How Matilda Helped Me Understand My Lonely Childhood

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How Matilda Helped Me Understand My Lonely Childhood

I was a lonely kid. Like many lonely children I developed habits to make life feel full of people. I often joined too many extracurriculars at school so that I never had to go home. On the weekends, when I wasn’t occupied with school, I watched tens of hours of television and film so that I could see and hear other people existing, eating dinner with their families, going to summer camp, having their hands enthusiastically held. Of the various films I came to watch and rewatch in my childhood, one of my favorites was about a fellow lonely child named Matilda.

For kids like Matilda and me—whether they be latchkey kids who spend exorbitant amounts of time waiting for parents to return home from work or children who never fit in with their families—school can be a sanctuary. These emporiums of education are reliably peopled, fully equipped with revolving doors of ostensibly vigilant adult guardians and potential playmates. Further, school can provide the kind of Socratic conversation and pathway to self-actualization that connects kids to one another and to themselves. The idea of school as a safe haven, and of loneliness as a lifelong meandering feeling, is cogently explored in Danny DeVito’s 1996 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. The film’s mature take on pubescent loneliness and the differing ways former lonely children manage the emotional trauma of childhood neglect and abuse still resonates as the film celebrates its 25th anniversary later this year.

I rewatched Matilda for the first time in years last month on an April afternoon during a close friend’s birthday weekend in Texas. Two friends and I had decided to eat a decadent chocolate cake in solidarity with Bruce, one of Matilda’s schoolmates who’s forced to gorge on such a cake in front of his peers as a humiliation tactic. What was supposed to be an afternoon nostalgia-fest filled with kitsch and caloric desserts ended up being a disillusioning realization that my childhood, like Matilda’s, was marked by behaviors I developed (and have largely maintained) in order to elude the feeling of being alone.

Matilda Wormwood (Mara Wilson) is often fondly remembered as a precocious young girl whose telekinetic powers and wit help her build a life outside of her unfulfilling home. Her fondness for the library and ability to mostly take care of herself by the age of two, “learning what most people learn in their early 30s,” could be received as evidence of Matilda’s specialness, full stop. And with her powers and smarts, it is undeniable that Matilda is special. But Matilda’s personality and powers are inextricable from the responses she has to develop to survive her abusive home environment. When Mr. Wormwood (Danny DeVito) says, “I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right you’re wrong, and there is nothing you can do about it,” he is outing himself as a shitty father. But moreso, he is exemplifying the sort of emotional response that pushed Matilda out of the Wormwood family house and into the company of so many library book characters—ones with whom she empathized, but that could not know or hold her in the stead of a loving parent.

I certainly never developed the sort of telekinetic, cereal-pouring powers Matilda possessed. But I recognized myself in parts of her. As a child, I mistakenly assumed that the reason I kept finding myself by myself was because other people did not believe I was worth spending time with. So I set out on a mission to prove that I was worthwhile. I figured out how to excel at school, thereby gaining the admiration of my teachers and family friends alike. I suppressed every unpleasant feeling, cocooning myself in this giddy, warm disposition so that other people felt good in my presence. Matilda by no means tried to convince her family to love her. But because of her smarts and kind spirit, she is ultimately befriended and loved.

Similarly, I did every kind and smart thing I could to make it easy to love me. But something I did not understand then, that I do now, is that Matilda and I were not granted underwhelming home lives because of merit. It is not that we were ever unworthy. It was always circumstantial. She had indifferent, emotionally unavailable parents, and I was the youngest child of a newly widowed immigrant mother who had to work ceaselessly to uphold the family.

By performing excellence and independence, I thought I could lure people to me. But I only ended up convincing them that I was already doing just fine. I was excelling at school and I seemed joyful when I was with other people, right? As an adult (sort of), I can clearly see that my efforts to have a peopled life resulted in developing habits which I received positive social feedback for—“mature for her age,” “great student,” “wise beyond her years”—but nothing that fulfilled my mission to show people that I wanted and needed them around. In fact, they did the exact opposite: They gave off the false impression that I was a child thriving all on her own.

There is a sequence in Matilda where Matilda grooms herself, makes herself a robust breakfast and walks herself around town. It is fair to go, “That’s one sharp four-year-old.” But the positive social feedback Matilda gains from being independent, just like that which I gained, isn’t appropriate. Children should not be celebrated for merely being self-sufficient, they should be able to rely on people who are there to reliably offer them care. When you praise a child for raising themselves, you give them the wrong idea—that raising them was some involved task that you are relieved to have not had to do. Hyper-independence and self-reliance can be a trauma response, a set of skills and outwardly impressive coping mechanisms that some kids develop to survive complicated homes. So it is no surprise that Matilda and I thrived when we were finally able to attend school. But that interpersonal success is not merely because of academic prowess, it is because we were finally in a place where we were able to connect with other people who made us feel as though we were more than a task.

