For the benefit of those of you slightly younger than me and for those of similar age who were living under a rock during their childhood, Mara Wilson was the child actress who starred in Matilda, Mrs Doubtfire, Miracle on 34th Street, etc. She doesn’t act much anymore but after stumbling across her Twitter and, subsequently, her blog, I desperately wanted to read her recent memoir.
Summary: Mara Wilson has always felt a little young and a little out of place: as the only child on a film set full of adults, the first daughter in a house full of boys, the sole clinically depressed member of the cheerleading squad, a valley girl in New York and a neurotic in California, and one of the few former child actors who has never been in jail or rehab. Tackling everything from how she first learned about sex on the set of Melrose Place, to losing her mother at a young age, to getting her first kiss (or was it kisses?) on a celebrity canoe trip, to not being “cute” enough to make it in Hollywood, these essays tell the story of one young woman’s journey from accidental fame to relative (but happy) obscurity. But they also illuminate a universal struggle: learning to accept yourself, and figuring out who you are and where you belong.
I loved this book from the second I started flicking through it on the train on the way home, and from the minute I began sneaking pages when I was meant to be cleaning. The Boy is used to this by now, however, and my wails of ‘BUT IT’S MATILDA!’ did not prevent the obligatory eye roll and dramatic presentation of furniture polish.
It’s brilliant because I now love Mara Wilson both as a person, and because she can actually write really, really well. I admit that I haven’t given her a whole lot of thought since I last turned off Matilda because, well, why would I? I had no idea what she was doing with herself nowadays and it hadn’t occurred to me to wonder. I probably wouldn’t have reserved her book if I hadn’t had a glimpse of her writing on her blog and felt compelled to read more.
I really love that it’s not a chronological memoir – it’s not ‘I was born here and then I did this, and then I went to this school…’, but it’s not really an essay collection either. It’s a wonderful blend of those two things. It is about Mara’s life and her experiences, obviously, but cutting out the boring bits that come with chronological memoirs, and without briefly skating past topics like with the standard essay-style collections.
Topics include her experiences with competitive choir as a teenager, her childhood anxious existentialism, the need for feminism and, of course, her transition from childhood star to… not. I adore how candid she is about this period of her life. She freely admits that she was a cute child who grew up to not really conform to the Hollywood standards of beauty, so she was Out. She puts it much more bluntly, of course:
Even with my braces off, with contact lenses and a better haircut, I was always going to look the way I did. I knew I wasn’t a gorgon, but I guessed that if ten strangers were to look at a photo of me, probably about four or five of them would find me attractive. That would not be good enough for Hollywood, where an actress had to be attractive to eight out of ten people to be considered for even the homely best friend character.
I (now) know that she has experience in writing (both academically and through her one-man shows, etc) so perhaps it’s it’s only to be expected, but she writes very well. Not just ‘… for a celebrity,’ but it’s actually, objectively, good. I felt angry when she was describing the joys of seeing comparisons of your childhood and adult faces of the Internet when you least expect it, and I teared up when she was expressing her sadness over the loss of Robin Williams. She’s very self-deprecating and never woe-is-me, but you end up sharing her emotions, or at least those she chooses to project.
Every week or so, a well‑meaning friend or fan sends me an article about me. Below some variation of “What Do They Look Like Now?” there is inevitably an unflattering photo of me and hundreds of comments from people who think I’m ugly.
Some are delighted, schadenfreudic: I was once paid to be cute, but now the child actor curse has caught up with me, and I’m not so cute anymore, am I? Others seem angry. My image belongs to them and they aren’t happy that I don’t match up to what they pictured. This type is the most likely to give advice: I should colour my hair, get a nose job, lose twenty pounds, go die in a hole somewhere.
There are, of course, humorous anecdotes about shooting those iconic films with Danny DeVito and Robin Williams. There’s a whole chapter dedicated to the former, which was expected, but none the less moving for it.
I’m gushing, I know, but Where Am I Now? is a wonderful, surprising book, and one that I wanted to reread immediately after finishing it. I feel that I now know more of her as an insightful, self-deprecating person, not just a former childstar. I’ll honestly read anything she ever writes.