Childhood is, on a whole lot of levels, a time when we figure a whole lot of stuff out.
It’s messy, it’s fun, it’s complicated, it’s not; what it is above all though is a training ground for the rest of life, figuring out who we are, what we like, who likes us, and how to respond to life’s ups and downs in a way that makes sense to us.
For most of us, this all happens out of the glare of a prying world; but if you’re a child star like Mara Wilson (Matilda, Mrs Doubtfire, Miracle on 34th Street), it takes place with the whole world watching, a dynamic that gets internalised so that the Greek chorus of fans and disapproving gossipy onlookers stay with you long after the director has called “Cut!”
In her disarmingly, refreshingly honest book Where Am I Now? True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame, Mara lays it all out – what it felt like to be a movie star by happenstance, her neuroses and anxieties, her fears of death, sex and societal disapproval, and how she’s worked hard to make peace with it all as an adult.
Written in a self-deprecating, funny but above all, unflinchingly honest style that you can’t help but be entranced by and admire mightily – who of us with lives lived far less in the spotlight would be this authentic? – Where Am I Now? not only gives us insight into the nuts and bolts of Mara’s extraordinary life, but what it all meant and how it shaped who she is now.
“All through the last few months of Miracle and our publicity tour, she smiled whenever people told her I was cute, but I could sense she was forcing it. Her disapproval was contagious: it never occurred to me that I didn’t have to share her opinions. Japan was the last place I felt comfortable being called ‘cute’. After that, anytime someone said it, I would wince. Something about it made me feel smaller.” (P. 53)
In essence, it’s a coming of age story but one that few of us would have come close to experiencing; after all, who but Mara could claim to have been friends with Robin Williams as a child (her chapter on his death is heartbreaking but real), hung out at Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman’s home and spent much of her time growing up on a multiplicity of film sets?
It all sounds very glamorous to the uninformed person but as Mara admits, for all the great benefits it bestowed and the great memories it gave her, there were quite a few negatives, compounded by her struggles with anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and the death of her mother when Mara was just eight.
At no point, do you get the feeling that Mara is waging some sort of giant pity party for herself; she gives credit where credit is due for the good times but is also quite candid about the dark times that came with it, and the way it complicated the already-tricky business of growing up.
Mara writes throughout the book with a self-awareness that allows to frame her past, the events that shaped and made her, into some sort of meaningful context.
These are not simply memories thrown out into the ether with no reason or rhyme; every admission, every recounting of a pivotal moment comes with context and meaning attached, enriching what is far more than your run-of-the-mill celebrity biography. (Mara is clear that she sees herself not as a celebrity at all, that whatever clings to her in that form comes from the nostalgia of fans who grew up watching her movies and not any choices made by her.)
This means that for every story of hanging on a film set with Robin Williams or publicity tours for Miracle on 34th Street, there are awkward stories of kissing a boy for the first time, being socially excluded from the choir she had given everything to get into, or breaking up in college with her first serious boyfriend, Sam.
In other words, real life, something that Mara admits, with great candour, is true for anyone in Hollywood, not that you would know it from the endless cloud of PR splendour that enshrouds most movie stars.
“My greatest fear was that someone, part of the amorphous public who’d never met me, would discover I had any kind of sexuality. I had been a part of many people’s childhoods, and therefore felt like I had to at least pretend to be a Good Girl for the rest of my life if I wanted to stay in their good graces.” (P. 200)
Where Am I Now? is primarily a story of growing up in a world far different from that of most people, but by pulling back the celebrity curtain to reveal what really happens behind the scenes, Mara also humanises people that, for most of us, exist in a rarefied world of red carpet appearances, Oscar after-parties and glamorous photo shoots.
Only they don’t most of the time, and by talking about her experience in a way that is delightfully real and circumspect but also tinged with deep emotional resonance – Mara talks for instance about more relieved than sad than her career didn’t transition into childhood, happy that she had a chance to pursue her writing and stagecraft instead – we come to understand something we should have really guessed all along; that life is messy and complicated and bruising and richly-rewarding, no matter who’s living it and the circumstances in which they find themselves.
In other words, we’re all human, plagued by uncertainty, dreams, desires and grappling with flaws and pitfalls, and by writing Where Am I Now?, a brilliantly titular play on the usual tabloid line of has-been celebrity exhumations, with real honesty and intelligent introspection (including a willingness to discuss mental health issues and the dysfunction of Hollywood among other things), Mara has engagingly closed that divide in a way that reassures us that we’re all in the same, maddeningly odd and weird existential boat and that that’s OK.