Mara Wilson’s self-awareness is a treat to consume. As I got to know her, I understood why so many young people loved her (and often wanted to be her!) in Mrs. Doubtfire, Miracle on 34th Street, and Matilda.
One of my favorite anecdotes from her book Where Am I Now? True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame, which debuted today, is from a series of vignettes packaged together in the “elementary existentialism” chapter.
Jennifer, a moody creative writing major who was my friend until I found out she and another “friend” have both gotten drunk and kissed my boyfriend, comes back to school in the fall claiming she had an “existential crisis” that summer. Big deal, I think. I’ve had those since I was five.
I secretly am that pretentious.
Consciously claiming her teenage pretentiousness is one of the reasons it’s so easy to get engrossed in Where Am I Now? Wilson’s voice is so grounded, so unpretentious, that the reader can see, hear, and feel everything she describes effortlessly.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Through her ability to recall not just what happened, but how she felt and what she thought growing up, I was transported back to moments in my own childhood and adolescence in a way that was like a healing group therapy session, but actually enjoyable. As a public mental health advocate, I find her approach to revealing her anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder brave and commendable.
Wilson is captivating and genuine—and I lept (OK, I “squee!”-ed) at the chance to ask her about some of my favorite parts of the book. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our interview.
Katie Klabusich: As a writer who always felt out of place and now draws on those experiences to fight stigma, I identified intensely with something you said in your prologue: “I was always in someone else’s world, and I always knew it. This, I’ve learned, is a far more common feeling than I once imagined.” Has finding out that a lot of other people are sure they’re “weird,” “different,” or out of place changed how you see yourself now and/or how you see your experiences growing up?
Mara Wilson: It has! I think growing up is about figuring out which experiences are universal, and which are yours alone. (I suppose my book is about both of those things.) I think most people feel out of place at some point; we are all together in feeling alone. My goal is always to make people feel welcomed and included whenever they spend time with me or read my writing.
KK: You describe a series of online incidents from seventh grade that are pretty horrifying. Harassment on social media got a profile boost recently after Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones faced racist and misogynistic abuse from Twitter trolls, but Twitter and other sites seem unwilling to do much besides banning one serial abuser. With 290,000+ Twitter followers, plus the “where are they now?” celebrity stalker sites, how do you handle what must be pretty regular invasions of your space (at the very least) that have been going on for more than 20 years?
MW: I think I’ve built up a bit of a tolerance, as I’ve been dealing with it for so long. I know not to look myself up, and I mute or ignore anyone who sends me negative posts. And, as simple as it is, I just keep myself grounded in real life. My friends and family know me as a person, and they love me. They have my back. When people are calling me names, I remind myself these are not the people who know me.
KK: A lot of women were jolted by the way Hillary Clinton was treated during the 2008 primary election. You wrote in your book that you cringed after hearing of her supposed “cankles”:
Maybe my obsession with looks was extreme and irrational—a kind of Hollywood-induced body dysmorphic disorder—but it wasn’t unfounded. Looks did still matter in the real world. It was the first thing people noticed about me, and, I was beginning to see, the first thing people seemed to notice about any woman.
For some millennials, that was their first big OMG moment when it comes to the very real way we’re judged on appearance. Eight years and two election cycles later, are we getting anywhere?
MW: I think people are more conscious of it now. More people know it’s not acceptable to mock someone, especially a woman, for their face or body. Someone’s looks should not define them …. It’s hard, and I think we just have to focus on how we talk about and value people in our own, everyday lives.
KK: My only Hollywood-related question, I promise: Your story about reconnecting with Danny DeVito was a moment that made me put down the book to reach for Kleenex because SO MANY TEARS. (I won’t ruin it for people by quoting or paraphrasing.) From the glimpses we get in the book, you got to work with some very generous actors who treated you like a person rather than a little kid. Was there anyone you were nervous to work with who turned out to be especially great?
MW: Pam Ferris, who played Miss Agatha Trunchbull [in Matilda], is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. She is kind, patient, and giving, and the kind of person who can’t wait to show you photos of her rescue dogs. I also remember my mother being a little nervous about me working with Tim Curry [who played Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show] on the opening number of the Oscars, but he was so lovely and funny. A few years later, I saw Rocky Horror for the first time and started to understand what it was that made my mother a little nervous!
KK: You lay the groundwork throughout, but wait until midway through the book to talk about what you first describe as “my worries.” You write: “In most of my early childhood memories, I’m afraid. But it doesn’t make any sense.” After Matilda, you say the “background noise” was “turned up.” Does the background noise of anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) still come and go? Have you found a volume control?
MW: It definitely does still come and go, and even with medication and treatment, it’s always there. The most important thing to do is realize what it is, accept that it’s there, and try not to fight it. Fighting it—trying to distract yourself or wish it away—can get you caught up in a cycle of anxiety. Instead, remind yourself that it’s uncomfortable, but nothing more than a false alarm, an uncomfortable moment that will soon pass.
The words and songs getting stuck in my head don’t bother me so much anymore. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re comfortable, but they’re familiar. A few months ago I got a comedian friend’s bit stuck in my head—oddly, it was one of Aparna Nancherla’s bits about therapy! I saw her at a show and said, “Hey, I got one of your bits stuck in your head because of my OCD,” and she seemed quite flattered.
KK: Being open about your experience with OCD is something you do to combat misinformation. With the pervasive stigma about mental health, this isn’t a risk-free endeavor. Has your public openness affected your relationships or professional life?
MW: I’m a pretty open person, I think because I’ve had to be. For most of my life, I’ve lived knowing that at any time, someone—the media, fans, the public—could find out things I didn’t want them to know. So I had to live in a way where I couldn’t take risks I could be judged for, and I had to own my mistakes and my quirks. What I have found is that being open about my OCD has seemed to help people and made me feel more in control of it. I know not everybody has that privilege, but I also hope that people being more open will foster a more accepting and understanding world.
KK: The way you wrote about Robin Williams—someone many of us grew up with and were deeply attached to—was another Kleenex moment for me:
I am afraid people will romanticize what Robin went through. Please don’t romanticize mental anguish. I know many people who think to be an artist means you have to suffer. It’s not only an incorrect assumption—there are comedians who had happy upbringings, I swear—but encouraging suffering will only hurt them and the people who care about them.
For many of us, our art is partly a coping mechanisms (or started that way). How do we explain that though we love creating and who we are, that doesn’t make mental illness romantic or “worth it”?
MW: I think that anyone who sees us when we’re depressed or anxious knows that person, in that moment, isn’t going to be feeling particularly creative. But most people don’t see us when we’re depressed or anxious, nor would they want to. Perhaps more honest depictions of mental illness would help with this. It is quite sad and frustrating. I wish people understood there is enough pain in life; you don’t need to cause more, or turn away from contentment.