Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear by Erica Berry is the type of nonfiction book that any can read regardless of their interests as long as they like damn good writing. She blends science and history to get a better sense of what drives us. Is there a small wolf inside all of us? Through this cultural criticism, Berry smashes expectations for what a book can do.
Throughout Wolfish, Berry expertly dances through information without bogging the reader down. Her grasp on structure should be studied by all writers regardless of mode.
Wolfish is out now. You can read an excerpt from the book below.
When Joseph Campbell codified the concept of the “hero’s journey” in 1949, he suggested a hero was made when he ventured out in the world, encountered wild forces, triumphed, and returned with new power. This was the scaffolding of boy into man, as heroes from Odysseus to Hercules, Luke Skywalker to Harry Potter will tell.
Nearly forty years later, in a 1984 interview, Campbell said a girl turns into a woman with “her first menstruation . . . it happens to her. Nature does it to her.” Unlike the man’s journey, Campbell portrayed the woman’s as passive. She did not have to go looking for transformation because the seed of it was always inside her. “What is a woman?” asked Campbell. “A woman is a vehicle of life. Life has overtaken her.”
The words first infuriated me for their flat essentializing of gender identity, then their naïveté. If my journey into “womanhood” had, at times, felt passive, it was not because I felt overtaken by my ovaries, but by forces outside my body. Forces I could not, with the right pill, control.
My favorite stories were the Campbell-hero kind. The ones about leaving. Of running into the forest and making a home in an old boxcar, or entering a wardrobe to lose yourself the way my friends and I did in Forever 21. I read these books while pretzeled in the tire swing on my grandparents’ Montana lawn, palms sticky with berry Popsicle, my thick bangs a curtain between my brain and the world. These were stories of temporary orphanhood. Independence was a rainstorm that blew in and created good drama, allowed the green shoots to raise their tiny fists toward a sun that would, inevitably, return. At first the stories seemed ripe with the myth of universality. The child who set off from their parents was not boy or girl, they were runaway.
I identified first as an adventurer. It didn’t matter how I appeared, I thought; it mattered what I did. I oscillated between overalls and dresses, sometimes brushing my long hair, other times tying it up to make it go away. I had been mistaken for a boy as a toddler, and though I would bristle at that later, taking pleasure in the twirl of my skirts, I sensed early that layering necklaces and pulling on tights meant others were more likely to pay attention to me. To appraise myself as feminine was to invite a certain kind of appraisal; its inverse was also true. By dressing in jeans and big, dark sweaters, my body could almost disappear. Become almost invisible when I walked down the street.
I did not realize then what a privilege it was to feel in control of how my body was read. “[E]ven dressed almost mannishly, I would be noticed . . . I could not leave my race at home,” writes novelist Min Jin Lee, recollecting her youth in an essay about violence against Asian Americans for the New York Times. My own ability to present my body according to mood was not just a privilege of my youth but of my condition, that cocktail of slow-blooming genetic scrawniness, cis-gendered heterosexuality, culturally sanctioned whiteness. “You cannot separate what it means to be a ‘woman,’ often used to mean a performance of acceptable femininity, from the conditions that decide what is and is not acceptable across time,” writes sociologist, cultural critic, and award-winning writer Tressie McMillan Cottom. The same is true for girls. My hair and skin were light. I had crushes on boys. My body and its desires were mostly acceptable, the magazines told me. Across race and gender lines, society viewed Brown and Black girls as more adult-like than their white peers, but I was granted girlhood. I wore it like an accessory: a purse I could carry when I wanted to and drop when I did not. I could not imagine how such an accoutrement could carry danger. That one day I might see the purse fused to my skin, my female identity a costume I could not shake. Puberty is often described as growing into one’s body, but I experienced it as slowly becoming trapped there, standing on a spit of beach while the tide rolled in.
