Writer Paul Crenshaw found himself trying to make sense of the fear that engulfed everything in his 1980s childhood in small-town Arkansas and the world around him. The Cold War. Stranger Danger. Satanic Panic. In his most recent book of essays Melt with Me: Coming of Age and Other ’80s Perils, published by The Ohio State University Press, Crenshaw covers a lot of territory: death, Christian evangelism, Satan and Soviets, the parallels between the dissolution of marriage and treaties between nations, Star Wars and real wars, Bugs Bunny, and adversity. And quicksand.
Crenshaw graciously agreed to talk to The Smart Set, which previously published two of the essays included in this book. The interview has been edited for time and clarity.
Erica Levi Zelinger: What was the inspiration to group these particular essays into a book?
Paul Crenshaw: It was a long process. I didn’t really start writing it as an essay collection until I had written five or six essays, and then I started to see connections. I started out with a vague idea about writing about the ’80s. I narrowed that down to the ’80s and the Cold War. And to other scary things that were going on. That’s when the book changed. I started seeing and thinking, ‘Wait, we are still scared of these things. This is still a problem.’ I started tracing back Stranger Danger and the Satanic Panic, Dungeons & Dragons panic, the AIDS and HIV panic — all of these things — and it just sort of became its own creature.
ELZ: You had to constantly be on the lookout — for Satanists, child molesters, Christian comedians. Were you fueled by fear as a child? Does it still fuel you?
PC: The biggest fear for me was the church. I went to a Southern Baptist church, and we were told constantly that the world was going to end in fire. Armageddon was coming. Some people looked forward to that, as if it were a good thing. Woohoo. I was terrified of nuclear war as a child. I don’t think I constantly walked around being afraid, but that fear was definitely there.
The Satanic Panic was very real. There were stories everywhere, even in our small town, police officers came to my school to show how to watch out for those who worshipped the occult. These were guys who went to the same high school like 10 years before me and they had no training whatsoever in it.
There was also Mike Warnke, the former Satanist turned born-again Christian, who I write about in “The Satanic Panic”. I went to YouTube and listened to his old albums, and I remembered the jokes he was telling. This is a guy who told us — straight up — 100 percent — your children will get into Satanism if you don’t stop them. They will get into drugs. They will get into sex. They will get into all these unsavory elements. We were being told that all the time. As “good Christians” in a small southern town, we were told we always had to be on the lookout for Satan. He was always out there. So, yeah, there was a lot of fear growing up in the ’80s.
To answer the second part of your question, I don’t know that I’m fueled by the fear now so much as I am fueled by trying to make sense of it.
ELZ: As the (fairly new) managing editor of The Smart Set, I am particularly drawn to your first-person narratives that on the surface are about something mundane like mooning your way through junior high, and wrestling, and playing Atari, but your underlying meaning is so much more: This was a chance to say fuck you to the world you were raised in, the world that was causing your parents to fight and to smoke and causing the bad guys to fight the good guys and causing death and destruction. “Anywhere was better than where we were,” you wrote. You also write, “Surviving those times to carry all your unwanted anxieties into adulthood is encumbrishment.” Was it easier to write these essays because you are still encumbered by childhood?
PC: Sure. Emotionally in some ways. There are lots of things that the older I get the more I can see a direct correlation to childhood. I don’t want it to sound like I had a bad childhood. I had a good childhood. My parents were very loving. But they also worked very hard. There were lots of things – bless their hearts — that they just didn’t know. My brother and I were always told – you’ll go to college. But there wasn’t a lot of other advice given. We didn’t talk about what the best jobs, what would be a good career to go into. They were just trying to get by. My parents were tired from working all day. They had a lot of love, but they didn’t have a lot of extra energy. We didn’t go on vacations.
When I think about that time, I think about just a lot of exhaustion. Reagan was setting out to destroy the middle class. My parents worked for an institute for the developmentally and intellectually disabled, and one of the first things Reagan did when he took office was try to close it down.
ELZ: You look back on the ’80s like the character Kevin Arnold from The Wonder Years reflected on the 1960s. The narrator speaks directly to the audience to share his regrets, and the audience cries at his breakups, and we feel his pain when he’s bullied by his older brother. I watched it as a child and I loved it because I could identify with Kevin, but I started rewatching that show recently with my 11-year-old son and saw it in a new light. I could identify now with the parents. Did writing these essays give you more insight into who your parents were and who they became?
