Believing in the Animorphs Taught Me I Could Cope with Anything
In the End, the Shape-Shifting Magic was Mine
As a child, I kissed our pet frog, hoping he’d turn into a boy who’d protect me from monstruos. The frog failed to metamorphose, so I tried again. And again.
He was the only creature in our tank of tadpoles that had come close to resembling a frog in the months since we had procured them. But he still had a slimy tail, like a tadpole. Maybe he was too young. Por eso, I thought. He was stuck in tadpole phase. I’d wait.
It’s normal for children to believe the characters in fairy tales and other stories are real. But my inability to distinguish fact from fiction didn’t wane as I approached puberty. Like the tadpole-frog, I was trapped. But my prison felt larger than the world outside. It was filled with magic carpets, unicorns, big bad chupacabras.
My father fueled my faith. Papi was a Mexican immigrant who would later embark on a transcontinental odyssey to escape what he said were CIA mind control experiments. He found it endearing that I was such a gullible little girl. (He was skeptical, analytical, research-inclined). To amuse himself, he regularly claimed he’d run into my favorite fairy tale characters on the street: the haditas were nice, too bad I’d missed ‘em.
I remember opening my father’s books before I learned to read. Papi had taught himself English by sneaking books into the shipyard where he worked as a burner before I was born. In my mind, the concepts mar and padre are tangled up. My father: a kind of merman. Black mustache flecked with particles of cracked shells. Papi swam miles across the sea; he built oil tankers; he dipped his hands into the water and pulled out squids, urchins, starfish. He carried me to the coast to collect little gifts from the sea––scattered shards of conchitas and crawling cobitos––teaching me their names, correcting my pronunciation. Then he would point at the ocean with his cigarette and cry, La Sirenita! I’d gasp and turn and see only the crashing waves. Hijole, se fue, he’d sigh.
Like La Sirenita, I longed for a world that lay beyond: the limitless world of fantasy. Papi blurred the line between fiction and nonfiction, and set me free––like the sea-witch did for the Little Mermaid. But I’d lost something. Not my voice. What was it?
I wasn’t one of those erudite kids who roamed the library for classics. Like most 90s children, I found my first literary obsession in the Goosebumps series, about kids who contend with ghoulish creatures: furry blue beasts, egg-aliens, swamp-werewolves. The books reinforced Papi’s tales about a world filled with monstruos as he receded like the tide. Goosebumps helped me anchor my chasmic fears about his onset of depression into things I could comprehend: fangs, warts and slime.
In middle school, around the time that Papi ran away, I started reading the book series Animorphs, about five children who wage a guerrilla war against parasitic aliens called the Yeerks, which look like slugs and subject people to mind control by sliding into their ears and permeating their brain cells. The Animorphs fight them by transforming into animals––from fierce tigers to stealthy mosquitoes––a power they downloaded from the blue Escafil device of a benevolent centaur-alien whose spaceship crashed on earth.
I thought the Animorphs were real. This wasn’t just some daydream; it went beyond the make-believe I played as a little girl, pretend-feeding my Barbies cake. This was an intricate delusion marked, ironically, by the methods of investigative journalism––my eventual career.
The narratives portrayed themselves as urgent nonfiction exposés, occasionally addressing the reader: “You have to know what’s going on.” On the back cover of each book was a quote: “We can’t tell you who we are. Or where we live. It’s too risky . . . The thing you should know is that everyone is in really big trouble. Yeah. Even you.”
I took detailed notes in an effort to find the Animorphs. I was determined to join their ranks and help them save humanity. The beach was walking-distance from one character’s house. Could they live in San Diego, like me? Another’s parents owned the “Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic.” I typed this into AskJeeves.com, the early search engine portal to the World Wide Web. I interviewed classmates, explored the unknown regions of my city on foot. I made lists of suspected Controllers (Yeerk hosts).“I thought the Animorphs were real. This was an intricate delusion marked, ironically, by the methods of investigative journalism––my eventual career.”
These searches buttressed my faith in the Animorphs. But my certitude stemmed also from my father––how he affected me, how I identified with him, how he was a part of me.
