Study Guide

The Rules of Survival Fear

By Nancy Werlin


Emmy, the events we lived through taught me to be sure of nothing about other people. They taught me to expect danger around every corner. They taught me to understand that there are people in this world who mean you harm. And sometimes, they're people who say they love you. (P.5)

Matthew's upbringing isn't exactly conducive to a healthy outlook on life. Instead of trusting people or believing in the good of the world, he's filled with pessimism and fear. After all, people are pretty awful sometimes.

It wasn't really his fault, that he was so useless. My dad was afraid of our mother. He kept out of her way. On the few occasions they were in the same room together, he wouldn't even meet her eyes. I didn't blame him for it too much. I understood. She was unpredictable. (1.6)

Ben is not exactly the best role model—instead of standing up to Nikki and telling her that she needs to stop mistreating the kids, he just skulks away. He's just as scared as the rest of them.

You could smell the kid's fear floating on the stale, air-conditioned store air. He stole one little look behind Murdoch at the big man, and you could see him thinking, I'll have to pay for this later. (1.29)

When Matthew and Callie see that kid being yelled at for taking a bag of candy, they freeze up. That's because they recognize his fear and the way that his father is speaking to him; they know what it's like to be utterly terrified of a parent.

I don't know if you'll understand this, Emmy, but for me, fear isn't actually a bad thing. It's a primitive instinct that's your friend. It warns you to pay attention, because you're in danger. It tells you to do something, to act, to save yourself. (2.1)

Fear makes sense in an evolutionary way because it helps you to recognize when there's danger, but it doesn't make sense if you're living in a state of constant fear. Matthew and his siblings are always afraid, which is a pretty uncomfortable way to live.

God's honest trust, Emmy: I don't think I was ever able to look at our mother and just see her. Instead, I'd see in my memory the things she did over the years and the expression on her face when she did them. So I could never quite believe that strangers didn't run screaming down the street at the very sight of her. (6.1)

Nikki looks like a hot mama to most of the outside world… but Matthew sees her as completely different. To him, she looks like a monster because he just sees all the mean and violent things that she's done to them.

I sat in the silence, in the passenger seat of the rented Jeep, my mouth dry and my hands shaking. I could feel Callie's terror from the backseat, but she said nothing either. There was nothing to say. (12.50)

You have to hand it to Nikki—she comes up with lots of creative ways to terrify the kids. From holding knives to their necks, to locking them in closets, to driving into opposing traffic… she keeps it varied.

"I'm just thinking things out." Callie's voice was flat. "Emmy feeling safe is dangerous. For her. For us. It's just a fact, Matt. I never imagined she would feel safe." She added: "I never have." (18.23)

On one hand, it's a good thing that Emmy hasn't been as traumatized as her siblings. On the other hand, it's a bad thing that she doesn't act like she's scared of Nikki because her attitude just infuriates Nikki and sets her off.

It's strange. The rest of us all admit that Nikki was enough to give anyone nightmares. Even Murdoch. But Aunt Bobbie, who had known Nikki for the longest time and was afraid for the longest time, too, has wiped the fear from her mind like dirt from a window. (31.7)

It's kind of nice to live with Aunt Bobbie now that Nikki no longer has custody because Aunt Bobbie refuses to be afraid of her sister. Instead of admitting that Nikki is truly terrifying, Aunt Bobbie talks about her like she's an annoyance.

We had won our freedom. But it wasn't at all what I'd thought it would be. It didn't make me feel completely safe, the way I'd dreamed.

Nikki was still out there. (38.18-19)

So much for the criminal justice system. The Walsh kids are thrilled that Nikki doesn't have custody anymore, but they're bummed that she's not locked up for a long time. It's scary to know that she's out there somewhere, looking for them.

I was amazed and shocked at what I had just done. I wasn't just taller than Nikki now. I was stronger.

And yet, it didn't matter. Fear pulsed in me still. (44.29-30)

Even though Matthew is a big dude now that he's gone through his growth spurt and has spent lots of time working out, he's still scared of Nikki. He could beat her up, but he can't help but feel the familiar fear when he's around her.