I did not hate my changed body, but I mourned the old one, or rather the ease with which I once occupied it. “We’re all stuck in our bodies, meaning stuck inside a grid of conflicting ideas about what those bodies mean,” writes Olivia Laing in Everybody: A Book About Freedom. Society told me my new body had rules: shave this, cover that. I had become trapped in a tighter grid.
When did I see the sliver of divide? Wading through that canon of stories about young people leaving home, and there it was, a seam in the glass cup. The girls were going off, facing danger, and falling in love, always with boys. Sometimes boys were saving them from threats, but sometimes just from themselves. Love taught those girls they had been walking around like plastic half-heart necklaces, waiting for a union to click them into wholeness. To strive to be completed was to cede that you as an individual were incomplete, lacking. By the time I was in middle school, I had learned to wait for crushes the way I waited for sunshine in the spring. I did not think I needed saving from physical threats, but I absorbed the cultural message that I was unfinished. Raw as an undressed salad. I wanted adventure, sure, but I understood the finish line should be love. Still, I kept reading about boy adventurers, the self-sufficient ones who stowed away on boats and made homes in trees. Was I in love with them, or did I want to be them? The difference seemed negligible. Because my own bravery had rarely been put to the test, I sensed it was in the wings, folded and ready as an airplane life vest. To read stories of danger was to rehearse my escape.
Only now can I feel nostalgic thinking of that tween version of self, so outwardly independent, so inwardly boy-obsessed. A girl who craved the boys’ company for fun, for attention, for a lark. Still oblivious to that dumb tick: fear.
The summer before middle school I went with two friends to a “girls’ empowerment” camp in a meadow outside Eugene, Oregon. My friends went for a weekend the summer before and came back giddy with girl power and henna tattoos, but we weren’t at the seven-day session long before they admitted this was a stronger brew. The teenage counselors waved us with sage smoke and robbed us of flip phones and watches, locking them in the whitehaired director’s ranch house. At night we slept in a giant circle of sleeping bags on the dewy grass of what was, I now realize, her yard. Activities included walking the labyrinth painted onto her driveway, passing around the cold beak of a cervical speculum, and crouching in the ferns, told not to come out until our “spirit animals” appeared. Without language to articulate why the camp felt so bad, I began to suspect I just didn’t know how to have fun. At the buffet-style meals, I ate one plate of tofu pasta salad after another, desperate to feel soothed.
I left the camp with a turd of earthy clay strung on yarn around my neck and a bubblegum-colored T-shirt signed by my peers. girls kick butt, someone scrawled next to a peace sign on my shoulder. In the spirit of a lower-back tattoo, my friend Sharpie’d strong independent woman right above the hem, where the shirt fell above my nonexistent ass. The camp strived, in admirable ways, to teach us feminist self-reliance so often missing in Western fairy tales. But the punch line that stays with me now was, I realize, the same as in “Little Red Riding Hood”: that the boys are out to get us. We sat crisscross in a circle, wide-eyed as the counselors passed around a tube of pepper spray and told us to carry one at all times, especially on dates with boys we thought we might like. Just as the wolf knocks on the sick grandmother’s door, feigning the disguise of Little Red so he can eat the geriatric and assume her boudoir post, so we were told boys would do anything to get us into bed.
I had grown up knowing not to get in cars with strangers, but I do not remember my parents giving a gendered shape to their warnings. It was the early 2000s, a time of glossy, commercialized girl power, of “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Of course I knew men could be creeps, but I was also wading into middle school with girls whom I had seen do pretty terrifying things. Camp was the first time a woman looked me in the eye and told me men were out to trick us. That, or it was the first time I wondered if I should listen. The lesson was delivered, like the a cappella goddess chants we sang to the stars, as a secret of our sisterhood. As with those lessons, I scoffed. I was a skeptic who missed her wristwatch, and deciding to fear men felt like deciding to put faith in the director’s healing crystal. Until I saw evidence with my own eyes, I would continue to doubt its weight in my life.
This piece is excerpted from WOLFISH: WOLF, SELF, AND THE STORIES WE TELL ABOUT FEAR. Copyright © 2023 by Erica Berry. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.