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Imaginary cries – inspirations for Kassandra Montag’s psychological thriller Those Who Return

Publishing on 14th April, Kassandra Montag’s psychological thriller THOSE WHO RETURN is a searing novel of guilt and redemption, set in the Great Plains of Nebraska. Here she writes about how experiences with colic informed what she wanted to write her book about. 


One morning while my two-year-old brother was playing in the backyard, he picked up a loaded handgun. The night before my parents had heard feet pounding on the pavement around our house, then sirens and the whipping blades of helicopters above our sleeping heads. It wasn’t an infrequent occurrence in the neighborhood we lived in. No real cause for concern.

Whoever was fleeing the law must have dropped the weapon on their way through the backyard. Thankfully my mother got the handgun away from my brother before he injured himself or anyone else, but I often think of that averted disaster. Of how elusive a safe place is, and how safety can feel especially elusive within one’s own mind. I wondered if every time she took us into the backyard she scoured the grass, afraid now, the incident repeating itself inwardly.

My husband is a geriatric psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of dementia and he sometimes remarks that our minds are on rent to us, able to evict us from ourselves with less notice than we’d like. The seeming permanence of the mind and the self is an illusion—a comforting and necessary one.

I got an experience of this firsthand soon after the birth of my second son. It was a harsh winter with bitter winds ripping across the plains. My son, who screamed for an average of seven hours every night, had a bad case of colic. We weren’t living near family and couldn’t afford to hire help and my husband was working long hours during his medical residency, so I was alone in the cold house with two children under the age of two.

As the sky darkened, each window turned into a mirror, doubling everything it faced, making the house feel distorted and strange. He cried so seamlessly he didn’t seem to need to pause for breath. I tried all the methods to calm him, but nothing ever really worked. The colic was simply something he needed to outgrow.

When he’d fallen asleep after a bout of crying, I’d peer down at him in his crib, where he was finally peaceful, little fists curled on either side of his wispy head. He was a perfect picture of repose, but I could still hear—with a clarity that I rarely experienced—his screams. Weeks bled into one another where I’d rush to him, thinking he wtjas screaming, only to see that he was sleeping.

So, this is what it’s like to lose your mind, I thought.

The auditory hallucinations vanished when the colic did, but the impression stayed with me. The uneasy realization that the mind could wander into strange territory, off the homestead, straight into enemy land. And in some cases, it might not be easy to coax it back. It’s why emotional suffering can feel so much worse than physical pain—it can seem like it goes on forever, with no relief in sight. The constant crying was enough to bear but to hear it even after it stopped felt suffocating.

So when I began this novel, I knew I wanted to write about characters who have experienced trauma or mental health disorders that made them at times feel evicted from their own lives. I wanted to chart their way back. A line from a John Donne poem captivated me: “A fancy, a chimera in my brain, troubles me in my prayer.” A multi-headed monster which has come to roost in the mind seemed like the greatest villain of all, the kind you really can’t expect to fully vanquish.

This was the kind of villain I wanted to tackle because I see heroism in simple, everyday acts of perseverance. Seeing your dreams dashed and trying again, against long odds. Holding the hand of a loved one at the hospital. Drinking a glass of water after receiving the worst phone call of your life. These moments test your mettle all the more because they don’t leave you after they have occurred.

As I wrote about these otherwise ordinary lives disrupted by invisible wounds, I watched them traverse the unending inner landscape. Their wellness was on a spectrum and transformation lay in inching their way toward one end, not in being cured and becoming a new person.

I saw how their first step toward healing, or at least a respite from further suffering, involved acceptance. Acceptance of what they couldn’t change externally often began to make small changes internally. This acceptance served as a release from their white-knuckle grip on the story they had been telling themselves was true. That was always only an interpretation anyway, perhaps its own illusion. This loosening let other things in: moments of joy, hope, optimism.

I don’t remember the day the auditory hallucinations stopped. It was more of a gradual rebalancing, like losing your sea legs after returning to shore. Soon you walk with a more confident step, soon you stop swaying so much. The world is there, still waiting for you and everyone else who needed some time to return to themselves again.