When I was a little girl, Matilda was my hero. I read the book until it started to fall apart, I had listened to the audio book so many times that I could recite entire paragraphs with the exact intonation the narrator used, and I would watch the movie any time I caught it on TV. Mara Wilson, the girl who played Matilda, was not as scruffy as I had always imagined the character to look when I read the book (too sweet, especially with that ribbon in her perfectly combed hair), but I still sighed with relief every time she got her happy ending.
(I also cried a lot when I listened to the West End cast recording of the Matilda musical for the first time, but that’s a story for another time.)
Years later, Mara Wilson rushed back into my world. She had a hilarious cameo on The Nostalgia Critic’s review of A Simple Wish, became a recurring guest star on Welcome to Night Vale as the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home, and before I knew it I was scrolling through her Facebook feed, laughing at her posts. She’s funny! I’m so glad she’s funny! I found myself wondering why she had disappeared from the public eye all those years ago. One minute she was a star, and the next she was gone. What happened?
In her memoir Where Am I Now?, Wilson tells us what happened – and it’s a heartbreaking look into the world of child actors, who are thrust into a world full of adults and have to grow up while managing the pressures of Hollywood and the scrutiny of the media. Wilson writes about how lonely and frustrated she felt; she wanted to be taken seriously as an actress, but the industry was only interested in her as a cute little girl. Any time she tried out for a different kind of role, she was rejected. The part where she describes typing her own name into Google for the first time is particularly haunting. The internet can be a cruel place, especially for young girls, and Wilson’s account forces you to take a long hard look at those people who were counting the days until actors like Emma Watson or the Olsen twins turned eighteen.
On top of the high-pressure environment of Hollywood, Wilson was going through some serious emotional traumas in her personal life. Her mother passed away during the post-production of Matilda, and for years she struggled with anxiety and depression without understanding what was happening to her. At one point, Wilson describes reading a book about a character with OCD and having a revelation: this is me. This is what I have. This is a thing and I can get help for it. I’m not alone. I may have teared up when I read it. As someone who is currently struggling with depression, I can confirm that knowing that what you’re feeling has a name and that you’re not crazy can be lifechanging; books can make a very real difference in people’s lives. For example, at one point Wilson writes:
Being smart felt like all I had, and if I couldn’t get something right the first time, everyone would know I wasn’t. If I couldn’t do it perfectly, I didn’t see the point of doing it at all.
And I actually said “yes, thank you” out loud. To my book. Alone in my room. If this sort of thing has never happened to you, you are really missing out.
Where Am I Now? is a great read, and I am delighted to hear that Wilson has found her true passion (storytelling) and is doing well. Despite all the pain in her life, she has managed to come out as a well-adjusted person who has found her place, something that is truly hers. It was only towards the end of the book that Wilson started to lose me slightly. Boy troubles, terrible gigs, and finally feeling like you belong amongst the artists of New York, these are all things we’ve heard before (a lot). Even the best writers struggle to put a new spin on that to make it feel fresh and interesting again.
Like I said in my review of Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, a good celebrity memoir does more than just drop some names and joke about how bad their hair looked back in the day. It should give you something to think about, something that sticks with you after you’ve finished it, and Where Am I Now? passes that test with flying colours. Wilson takes your hand and puts your finger exactly where it hurts the most, but manages to have a sense of humour throughout. She is not a celebrity writing about how they got where they are now; she is a writer who was a celebrity once – and that makes all the difference.
(…But speaking of name dropping, Wilson’s account of what Robin Williams was like on the set of Mrs Doubtfire made me so sad, and how much did we all love Danny DeVito and his wife after reading what they did for her before and after the filming of Matilda? You’re a good man, DeVito. I’d give you a hug if I could.)