Sarah Polley on grief, infancy and scoliosis ‹ Literary Center

“I could tell you my adventures from this morning,” Alice said a little shyly, “but there’s no point in going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”
-Lewis Carroll Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

At least twice a week, I found myself in a periwinkle blue pouf dress with a white jumper. My stockings were striped, and my hair was held tightly by a headband that tucked into my head behind my ears. My breasts, still tender and growing, were painfully flattened by a tensor bandage. It was a dream I often found myself in, where nothing anyone around me said made sense and everything was hostile: hostile to my common sense, hostile to my youth, hostile to my growth. 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 tried, or ridiculed, or do whatever seemed necessary to become a queen. I would follow corkscrew paths. I had to run to stay in one place. People were screaming 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 up from this dream, I remembered that I was actually wearing a pink dress, not a blue one. Sometimes I corrected my subconscious. Most of the time, however, I woke up unable to differentiate the portrait of myself from John Tenniel’s iconic illustrations, colored in modern reprints. I wonder if Alice Liddell had the same problem.

The real Alice was a brooding child with black hair and eyes. In one of the photographs Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) took of her, “The Beggar Maid”, she looks sexually alarming, taunting him, daring him to want more. At least that’s how I saw photography when I was a young teenager. Looking at the same photo now, as a grown woman, I wonder what instructions the adult taking the photo gave her to produce such an alarming effect. In the books and movies that have been consumed by millions, however, Alice is golden and righteous, WASPy beyond measure, and exudes innocence. Books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and on the other side of the mirrorhave passed through the hands of children for more than a century, dressed in this deceptive costume.

As far back as I can remember, these books have filled me with terror and exasperation. Each of Alice’s attempts to make sense of her irrational new world, to find something close to normal, or to simply return home is thwarted by petty creatures with their own irrational systems of logic. Despite my father’s love for these books, as a young child I never wanted to hear them read at bedtime. They left me exhausted, haunted by a kind of relentless uncertainty. I worried that if I took the time to live inside these stories, the walls and ceiling of my childhood bedroom might soon crumble to dust and be replaced by goofy drywall angles.

As an adult, I have the same aversion to movies that remind me of the Alice books or reflect that same quality of someone who is constantly trying to get somewhere and failing. movies like after hours makes you want to scream. They give me nausea, aggravation and goosebumps.

I hate stories where people can’t get where they’re going.


Since it looked like there was no chance of bringing her hands to her head, she tried to lower her head there and was delighted to find that her neck twisted easily in any direction, like a snake. She had just succeeded in bending it into a graceful zigzag. . .

“But I’m not a snake, I tell you!” said Alice. “I’m a – I’m a -“

“Good! What are you?” said the Pigeon. “I see you’re trying to make something up!” »

“I…I’m a little girl,” Alice said, rather dubiously, as she remembered the number of changes she had gone through that day.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland


When I was 15, I got caught looking through the mirror in a pink dress, in a pristine white jumper, with my breasts bandaged, playing younger than me. My rotation had then bent – perhaps, I thought then, under the weight of grief – at a 45 degree angle, so with the tensor bandages tight on my chest, the pink dress itself was lined with various strategically placed pads to make my shoulders, back and waist appear symmetrical. Even then, it took effort to look straight. On the days of two shows, I began to slump sideways, with the fingertips of my left hand almost touching the side of my left knee. One of my left ribs, just below my breasts, was sticking out so much that it created a visible bump right in the middle of my chest, causing the right rib to disappear.

I knew I had to wear a hard plastic splint 16 hours a day to get my body straight, but I didn’t, so every few months me and others noticed I was twisting and leaned a little more. At this point, I knew I was on the verge of needing major surgery to correct the curve, but it also had to be my choice, having no parent to oversee those choices. The operation terrified me, not only of being cut and operated on for ten hours, having my spine stretched, fused together and a pound of metal tied up, but also I couldn’t think of who would take care of me while I recovered. I had stopped going to regular hospital check-ups a long time ago, I had stopped wearing the corset around my body for 16 hours a day as prescribed, I had stopped thinking about the consequences of my neglect. I knew I was free to keep twisting and bending and bowing and that nothing, ever, would stop me. There was no adult who could force me to sit up.

When my mother had cancer, I felt like I was suddenly transformed into a pale child of tragedy.

But I wondered, now, at 15, if the thing I feared most, the prospect of this major spinal operation, could free me from something I dreaded even more: waking up once again a stage at the Stratford Festival.

I had been diagnosed with scoliosis four years ago during routine medical insurance for the TV series Road to Avonlea. The doctor asked me to touch my toes, then spent a moment tracing the protrusion of my spine with his fingers. When I sat up and looked at him, his brow was furrowed.

It made sense to me to hear that I wasn’t straight, that my spine curved absurdly to the right at the top and to the left at the bottom. My world had begun to warp the year before, and my own body curving alongside it gave things a logical symmetry. It also made sense of some things that had been mysterious to me about my ever-changing body, primarily (and most important to me as an 11 year old) the visibly lopsided breasts that had started to emerge, the left one growing and ripe while the other remained almost non-existent.

I hate stories where people can’t get where they’re going.

I was alone in the exam room with the doctor when he made the discovery, and when he said the word scoliosis, it looked like death. My mother had passed away a few months before, and my experience of illnesses was that they didn’t hold back. They took you and mutilated you and killed you. So when I heard the diagnosis of something with a –sister in the end, I assumed my days were numbered. He referred me to the orthopedic ward at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, and that’s where I found myself a month later, in a waiting room with equally twisted children, waiting for us all to die. to hear how twisted we had been. .

After a trip to the x-ray machine, it was determined that I had a 38 degree curvature in my thoracic spine. I looked, 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 surreptitiously bent into the ugly beginnings of a reel. It seemed impossible that I could be so deformed. Incredibly scary and incredibly lucky.

The feeling of being lucky was a feeling that I kept to myself. There had been a part of me that, while my mother was dying, had relished having a relative with cancer. Cancer was a powerful word, one you could utter with immediate results. It seemed to inspire concentration in people. They looked at you with what was supposed to be sympathy, but felt, in fact, a kind of elation. When my mother had cancer, I felt like I was suddenly transformed into a yellowish child of tragedy, imbued with a kind of magic that only children close to grim events can have. I was comfortable in this role, and excited to help move the piece forward, saying the word Cancer in a hushed tone with a look of terror, reporting on my mother’s latest surgery or round of chemotherapy with my eyes downcast and shy at the enormous attention it garnered.

It helped that I never really believed my mother was going to die. It allowed me to focus on other people’s reactions and rejoice in the special place I had earned in their hearts. I knew I was exaggerating, that I was making it up. Deep down I believed my mother had something very innocuous dressed up in a scary word, and I was just using the drama of this disease to get attention. I believed in it until his actual death, for which, for a long time, a part of me felt responsible. By playing the role of the child with the dying mother in such a convincing way, I thought I had summoned a bad ending.

But I missed the word Cancer these last months. And now part of me was glad to have one to take his place.


From RUNNING TOWARDS 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.

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