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When I was in Seattle, I bought a vampire T-shirt. It’s a flattering light blue, nice soft cotton, and on the front there’s a picture of a woman, her mouth surrounded by red blood. It is my new favorite T-shirt, even more so than the Star Wars one of Princess Leia saying, “Don’t call me princess” or my classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer shirt. (Although thinking about those two T-shirts also makes me pretty happy.)

In a way, my new vampire T-shirt is like Max’s monster costume from Where the Wild Things Are. I wonder if I like it for the same reason he liked to dress as a monster. Wearing it is both embracing the monstrous nature of life–the violence, the cruelty, the confusion and uncertainty, the inevitability of death, whether you are ready for it or not–and embracing the reflection of the monster that lives inside.

Because we are all monsters in some way, aren’t we? We all have some fragments of a dark side, and some of us have full-on Darth Vader scale issues. Nobody wants to be “nice” all the time, and indeed, as I have been discovering, being nice can have decided drawbacks. Being nice can turn out to be not so nice after all; even such an innocuous-sounding desire can have hidden depths.

We’re fascinated with that monster inside, though. Look at the popularity of Dexter. I have not actually seen Dexter, so I can’t talk specifics, but it is a show featuring a serial killer as its anti-hero protagonist. Oh, but it’s okay, because he’s a serial killer with a moral code. Um…yeah. I guess we believe our morals can keep the monster on a leash. I guess we want to believe that the end justifies the means.

At the same time, we need that monster. It gives us courage and strength, and it allows us to come to grips with strong and sometimes overwhelming emotions: anger, fear, grief. It gives us a feeling of power, of control. In the case of the vampire woman on my T-shirt, it hints at something unsuspected: you might have thought I was powerless, she says, but now that my mouth is ringed with blood, perhaps you have different ideas of who I am and of what I am capable. If we are dressed in the guise of a monster, then we can see ourselves as the empowered individual instead of the victim. We can act instead of being acted upon.

When I was a kid, I had a stuffed animal monster called an Oof. It had yellow eyes, a beaver tail, and horns. It sat on the top of my bookshelf and watched over me while I slept, and I loved it. Because some monsters are loveable: Cookie Monster, Roald Dahl’s the BFG, Sulley from Monsters Inc., even Patrick Ness’s The Monster Calls (which is one of the most devastating, true, and perfect books I have ever read). A monster can sometimes show greater compassion than everyone else. A monster can sit with you and be okay with who you are, even when who you are is messy and complicated and not the way you’re supposed to be.

We all live with monsters. When we’re lucky, we then get to come home to our bedrooms where our suppers are still piping hot. Thank you, Maurice Sendak, for the truth you told.

What do you think about monsters? Do you have a favorite kind? Do you have something you like to wear that’s like my vampire shirt or Max’s monster costume?

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