Dear 12-Year-Old Me,
As you know, I’ve written about a character like you who appears in my new novel, The Western Light. Of course, its narrator, Mouse Bradford, isn’t identical to you.
It’s always better for novelists to create characters who are like us and not like us so we have the freedom to invent.
Mouse Bradford shares some things with you, though, and I guess it’s fair to talk about what the two of you have in common. Like Mouse, you had problems with your physical appearance growing up in the 1950s. You were tall and your body didn’t conform to female standards of beauty at the time. When you were 12 you spent the worst night of your life sitting on a chair at a sock hop, waiting for boys to ask you to dance. No boys did.
Mouse, too, feels unfeminine. Actually, she calls herself “ugly and twisted-looking” because polio left her with a withered leg she calls Hindrance. She has to wear a built up Oxford and she walks with a limp although she is determined not to be self-pitying.
And like you, Mouse’s father was a country doctor in the days before health care. So he has no time to spend with her because he is busy delivering babies, pulling people out of car wrecks and performing surgery on the spot.
And like you, Mouse develops a crush on a father substitute, an ex-NHL hockey player who has been sent to the local asylum in Mouse’s town after murdering his wife and child.
The name of Mouse’s crush is John Pilkie and he is emotionally present for Mouse in a way her father is not.
Your father substitute wasn’t potentially dangerous, the way John Pilkie might be for Mouse. Your crush went to the University of Western and he wrote you long, philosophical letters about what it meant to grow up. You searched hard in those letters for any signs of romantic interest, and you were over the moon if he signed “Affectionately” before his name.
You longed for him to fall in love with you even though he was 13 years older, and there was no way your parents would let you go out with somebody that age.
Oh, you were desperate for male affection and approval.
You needed it even more than other girls, it seemed, because your father was one of those paradoxes: the community hero who has no time for his family. And it was hard for you to know what to do with your longing for him when his patients needed him so much it could be a matter of life and death.
Anyway, I have a few things to say to you in case you don’t read my new book. First of all, accepting our fathers is one of the big struggles everybody faces in their lives. In his non-fiction book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell calls reconciling with the father “the atoning moment,” and he says this encounter is the event that lets the hero’s new self emerge.
So you are not alone here, dear younger self. Both men and women face the struggle of seeing their fathers as they are. It is hard, though, very hard to accept that your father behaves in a way you might not like. But fathers are people too, and they all have their problems. So don’t put your worth in how they love you, or place your power to act for yourself in your father’s hands. You have your own agency. Use it.
And you know what? That feels good. There is nothing sexier than self-reliance, which is what your struggles have been helping you develop even though you might not realize that right now.
And here’s some advice about feeling physically inadequate. You will probably grow out of those feelings. But in the meantime, keep some ammunition in reserve. If somebody asks you about your appearance in a genuinely interested way, by all means have a conversation.
But if they make a disparaging remark, shoot them down with a joke. Make a list of wisecracks you can use in these circumstances. I assure you they will never try to put you down again.
So that’s about it for now. Except I do hope you read my book. You may find some things I missed.
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