The Sunday Rumpus Essay: When You Dream Your Husband Is Trying to Kill You

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I want to say it was a just a bad dream, that I don’t believe my husband is trying to kill me, or any part of me. When I tell friends about the nightmare, anticipating their dead pause, I laugh first so they know I am not worried. But they pause anyway, wondering, like me, why am I dreaming of my own demise at the hands of the one I love.

Physical violence is a real problem in many marriages, and an expert look at mine for indicators and risks would yield exactly nothing. But merging with another person is by nature an act of destruction—of preconceived notions and preconceived selves—and that chaos has had small but not invisible consequences for me. I feel foolish for complaining, so focus on the last decade’s joys: working from our rented Victorian home, doting on our daughter, shuttling her to school, circus class, and girl scouts in SUV comfort, benefitting from my husband’s downtown Chicago career to which he is also married. Sometimes, though, my vision blurs, and I catch glimpses of another more gothic truth in the rearview mirror, in my reflection in spring puddles dotting my path to the wine shop. The benign details of my traditional marriage that fall through the cracks during the day pop up at night as my worst nightmare—uxoricide—and I wish it felt as ridiculous as it sounds.

Before you brush me off as a pampered but paranoid woman, consider this: when we fell in love I was 34 and, though smitten and snuggling next to him in a rare outdoor winter moment on the Belmont pier, I had the distinct feeling that I was dying. So I told him.

“I don’t know what to make of that,” he had said. And maybe he didn’t. But now I wonder if his confusion was just a cover, something to say if I sensed his plans to care for me so well that my independent spirit would die. That his love would murder my independence.

In real life, my husband is mild mannered, funny and quirky. He doesn’t like to use magnets on the stainless steel fridge (they scratch), will wash a few dishes rather than waste a cycle on a half-full dishwasher, and hides all broken household items in the attic to fix another, more convenient day. He is also successful in his job, a good dad, and about as good a husband as I am a wife. I have always thought of us as mostly well matched, and have dealt with his penchant for household order and financial control with hopeful dismissal. My habit of ignoring the shortcomings in others has never served me in love before. I once dated a man in the South of France who thought he was Sammy Hagar, complete with blond curls, leather pants, screaming rock band, and delusions of grandeur; later there was another who, when not on his meds, thought he was Shiva. After dreaming of my husband’s intent to murder me, I fear once again I have turned too blind an eye.

When, in my dream, my husband told me his systematic strategy for my elimination, we were in a liminal space, the car, driving on a truck route near the train tracks. My nonexistent infant son lay in a Moby wrap on my chest, my seven-year-old girl sat in the back, looking more like me as a child. He fleshed out his strategy in careful detail, as is his way. I saw it like a storyboard: first, he made it look sensible to give up my university adjunct teaching position, since the pay would cost me after subtracting childcare. Then, he made it look sensible to keep our devalued condo during the recession, because although I had little professional support in this city, taking a loss and moving to where I had more connections was too costly. Being professionally adrift certainly did a number on me, I conceded. It all but destroyed my youthful optimism, I thought, and maybe even my youth. But it didn’t kill you, he marveled with a whisper that made me realize, with horror, that I had never seen him angry. He had hidden that, too.

Except for having a second child, all of this had already happened in real life. We made those decisions together, and like chopping a few of my own toes, they hobbled me. We pulled through the wearying phases of early parenthood, the near-foreclosure, and my creative and professional flatline, but I am no longer the person I was; I am cracked by circumstances that couldn’t be helped, re-glued by practical decisions for “us” which, along with grey hair and slim fit jeans, also happen to look fantastic on him. During the day, I call it luck, a blessing, that he seems unchanged on the outside and upgraded on the inside. But when the sun sets I am suspicious.

