What’s your earliest memory? For me, the answer is not pleasant.
I’m about four years old, and I’m sitting in the green-carpeted hallway of our family’s first home in Biloxi, Mississippi. The bathroom door stands open in front of me, and my mother is emerging from the shower. As she pulls a towel from the rack, I notice a dark stain marring that clean, fluffy pink material. It’s a cockroach. I see it before she does. As she wraps the towel around her body, however, it quickly makes itself known. She shrieks, flailing and stomping, suddenly naked and vulnerable and afraid. I begin to cry.
I recently asked my mother about this event, and she had no idea what I was talking about. Perhaps I dreamed it, or my early memory is flawed. Or perhaps it was just business-as-usual in our Southern US home, where – no matter what chemical barriers were erected – cockroaches inevitably found their way inside.
Real or imaginary, this incident triggered an intense dislike of cockroaches that would only intensify as years passed and encounters with those creatures multiplied. For me, a roach is not just an insect. It is a psychological gateway into a lengthy laundry list of traumatic experiences: digging through a box of supplies in my outdoor playhouse when a roach zips out and scuttles up my leg, its spiky appendages pricking at my skin. Watching my first cat, Salty, as he traps a roach, dismembers it with his claws and mouth, and then eats the succulent, writhing remains. Finding a small dead cockroach tangled in my wet hair after a trip to the beach, and thereafter suffering recurring nightmares of picking roaches out of my hair.
Roaches invade our homes and make those intimate spaces their own. As physical embodiments of filth and germs, they show that for all of our fortifications against dirt and disease, those efforts are ultimately futile. “They’ve really figured out how to exploit the opportunities we create, and in doing so, developed behaviours and life histories that prevent us from controlling them,” says Jeff Lockwood, a professor of natural sciences and humanities at the University of Wyoming. “In a sense, we loathe that which we foster.” Our very existence enables them to thrive.
The true nature of that relationship – and the irrational fear it so often inspires – was something I was compelled to learn more about for very personal reasons. That mission would require me to dig out the cockroach exoskeletons in my closet, explore intriguing new techniques to help us conquer insect fear, and ultimately confront the terror head-on, by journeying into the heart of six-legged darkness, at one of the premier cockroach labs in the world. Along the way, however, I would uncover an unsettling truth about the future of our relationship with roaches, and it would transform the way I see these life-long foes.