What Our Fear of Wolves Tells Us About Women’s Fears

Erica Berry analyzes the mythology and history of wolves in "Wolfish" to unpack our understanding of who is feared and who is feared for

A painting of Little Red Riding Hood walking in a forest with a wolf.
Carl Larsson’s Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in the forest via Wikimedia Commons

“This is one of those stories that begins with a female body,” opens Erica Berry’s evocative exploration of wolves, fear, and the female experience, Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear. Though the body Berry speaks of is not the human one we conjure in our minds, but that of a two-year-old wolf, OR-106, whose corpse was discovered on the side of the road in a small Oregon town. “Her body is the same palette as the snow beneath her,” Berry writes, suggesting that OR-106’s body could be easily missed or mistaken for a part of the landscape, echoing the way violence against women is often overlooked in our culture, normalized as natural to the environment. Subtly and immediately, Berry puts her story in conversation with the wolf’s, illuminating a surprising kinship in their shared fight to survive—a kinship that begins to erode the binary of predator and prey.

By challenging the limits of our perception in this opening scenario, Berry sets the stage for Wolfish’s central idea: that much of the way we see ourselves, others, and the world around us is shaped by cultural narratives, not ontological truth. Tracking her own coming-of-age story alongside the wandering of her home state’s most infamous wolf, OR-7, Berry grapples with how fluid the roles of predator and prey can be for both humans and animals, and all the complexity and ambiguity this binary obscures from view. Weaving together threads of memoir, historical data, Internet dialogue, and more, she searches for the root of her own unshakable fear while analyzing wolves—both real and figurative—to unpack our understanding of who is feared and who is feared for. In many ways, Wolfish becomes a kind of map, a guide. One that makes space for the truth Berry finds in conflicting ideologies; one where she is not simply the prey and the wolf predator, but where they can be recognized as both, and fear can be seen as a precursor to discovery, not only as a sign of danger.

I was first introduced to Erica Berry and an earlier iteration of this book during the Tin House Summer Workshop in 2020. After all we’ve endured in these last few fear-ridden years, Wolfish feels particularly necessary. A both/and approach that carves a clearing through decades of overgrown ideas, exposing the hope and possibility of uncharted terrain. A path forward, into the wild unknown. 

Nicholl Paratore: I was so fascinated by the structure of Wolfish and its chapters, which are titled like fighters in a ring (ex.“Girl v. Wolf”), and the surprising ways in which each chapter subverts the simplicity of that opposition. Can you speak a bit about the book’s structure? 

Erica Berry: My agent Marya Spence pointed out early on that part of the project was grappling with the wolf across a binary, trying to subvert the simplicity of the narrative I had inherited in this Western Biblical tradition of wolf as “other.” “Girl v. Wolf” was one of the original chapters I was working on, and it felt like the most intimate way my body and the wolf’s body were tied. Part of my decision to include myself in the book came from realizing how important “Little Red Riding Hood” was not only to popular conceptions of the wolf, but the young human woman. I wanted to reveal the absurdity of these oppositional binaries, as when I write about “girl” wolves in “Girl v. Wolf.”

Each of the chapter titles—which zoom outward as the book progresses, from “girl” to “town” and then into headier themes, like “Truth v. Wolf” and “Self v. Wolf”—becomes a bucket for research and personal stories. I’d often Tetris a certain anecdote from one chapter to another, working to honor both chronology and theme. It felt a bit like tuning at a mixing board. This chapter needs a little more real wolf biology, that chapter needs more personal stakes. 

Ultimately the wolf and I aren’t facing each other in opposition; as I say at the end of the book, it’s more like we’re all on a dance floor, our steps overlapping. I think that decenters both us and the wolf in an interesting way. We’re not two fighters in a ring, we’re just two animals meeting each other in the world. 

