Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Book Review: The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright

by Richard Grooms, Fiction Department, Central Library

The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright
Jean Nathan

It’s a commonplace that it’s more interesting to read about dysfunctional families than well-adjusted ones. And it’s especially true that it’s less embarrassing and squeamish to read when the biographer is tactful, judicious, and sympathetic. Jean Nathan manages all this with The Secret Life. As with the Maylses’ Grey Gardens documentary about the Beale sisters, Big and Little Edie, Nathan’s book doesn’t make you feel like she’s exploitative or that you’re a voyeur. Reading about overbearing Edie (yes, Dare’s mother is also a called Edie), sheltered daughter Dare, and fragile brother Blaine is a route to understanding and compassion, not ridicule. The author threads a very difficult needle. This is a roundabout way of saying that you can have your cake and eat it too.

Dare Wright was one of the most popular children’s book authors of the fifties and sixties. Even so, I’d never heard of her until I came upon this book. But it wasn’t out of an interest in children’s lit that I read The Secret Life, but out of my fascination with isolated families. Whether it’s the separatist Orthodox Lykov family who left humanity behind to seek religious freedom in Siberia, or the Running With Scissors and Glass Castle families, I have a passionate interest in families that do what they want and say to hell with the world. How do you raise a drawbridge, metaphorical or not, between you and the world, when the world doesn’t recognize or even want that drawbridge? The Wrights managed to isolate themselves even though they spent much of their lives living in separate states. None of them really assimilated. They all were subject to their family’s special pathology: an extreme resistance to, and denial of, aging. Mother Edie’s talent for self-deception laid the pattern for Dare. Dare was unsatisfied with stints in acting and modeling, and she kept all men at arm’s length. Work, life, love—none of them worked for Dare. Edie didn’t think any man was good enough for Dare, and Dare submitted to this belief. But even a highly sheltered person needed income, and Dare found it in writing for children. She never stopped obsessively playing with her dolls, and she was able to use this drive in her book The Lonely Doll, a sort of text narrative with movie stills that was embraced by children all over the world. Dare used her own dolls to cast the book and the personal stamp worked. In this and subsequent doll-populated books, she worked out her psychodramas in a way she couldn’t in life. She had a new career. What could have been cutesy became, according to Nathan, “almost noir.” Themes of control, punishment, and exile run through the books. Later, when values such as children’s rights and self-esteem became the norm, readers and publishers deserted the Wright books, which in a new day seemed too severe.

As adults, Edie, Dare, and Blaine dressed as children, played with toys and indulged in candy, usually when alone or with each other. Dare and Edie shared the same bed when they visited each other, but not in a sexual way. Family friends, of course, were baffled by Wright norms. One man who dated (or “dated”) Dare was Tony Palermo. Palermo resented the controlling presence of Edie, but couldn’t fathom another obstacle, Edith, Dare’s favorite doll. One time Palermo visited Dare at her New York apartment. “You didn’t say hello to Edith,” Dare chided, as though Tony had rudely neglected to acknowledge a human presence. “It scared the hell out of me,” he recalled. The bizarre mode continues for all of the Wrights, but Dare’s situation is the strangest of all. She remained the perfect, perfectly beautiful, untouchable girl, unreconciled and irreconcilable to the world.

In time a famous doll company made a simulated Lonely Doll. It was exhibited in the Soviet Union where the doll “was considered representative of American culture to be included.” If only the Russians knew. But of course they couldn’t, any more than anyone could have until Nathan came along. It’s one of an abundance of ironies here.

Dare and Edie grew even closer after Edie moved to New York and eventually merge. Edie starts answering Dare’s mail, drives off all of Dare’s suitors and most of her friends. The hothouse becomes more of a hothouse. It’s sad, almost unbelievable, occasionally shocking, and occasionally even funny. Like a David Lynch movie, you don’t always know when to recoil, when to laugh. You sometimes want to do both at once. But I of course ended up sympathizing with Dare. Like a doomed heroine in a fairy story, I found myself wanting to save her but, after reading about all those who tried and failed to do just that, I just retreated to sympathy and sadness. You can’t help but grasp the poignancy and intractability of it all. Jean Nathan deserves to be commended.

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