Papi was traveling through Mexico, Europe and Asia. He had started smoking crack cocaine, and he believed the CIA or some other government agency was trying to get him to stop using the drug by targeting him with electromagnetic or radio wave technologies they were testing as possible war weapons to alter behavior. The government agents were sending voices into his head and electric shocks into his body, he said.
I wasn’t aware of the details of his theories at the time. I knew only that he believed he was pursued by persecutors in a conspiracy. My mother, an M.D., told me he was “schizophrenic.” But I wondered if Papi was telling the truth. The world was full of villains on secret quests to rule the world. Mind control was a thing.
In my first memory, Papi is making me hallucinate. I am sitting on an airplane in his lap. He reaches through the window and plunges his fingers into a fluffy white cloud. Nube, he says. For years, I thought airplane windows could be opened at the end of the 20th century due to lower safety standards. Now I know it’s impossible. The cloud-touching memory was an illusion. A product of suggestion. Surely, Papi stroked the window, pretending to stroke the cloud, prompting my mind to dissolve the plexiglass.
The power of suggestion––over our bodies and minds––is well-documented in science. As young people, we’re particularly vulnerable to this power. Our brains are bustling organisms, with a neural flexibility they will never have again. That’s why so many of us see ghosts as children, especially in Mexican families where our mischievous nannies and abuelas have too much time on their hands to conjure La Llorona.
The stories we read before and during puberty can shape how we experience the world. Here, we straddle the porous border between the magic of childhood and the materiality of adulthood; ideas can time-travel in both directions, coloring how we plan our future and how we perceive the past. Because of this, middle-grade and young adult fiction series have the greatest power. The sheer length of time we spend with them, far more than with a single novel, is comparable to a formal education. They do not merely inspire and entertain us––they forge dreams, fears, personalities, neuroses. For children with absent parents, they can dictate destinies.
Immersed in what was to me the obviously real universe of the Animorphs, I couldn’t wait to sprout wings to soar to the clouds, gills to explore the deep sea, the agile legs of a wolf to sprint through the woods. But my body was morphing in another way: I was becoming a woman. Hair sprouted in strange places. Pimples erupted on my face. I started to bleed. I was morphing ungracefully, against my will. While the power of suggestion is great, the laws of physics transcend it. There is nothing we can do to stop the passage of time.
My faith in the Animorphs became a source of ridicule. Papi was no longer around to fuel my Fantasia. As I further explored my interest in journalism, I had to conclude that my friends were imaginary. But the impact they had on me was real.
As a little girl, I had been cautious. I thought it was cute to swoon, to cry, to cringe. Animorphs made me want the thrill of being brave––like Rachel, the fiercest and fearless Animorph. She writes: “I like a good fight. The adrenaline spike of battle. The rush. The challenge.”
Before the Animorphs, my role models were damsels in distress. Rachel taught me it was better to be the hero. I decided to dedicate my life to bringing down bad guys. I would pursue a career as a journalist: exposing the truth, giving voice to the exploited. Later, I’d try to help my father discover his own truth while reporting for my memoir, Crux.
The ultimate impact of the Animorphs was ironic: a fiction series masked as journalism fueled my investigative instincts. From the first page of the series, truth is a main character. It’s the only thing that can save the world: “I’m writing this all down so more people will know the truth . . . maybe then, somehow, the human race can survive.”
Animorphs taught me I could cope with anything––the absence of my father, the bullying of classmates––by confronting it with curiosity, a weapon with which to mine reality for insights. With that weapon, I could fight real-world villains. Ignorance. Misconceptions. Alternative Facts. They infect our minds like Yeerks. But they can be uprooted. The books taught me I could change the world. It started with changing myself.
In the end, I didn’t need the tadpole-frog to metamorphose. The shapeshifting magic was mine. Although I couldn’t grow gazelle legs to leap in the desert or tentacles to make the ocean churn, I could liberate myself from destructive fictions, and choose what kind of person to become. That is what the best storytelling does: it washes us ashore, revealing to us that we can be free of its power, but only after we have been its captive for so long.