“Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?” Remember that catchy song from “The Three Little Pigs,” a Walt Disney classic? How about “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” Aesop’s Fable about a boy known to be a liar who wasn’t believed when he alerted the villagers to a real wolf. And then there’s the phrase “keep the wolf at door,” which means trying to have enough money to survive.

Wolves have long been used as a metaphor for something bad, scary, to be avoided at all costs. Our former host student Erica Berry (Bowdoin 2014) just published a book entitled, “Wolfish: Wolf Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear.” Reading her exquisitely crafted book has gotten me to thinking about fear.

Some fears persist. I’ll never overcome my fear of being late for an appointment or meeting or sporting event. I’ll never adjust to getting robotic telephone prompts when I want to speak to a real human being to get information or solve a problem. Other fears can be overcome. I hated public speaking until my mid-twenties. Now I love it if, but only if, I have a clear idea about what I want to say. I used to hate flying, but now I’m able to relax. Today, I just fear the prospect of going through airport security.

Some fears we develop because of a single bad experience. After one of our friends got pickpocketed in Europe, I became paranoid when walking the streets of cities known for pickpocketing incidents, such as Barcelona and Paris. I had had no fear of dogs until, unprovoked, a rescue dog that had issues with strange men bit me on the arm.

As a grandparent, I’ve seen my grandchildren outgrow such fears as sleeping in total darkness or getting off a London tube or ascending an escalator.

As a host parent to Bowdoin students, I often advise them to be willing to take risks. Ask yourself “What’s the worst that can happen?” and then take the plunge. More often than not, you’ll be glad you did. At the very least, you’ll learn from the experience.


Back to the book by Erica Berry. The blurb on the book jacket reads, “In this enthralling kaleidoscope exploration of wolves both real and symbolic, Erica Berry weaves historic and scientific findings alongside cultural criticism, journalism, and memoir to illuminate the strands of our cultural constructions of predator and prey, and what it means to navigate a world in which we can be both.”

After reading Erica’s book, I was reminded yet again of her great gifts as a writer and thinker. As her host parents, we knew she would be successful but neither we — nor she — expected her to make the big time so fast. Several major news outlets, such as the Los Angeles Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer, have put this book on their “Ten Books You Should Be Sure to Read in 2023” lists.

I was fascinated by Erica’s reflections on the similarities between wolves and people. Members of both species benefit from being with their “packs,” which usually extend beyond immediately family, while also gaining strength by breaking away from their pack from time to time.

I was also struck with the realization that women — especially young women — have to navigate the world knowing that they must remain constantly wary of men who might want to do them physical harm. As a former distance runner, I never worried about being whistled at — or worse — when I ran alone. I’ve seldom worried about being “prey” except for the aforementioned pickpocketing reference or when bombarded with spam calls.

Erica Berry will be visiting Brunswick in April to give some talks and meet with some students at Bowdoin. In the meantime, I highly recommend you check out her book. A fine read, it would provide great fodder for book group discussions.

David Treadwell, a Brunswick writer, welcomes commentary and suggestions for future “Just a Little Old” columns. dtreadw575@aol.com.

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