NP: Wolfish complicates the binary of predator and prey by illuminating the ways in which we can be—at different times or in different contexts—both. It forgoes a kind of analogous read of the lives of wolves and women and instead illustrates a connection between the two. I’m thinking in particular of the parallels drawn between your experience of womanhood within the confines of our patriarchal society and the wolf’s own existence—the ways in which both lived experiences are shaped by the social constructions that precede them. It feels like one way of asking: where does the self begin and the society end? Can you share more about this line of thinking? 

It’s a thing humans and wolves have in common—we can be both feared and feared for.

EB: At first I felt uncomfortable thinking of myself as prey, which was a label, like “victim,” I had not wanted to claim for myself. I think part of the discomfort came from the fact that many of the personal anecdotes I share in the book are “events,” to use Melissa Febos’ language in Girlhood, not headline-worthy violence. They occur on a “Cat Person”-like spectrum of patriarchy. I remember a teacher responding to an early draft by writing that a thing I’d included was a “pretty standard assault,” suggesting it didn’t belong. The language was so jarring. How does an assault become standard? Isn’t the assumed quotidianness of that worth writing into? As soon as I decided to write into those moments of feeling like prey, I knew I had to consider being predator too. I want readers to consider how they can exist as both, or cycle from one to the other, however unintentionally. It’s a thing humans and wolves have in common—we can be both feared and feared for. The binary collapses. To go back to your question: what is a “self” but the story we tell about our body in our head? I wanted to imagine new stories for my own body, but also for it in relation to other (human and non-human) ones. 

NP: In Wolfish, language is used as a lens to analyze existing binaries and known tropes—which often define both how we see ourselves and the world around us—revealing how porous those boundaries actually are. We see this illustrated in more literal terms in the landscape as well, as OR-7 doesn’t realize he has crossed a border into Oregon. Can you talk about your exploration of language or any surprising moments in your research that led you along this path? 

EB: That’s beautifully said. I think part of why I’m a writer is that I have this tremendous faith in language—the belief that the right words can repair or liberate.  The inverse of this is that I’m very aware of its failures, too, and squeamish about the violence encoded in etymologies and subconscious associations. The word “wolf” has so often meant more than itself; in Ancient Norse, Sanskrit, and Slavik traditions, words for “wolf” are also words for “robber” or “evil-doer.” I was very aware that when someone says “wolf,” their brain might be visualizing the biological animal, but also maybe clocking the storybook one, or the “lone wolf shooter.” It’s why this book had to be so interdisciplinary—because to deny the associations between how people are animalized and animals are personified, for example, is to deny the way language clangs through our brain. 

NP: I’d love to talk about the coming-of-age story threaded through Wolfish. Throughout the book, you’re exploring a kind of amorphous fear, trying to both map its shape and understand its origin. But I was also moved by your tenacity and curiosity. In many ways, it feels like naming this fear is also an attempt to protect that sensibility, which seems so rooted in your sense of self, and inherently at the mercy of growing up. Can you elaborate more on that? 

EB: I love that summation, and I think recognizing one’s fear as a part of one’s selfhood is really important. I didn’t set out to write a memoir, but rather to take a core-sample of my relationship with fear, which got more intense in my early 20s. I became very worried for my own body and the bodies of people around me. I now see that part of that was just the growth of my investment in the world. I was learning who and what I was in love with. The measure of that love was my fear for its loss. In that sense this is a book about coming into an awareness of mortality. 

Fear is taught to us, sold to us. But we choose when to carry it, and at what cost we bear it.

We often think about fear as shutting us down, but there’s also a way that it can open us up, too. If you hear something in the bushes, you go investigate. That curiosity and inquiry can be beautiful. It made me realize I don’t want to live a life without fear, I just wanted to learn how to “dose” it for myself. It’s also important to remember that bravery and fear are not mutually exclusive. Some of the bravery I think about in this book is not just putting your body in certain spaces, but asking certain questions about stories you’ve inherited or norms of coexistence. How do we think outside those forms of dependence? So much of growing up is learning to think for ourselves—to question the stories we’ve metabolized—but also to accept that fear can never be eradicated. How do we walk beside the things that scare us? I was trying to answer that for myself.

