Water Bugs: A Story of Absolution

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Photo by Getty Images/CSA-Printstock.

Katsaridaphobia is the fear of cockroaches. It is umbrellaed by entomophobia, the panic caused by insects, ten quintillion individuals of which are alive on the earth at any one time.

There are sound reasons to be wary of roaches, as their feces cause asthma in children, and their feet, entomological crampons, carry salmonella and other microbial nemeses that spoil food.

But unlike mosquitoes, our world’s deadliest creature, cockroaches do not carry dengue, nor malaria, nor yellow fever, nor West Nile, nor encephalitis. They cannot chew wiring and ignite fires like squirrels. They do not envenomate ankles. They cannot dump their family of four into steel barrels and leave them to decompose in New Hampshire for fifteen years as one human did. And if you’re alive, they will not eat you.

There is little that is life threatening, actually, about the scurrying, bark-colored insect—unless you should enter an invertebrate-eating contest as Edward Archbold did. Archbold, a thirty-two-year-old father of two, competed in the bug-munching marathon at a Miami-area reptile store. He sported a ponytail, a yellow tied-dyed T-shirt, and a rocker sweatband. He was required to munch sixty grams of mealworms, thirty-five three-inch-long “super worms,” and a bucketful of live giant South American cockroaches, all in hopes of winning an $850 python.

He swallowed many roaches whole. Witnesses say he crammed bugs into his mouth even as the insects crawled out, desperate for light, their antennae twitching at his lips.

Most of the thirty participants bowed out long before the contest’s finish. Archbold gorged on the buggy feast and became the “life of the party.” He raised his arms in a V, hooting like a football fan. Shortly after winning, Archbold walked out of the store, vomited, and collapsed. An ambulance was phoned for. The paramedics watched Archbold die en route to the hospital.

Doctors examined him and found “airway obstruction by the arthropod body parts.” Archbold, the champion devourer of insects, lover of snakes and tie-dye, had been fighting for life even as his last meal had been, too.

There are four thousand species of cockroaches, and most live in rain forests. Only twelve of them are pests. Yet they are, arguably, the world’s most abhorred lifeform, and I have always wondered why.

In the Dark Ages, citizens brought legal action against roaches. The Bible warns, with its classic redundancy, “Ye shall not make yourselves abominable with any creeping thing that creepeth.” The ancient Roman author Pliny the Elder damned them, and early Egyptians conjured spells to ward off roaches.

There are a few theorized causes of ancient entomophobia, the dread that has led to our stomping, poisoning, smashing, damning, wineglass tossing, and eating to death living things that generally do not cause us harm.

Humans, it is thought, frighten at unnatural movement. We watch roaches scurry three miles an hour (at entomological cheetah speeds), and a line of metaphorical ants marches down our nerves.

We humans quiver at prodigious breeding because small individuals, as Napoleon knew, conquer through armies. We also nightmare at creatures smuggling themselves into the cavities of our bodies. Roaches exhibit “positive thigmotaxis,” an attraction to squeezes, crawl spaces, cracks, crannies, and drains. Ironically, twentieth-century sanitation allowed roaches to spread throughout homes and other buildings as they followed pipes and cables through spaces in walls and floors. The heat inside our dwellings keeps them alive and breeding in every season.

But I think it is the roaches’ otherness that is most damning. They possess the alien look of giant eyes, sprouting antennae, flailing appendages, and wings. They do not voice feelings; their faces do not betray emotion. They are a scurrying mass of unfamiliarity.

Cockroaches are also scavengers, and we detest ragpickers. Think of how vultures, worms, fleas, telemarketers, and the homeless are viewed in our society. They are a reminder of mortality: to see a roach is to envision the day I am aswarm with subterranean re-cyclers. Seeing a cardboard box’s human resident, I remember how possible it is to misplace my life.

Lately I’ve been thinking of my time in the aptly named Whiteside Elementary School in Lubbock, Texas. I was bullied there, kids flicking my ears and punching me in my then-prodigious belly. Twice I was even stabbed with a pencil. And I’ve come up with a reason for the discomfort, beyond clichéd preadolescent disquiet. I was not merely a passive victim. I recall gloating over academic accomplishments and gleefully tattling to send troublemakers to the principal’s.

I also remember Anna Macon (not her real name), who must have weighed 180 pounds in sixth grade. She had an oval face, freckles, and a ’fro and was, I think now, a melancholic child. Almost daily the boys in my class would swipe her pencils, make fun of her weight, and mock her when she answered questions poorly. I took part in this. We shitheads were shielded by Anna’s inability to address our cruelty. Unlike me, Anna never tattled.

