When M was little he had night terrors. Not a lot. And not for long. And weird be told, he woke up completely refreshed, saying that he'd slept well. Meanwhile, in the middle of the night — well yikes! There was a man who would rise from the gap between his bed and the wall, brandishing a huge long rifle (I have no idea what kind) (I'm rifle-challenged that way) (a good thing). And the man would rise up, take aim, and —
It was Broccoli Man.
For M, Broccoli Man was the terror that comes in the night. Broccoli Man filled his nightmares—but he inhabited that night terror zone as well, as it turned out. Strangely enough, M never had any problem with the vegetable itself. That would be me, who couldn't eat it at all. It gave me such sharp pains in the gut, it was like someone stabbing me over and over and over again. But M didn't know about that (as far as I remember). Nevertheless, for a while there, Broccoli Man consumed him.
The worst part? He couldn't wake up.
He'd be screaming, and I'd run in there, and nothing! He'd be telling what was happening, but he couldn't exit. And I'd hold him and rock him, and hold him some more, until finally, exhausted, he fell back into a more quiet sleep.
Night terrors are not nightmares. Nightmares, you can wake up. You can tell what happened. You can even lucid-dream it all away with some good solid practice. Terrors, you're frozen in there unable to respond. Unable to escape.
There was only one thing to do.
We got out the large sketchbook with the good paper, not the newsprint. This was serious stuff. And although M could draw plenty of disasters — usually houses (brown) that catch on fire (red, yellow and blue), with smoke (gray), then the fire engines roll up (more red), then they hose down the houses (more blue), then the smoke rises (billowing black, covering the page), then it's all fine again (only there's no picture left)* — and had had plenty of cathartic moments doing art projects, he just couldn't bring himself to draw broccoli man.
So we did it together. One line here, one color there, and before you knew it, pit'om! there was Broccoli Man in all his sinister glory looming over us, it seemed. And yah. Pretty scary. But as you can imagine, he was also ridiculous.
And that was the key. M started cracking up. And Broccoli Man bowed his head in shame and never brandished his rifle near my glorious first born son ever ever again.
It's the Mel Brooks Effect. And M and I are firm proponents of the Mel Brooks effect.
You see, Mel Brooks isn't just about 'broad humor' (as the new girlfriend called it yesterday) or walk-this-way and fart jokes. He's really about the alleviation of major suffering. Not personal suffering, really. No — something much larger: historical suffering.
In his work, he takes on the pain of inequality, torture, abuse of power, genocide, religious intolerance, racial discrimination, injustice and more, all with the 'broad' brush of the ridiculous.
If you can laugh instead of cry, then you can conquer trauma. That's the Mel Brooks Effect.
M loves Mel Brooks. And so do I. His work holds up because we haven't solved these larger terrors yet, have we?
Laughing at Broccoli Man was as powerful an antidote to nightmares and night terrors as Springtime for Hitler was an antidote to the Holocaust.
My mother, of course would disagree. To her, Mel Brooks trivializes our suffering. Maybe it's a generational thing. Dunno. But what Mel Brooks did at our house was have the kids want to know more about what really happened. Want to visit Versailles and see the Bastille. Want to know about the Inquisition. Want to ask. And want to talk about it.
Likewise, once Broccoli Man was right there in the sketchbook staring back at us, we could hold the conversation. Broccoli Man wasn't so tough now, was he, when we could draw him any way we wanted?
I met Broccoli Man yesterday, which is what made me think of the original. He was just as traumatic in real life, and I was just as doubled over on my way to meeting him. Turns out he's Russian, and his name is Alex. But that's another story. And it'll have to wait till next time...
*I think this processual drawing technique is why M is a musician, which is so much better at containing these elements on a single page.