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Original Essays

Home Again

by Jean Nathan
  1. The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright
    $9.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "With painstaking resolve, Jean Nathan has captured this elusive creature and, with compassion and empathy, brought her back to life. Her biography of Wright is a haunting tale, skillfully told." Mark Singer, staff writer for the New Yorker

    "Although I never read The Lonely Doll as a child or saw Dare Wright's photographs, it's as if somehow I did. Nathan has done an amazing job to capture Wright's life on the page and to bring us into the household of one of the saddest dysfunctional families ever." Cindy Sherman

  2. The Lonely Doll
    $3.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    The Lonely Doll

    Dare Wright

Memories aren't governed by any rules. When they decide to pay a visit, they don't call first or ask whether it's convenient if they drop by. They just barge right in. Proust put this more eloquently when he wrote of a particular kind of memory, involuntary memory, which he defined as "Something that comes unsolicted from the past completely to unsettle the individual in the present." The past is with us. It is all around us, and anything, anything at all can kick it up.

For Proust, the trigger was the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea, for me it was the image of the cover of a children's book I hadn't seen or thought about since childhood. This involuntary memory would divert me from my course and change my life forever.

When I was five, my family went through a difficult time. During that period, I was given a book that, I realize, looking back, went some way toward rescuing me. It was about a girl — she was actually a doll, but I considered her a little girl like me — who had a problem. She was lonely. Because of the miraculous arrival of two companions (teddy bears) on page six, she is saved from her fate as a lonely doll; in the book's last pages the bears assure her they will stay with her "forever and ever." I read that book over and over; I studied it, as if in those soon well-worn pages there were clear-cut answers. She solved her problem; she was happy and she was loved. Might I not, too, find a happy ending — for me and for my family?

After that first full-blown love affair with a book, I forgot it entirely. Perhaps its memory was swept away deliberately. I know how hard I tried to forget everything connected to that confusing time.

I recall vividly the spring afternoon, some thirty years later, that this book first took root. I was waiting for a messenger to arrive, sent by a magazine for which I'd just finished an article. I remember the day, the chair in which I was sitting and my drifty, daydreamy state, the kind that often follows a big effort.

When the buzzer sounded, I handed the messenger the envelope. He handed me nothing but a slip of paper to be signed, but when I returned to my chair, I was aware that I had been given something, however intangible it was at first. It was an image, flashing in my mind. A pattern, a pink and white gingham, a frame of sorts surrounding a black and white photograph of a wide-eyed doll, her long blonde hair tied up in a ponytail, an open book between her outstretched legs. As the afternoon went on, it became clearer and clearer, like a photograph developing, until finally I realized it was the cover of a long-forgotten book. It was The Lonely Doll.

On that afternoon, I didn't think about why this had happened. I only knew that I wanted — very powerfully — to have that book back again. If my curiosity could have been satisfied quickly in a bookstore or library, that might have been the end of it. But the book was out of print and seemingly nowhere to be found. And so began a quest that would transform itself again and again. In its grip, I would travel from curiosity and excitement, through every sort of confusion. Eventually, I would find myself trapped in a story; writing it proved the only way to break free. But how would I write it? I struggled mightily with these questions. Was it a fairy tale? Had I thrown out some magic beans? A ghost story? Had I heard a muffled cry in the night, or a knock on my window? Could I reach out to an icy hand and let her in. A literary detective story? A blond babe showed up in my office and I take on the case.

Despite these enticing possibilities, there would be countless times in the years to come that I would try to push this strange and beguiling story away. But I never did. It was just so irresistible.

From the start, Dare Wright, the author of The Lonely Doll, eluded me. But, too, she pulled me in with equal force. From the very first time I learned her name from a bookstore clerk, a name I misunderstood to be Dare W-R-I-T-E, I was determined to find her, even if I had no idea why. The phone book provided her address, a letter I wrote found its way to her legal guardian. Soon after, I visited her apartment, and soon after that I was given hundreds of her mesmerizing photographs. When her former nurse put me in touch with one of Dare's closest friends, I was on my way into her story.

Dare, I was to discover, had lived in her own version of a wonderland. To get there required jumping down a sort of rabbit hole. At each step along the way, my doubts would overcome me, but then, as if by magic, something — a crumb of information, an artifact unearthed — would always materialize to propel me forward. But above all, I recognized her: her innocence, her vulnerability, and her overpowering wish to make things right and at any cost.

My grandparents gave me The Lonely Doll when I was five. My unconscious gave it back to me all those years later. Over the course of my obsessive efforts to find first the book and then later to piece together Dare's story, I would journey back to my childhood. As I unravelled Dare's story, I also unravelled my own.

The Lonely Doll was published when Dare Wright was forty-three, and was borne of a rediscovered piece of her childhood. Until Dare recovered Edith, she was unable to make art. Edith was the material object that connected her back to her truest self: her child self. Was it chance that brought Edith back to Dare — and was it chance that brought me to the life of Edith's creator? It is certainly uncanny that I would have been (unconsciously) drawn to the story of a woman with whom I shared the most signal fact of my life. As young girls, we had both been separated from our brothers. And it is further so to think that Dare's life as an author began when an artifact of her childhood, her doll, was returned to her by her mother and that my first book began when an artifact from my childhood, Dare's book about her doll, was returned to me — by an unconscious reflux of memory.

The stories Dare spun for her doll were her attempts to redress her own painful childhood. "Finding" Dare helped me to do the same. When I told a friend of Dare's about this story, he said, "There's so much poetry in it. You found her and she turned out to be a little girl needing comfort." Just as her book had found me, when long ago, I was a little girl needing comfort. That I would find her, that we would meet at her hospital bed, that I would sit beside her and read The Lonely Doll to the woman who had created it, was the most perfect rounding imaginable. By then, I knew that so much of her story is in that book. As, I now know, is my own.

I view the book I have written about Dare Wright as a sort of thank you letter to a woman who once helped me to navigate and make sense of the world, or as a love story, all its own. But it is also meant as a tribute to the power of books and reading and to the power of coincidence and chance. Throughout this project, every door I pushed on turned out to be the right door — and they all opened. It was as if it were somehow meant to be, as if this were all waiting for me.

Biography is in many ways a selfless endeavor, requiring the biographer to check their own life at the door. But being inside Dare's life, I was able to come to a place of understanding about my own. This project was a digression, but not a frivolous one. It led me home again. "There is no frigate like a book," Emily Dickinson once wrote, "to take us Lands away." Or, to bring us back. spacer

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