When she first saw the Lincoln Memorial 15 years ago Estelle Davis recalls that she was nearly overcome with emotion -- not awe, but intense "fear and nausea."
Washington's statues make Estelle Davis sick. And in the 16 years the ex-New Yorker has lived and worked near this city of monuments, she has done so with a secret fear and loathing for the statues she would like to enjoy.
About 3.5 million people visit the Lincoln Memorial annually, but Davis, now 30, hasn't returned since her last stomach-turning experience.
"I know it's silly," she said laughing, trying to sound casual. "You're going to think I'm crazy. But I've got this thing about statues. It's silly. I'm . . . a . . . ." She sighed deeply. "I'm afraid of statues."
Recently encouraged by family and a friend who stumbled upon her phobia, Davis pulled her fear out of the closet and took it to the Phobia Program of Washington.
There she met psychologist Jerilyn Ross and told her the story of a statue-phobic's world. She told Ross she is afraid that staring at a statue may make her scream or vomit or faint in public. She is afraid that they will reach out and grab her. Above all, she said, she fears the unknown consequences of looking at a statue too long, because she has never done so for more than a few seconds.
"A panic attack for me would be to be in a car and look around and see the Iwo Jima Memorial," she said, fidgeting slightly as she sat in a deep, cushioned, armchair opposite Ross. Yet, she said, she also feels compelled to sneak a peek at statues she can't avoid passing.
"There's a kind of love-hate relationship," Ross told her. "You really want to see it." And then the fear starts.
A former phobic herself -- an ex-New Yorker with a fear of tall buildings -- Ross described phobic symptoms: Cold, clammy hands a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, a queasy stomach, nausea -- and the fear that the symptoms never will go away.
"That's it. That's very true," said Davis, relieved that Ross understood.
"And what would happen to you if you stayed there?" Ross asked.
Davis paused for a moment: "I don't know. I don't know if it will come down at me. Or if I'll scream or what."
Davis is a classic phobic, with a fear of unusual objects, said Ross, who also has counseled a woman with a fear of plumbing. That woman regularly would throw away her purse if she absent-mindedly had placed it on a strange chair.
"A plumber might have been here," she told Ross.
One of Ross's colleagues counseled a woman from Wisconsin who had a fear of anything that came from Wisconsin. She first would telephone the hostess of any party to which she was invited and ask if the woman would be serving anything from Wisconsin -- cheese, for instance. If the hostess said yes, the woman didn't go to the party, Ross said.
The center, at 6191 Executive Blvd. in Rockville, was founded in 1977 by Dr. Robert L. DuPont, a Washington-area psychiatrist. More than 600 phobics have been treated, Ross said, most of them with more common fears, such as fear of flying, or heights, or public speaking. A 20-week program, which is the average time the phobics have spent in therapy, costs $950 and includes group and individual sessions.
But Ross said that no statue-phobic ever had come to the center before Davis. The closest to date, DuPont said, was a woman with a fear of the Capitol.
"We don't pay too much attention what the object is," said Ross. "Behind all phobias is a fear of a feeling. A fear of fear. It's an irrational fear."
But the fear itself and the symptoms "are absolutely real," said DuPont."It's a fear reaction and it's very powerful. It's a real fear reaction, but in an inappropriate situation that leads to the person avoiding the situation.
"The fear is normal, but the triggering isn't."
And how has Davis managed to elude statues in a city of more than 500 statues, tombs, temples, urns, busts and other monuments, a place where almost every twist and turn through the maze of highways and streets leads to a statue? It has not been easy, she said, especially since she has hidden her phobia from most of her friends for years.
She attended college here, majoring in accounting. She met and dated her husband, Ron, a native of Washington, who did not understand the depth of Davis's phobia until after they were married. They lived in the city for a time, but now have lived in the suburbs for 10 years.
Over the years, Davis learned to avoid statues downtown by design, she said. She plotted routes around them. She has driven out of her way to avoid the Iwo Jima Memorial. But, quaking inwardly with fear, she still has gone on sightseeing tours to hide her fear of statues from family members and friends.
She recalled once accompanying friends to the Jefferson Memorial and keeping her back to the monument. They never guessed why. That night, however, she said she had a nightmare that she was about to walk past the Jefferson Memorial.
She has had other nightmares, Ron said, like the one in which "she sees [the statue of] good old Danny Webster looking in the window."
While they dated, Ron said, he was blissfully unaware of the extent of her problem, although surprised at his future wife's reluctance to take strolls by the monuments along the Potomac. He said she would say simply that she didn't like the statues.
"I didn't think too much of it then," he said. "When you're dating you have more important things to think about than why someone doesn't like statues."
Davis' sister, Maxine, recalled being with Estelle at the Lincoln Memorial that evening 15 years ago.
"As we walked up the steps, she began to get a shortness of breath, turned kind of pale, and this definite fear came on her face," Maxine said. "She said 'I can't go any farther. I can't go to the statue.' "
And last year, when Ron and Estelle Davis vacationed with Maxine, they went to a restaurant in Clearwater, Fla.
"It looked like the inside of a mausoleum," said Ron, describing rooms with red velvet wallpaper, bright gold leaf trim -- and white statues. Estelle sat with her back to the statue, he said, and she and Maxine ordered the special house drinks and proceeded to "get crocked. Everything after that went down hill."
Estelle said she stayed because she didn't want to spoil everyone else's fun, but for her the evening was a experience in terror.
"If I could describe one of my nightmares," she told Maxine, "this would be it."