The Rats in the Walls

This week in class we were assigned a short story to read called “The Rats in the Walls” by H.P. Lovecraft. One of the themes central to the story is that of family history and secrets, and, most likely because I’ve been thinking about these things a lot, lately, it resonated with me in a way the author may not have actually intended.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been seeing a therapist and working on some things from my past, and during the process of my own healing, I have come to realize just how pervasive family dysfunction can be and how prevalent and widespread the effects of it can become. In “The Rats in the Walls,” the main character, Delapore, begins researching his family history and moves into his ancestral home where each night he hears rats climbing inside the walls. Interestingly, only he (and his cats) can hear these rats, and they eventually lead him to the truth about his family’s horrific secret past.

Likely because of what I’ve been studying and personally going through, I took the fact that only Delapore can hear the rats to be the case because Delapore is a family member and a descendant of those who once lived in the house. Interpreting the presence of the rats in this way is meaningful to me for two opposing reasons. First, it signifies the fact that within each family, only the members of that family really know what takes place “behind the walls.” Conversely, it also signifies how each of us is often blind to our own family dysfunction, and even though we are literally witness to it every single day, we often cannot name (and therefore heal from) the dysfunction unless it is pointed out to us. For example, the emotionally incestuous father who casts his young daughter in a role his wife ought to play, depending on the daughter emotionally and spiritually for far too much. Or the perfectionist mother who teaches her son that self-worth is only achievable by being the “best.” In both cases, child and parent have no framework to recognize the behavior as abuse and therefore believe it to be normal or even healthy–the daughter’s actions toward the father considered loving and dutiful, the son’s perfectionism framed as “drive” and “ambition.” Meanwhile, none of them see the very real, and incredibly destructive, cycle of abuse.

In a similar manner, Delapore knows the rats are present. He can hear them, but they are hidden from his other senses just as abuse is often too obscure and covert to identify in anything other than the vaguest sense. Delapore spends most of the story searching for the truth of his ancestry and, in the end, accompanied by his friend, Norrys, he blindly follows the rats into those “grinning caverns of earth’s centre” where they are destined to lead. There, we find Delapore, aroused by the knowledge of his family history, eating the body of his friend while his cat—the only other witness to the rats—tears at his throat, presumably in an effort to stop him.

Isn’t this what family dysfunction does? It leads us deeper and deeper, entangling us further and further, until, if not seen and healed, the dysfunction spreads onto our adult relationships, damaging those around us as we “eat” our own. And isn’t there always some witness tearing at our throats, trying desperately to warn us of what is happening to us and those around us? Do we listen?

It’s a dismal look at the human psyche. But I think it’s also a necessary one.

Will we listen?

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