PC: Yes, but first of all I have to talk about The Wonder Years. My partner and I recently started rewatching it, too. She actually had to quit because the episodes were so depressing. The first couple of episodes are so depressing to me now, the first episode especially — the trauma of the first day of school and he comes home, and the neighbor has just died in Vietnam. It’s just absolutely devastating. Then I watched one where Kevin goes to work with his dad. His dad is always irritable and grouchy. That was the iconic dad of the ’60s. Dad worked his ass off and when he came home, you didn’t talk to him, you leave Dad the hell alone. It wasn’t that way at my house, but you did kind of give them a berth when they came home because they might have had a bad day. We just knew that growing up. Or we didn’t realize it and we acted like the little assholes we were and then mom lost her mind. I love that you brought up The Wonder Years because you nailed it. I was Kevin. And now I’m Kevin’s dad and how the hell did that happen?
When I started grad school — 27 or 28 — classmates would talk about summer vacations. Europe or Canada. I was thinking — we would go to Magic Springs, an amusement park two hours away – maybe if we were lucky, we’d go for one day. It didn’t really seem weird to me because even without understanding it, we didn’t have a lot of money. I didn’t really understand that as a child. We just watched TV. That was our family entertainment.
Yes, I 100 percent understand my parents a lot more. You don’t realize as a child what having a 40- to 50-hour week job does. My parents didn’t really choose their careers. They ended up there. It helped me to understand — or maybe articulate and internalize the things I already sort of knew but didn’t realize as a child.
ELZ: Does writing energize or exhaust you?
PC: It energizes me. The only thing that ever bothers me about writing is not having enough time to write. I compartmentalize writing. I’m much happier when I get up and knock it out first thing in the morning.
ELZ: Your first essay is a choose-your-own-adventure style — and for readers not familiar with that series – these books allowed you to hop around a book to cultivate the outcome you wished to have. What would you think if a reader read these essays out of order?
PC: I would prefer that they read them in order, but most people don’t do that. If I just bought a new book, I might flip to something short to get a taste. I deliberately put “Choose Your Own Adventure” first because it sets up the book. It sets up all of the fears. Most of them irrational. It sets it up in the fact that there aren’t any good choices in choose-your-own-adventure. You can’t get out. That was very much the point of the book. So, in my book, I am saying that we can’t just forget that all these things happened. We can’t just forget that we were this scared because it’s still causing us to do things that are bad. Those fears are still there, and we have to account for them somehow.
ELZ: The “Dead Baby” essay caught me off guard. It felt different than the others. It fits with the fear theme, but I wondered if there was more of a backstory there.
PC: I have an essay in my first book that tells the full story: how my nephew died, how the stepfather was convicted of murder. I wrote that essay before this book became a concept so I can see why it feels a bit different. But I think it’s a good example of childhood fears vs. writing as an adult. The emphasis was on how you’ll look back at things later. The dead baby jokes were everywhere. I remember telling them and thinking how funny they were. And of course, now I have two daughters and I can’t even think about jokes like that. I was a complete idiot at 17. I just remember telling those jokes over and over and lots of other very tasteless jokes. The is about how in the ’80s, we could find something that distasteful funny. But what I love about that essay is I quote this folklorist, Alan Dundes. He did all this research about tasteless jokes about how and why we tell them. He said, “What scares us, we seek to make ridiculous. What’s ridiculous can’t hurt us.” My line after that is, “Which is, of course, ridiculous.”
ELZ: The essay “Optimism” also takes another turn. For one, it’s optimistic. It has a reach-for-the-stars kind of feel. Was this written at a different point?
PC: My partner Jennifer, who reads a lot of my work, is often my sounding board. Hemingway called it a bullshit detector. She’s a bullshit detector. There are a couple of the essays that she didn’t think fit in the book, but I overruled her. “Optimism” was written at a slightly different time. It came out a little bit different, but I included it and also the last essay, “The Sadness Scale,” because despite how terribly sad they are, I actually think they are hopeful. And I wanted there to be a little bit of hope. I write very dark stuff. There is a lot of death and thinking about death. I wanted there to be something happy. Who wants to read a book that’s all doom and gloom?
I think the book is optimistic in the way that it ends. We are still searching. Still searching and trying to find what it means to be on this Earth.
Jennifer will be very happy that you pointed this out!
ELZ: “Right here, Right Now” is about the song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and all the other songs of the ’80s that tell the stories of rival nations and the fear of the end. You reference Modern English’s “Melt with You” in this essay and then you go on to name this book Melt with Me. How did you settle on that title?
