May 1953

 Ben H. Swett

It was a major insight for me when I realized that everyone did not hate crows. I did. I hated them and feared them. For as long as I could remember, whenever I had a high fever, my delirium was filled with great black crows, flying up in front of me and cawing. Whenever I saw a crow or even heard one, my stomach knotted up and my whole spine crawled. I hunted crows: I stalked them and lay in wait for them -- first with a bow and arrow, and later, when I was old enough, with a rifle. I killed a lot of them.

Then, in my second year at college, I read a magazine article about a man who had a crow for a pet. It followed him around, sat on his shoulder and ate from his hand. I thought he was crazy. I turned the page and saw a picture of him with the crow on his shoulder and its beak too close to his eyes. I almost vomited. That made me wonder why I felt sick when he obviously didn't -- and it suddenly occurred to me that no one I knew reacted to crows the way I did. Could it be that the problem was not the crows? Could it be in me -- in my own mind? I decided to find out.

I was studying hypnosis and autohypnosis, and had developed some ability to control my subconscious mind. I had recently asked myself, "To what purpose? To what constructive ends or goals could I apply this kind of ability?" So, with the insight that my reaction might not be caused by every stray crow that flew by, I also found a potentially useful test to see whether autohypnosis might become a tool instead of a toy.

When I had some time to myself, I sat down, quieted my body, and then led my mind back through every memory associated with crows. Starting with the most recent -- a solitary bird I had stalked and killed -- I replayed one memory after another. In each case, my memory was loaded with revulsion and fear and hatred, but the objective memory of that particular crow or flock of crows did not warrant the emotional reactions I was experiencing. The crows were, in fact, minding their own business and not doing anything to me at all.

As I kept on, reaching for older and older memories, I lost control and drifted into a dream. In the dream, I was riding in a huge automobile. My mother was driving, and I was sitting next to her in the front seat. The car was so large that I could not see the road from where I was sitting. It was night, and raining heavily. I was sleepy. I was watching one windshield wiper hand off little blobs of water to the other, and the other wiper take them away.

We drove up the hill and turned into the driveway at our farm. Then, just as we reached the level part of the farm yard, a great, jagged rope of lightning smashed down in front of us, somewhere out beyond the buildings. It looked as though it hit the tin ventilator on top of the chicken-coop, but it was farther away than that.

With the flash of lightning, I popped out of the dream and thought, "You dummy! You've slept out of it again." I had been doing that -- losing autohypnotic control and going into a normal sleep.

The next time I had a few hours, I tried it again. I went back through all my memories of crows -- and into the same dream. Exactly the same. However, this time I did not wake up when the lightning struck: I continued dreaming. Mom put the car in the garage, carried me into the house, undressed me and put me to bed. Next was what seemed to be a short gray period, and then I was walking out through the farm yard in bright sunshine, splashing in the puddles with my new red rubber boots. I was reaching up high, holding Mom's hand, and that was not very comfortable. She was not thrilled when I splashed water on her ankles, and asked me please to stop.

We went between the chicken-coop and the barn, through the stock gate, and down the lane to the pasture. Mom pumped some water into the tank for the cows. Then we walked along the side of a gully, toward the other end of the pasture. We came around some large rocks, up over a rise under some trees -- and I saw a calf scattered in pieces along a slope where water ran down from a higher field. It looked like the chunks of meat I had seen in a butcher-shop, but with hair on them, and every chunk was covered with crows. Just as I looked at it, a crow picked out one of the calf's eyes and ate it. Then the crows all took off at once, cawing loudly -- and I awoke from the dream.

Later, when I thought about the dream, I felt it might be the source of my life-long reaction to crows, but I wanted to make sure. I asked Mom if she recalled any such incident as I saw in the dream, and she did -- in detail.

The calf had been killed -- torn to pieces -- by that lightning bolt we saw the night before. Mom went down to the pasture to see what the lightning had struck, but it never occurred to her that it might have hit a calf, or she wouldn't have taken me with her. She was looking for signs of the lightning strike in the trees, felt me stop walking, glanced at me to see why I stopped, looked where I was looking, and then saw the pieces of the calf. She recalled wondering how much I had seen before she turned me away, and how much of an impression it might have made on me. I didn't have any nightmares during the next few months, so she forgot about the incident.

I suddenly realized she never knew about my problem with crows. I had not told her because I thought everyone hated crows. Now that I knew, I didn't see any reason to tell her that incident had bothered me ever since I could remember. Why make her sad over something that was nobody's fault -- not even the crows? I told her I found the memory during an experiment with autohypnosis, and let it go at that. However, she inadvertently explained why I did not recall that incident sooner.

While we were talking about it, she said, "Let's see . . . those weren't our calves. They belonged to a neighbor. We were just pasturing them for him. That was in the spring or early summer, the first year we went on that farm, so you must have been less than two . . . about 21 months old." That was before my memory became continuous.

The next time I saw a crow, the reaction was still there, but I knew it came from my mind. I said to the crow, "OK, brother; I know it isn't you. You're not making me feel this way." I did this again every time I saw or heard a crow. Over time, the reaction subsided and finally vanished. I no longer see or hear crows when I have a high fever, and I haven't killed any more crows.

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