Mara Wilson’s first book is a stunning personal account of her life as a former child actor and current grown-up writer.
My relationship to the movie Matilda is such that I cannot watch it without crying. It always happens, usually at one specific moment. “So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world, like ships onto the sea,” Danny DeVito says in the voiceover. “These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.” Cue the waterworks. It’s in this moment that the very young actress playing three-year-old Matilda transforms into the Matilda we know, a young Mara Wilson, pulling a red wagon full of library books behind her.
Mara Wilson is now a 29-year-old writer and has just sent out her own ship: Where Am I Now? True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame. While it may seem to the world that she ceased to exist at around age 13, Wilson has probably made a clandestine appearance in your life since then. If you watch Bojack Horseman, you may have heard her in the form of pretentious spider playwright Jill Pill. And if you’re a fan of the popular podcast Welcome To Night Vale, you may recognize her as the voice of “the Faceless Old Woman who lives in your home.” She even made a cameo on Broad City recently, in an homage episode to her first film, Mrs. Doubtfire.
But if you haven’t seen Wilson on your screen for a while, it’s not because she’s been forced out – at least not entirely. As she writes in Where Am I Now?, Wilson stopped getting called in for compelling roles around the same time that she began feeling disillusioned with film acting. She is very open in the book about the factors that led her to step away from the limelight, including the unreasonable beauty standards that Hollywood began to impose upon her with the onset of puberty.Mara Wilson at a premiere in 1995 (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
I can relate. Since childhood I’ve shared Wilson’s dual passions of writing and acting. When I became serious about theatre and film in college, it didn’t take me long to figure out why I was being ignored in my auditions. In the essay “The ‘C’ Word,” Wilson recalls being asked to audition for the “fat girl” role on a TV show. She wondered why she didn’t get called in for the character Becca, who she felt she really identified with, until she saw what the girls who were called back for Becca looked like. It was particularly relevant to me, a woman with a normal-looking body type who was once asked to audition for the role of “Chubby Girl.” If you are an actor, especially a female one, regardless of whether you work with your community theatre or Universal Studios, you will recognize Wilson’s stories of growing up in Hollywood as your own.
But, let me be clear, the “accidental fame” part of Where Am I Now? only encompasses a small fraction of the book. Most of Wilson’s debut memoir is about the everyday experiences of growing up. The writing itself reads like your smartest best friend’s journal. It’s as if you decided to swap diaries to learn even more about each other, and then you discovered this whole world inside her that you would have never guessed was there. Some of the essays are about first boyfriends and crushes, about show choir and summer camp spin-the-bottle. But then, some of them are about Wilson’s mother’s death. Or her anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, which started before she’d hit double digits in age.UNITED STATES – MARCH 17: Mara Wilson (Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
If there’s one word to describe Wilson’s writing, it’s generous. She goes deep into the most painful and most joyous experiences of her life, and details them with such care and compassion for herself and her readers. And, from what I saw at one of her book tour stops in San Francisco, that’s a product of the person that she is. She admitted how embarrassing some of the stories were, right before reading it out loud to dozens of people. She made sure to encourage parents of kids that were there to read the book first, to ensure they felt it was appropriate for their children.Cover of Where Am I Now? by Mara Wilson, Courtesy of Penguin Books (Cover Design: Brianna Harden, Photo: Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection)
During the question and answer portion, I asked her about her anxiety. I have found that my own anxiety affects my creative work, in that I feel that I have to be hyper-productive all the time to feel comfortable with how much I’m getting done. I asked if she felt anything similar. She gave an answer about how difficult it was to get everything out on the page when she knew it wasn’t going to be perfect the first time.
And then, when I came through the signing line, she looked at me and asked, “Were you the person who asked me about anxiety?” When I said yes, she went on to tell me about Project UROK, a website her friend started that includes a lot of resources for mental illness, including a breathing exercise that she uses to alleviate her anxiety. She took up her own time to tell me something she thought might help me. And, in a certain light, that’s sort of what her book is, too.
The story of Mara Wilson is the story of a person who didn’t live up to the expectations that other people thrust upon her when she was a child. The world wanted her to become a star. Or, to be more accurate, the world wanted her to stay eight years old forever, to remain a tiny precocious smirk on a screen for the rest of her life. But, of course, she didn’t. She grew up, and her dreams changed. Some people spend their lives lamenting the failure of their childhood dreams. Wilson found new ones.
So, where is Mara Wilson now? She’s right here. And she’s not leaving.