PC: I wish I had a great story. I think it just kind of came to me. I had Melt with Me as a title very early on. Even without knowing the essay, people who had seen the title were picking up on the connection with the song. The problem was my subtitle. This is my second book with The Ohio State University Press – and my editor there, Kristen Elias Rowley, actually changed the title of my first book to This One Will Hurt You, which was a way better title than what it was. So, when we got this book accepted, and started discussing the subtitle, we kind of went back and forth and came up with the subtitle, which I’ve forgotten what it was! Oh yeah — “Coming of Age and Other ’80s Perils,” which I really liked, because I didn’t even realize the coming-of-age aspect to it — I was so close to it. I didn’t see that a lot of these essays were about adolescence and navigating that difficult world.
ELZ: A few of these essays originally appeared on The Smart Set — Breakdown and Star Wars — if these essays hadn’t previously been published in journals and anthologies, do you think a book would have still happened?
PC: At this stage in my life, probably so. I’ve done the leg work. As a first book, I’m not sure. I would like to think that it would have found a publisher, even if none of the essays were published. But who knows? The publishing world is just so difficult. My first collection was published in 2019 and it was a finalist in the [Middlebury] Bread Loaf [Writers’ Conference] Bakeless Prize in 2011. It didn’t win, so it didn’t get published, but it was a finalist. It still took me eight years to get the book published, even with the credential of it being a finalist. And let’s be honest — essays are not the top seller when it comes to publishing.
ELZ: What has it meant as a person, a writer, a father to revisit your youth in writing?
PC: Being able to see yourself honestly. To be an essayist, you really have to try and see things honestly. You have to understand how you saw the world at that time and be able to comment about the world at that time and how you saw the world at the time. There are all these layers of truth, what really happened, how things really were.
Going back to your question earlier about, “Do you see your parents differently now?” I respect them a hell of a lot more than I did when I was a kid. Revisiting raising my children plus looking back at my childhood — it’s easy to see why I did some of the things as a parent that maybe I shouldn’t have done. And see some of the things I should have done. Writing essays forces you to see — or should force you to look very honestly at things. So … perspective.
ELZ: These essays all highlight that there was so much stuff to be scared of in the 1970s and 1980s. But you were still sneaking out of houses, and mooning couples in their living rooms and smoking. You wrote, “If we had rules, none of them were written down…” But, as a reader and a parent, now those rules are written down. And kids can’t just stay out until dark. Does that play into your reflection on childhood? Does it make you more wistful or longing to go back?
PC: My daughters are grown now. My older daughter just had her first child — a grandson, and my younger daughter just graduated college. Now that they’ve reached this threshold, we talk more honestly about their childhood. I recently found out that not just one but both of them snuck out of the house at night while my wife and I were asleep. They didn’t do the terrible things that I did, but they did do that. I can’t be mad at them because it was after the fact. But I was also a little bit proud of them in a way. I would have ripped them apart if I had known about it then, but I think kids are always going to do those things and parents are always going to be a little bit oblivious. If you are a parent, and you think you know everything, I promise you — you don’t.
ELZ: I love this passage that you wrote: “Those tinny notes hit for me some sweet spot of nostalgia and melancholy: for a time long gone; for the simple act of immersion into another world without the cares and fears of this one; for the way we all, even those of us careful with our words, roll entire decades into a zeitgeist of music and politics and cultural icons when all we really mean is the way we felt.”
PC: I used to see these memes on social media. I’d see this meme pop up, “We stayed out until our parents called us in and we drank from the garden hose,” and I’m kind of torn when I see that, because, in a way, we did do that. But it’s the way the meme is posted — these were the good ‘ole days when you could do this. And every time I see it, pardon my language, but fuck you. That’s bullshit. It wasn’t that way. Yeah, you could stay out until after dark and you could drink from the garden hose, but you aren’t thinking about all the other things — the serial killers and kidnappers. The strangers in vans. The Satanists. It annoys me a bit when people look back at the halcyon days, because they are only remembering the good times.
ELZ: Are you still afraid of quicksand?
PC: I bring up quicksand a lot. It always seemed like quicksand was everywhere. And then I found out — it’s not like in the TV shows. I don’t think you can actually die of quicksand, and, considering there is actually not much quicksand in the world, no, I am no longer worried about it.
I am still afraid of nuclear war. I am still afraid there will be a war that just escalates until it’s the end. Growing up, I was sure the world was going to end in the ’80s. Everyone said so.
But I didn’t check my kids’ Halloween candy for razor blades when they were growing up. And I know now kids are much more likely to be kidnapped by a family member than a stranger in a van, so I’ve lost a few of those old fears.
Quicksand we are good on … As long as I never see it. But if I ever do, the first thing I’m going to do is have a video of me jumping into quicksand and extracting myself safely.
Paul Crenshaw is the author of three essay collections: This One Will Hurt You, This We’ll Defend, and Melt With Me: Coming of Age and Other ’80s Perils. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, and Oxford American.•