Caught Through the Looking Glass: Sarah Polley on Grief, Girlhood, and Scoliosis
“I knew I didn’t want to be a child; I wanted to be a queen.”
“I could tell you my adventures—beginning from this morning,” said Alice a little timidly: “but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”
–Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
At least twice a week, I used to find myself in a periwinkle-blue poufy dress with a white pinafore. My stockings were striped and my hair was held firmly by a headband that dug into my head behind my ears. My breasts, still tender and growing, were painfully flattened by a tensor bandage. It was a dream that I frequently found myself in, where nothing anyone around me said made any sense and it was all hostile: hostile towards my common sense, hostile towards my youth, hostile towards my growing up. I knew I didn’t want to be a child; I wanted to be a queen but I didn’t want to be left alone, or tested, or made fun of or to do all the things that seemed to be necessary to become a queen. I would follow corkscrew paths. I had to run in order to stay in the same place. People would scream in pain before they were hurt. There was a mint in my mouth for good luck. I wanted to kill myself.
Sometimes when I woke from this dream, I remembered that I was, in fact, wearing a rose-colored dress and not a blue one. Sometimes I corrected my subconscious. Most of the time, though, I woke up incapable of differentiating the portrait of myself from the iconic John Tenniel illustrations, colored in modern reprints. I wonder if Alice Liddell had had the same problem.
The real Alice was a sullen-looking child with dark hair and eyes. In one of the photographs that Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) took of her, “The Beggar Maid,” she looks alarmingly sexual, taunting him, challenging him to want more. At least that’s how I viewed the photograph when I was a young teenager. As I look at the same photograph now, as a grown woman, I wonder what instructions the adult taking the photograph gave to her to produce such an alarming effect. In the books and movies that were consumed by millions, though, Alice is golden and fair, WASPy beyond measure, and exudes innocence. The books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, have passed through children’s hands for over a century now, cloaked in this deceptive costume.
Ever since I can remember, these books inspired a terror and an exasperation in me. Every one of Alice’s attempts to make sense of her new, irrational world, to find anything approximating normalcy, or to simply get home is thwarted by mean-spirited creatures with their own irrational systems of logic. Despite my father’s love of these books, I never, as a young child, wanted to hear them read at bedtime. They left me exhausted, haunted by a kind of relentless uncertainty. I feared that if I took any time to live inside these stories, the walls and ceiling of my childhood bedroom might soon collapse into dust and be replaced by kooky angles of drywall.
As an adult, I experience this same aversion to movies that remind me of the Alice books or that mirror this same quality of someone constantly trying to get somewhere and failing. Movies like After Hours make we want to scream. They make me feel nauseous and aggravated and goosepimply.
I hate stories in which people can’t get to where they’re going.
As there seemed to be no chance of getting her hands up to her head, she tried to get her head down to them, and was delighted to find that her neck would bend about easily in any direction, like a serpent. She had just succeeded in curving it down into a graceful zigzag . . .
“But I’m not a serpent, I tell you!” said Alice. “I’m a—I’m a—”
“Well! What are you?” said the Pigeon. “I can see you’re trying to invent something!”
“I—I’m a little girl,” said Alice, rather doubtfully, as she remembered the number of changes she had gone through that day.
–Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
When I was 15 years old I got caught through the looking glass in a pink dress, in a crisp white pinafore, with my breasts bound, playing younger than I was. My spin had by then bent—perhaps, I thought then, under the weight of grief—to a 45-degree angle, so along with the tensor bandages pulled tightly across my chest, the pink dress itself was lined with various strategically placed pads to make my shoulders, my back, and my waist appear symmetrical. Even then, it took effort to appear straight. On two-show days I would begin to sag sideways, the tips of my left hand’s fingers almost touching the side of my left knee. One of my left ribs, just under my breasts, protruded so much that it created a noticeable lump right in the middle of my torso, causing the right rib to slough out of view.
I knew I had to wear a hard plastic brace 16 hours a day to make my body grow straighter, but I didn’t, so every few months I, and others, noticed that I twisted and bent a little more. By this point I knew I was close to needing major surgery to correct the curve, but that was to be my choice too, having no parent to oversee such choices. The surgery terrified me, not only the idea of being cut into and operated on for ten hours, having my spine stretched out, fused, and a pound of metal attached to it, but also I couldn’t think who would take care of me while I recovered. I had stopped going to regular follow-ups at the hospital a long time before, had stopped wearing the brace around my body 16 hours a day as prescribed, had stopped thinking about what the consequences of my negligence could be. I knew that I was free to keep twisting and curving and sloping and that nothing, ever, would stop me. There was no adult who could force me straight.
But I wondered, now, at 15 years old, if the thing I had feared the most, the prospect of this major spinal surgery, could liberate me from something I found myself fearing even more: waking even one more time onto a stage at the Stratford Festival.
I had been diagnosed with scolio is four years earlier during a routine insurance medical for the television series Road to Avonlea. The doctor asked me to touch my toes, and then spent a while tracing the protrusion of my spine with his fingers. When I stood up straight again and looked at him, his brow was furrowed.
It somehow made sense to me to be told that I wasn’t straight, that my spine was curving nonsensically to the right at the top and to the left at the bottom. My world had started curving out of shape the previous year, and my own body curving alongside it gave things a logical symmetry. It also made sense of a few things that had been mysterious to me about my ever-changing body, chiefly (and most important to my 11-year-old self) the noticeably lopsided breasts that had begun to emerge, the left one growing large and ripe while the other one remained almost nonexistent.
I was alone in the examining room with the doctor when he made the discovery, and when he said the word scoliosis, it sounded like death. My mother had died just months before, and my experience of diseases was that they didn’t hold back. They took you and maimed you and ended you. So when I heard the diagnosis of something with a –sis on the end of it, I assumed that my days were numbered. He referred me to the orthopedics department at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, and that is where I found myself a month later, in a waiting room with similarly crooked kids, all of us waiting to hear how badly we’d been bent out of shape.
After a trip to the X-ray machine it was determined that I had a 38-degree curvature in my thoracic spine. I stared, transfixed, at the X-ray. It was strange to see that my own spine, lit from behind by the light board, had been hiding secrets from me. For years it had been surreptitiously bending itself into the ugly beginnings of a coil. It seemed impossible that I could be so deformed. Impossibly scary, and impossibly lucky.
The feeling of being lucky was one I kept to myself. There had been a part of me that, while my mother was dying, had relished having a parent with cancer. Cancer was a powerful word, one you could throw around with immediate results. It seemed to inspire a focus from people. They looked at you with what was supposed to be sympathy but felt, in fact, like a kind of exaltation. When my mother had cancer, I felt as though I was suddenly transformed into a sallow child of tragedy, imbued with a kind of magic that only children close to grim events can be. I was comfortable in this role, and delighted to help move the play forward, saying the word cancer in a hushed tone with an accomplished look of dread, reporting on my mother’s latest surgery or round of chemotherapy with my eyes downcast and bashful in the face of the enormous attention it garnered.
It helped that I never once really believed my mother was going to die. It allowed me the space to focus on other people’s reactions and to delight in the special place I had earned in their hearts. I knew I was exaggerating, making it up. Deep inside, I believed that my mother had something very innocuous dressed up with a scary word, and I was just using the drama of this disease to get attention. I believed this until her actual death, which, for a long time, some part of me felt I was responsible for. By playing the part of the child with the dying mother so convincingly, I believed I had summoned a bad ending.
But I had missed the word cancer these last months. And now part of me was glad to have one to take its place.
From RUN TOWARDS THE DANGER: Confrontations with A Body of Memory, by Sarah Polley, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Sarah Polley.