Friday, October 29, 2004

Two or three years ago, as I was walking past a cart stacked with a new shipment of books for the library, a portion of a familiar pink and white checked cover caught my eye. I pulled out The Lonely Doll by Dare Wright and as I flipped through it, I suddenly remembered that I had read it and another one in the series called Edith and Mr. Bear at my grandparents' house when I was little. I loved these books because they were unlike any of the other storybooks I'd seen and I continued to re-read and love them long after I'd moved on to books far above that reading level. I think this was mostly because of the black and white photographs that were the book's illustrations. Reading it from the distance of many years and an adult perspective, I was struck by how sad and dark that first book was.

It's no surprise then that I grabbed our copy of The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright by Jean Nathan when it came in. The author, much like myself, suddenly remembered The Lonely Doll and went in search of a copy. Her search led her to the author and to Dare's odd family and strange life. Separated from her father and brother at a very young age, Dare grew up with her mother who was a talented artist, but she never got over the trauma of losing half her family. It didn't help that her mother was emotionally neglectful and then, as Dare got older and kept trying to please her, smothering and possibly even sexually abusive (friends commented on how they slept in the same bed and suggested that there were sexual overtones to their relationship). When Dare was finally reunited with her brother when she was in her late 20s, they developed an overly intense relationship as well. She had no end of admirers and suitors, but from the picture Nathan paints, it was probably that she never had a sexual relationship with any of them. She and her mother inhabited a kind of fairy world, with Dare almost infantilized, where they apparently thought nothing of taking photographs of each other in the nude or of staging elaborately costumed scenarios to photograph.

Dare was an actress and a model, but her true calling and success came as a photographer. Edith, the star of her enormously successful children's books, was her childhood doll that she altered to resemble herself, with blonde hair, an upturned nose, and gold hoops for her ears. Little Bear and Mr. Bear were thinly veiled stand-ins for her brother and father. Of course, in this happy family that she created for her books, there was no Mrs. Bear, which perhaps suggests that even if she didn't ever break free from her mother (and, in fact, deteriorated physically and mentally quite rapidly after her mother's death), subconsciously she wished very much to do so. Viewed in this light the books are even darker than I'd thought.

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