Can I be honest and confess how good it felt to be part of the pack? This is a story not often told in the antibullying fervor of schools today. Everyone wants to be a victim, or to protect one. I was stabbed with a pencil, but I also cherished Anna because she provided a buffer. Who doesn’t enjoy, at least in secret, the sensation and opportunity of squishing a life beneath you? And the trick, they say, when the wolves are out, is to run faster than the person who is closest to you.

Googling “roaches” one day, I discovered article after article about how police regard the presence of bugs as reason to take people’s children away.

One mother of five in Roswell, Georgia, wasn’t around to receive a knock from the police when the neighbors called about her kids, claiming they were running wild in the neighborhood. Police found roaches covering the walls and some falling from the ceiling. The kids were removed into protective custody.

A baby was found being eaten by roaches in Oklahoma in 2015. The infant had died from SIDS, not insects. SIDS is the leading cause of infant death in America. Roaches will eat dead things. Still, police arrested the mother and put her other children in protective custody.

In February 2013 in Beverly Hills, Florida, teachers discovered a roach in a nine-year-old’s ear. His parents were arrested, and the boy was placed in alternative care.

Police find roaches to be indicative of larger issues, but in Miami, 32 percent of houses report roach infestation. In Houston it’s 38 percent, Atlanta 25, New Orleans 41.

My friend George Getschow is a hard-wrought, twinkle-eyed cowboy journalist, a luminary in the literary nonfiction world. He lives on the shores of a humming lake in Texas. One night he woke to what felt like a wild animal burrowing in his ear. As he screamed, his wife grabbed a flashlight and caught a glimpse of an alien slithering into his skull. At this moment, George’s cries convinced his teenage daughter that he was being murdered, and she hid in a closet.

At the hospital George threatened to punch out a physician. He had to be drugged and held down by four people as the doctor tonged out from George’s head a cockroach the size of his thumb. The doc said it was not uncommon for roaches to find their way into homes, into people. Maybe four or five times a week, the hospital saw patients running through the doors screaming, near suicide, with bugs in their ears.

Once, a few years ago, I woke in the night to what I thought was a raindrop on my bare inner thigh. Then I remembered that I was in-doors; the faux droplet was a wet roach that had landed near one of my body’s cavities. I knew because I’d seen roaches rain from the air-conditioning vent in the living room. I called my landlord’s ex-terminator and described the intruder: an inch long, jet black, alien looking.

“They’re just water bugs,” the exterminator said in a gruff Texan drawl. “Hard to kill.”

“They’re not roaches?”

“Naw, they’re water bugs; they live here. They got lost going up your house.”

It was novel to me then, quaint even, to imagine a poor, confused roachlike-but-not-roach creature ascending my two-story apartment, a wayward forest traveler entering my home, thinking I lived in a tree. Water bugs carried no association of salmonella, asthma, or George’s ear.

But the exterminator, like roach feet, was full of shit. Water bugs are a species called oriental cockroaches, ironically from Africa, and live near humans, indoors and out. They can’t live, now, anywhere else. After thousands of years, this species has evolved to require human habitation.

Like it, my ancestors, some of the first white Europeans in America, are said to have “discovered,” “settled,” “made,” and “colonized” America, instead of having invaded it. We have stayed so long, many consider us the “original” population.

Cockroaches were a part of those early settlements. After returning from Jamestown, Englishman John Smith moaned about another invader in America’s first white settlement. In 1624 he wrote, “A certaine India Bug, called by the Spaniards a Cacarootch, the which creeping into Chests they eat and defile with their ill-scented dung.” This is perhaps the first record of roaches in America.

From a historical standpoint, there is justification for neither white people nor roaches to be living here. We are colonists still, like Smith and that early roach. And like many invader children, I’ve been brought from somewhere, a point of origin from which my kind radiated. But I don’t know how, after generations of evolution, to live anywhere else.

The word “roach” came into use when Europeans began casting their seed and spreading their progeny across the world. First Europeans imported the insects from Africa, and then they exported them to new continents. Now the word has taken on meaning as a metaphorical slight. Around the world, in disparate cultures, to call someone a “cacarootch” is an unambiguous insult.

Thus the Tutsis were cockroaches in 1994. Criminals in New York City, according to police commissioner Howard Safir in 1996, were cockroaches. In 2002 Rush Limbaugh berated Mexicans for breeding like cockroaches. In 2015, according to UK columnist Katie Hopkins, African migrants invaded Europe like cockroaches.

Every hierarchy has its lowest caste—and its outcasts. Lower classes know they are within a system. The outsiders provide a buffer, a reassurance that one is not a pariah. But take out hierarchy, and not only does this liberate the bottom rungs, it shakes the foundations from the lives of everyone else up top. Every creature comes raining down.

Carl Jung believed our basic drives were insectlike. “The unconscious was an insect” for Jung, says Charlotte Sleigh. He also thought a dream of roaches was simply the unconscious communicator lodging a complaint against the dreamer.

Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa taps into the archetypal fear when, with his form morphed into a human-sized bug, he terrifies his family. They secrete him, hiding him from the light until slowly, alienated, he wastes away.

In “On the Pleasure of Hating” William Hazlitt wrote, “Nature seems (the more we look into it) made up of antipathies: without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action.”

I needed Anna Macon. For without her, I was her.

For two decades a man in Plano, Texas, operated the Cockroach Hall of Fame as part of his extermination business. Michael Bohdan, the owner of the Cockroach Hall of Fame, is a silver-haired, stout, square-headed man who people call Cockroach Dundee. His signature attire: a fedora studded with taxidermied cockroaches.

He said in an interview, “Cockroaches have been around for 350 million years, and my feeling is, is that for any insect that can get by the onslaught of stuff that’s been thrown at them, maybe we can learn from them.”

Bohdan exhibited dead cockroaches reclining on bath towels and in beach chairs, cockroaches in place of the Statue of Liberty’s flame, cockroaches dressed as Elvis in his fat, jumpsuit period. Dressed as Marilyn Monroach, David Letteroach, Ross Peroach, Imelda Marcoroach (in an emerald dress with gold shoes). And there was a roach version of the Bates Motel, complete with a tiny dead roach mother waiting on the porch.

One roach was decked out in a white fur cape, seated behind a minipiano and candelabra, flimsy roach forelegs on tiny piano keys, with a sign that read NOW APPEARING: LIBEROACHI.

And, of course, as you might have guessed, there was a Last Sup-per with roaches, presided over by a cockroach Jesus.

Can a cockroach Jesus offer absolution?

Many Americans don’t know, or forget as I did, that our national bird, our bald eagle—a graceful fighter jet with wings—subsists on carrion, along with its fish. That up to three pounds of scavenging bacteria reside in our intestines and keep us alive. That our eukaryotic cells, which make us look human, formed millions of years ago as mutual cooperation among different invading bacteria and archaea. That when trash collectors cease working, garbage heaps up, as it did during the New York City sanitation strike of 1968.

Fossils of cockroaches go back 325 million years. That means they are 150 million years older than dinosaurs, 324,800,000 years older than humans. Every other insect found in the geologic layer of the first roaches has gone extinct. Sometimes the period when the oldest roaches are found, the Carboniferous, is called the Age of Cockroaches. Timeless scavengers make up the rock upon which we stand.

Biologists who study cats have lately supported a new theory of domestication. Rather than humans choosing pets, our four-legged companions are parasites who gradually ingratiated themselves with us so that they might survive. These encounters remind me that there will never be an isolated phenomenon known as “humanity.” With even our guts swimming in civilizations, with mitochondria and house cats becoming part of our lives, maybe one day roaches, too, will become indispensable. The once invaders our companions.

“We have never been one, we have never been individuals,” says posthumanist theorist Donna Haraway. “We’re compost.”

One day at school, I saw Anna’s father, a mild-mannered man with a barrel chest and spectacles. He was dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt and seemed conscientious toward Anna and our teacher. It was clear Anna looked up to him with reverence.

Another day, during the school’s talent show, Anna karaoked “Pretty Woman,” which she said was her dad’s favorite. I hadn’t the courage to sing, to juggle, to back flip. I was too terrified of stares, of what would be said when I could hear and when I couldn’t. I was afraid, I think, of the things I said to Anna, afraid that the nefarious bully I projected, which was what I was capable of, was me.

I imagine I made fun of Anna’s singing later. But inside, in a way I couldn’t have articulated, I was awed that she, who was always so quiet, so stomped on, had the gumption to bellow a song to her idol, to declare her love, to reach out and strike back at all those dipshits who had tried so hard to step on her.

For about a month while his ear healed, George and his family slept with earplugs. They sprayed pesticides weekly. Then, as the paranoia wore off, they put away their plugs and their poison.

Once, a roach entomologist in Gainesville, Florida, helped a woman overcome her lifelong katsaridaphobia. Everywhere she went, she was pursued by roaches, and she couldn’t stop thinking about them. They colored her every day with fearful possibility. Were they in the cereal? Under the park bench? In the bag of dog food? The entomologist was not trained in psychology, but he put her on a regimen of exposure therapy. They started small by talking. Then they progressed to photographs. Then an examination of dead, pinned roaches. Then live ones behind glass. After several visits, her hyperventilating ceased. Her nightmares evaporated.

The culmination of the therapy was the day she held a live roach in her gloved hand. They stared at each other, one creature to another, over the distance of her arm, antennae twitching. It had come to this: she and the roach were limb in limb.

Excerpted from Pandora’s Garden: Kudzu, Cockroaches, and Other Misfits of Ecology by Clinton Crockett Peters with permission from the University of Georgia Press, copyright 2018.

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