I’m not going to start this by talking about Matilda. Mara Wilson is not Matilda. She is a real person, not a character that we’ve tried to trap her in forever.
It is not her job to preserve our nostalgia or personally uphold the happy memories of our childhood. She played beloved characters, but she is also a person whose newly-published memoirs are at once deeply identifiable (the agonizing awkwardness of teen girlhood) and fabulously dreamlike (Danny DeVito and the whole cast and crew of Matilda throwing her a surprise on-set birthday party).
Mara Wilson is not Matilda, but she has not discarded her either. She has embraced and transcended her role in our collective nostalgia. She is now a playwright, actress, and writer. And she wrote the hell out of this book. Where Am I Now? True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame is a memoir that speaks to readers who grew up awkward, or struggle with mental health. Her writing style is lovely and self-effacing (charming and self-aware, not morose). Her memories of being a child with hangups, neuroses, weirdness, and morbid fixations– let’s just say I relate. Reading this was like talking to an old friend.
In writing about her experiences as a child actor, Wilson also drops some Lindy West-style truth bombs about feminism and Hollywood’s warped beauty standards:
“The next time someone, be they someone in Hollywood or (more likely) someone hiding behind a username, decides to tell me what would make me prettier, I’m going to propose the following: I will meet them in person, but before they offer any suggestions, I will ask them to listen. I will tell them about going through puberty in the public eye after my mother died of cancer. I will tell them how it feels to find a website advertising nude photos of yourself as a twelve-year-old. I will tell them I’ve looked at ‘cute’ from both sides now, and that in both cases it just made me miserable… I will tell them how much it hurt to experience that kind of criticism on a macro scale, and how free I feel now that I have chosen not to worry about it.”
Wilson is candid about her diagnoses of obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and depression. One of the beautiful essays in this book, originally published on her blog, shares her reaction to her former co-star Robin Williams’ death by suicide. The essay beautifully articulates the need for a widespread change in how we discuss mental health. She writes:
“Mental health needs to be taken as seriously as physical health; the two go hand in hand. But I am afraid people will romanticize what Robin went through. Please don’t romanticize mental anguish… Artists who struggle with mental illness, trauma, disease, addiction… do not want or welcome it… To focus on someone’s pain instead of their accomplishments is an insult to them. As my friend Patrick put it, a person is a person first and a story second.”
As it was for Robin, so it is for Mara. She is a person first and a story second. While we may love Matilda, Mrs. Doubtfire, Miracle on 34th Street, or the criminally underrated A Simple Wish, there is more to her than the characters we’ve loved for so long.
This is not to disregard the tremendous gift of her acting work; I don’t know where I would be without Matilda, which is one the movies that I love even more than the book, though the book is lovely and I read mine until it literally fell to pieces. For children who are bookish and alienated, Matilda was a lifeboat. The precocious telekinetic girl is the patron saint of the powerless and disenfranchised– and as it turns out, Matilda and Mara have that in common.
TWs for Where Am I Now? include: bullying, death, online harassment, mental illness, sexualization of children, suicide