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Crawling into your head

An entomologist, who discovered he has a crippling fear of bugs, writes a book about human reaction to insects.

By: New York Times |
April 20, 2014 12:09:56 am

Trained as an entomologist, Jeffrey A Lockwood discovered 12 years into his career that he was phobic about the very subject he had chosen as his life’s work.

In The Infested Mind, he describes the hot, dry day he descended into a gulch in the Wyoming sagebrush. He had heard there might be 40 to 50 grasshoppers per square yard, and he wanted to see for himself.

But instead of many grasshoppers behaving normally, he found “a bristling carpet of wings and legs”, which erupted into a “seething chaos”. Grasshoppers ricocheted off his face and chest, latched onto his bare arms and tangled “their spiny legs” into his hair. “For the first time in my life as an entomologist,” he writes, “I panicked.”

Not surprisingly, the experience tempered his enthusiasm for insects — though, fortunately for science, not before he had completed enough important research to gain tenure at the University of Wyoming at a youthful 33.

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To help pay for the research, Lockwood worked as a consultant on insect control, developing insecticides — which partly inspired him to write a Pushcart Prize-winning essay, Grasshopper Dreaming: Reflections on Killing and Loving, for Orion magazine in 2001. He switched departments, moving to a joint appointment in philosophy and creative nonfiction; still, it is hard not to think of that seething chaos of grasshoppers as seeking retribution.

Entomophobia, he writes, is just one of many phobias involving things that crawl and fly, including moths (mottephobia), wasps (spheksophobia) and insects that cause itching (acarophobia).

Western culture imbues us with the idea of insect as monster. Folk songs like I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly and nursery rhymes like Little Miss Muffet far outweigh lovable bugs like Jiminy Cricket and Eric Carle’s “endearingly imperfect” ladybugs, honeybees and caterpillars.

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Entomophobia pervades the work of Salvador Dalí: “These insects became oversized, dreadful symbols of waste and destruction” Lockwood writes.

Dalí’s biographer Ian Gibson has suggested the kind of detail that would have enriched Lockwood’s analysis. “The praying mantis,” he notes, “was a favourite symbol for the surrealists due to their ritual of the male being devoured by the female immediately after the sexual act.”

Lockwood eschews a closer look at this and other aspects of entomophobia in an effort to cram everything into 203 pages, complete with extensive footnotes.

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First published on: 20-04-2014 at 12:09:56 am
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