These are the exact feminist warnings of marriage. I recall the cautionary tropes to “have a secret bank account” and “never give up your apartment” every day as I shove my stuff in the gym locker and press the electronic code that spells our two initials. Most of the time, I chuckle and head up to my favorite cardio machine, the one that simulates running on air. I glide away the anxiety that he’s lost respect for me, and 45 minutes later, in a light sweat, I have forgotten the worst part of the dream. When he opens the door with his will alone and kicks me hard with a leg I didn’t see coming, I hit the street to be squashed by traffic. I tumble towards the curb, catching sight of the freedom I foolishly let go.

It was a bad dream.

Responsible scientists will agree the dream world is not wholly understood. I’m not a psychiatrist, but I’ve had enough therapy to know that Freudians and Jungians both will say our dreams stem from what we can’t acknowledge. Experts describe a spectrum between perception and imagination, and depending on the year and the study, the center of that spectrum slides from one side to another when it comes to evaluating dreams. While this is one of those years they say that dreams are grounded mostly in imagination, I worry that five years from now I’ll be floating above my own funeral scene thinking, I guess it was more about perception than they thought.

When I told my husband this dream, he laughed, but not a, that’s-the-most-ridiculous-thing-I-ever-heard, laugh. More like a sad, uh-oh laugh. Maybe because he recalled that eerie moment on the Belmont pier, or remembered an even eerier moment—when I had flood dreams the whole week before the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia. Precognitive dreams and presentiments are more common that most know. They have been identified in lab settings in which the dreamer is asked to dream of tomorrow’s video, before the video is even selected. When performed across multiple dreamers, or in the same dreamer across multiple nights, statistics have shown significant results beyond what would be expected by chance. The data are so strong, in fact, that a trained precognitive dreamer is being asked to predict the stock market in an upcoming experimental collaboration between two major universities and a financial services analyst. Knowing the future, it seems, may be innate to our unconscious minds.

But unless you’re in a lab setting, there’s no way to know if you’ve successfully engaged the precognitive mechanism until the predicted incident occurs. Even if you keep a notebook by your bedside and write down every dream each morning, no matter how happy, humdrum, or horrible, you still won’t know which is literal foreknowledge and which is just unconscious chaos until the event takes place in real time. By then, in the case of a diabolical husband, it may be too late to take the precognition seriously.

Our cultural reflex is to deny this possibility. Most people defer to the scientific principle that effect cannot occur before cause. That you can’t see the future before it happens. But for dreams that feel precognitive—those that leave a residue of truth after sunrise—I know plenty of people who take action, who write them down and even bring them up in therapy. They may not give these dreams real literal weight, but most can agree that the pipeline between dream disturbance and life disturbance is short. The question then becomes, what part of this dream is real, and how can I make the ambiguity more clear? How can I avert the disaster?

It’s no secret to my husband and I that the energy I give to the marriage never shows up in the joint checking account, or on the mortgage payment. But the shame I have about it, and the shame about the shame, has been pretty much undocumented until now. So I did my future self a solid: I wrote it down in a tiny black notebook where I allow my worst thoughts to exist. I made a record of this horrible dream, and the sentiments around it. I gave mistrust and regret their time in the sun. Then, I made a deal with my husband to regularly discuss solutions to my fears so they can stop haunting me. In short, I brought the dream into real life.

In my more sane and confident moments, I am certain he is the non-murdering gentleman I married. But if I do slip into worry about the symbolism, I remember the outcome of the dream; he doesn’t succeed. I roll away from the speeding trucks and land at the bottom of metal steps leading up to an arriving Amtrak train. With my children safely attached to me, I board, buy tickets, and complacently take my seat on what is an express to Quebec, a nearby, foreign city whose language I don’t remember how to speak.

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Image credits: “V” by Keer Tanchak, “Swim” by Kurt Riemersma


Suzanne Clores is a memoirist and fiction writer. She is the author of Memoirs of a Spiritual Outsider and founder of The Extraordinary Project, a growing online story collection and book in progress about our most unusual human experiences. More from this author →