In honor of the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s publication of Alice in Wonderland, the Hamden Public Library has sponsored a number of events this month, including a two-part writing workshop: Finding Your Inner Alice. I am happy to be participating with the 15 other writers in the workshop. Last week we brainstormed and discussed our personal connections to Alice and Carroll’s work.
By the end our our discussion, the group realized that many of us had negative impressions of Alice and her adventures in Wonderland. From my initial thoughts last week, I put together this “second draft.”
“Shut up like a telescope”
Finding My Inner Alice, Rough Draft, prose memory.
I come to Alice from a tree branch, from a separate limb. Maybe I’m the Cheshire Cat, watching myself watch her. I have no immediately accessible memory of time or place. No matter. I see from my pocket watch that I’ve arrived too late. She’s already gone down, and only by looking back—or looking through—or catching my reflection in my own looking glass—does she manifest.
My mother read to us often, and I recall, impressionistically, other books: their muted green covers, gold edged pages and pen-and-ink drawings. This is how I can render Toad and Rat and Badger in my mind from Wind in the Willows. I can still touch those pages.
Though I can’t pinpoint how I came to know her, it’s not hard to picture Alice, her blue dress and white pinafore painted like so many others in the Technicolor of Disney. But whether her image is a piece from a specific moment or a combination of moments, I don’t know for sure.
But it seems that my memory of Alice begins on page 8. I imagine that I’ve seen this drawing before, and that the first time I saw it I felt something. The image of long-necked Alice, stretched like silly putty and uncomfortably large, frightens me even now. It conjures in my mind a sense memory, something tactile, as if I can feel the vertebrae in my own neck separate. But unlike the thrill of seeing each inch of your life penciled on a hallway wall as you grow and age, I see Alice’s elastic neck as strangulation, instead of release. The key I need is out of reach.
Instead of watching my feet disappear underneath me, I watch a body in torment, and just for good measure the Queen of Hearts has come along to say with all the echo of childhood discomfort: “Off with her head!” The rabbit hole is dark, and the looking glass reflects a fat little girl who can’t stand to be seen.
Alice’s neck is most vivid because it speaks to my nine year old self and the torture that my own body inflicted on me. Betrayed by the little cakes and drinks of “cherry-tart, custard, pineapple, roast turkey, toffee and hot buttered toast;” betrayed by birthdays and elongating limbs, adolescence simply became “curiouser and curiouser,” and I became sadder and sadder. Even now, Alice’s long neck frightens me out of my skin.