I was browsing Etsy late yesterday evening. I often do this when I’ve had a bad day and am trying to turn my brain off. Did you know that brooches are coming back? Not just the ethereal cameos of the early 20th century; mod stuff from the 60’s too, pieces so ugly they’re cute. There was this one pin that I really liked. It was a brightly colored image of a stylized lemon and the words Slightly bitter were emblazoned on top.
Slightly bitter. Yet admittedly delightful. These words happen to perfectly sum up Mara Wilson’s fantastic debut memoir Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame.
You know who Mara Wilson is, whether you realize it or not. She was one of the child actors. Yes, those child actors. Her contemporaries were Macaulay. Hayley Jo. Jonathan Taylor Thomas. She played the precocious child lead in the remake of Miracle On 34th Street. And, perhaps most memorably, she was the title role in Matilda.
Coming-of-age memoir novels often bore me, but I was so impressed by Mara’s bravery and her dedication to the truth. I couldn’t put the book down. Her dark humor is intriguing, and her heart is so kind. She guides the reader through her journey as a child-actor plying her trade in Hollywood and the devastating loss of her mother to cancer when still a young girl. She speaks to past friendships, both nominal and substantial, both fleeting and steadfast. She lovingly includes her experience with the late Robin Williams, whom she worked with on the film Mrs. Doubtfire.
We all have those secrets we begin to horde as we grow up. How we really felt during middle school. Our first few sexual experiences. Crises of faith, doubts about our own place in the universe, discovering our taste, style, sense of humor. Wilson lays them all bare for her readers. But as a participant, I felt less of an impulse to gawk and gimbal as per her piquant title Where Am I Now? which hearkens to a seedy TMZ special, and more compelled to respect and savor her words.
One of the things I appreciate most about Wilson is her fearless admissions to vulnerability. She doesn’t gloss over her flaws or weaknesses. Her transition from girl to woman was as awkward as it usually is – but puberty means something entirely different for working actors in Los Angeles than it does for the rest of us. Suddenly, Mara was no longer interesting to casting directors. Hollywood in the 1990s wasn’t sure what to do with her.
And on top of all this, young Mara’s tendencies to worry constantly, her compulsion to perform to certain standards, her sleeplessness, and other ills gradually grew worse. A substantive discussion and an insightful book written by a friend prompted her to take a battery test, and she was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. She explains that it was a relief to finally classify her behavior and strange thoughts.
Through her novel, Wilson champions inclusivity, sensitivity, gravity, and kindness. She believes uniqueness should be celebrated. She thinks nerds and brainiacs are awesome. She coins phrases like “the Matilda-whore complex” when referring to her difficulties during sexual maturation. And somehow, she doesn’t mind so much anymore that her first name, Mara, means “bitter” in Hebrew.
You know what? I may buy that lemon brooch and send it to Mara. I think she’d like that.