Mara Wilson was everywhere when I was a child. Mrs Doubtfire came out when I was seven, I went to see Miracle on 34th Street for my eighth birthday and then Matilda was terribly exciting as the film version of one of my favourite books. My friends and I quoted the film for years. Then, just as suddenly, she seemed to vanish. I was aware of her cropping up again in Thomas and the Magic Railroad, but by then I was a teenager and didn't see it. Mara Wilson just seemed to disappear, meaning that for many people, she remains frozen in time as the smiley little girl with the ribbon in her hair. Of course, time has passed, that girl has grown up and become a witty and eloquent young woman - a fear years ago, I read her fantastic article on 7 Reasons Child Stars Go Crazy (An Insider's Perspective), so it was with high expectations that I discovered that she had written a book, or rather a collection of essays with her musings on life. I was not disappointed.
Since Caitlin Moran's How To Be A Woman, there has been a stead flow and then a deluge of comic female memoirists. Some are better than others, and Where Am I Now? is definitely one of the better rather than the others. For starters, rather than being a faux-humble stock-taking of reaching success, Mara Wilson has very much looked at fame from both sides and being yet to reach thirty, she has had a heck of a lot of life experience. From growing up on a film set, to losing her mother to cancer while filming Matilda, to being judged as not pretty enough for Hollywood, to working through her obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety, the girl has insights - this is good deal more than a generic feminist how-to and Wilson's observations on womanhood, faith, mental health and so much more make this book well worth the reading.
These days, Wilson blogs over at Mara Writes Stuff, with some of the book's material taken from her previous work, most notably the chapter on Remembering Robin, where she discusses her memories of the late actor Robin Williams, who played her father in Mrs Doubtfire. As a blogger myself, I am always interested to see how writers manage transition their web posts onto the physical page - can an episodic form be sustained for an entire book? Truthfully, Where Am I Now? is more of a collection of distinct essays but Wilson still manages to keep an overall sense of narrative as the book opens with us being introduced to the Mara with whom we are most familiar, the five year-old stealing hearts on the set of Mrs Doubtfire, then closing as Mara realises that she has found a sense of belonging in her adult life in New York as a stand-up storyteller. Indeed, she is gifted in this area, having been spinning yarns since those very early Doubtfire days, even though she admits herself that she could have used an editor. In each essay, Wilson may start a story referring to herself aged seven, then flit forward to a relevant experience aged eighteen, back again to her seven-year old self and then finally finish with a conclusion routed in her early twenties. It never feels disorientating though, but then I realise that I am unusual in that I remember the vast majority of my growing up years and have a tendency to refer back to specific incidences in a similar fashion. Not everyone is the same. My boyfriend has few memories from before the age of six and claims to have forgotten most of his childhood.
What was oddest for me about this book was that despite our vastly different lives (she was an American child film star, I was a Yorkshire-girl-turned-Lancashire-lass-with-shades-of-the-Northern-Irish), a lot of Wilson's observations still chimed in with my own experiences. Her self-deprecating account of her adolescent horror of sexuality in "The Junior Anti-Sex League" reminded me of my distress on the subject - I utterly rejected the idea of growing up, my own changing body and disowned one of my closest teenage friends because the poor boy had the insensitivity to ask me out. Of course, I was free to hide in my baggy t-shirts and sweatshirts with no more than my peer group to sneer or poke fun - Mara Wilson had the whole world watching her, discovering aged twelve that footage of her had been included on a foot fetish site and that her head had been photoshopped onto that of porn stars. While for the most part, Wilson appears to take a lot of this lightly, but the hurt that has been caused lurks behind a lot of her writing too.
One chapter that particularly interested me was 'The C Word', where Wilson discusses the issues she had with being called 'cute', marketed as 'cute' and then hitting adolescence and not being 'cute' any more. Her mother had been keen on her having the role of Susan in Miracle on 34th because this was a role of a little girl who had thoughts and ideas, so wearing a hair ribbon even to bed seemed designed to diminish this. Child stars were always meant to look a few years younger than they actually were so that when Mara developed early, she was given an extra flattening sports bra on the set of Thomas and the Magic Railroad to try and make this less noticeable. It's a lot for a child to deal with when they haven't even hit their teens. Mostly though, I found it interesting how Mara recognised at such a young age that the term 'cute' was about being controlled and non-threatening. I remember when I spent the summer in Michigan for Camp America and being surprised about how the word 'cute' was thrown around as a catch-all adjective. Even the nearby zoo advertised its new polar cubs as being 'cute'. I have never cared for the term myself, disliking the infantilising connotations as much as Wilson does. What kind of thinking person really wants to be cooed over for their cuteness?
Of course, the proverbial elephant in the room for this book is the question of why Wilson is not famous any more. While the break-up did have a certain amount of mutuality, Wilson's very dignified account is still haunted by the sting of it, of how the offers started to dry up, the auditions began to fail, several roles she almost begged for went to Kristen Stewart (younger, cuter) and then when she finally found herself offered the part of the 'fat friend', Wilson 'finally understood'. Her looks were just not Hollywood material - what an awful thing for a teenage girl to be forced to realise. We can feel her hurt when she writes about having contacted the author of a web list of 'Ugliest Former Child Stars' to complain about its cruelty (the author apologised and explained that a need to get paid trumped any claims to integrity).
The thing is, Wilson is a nice-looking girl but what also comes across from her book is that she is a Nice Girl. She cared about what people thought, she tries hard to make a positive impression, and then she also battles with anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. While it is quite obvious that Wilson loves telling stories and performing, hard-core, cutthroat, rabid ambition is never something that comes across. She describes childhood encounters with fellow young actors such as Scarlett Johansson, yet somehow Wilson never seems like someone who was able to mold herself to fit the roles Hollywood was able to offer her. That may have hurt, but I think that Mara Wilson, the real one, the adult, not the little girl famous for her cuteness, that Mara Wilson is better off for it.
Lastly, I was fascinated by the open letter she wrote to the fictional character Matilda, a relationship she described as the most complicated in her life. Having adored the book, she had been over the moon to receive the script and be offered the role. Of course, filming was complicated and overshadowed by the fact that her mother was going through cancer, ultimately dying before the film's premiere. Yet, becoming synonymous with a beloved character seems to have had long-term effects - she describes always feeling as if she had to be on her best behaviour, trying hard not to be seen with a drink in her hand even after she turned twenty-one, not wanting to let down the people who had loved seeing her as Matilda. It even affected the way she approached her own sexuality, always being 'the girl from Matilda', with a further chapter in the book entitled 'The Matilda-Whore Complex'.
What I ultimately took away from Where Am I Now? was that Mara Wilson has grown up to be an exceptional young woman. At one point she recounts receiving a box of Shirley Temple films from Fox Studios (the sub-text being that she could be just as big a star), but although Wilson never achieved the same iconic level, you can't help but think that she is better off for it. She is an intelligent and witty writer, finishing her book with sense of gratitude for being surrounded by good and supportive friends - I wonder how many other child stars have reached a similar level of contentment?
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