How Can You Fear an Invisible Enemy?

Gas masks at a school in Pripyat, an abandoned city near Chernobyl. (Ludek Perina / CTK via AP Images)

Elisa Gabbert‘s latest essay for Real Life, “Doomsday Pattern,” is an extended muse on on what it means to live in a world on the edge of nuclear apocalypse, whether through war or disaster. Her piece is graphic and challenging — broadly philosophical and painfully concrete all at once.

When Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895, he named them because they represented the unknown. This gets at what was, and is, so uncanny about radiation: You can’t see it, only its effects. One cameraman sent to film the scene at Chernobyl after the fact said, “It wasn’t obvious what to film. Nothing was blowing up anywhere.” But some people, it seems, are immune to this fear of the unseeable; they refused to evacuate or later returned to the contaminated land, the zone of exclusion, because “I don’t find it as scary here as it was back there.” They chose contamination over exile, the invisible over the visible threat. “This threat here, I don’t feel it. I don’t see it. It’s nowhere in my memory. It’s men I’m afraid of. Men with guns.”

Read the essay