A Little Pretender

A few years ago, my mother asked me, rather plaintively, “Don’t you have any happy memories from your childhood?”

I get the feeling that most of my friends, to say nothing of the readers of this blog, will be surprised to hear this, but I think that as a kid I was happy more often than I wasn’t. My childhood, considered as an epoch, was not a happy time, but that just meant that the full force of my infant genius was focused on finding ways to make myself feel better. Kids are more likely to succeed at that than anybody else, I think.

It’s easy to forget that I was ever happy. For a long while I’ve been a bit worried that if I acknowledged having ever been anything other than abjectly miserable prior to the age of 18, the Authenticity Police would swoop in and tear up my abuse survivor membership card. And it’s complicated by the fact that the abuse shaped me in ways that meant that the things that made me happy as a child were a little weird. We’ve already discussed how between the ages of 11 and 13 my chief thrill in life was to contemplate how Anastasia Romanov died alone in the snow. So it’s probably not too shocking that at the age of 7, I spent a lot of time pretending to be Sara Crewe in A Little Princess, scrubbing floors.


(The only true adaption of A Little Princess is the 1986 version. Accept no substitutes!)

It was definitely Sara’s stint as a skivvy under the cruel Miss Minchin that appealed to me, and not Sara’s life after the kind and wealthy Mr. Carrisford rescues her from all the floor scrubbing at the end of the book. I only had the vaguest notion what Mr. Carrisford’s kind of happiness looked like—I was content to accept that it was happy, and that it meant that no matter what Sara suffered before her rescue, everything would be all right in the end, which was all I hoped for myself as well. The kind of happiness I understood was Sara playing in her cold attic room at night with her friend Ermengarde, creating a better world for them both with the sheer force of her imagination. And while on paper it sounds bad to say that I could relate deeply to a victim of Victorian child slavery, and not at all to the same child after she’s rescued, the fact remains that I really was very happy while I was doing it.

If it’s confusing to you, don’t worry: for most of my adult life, it’s been equally confusing to me.

I had a sort of epiphany about all this earlier this morning, while I was listening to the Thomas Newman score of Little Women, which is the movie that epitomizes every childhood fantasy I ever had as a kid about wearing big 19th century dresses and living in (what seemed to me back then) more refined times and circumstances.

As the music played, I was suddenly seeing myself at 10 years old, dressed up for the fourth grade play. My grandmother had made me a blue gingham frock for the occasion, with a full skirt and little brass buttons down the front and a massive crinoline underneath, like something from Little House On the Prairie. I never felt more like myself than when I was wearing that dress; it was a staple part of my playtime wardrobe until I outgrew it. Remembering myself in that dress while writhing with all the emotions summoned by the Little Women soundtrack, I felt like I was connecting with something absolutely essential and true about who I had been at that age, and who I was now—as if I’d tapped into something vital in the core of my identity that had been overshadowed and nearly forgotten after years of suffering and grief for the parts of my past that were tragic. As corny as it will sound, the idea that came to me was that if there was a heaven (which I don’t believe) and my soul went there after death (I don’t believe in souls), the form that my soul would take would look just like that: ten years old, wearing the costume that helped me wish myself out of my present and into an idealized past, redeemed of all suffering and damage by the power of my creativity and imagination.

I’ve not been updating here for the last few weeks because I’ve started writing a new novel. It’s going really well—less than a month into it, and I’m already over 45,000 words. In many respects my life feels just as stagnant and “on hold” now as it has for most of the last two years: still no job, still debilitating levels of anxiety, loneliness, financial worry, etc. But I’ve got a novel going again, which means that in some part of my (purely hypothetical) soul, it must be spring again. And in a lot of ways, this novel taps directly into the energy that Blue Gingham Frock Brittany symbolizes for me. My friend Rachel joked that in some ways this book is a satire of the novel I was writing when I was 16. It’s about a Scottish university lecturer who goes to stay at a haunted castle because he’s writing a biography of a Gothic novelist who lived there 200 years ago. There’s romance, overblown emotion, unabashed geekery about 19th century literature, epic storms, ghosts, queer theory as a plot point, horror, and humor. Blue Gingham Frock Brittany would be a little confused by it (mostly by all the gay characters) but deep down I think she would approve. And I think that’s the first time in my adult life I’ve honestly been able to say that I’ve done something that my younger self wouldn’t be mortified by, or disappointed with.

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