Miss Jennifer Honey (Embeth Davidtz), the lesbian icon and Crunchem Hall Elementary School teacher who takes Matilda under her wing, also explores how people respond to legacies of childhood abuse and loneliness. Miss Honey creates a blissful learning environment for her students: She leads a classroom brimming with colorful paintings and encouraging slogans. She speaks to her students with a firmness and deliberateness that is markedly warm. She isn’t condescending or patronizing; she’s deeply careful and good.

But Miss Honey, like Matilda, is still reeling from the despair and loneliness of her childhood. That warm environment Miss Honey creates is entirely antithetical to the cold steeliness of her own grief-ridden youth, which was commandeered by her antagonistic aunt and Crunchem Hall principal Agatha Trunchbull (Pam Ferris). While Miss Honey’s classroom understandably renders her a catcher in the rye for other potentially underloved children, it also insulates her in that schoollike sanctuary. It demonstrates the way that engendering this loving environment for other children is her way of tacitly choreographing the environment she longed for and never received.

In many ways, Miss Honey is still—like her students and like all of us—a scared child. Where her students fear being thrown across a field of flowers by their pigtails or into The Chokey, Miss Honey fears never escaping the shadow of her past that shrouds her present. When the Trunchbull stalks down the hallway, threatens children with her riding crop and patent leather fingerless gloves, Miss Honey shudders too. She, like Crunchem’s student body, tries desperately not to step a toe out of line and thereby incur the wrath of her aunt. In fact, she doesn’t return to her childhood home—the site of her trauma—until Matilda comes into her life. Miss Honey is the kind foil to the Wormwoods and the Trunchbull’s volcanic, emotionally unavailable adult schtick. But Miss Honey’s inner child isn’t fully able to heal, to defend her right to peace, until fellow lonely child Matilda helps her gain the courage to name and confront what was unfair about the past—to admit that she deserved different all along.

Although it is anachronistic, Miss Honey often reminds me of a Strokes lyric: “Others, they seem so very nice-nice-nice-nice, oh / Inside they might feel sad and wrong, oh no.” Her character is a testament to the fact that people may leave the lonesome places of the past for cozy cottages and sunlit school classrooms, but seldom fully shake the memories of that lonesomeness.

In fact, Miss Honey demonstrates that with emotional maturation comes newer and deeper capacities for loneliness. Somewhere between being able to legally drink alcohol and being old enough to rent a car, most people have the somber experience of feeling alone in a room full of people—the realization that the presence of other warm bodies is no longer (or may never have really been) enough to dissipate the pang of unwanted solitude. Therefore, the reflex to vanquish isolation by moving to a crowded city—leaving small, storied hometowns—can result in a complex eureka: Yes, loneliness can be the mere absence of attentive, caring people, but it is more often the internal and external absence of a reliable sense of belonging and interconnectedness. It is a lifelong battle with the suspicion that being lonely may be something that one has earned because of their peculiarity or ineligibility to belong; something that merit may be able to conquer.

It is through Matilda’s friendship with Lavender (Kiami Davael) and her relationship with Miss Honey that she is ultimately able to best this suspicion. When crouched outside of The Trunchbull’s house, Miss Honey, in a hushed albeit confident voice, assures Matilda: “You were born into a family that doesn’t always appreciate you, but one day, things are gonna be very different.” There’s obviously foreshadowing happening, as Miss Honey ultimately adopts and parents Matilda. Matilda and Miss Honey do find what they’ve long yearned for in each other: “A loving family.” But there’s also something about Miss Honey’s clarity in that earlier moment that suggests she is assuring Matilda with the same words she once used to assure herself.

Lonely people, as Matilda demonstrates, have to believe in a life where they can be loved and known in order to access that life and share it with others. Children who exhale at the threshold of school doors because of the bustle, the sight of other living, breathing souls, ultimately graduate—just as every chapter book filled with evolving, gracious characters ends. Loneliness, as Matilda asserts, can be vanquished intermittently by the company of caring people, but above this, it is bested by a self-belief that reliable love is something we are all deeply eligible for—something that we can we can, eventually, offer ourselves and often access from people who are eager to know and be known by us.

After finishing that screening of Matilda, I felt slightly unsettled, perturbed by the frustration and shame that mixed with my nostalgia and gratitude to spend the afternoon with two dear friends after what had been a remarkably lonely year spent alone in my childhood bedroom. Once the credits rolled, I considered ending the screening by placing my unfinished chocolate cake in the fridge and retiring for an afternoon nap. I considered never fully naming what was going on inside of me during the film. I considered falling into the reflex of performing pleasantness, so as not to put my friends off and be difficult in front of them. But instead I told them, as I am telling you, what it felt like to watch Matilda with a fresh pair of eyes after all of these years, a month before moving out of my own lonely ethnoburban Southern home and—finally—into an apartment in the city with friends. And miraculously, blessedly, choosing to tell made me feel the opposite of alone.

Adesola Thomas is a screenwriter and culture writer. She loves talking about Annette Benning’s performance in 20th Century Women and making lasagna. You can follow her on Twitter.

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