
But why? What was it that made me so mad?
I do not want to be soft-minded or irrational, pursue Dark Aged–ignorance, be any sort of woo-woo New Age mush head. I do not know my moon sign. I own a Tarot deck but do not know how to read the cards. I don’t know much about prayer, though I have aimed begging attention at thunderstorms to come, please come, break this heat, rip it open. I believe, in some ferocious kid place, that there’s a lot on this earth and beyond it that we don’t understand. No correlation? Maybe, instead, the more honest: we don’t know, we have not figured a way to measure, or to say. “Do you not think that there are things which you cannot understand, and yet which are; that some people see things that others cannot?” Bram Stoker asks. “It is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all; and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain.” Stephen Jay Gould had a name for this, when scientists interpret an absence of discernible change as no data, leaving significant signals from nature unseen, unreported, ignored. He called it Cordelia’s Dilemma, after the daughter in Shakespeare’s King Lear, who, when asked to profess her love for her father, knows there are no words to adequately express certain things, and so stays quiet: “My love’s more ponderous than my tongue.” Not no love, but no words for it. Not no data, not no correlation. More: we haven’t found a way to quantify, we don’t have the words, there’s information in the silence. As Clarice Lispector says, “Truth is always an interior and inexplicable contact.”
And to come up against it poses risks. The mystics, visionaries, poets, artists—they press open doors, travel dark tunnels, look into the caves and bring back what they find, and sometimes, as a result, end up secured to a bed in a room with bars on the window. Sebald writes of touring a house that gave him the sense that he had once lived there: “But thoughts of this kind are dispelled as speedily as they appear. At all events, I did not pursue them in the years that have passed since then, perhaps because it is not possible to pursue them without losing one’s sanity.” Travel certain paths of thought too far, there’s no coming back.
But some of what we’re talking about exists at a place beyond thought. Our minds are made for detecting patterns, our bodies built to sense when the cords of correlation begin to glow, radiant and pulsing, between one thing and another and another. We look for signals, and it can be a perilous search, to be unhooked from the grounding laws to reach a place carried by much larger forces, out and up to where it’s all just one big glow.
In another kitchen, not long ago, a friend and I talked of a musician who’d been found dead a few years back.
“How’d he die?” I asked.
My friend stood by the stove, cooking sausage and red peppers in a screaming hot pan. He turned away from the stove and looked at me hard. “How’d he die?” he repeated. “He died of what everyone dies of. He died the way I’m gonna die and the way you’re gonna die. He died of death.” Sausage fat leaped from the pan. “People are asking how people died so they can feel safer. Oh, he died of overdose? Oh, he died of his liver exploding? Oh, he died from a mountain lion eating him? So they can feel, that’s not gonna be me. Not you? Well I got bad news. You, too, buster. How’d he die?” he shook his head and turned back to the pan. “He died of death, just like you will.”
Lay it on me. Thunder it right into my face.
Turns out my friend didn’t know how the musician died, so he gave a loud speech instead. But the truth he told was bigger. Some rumors are rumors. Clouds hold no weight. Some correlations are illusory. And sometimes the facts are inadequate.
We are in the thick of summer now. I place my mind in January and November. But July’s not all bad—I eat peaches, spit cherry pits into my palm, feel luck when I see a shooting star or firefly—and all moons are good moons. July’s seems to have a different texture, not chalk or concrete or glassy pear, but waxy, sweet, like nougat, like taffy. A piece of it placed on your palm, twist the ends to open the wrapper, a quiet glow, a chewy treat, a dark sweetness down your throat, a little like love on your tongue, and with it, the illusion, the precious illusion, that there’s no reason to be scared.
Nina MacLaughlin is a writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her most recent book is Summer Solstice. Her previous columns for the Daily are Winter Solstice, Sky Gazing, Summer Solstice, Senses of Dawn, and Novemberance.
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