NP: There were so many encounters throughout Wolfish that felt both appalling and all too familiar, like the interaction with the man on the Amtrak train, or the man at your door. But it’s the encounter with the drunken man who throws his arms around you as you’re leaving a bar that I can’t stop thinking about, and in particular, your response to the men on the street who ultimately intervene: “Help would be great.” Even during that breach of safety, gendered expectations rise to the surface. Can you talk about this scene and what it crystalized for you in the narrative? 

EB: Growing up, I encountered horror movies and true crime and fairy tales as almost out-of-body rehearsals for potential violence in my own life. I loved Nancy Drew books, and I was always imagining that with an assailant I would be a certain sort of superhero-version of myself. That encounter you mention was my first altercation with a stranger where, with his hands on me, I realized I was not acting in any of the ways I thought I would. I thought I’d been preparing my whole life via stories and movies to defend myself, yet when it happened, my mind went blank.

Understanding that the script I was adhering to in that moment was one of compulsive people-pleasing, not self-defense, was really upsetting. I not only felt betrayed because I’d been grabbed by a stranger, but betrayed by my reaction. It was very weird to experience self-disappointment alongside extreme adrenaline and fear. This guy was wasted, but also intimidating, and also sad. The crying existing beside the violence. And those two parallels, of not being sure whether to comfort or punch him, was such a strange feeling that I struggled to put it on the page. Would readers “buy” my clash of emotions? It felt really important to try and honor the complexity of that memory, which, as with so many encounters, does not slot cleanly into one emotional registrar. 

NP: At one point in Wolfish, you reference a list of environmental nonfiction books a professor recommended to you ahead of a research trip—each one written by a man. I’d love to touch on this gap in nature writing, not in the writing itself, but what has been celebrated and canonized, and how your story gives a voice to that gap. It feels central to the why of this book and the why now, too. Can you talk about this discrepancy and any of the ways this gendered imbalance impacted the information that was available to you when researching or reading about wolves and the natural world? 

EB: My senior year of college, around the time I was starting the wolf thesis, I started writing a grant proposal to go to Bhutan and do a big interview project. When I told an advisor about my plan, he laughed it off, basically saying: “Don’t be naïve. You’re a woman. It won’t be safe. Don’t even pitch it. It won’t get accepted.” To be told, by this male professor, that I couldn’t pursue what I wanted to because I was a woman, enraged me. It was the first time it occurred to me that the stories I wanted to tell would be influenced by my gender, whether I wanted them to or not. 

So much of the outdoor literature I’d grown up with was about “finding yourself” amidst natural splendor, but I began to realize that growing into my own body had created the opposite of that feeling—more often it was a shrinking inward. I felt a tension between wanting to propel myself into the unknown and protect myself. The stories I was pursuing involved me going out into the wilderness, or down these long dirt roads, away from service, alone with or without sources. It seemed I could either write in a way that repressed my awareness of potential violence, or make it very obvious—as much a part of the emotional landscape as, say, my awe at a mountain or bird. 

Acknowledging the slippage between real and symbolic animals felt like a similar imperative. I didn’t want to pursue a story that pretended one of those two things didn’t exist. The fact that the media called the Central Park Five a wolf pack felt very germane to the stories I wanted to tell about real wolves, too. My decision to weave my own life in the narrative, and to think about myself as just another animal with both physical and symbolic forms—an animal shaped by stories and expectations, a body misread just as the wolf is misread—felt critical.

NP: As we grapple with the feelings of our fear-defined pandemic years and learn how to cautiously move forward, Wolfish feels particularly important. How has writing this book changed your relationship with fear? 

EB: I used to think the best way to live beside fear was to try and grow out of it, but I now feel like learning how we grow into it is just as helpful. My therapist in grad school told me she thought I should stop writing about fear, because I was dwelling on it. Bad advice! And there’s research on writing about trauma that backs that up. I do think examining the nature of fear in my body helped to defang it. Part of that was understanding that I do not create nor bear my fear alone. It’s taught to us, it’s sold to us. But we choose when to carry it, and at what cost we bear it.

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