Sleep With One Eye Open

What childhood fears can teach us.

Author by John Devore
Art credit: Megan Schaller

It is expected that soon-to-be first graders will make a fuss when bedtime comes, but I made no such fuss. A kiss. A tuck. A flick of the light switch. I made sure to be as sweet as sheet cake and it worked: Neither my mother nor my father suspected that I had a plan. A plan to fight supernatural forces arrayed against me.

The plan was simple. First: put on swimming goggles to protect my eyes. Hold flyswatters in both hands. Then just sit there. In bed. And wait for him.

This is a story about how one seven-year-old got fed up with all the lies and decided to fight back. I would learn the truth, eventually, as all children must.


My therapist tells me to listen to my inner-child and my inner-child is always whispering “Do not fear the truth.”

This is good advice for adults.

Here are some hard truths I had to face as a boy: My dad ate the cookies I left out for the jolly old elf. My mother was the one who snuck quarters under my pillow to distract me from the horror of my teeth falling out. There is no such place as “hamster heaven.”Adults forget being a child means being constantly deceived.

Then there is the story of the Sandman, as told to me by my mother, who was always overworked and tired and in need of some peace and quiet.

Once upon a time, I hated bedtime. This is not abnormal. I had plenty of it in the womb. I’d constantly call out from my twin bed that I couldn’t sleep and, one night, my mother popped in and told me not to worry because the Sandman would visit soon and sprinkle sand in my eyes and then I’d fall asleep.

“The what now?”

“You know the crusts you have in your eyes when you wake up?” she said. “That’s the Sandman’s sand.”

Apparently, the Sandman was some secret phantasm who pulled down the inky curtain of unconsciousness on unsuspecting children, whether they wanted to sleep or not.

This, of course, was unacceptable. I refused to believe it. This was worse than a night witch swapping my precious body parts for some spare change. Why would he do this? Did the Sandman eat my dreams?

My mother chuckled. Parents often chuckle. In time I would figure out that chuckling was a sign that adults were hiding something. A tell.

The Sandman is a huge part of pop culture. Hans Christian Anderson, the famed children’s author, created the modern image of the Sandman, a sort of benevolent nocturnal goblin lulling children to sleep back in the 19th century. His Sandman character has a bit of Santa about him: Nice children are given good dreams; naughty ones get bad dreams. Like Ol’ St. Nick, this version of the Sandman combined ancient pagan beliefs with Christian morality. A complicated bit of cultural fusion just to invent some bullshit to tell children who didn’t want to go to sleep, if you ask me.

I dimly remember hearing the cute love song “Mr. Sandman,” which was first sung by The Chordettes in 1958. It’s one of those songs that parents, or at least my parents, would sing while doing chores. They were a singing-old-tunes sort of couple. This was my first exposure to the Sandman — in a toe-tapping ditty about a magical matchmaker.

Years later, when I was in high school, the heavy metal band Metallica wrote a real headbanger called “Enter the Sandman.” The hard rock song’s thesis was simple: the title character was a nightmare monster. I loved this song because I could relate to it, especially when James Hetfield sings “Sleep with one eye open/hug your pillow tight.”

Metallica’s dark anthem is closer to the traditional Northern and Central European origins of the Sandman. In 1816, German novelist E.T.A. Hoffman wrote a best-selling book called “Der Sandman,” which boiled down these old country folktales into a single, disturbing story about how the Sandman steals the eyeballs of sleeping children and feeds them to his own children on the moon.

This was not the story I was told as a boy. But if I had been introduced to Hoffman’s tale, I’d have shrugged and said,”Duh, of course, the Sandman steals eyeballs.” My personal Sandman was an adversary; an unwanted monster who had to be defeated. At the time, deep down, I knew it was a hopeless battle. But it was a battle that had to be met.

I tried to put up a fight but failed. I woke up wearing my goggles, a fly-swatter in each hand. When my mother walked in to open the curtains she didn’t say a word about my battle gear. How had the enemy breached my defenses? The Sandman had won despite my best efforts. Unless, of course, he didn’t really exist.

Not long after that, my father told me one of his tall tales about Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, a city that had captured his imagination as a young man. He had met my mother in El Paso, Texas, which was just across the river. His stories of Juárez were about immortal bullfighters and treasure hunters with pockets full of Aztec gold and a magical bakery that made pan de huevos that could make people fall in love.

He told me that once, in the fifties in Juárez, lottery balls were picked during drawings by children under the age of seven. He told me the Catholic Church, at the time, believed that seven is the age when children begin to learn the difference between right and wrong and before that age are incapable of deception. My old man was a Baptist, the son of a preacher, so I just took his word on Catholic catechism. I did not bring this up with my Catholic mother.

And then it clicked. I was teetering on the edge of seven and he was, like, whatever age a father is supposed to be? Eighty-five? One hundred? If seven is the age of reason … if children older than seven can lie … then why can’t parents?

The next year I faced the truth. My dad was Santa. My mother, the Tooth Fairy. The Easter Bunny? There are no giant vermin in the Bible! The next Christmas I kept my suspicions to myself and instead of composing a letter asking Santa for action figures, I just went right to the source and asked him.

I still sleep with one eye open, though, and hold my pillow tight.

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About Woolly

A curious exploration of comfort, wellness, and modern life — emotionally supported by Casper. It’s a beautiful magazine published by a mattress. Come on, you know it’s not the weirdest thing to happen this year. The first issue includes a love letter to comfort pants, a skeptic's guide to crystals, and an adulting coloring book.