A Wrinkle in Madeleine

While flipping through the latest issue of the New Yorker for the latest cartoons, I was stunned to see a profile on Madeleine L’Engle.

Madeleine L’Engle. Just like a lot of you, she saved my life. She’s also one of the biggest reasons I became a librarian. But after reading the article, I was stunned for a different reason: I wished I’d never read the damn thing.

Why? It’s a long story: at ten I was fat, geeky, frizzy-haired and miserable. I didn’t have many friends, though that was mostly due to me–I preferred books to people at the time. People scared me to no end; I could barely talk to anyone outside of my family and even then I was choosy as to what I’d say. To top it off, my sister was so well-adjusted and so well-liked that I pretty much figured my best bet in life would be me living in the attic of my sister’s house, peeking at the world through lace curtains (hey–I may have been maladjusted, but at least I was entertaining about it). Other than school, my only real contact with the outside world was my weekly visit to the base library. My dad was perversely proud my how many books I checked out each week, but I didn’t have the nerve to tell him it was to put as much psychic space possible between reality and me.

But there was one book I studiously avoided: A Wrinkle in Time. I’m not sure why, though I recall a time I avoided all books that had a girl on the cover (I had an adversion to girly books at the time, however I defined it). After about a year, I was running out of unread books, leaving me with two choices: Wrinkle and Island of the Blue Dolphins. And since the girl on the Wrinkle cover was only in silhouette, I went with it.

I never did read Island; instead for the past thirty-odd years I have been entranced with the story about Meg and Charles Wallace Murry. I longed for a Mrs. Whatsit to guide me, to assure me that things would be fine. More importantly, Meg was me: ugly, smart and seemingly ill-prepared to exist in the world. And she prevailed. In the darkest times of my life, Wrinkle and the subsequent series, the Time Quartet , got me through. All due to Madeleine L’Engle. To know that there was someone out there who understood me, who understood what it was like to be an ungainly and smart girl, meant there was hope for me. So what did I do? I idealized her. And in return she fed me spiritually.

It was a comfortable relationship until the New Yorker arrived in my mailbox….

(stay tuned….)

7 Responses

  1. donna
    donna April 12, 2004 at 9:44 am | | Reply

    well – what did it say about her?

  2. J Allison
    J Allison April 14, 2004 at 12:03 pm | | Reply

    I grew up next to Madeleine L’Lengle and her family in Goshen CT before she was famous. At 83
    she is probably doing what comes to folks at that
    age—it did to my parents—compressing events
    or remembering those things for which no one is left who remembers. My mother used to go next door each evening to help Madeleine’s mother get
    dressed for dinner when she was visitingfrom JacksonvilleFL. She and my mother would sit in the diningroom watching the sunset drinking Catawba pink and eating devilled eggs while my mother brushed the old woman’s hair and they chose the jewelery she would wear for dinner.

  3. Keri
    Keri April 15, 2004 at 12:27 pm | | Reply

    According to the New Yorker article, it’s not a question of an older person “forgetting” the literal truth of events. The author writes that significant aspects of Madeleine L’Engle’s life and relationships, especially as portrayed in her autobiographical Crosswicks series, are heavily fictionalized, in part because she’s emotionally incapable of dealing with unpleasant truths. The author provides especially jarring contradictions to Madeleine’s versions of her famously successful marriage to Hugh Franklin (Two-Park Invention), her happy relationship with her children, and the reasons why she didn’t live with her parents for long periods as a child. The Crosswicks series was written nearly 30 years ago, when Madeleine was in her fifties and certainly not subject to memory problems. The author (who definitely seems rather personally hostile to Madeleine) implies that all her life Madeleine’s had a problem telling fact from fiction, which has caused those around her to suffer. In other words, she’s not so much a person with an inspired creative gift, but someone who can’t deal with reality and has “rewritten” her entire life story in order to be able to cope with it.

    Reading this article was a hard blow to me, too, as a 36-year old who also grew up idolizing the woman who wrote the Murry series, and then loved the Crosswicks journals as an adult. The person I’ve always thought of as Madeleine has been a great inspiration to me. I wish I hadn’t read the article…or else I wish Madeleine would publish a rebuttal, which is not likely to happen.

  4. J.Allison
    J.Allison April 15, 2004 at 7:42 pm | | Reply

    Upon rereading New Yorker article,and reflecting on the “heavily fictionalized” argument, I never found her autobiographical inconsistencies a problem. The only way most people know her IS through her writing.As the historian of her own life, she has the right to present it in any way that she chooses.I believe she writes to be an inspiration to the reader. That is probably reason for her marked popularity over so many years.Her desk in Goshen for the first 8 years was the breadboard in front of the pantry window of their farmhouse where she would write from midnight to 7AM while her husband slept. After breakfast he would leave to open the general store and she would begin her day as a housewife.
    After l958 the room over the garage-dubbed “The Tower” or the library of Cath. S.J.Divine became equally secluded retreats from her life as mother and wife.From such an eyrie, her life would appear different.

  5. Laura Lansford
    Laura Lansford May 3, 2004 at 9:11 pm | | Reply

    I have met Madeleine L

  6. kate
    kate May 10, 2004 at 2:14 pm | | Reply

    i haven’t read the “new yorker” article, but can pick up its themes from the comments. i might feel differently once i read it (as one with fierce lifelong devotion to ms l’engle and her work), but i was instantly reminded of a passage from “circle of quiet,” one of l’engle’s adult books. in it, she tells a story about a family, the brechsteins, which teaches lessons of forgiveness and hospitality and difficult love. and in the next chapter, she tells you she made it all up:

    “One standard question from young and old is: Do you write about real people, and about what really happened?

    “The answer is no, but also yes. My husband says, and I’m afraid with justification, that by the time I’ve finished a book I have no idea what in it is fabrication and what is actuality; and he adds that this holds true not only for novels but for most of my life. We do live, all of us, on many different levels, and for most artists the world of imagination is more real than the world of the kitchen sink.”

    she goes on, but that’s the gist of it. it seems to me that l’engle admits the tendency of which she’s being accused–admitted it even in 1972, when “circle of quiet” was written!

    and to me, there’s nothing much wrong with that. i have always believed with l’engle that “truth goes beyond the facts”–that non-fiction is indeed truthful, but it is not the only way of knowing truth. fact is a subset of truth. fiction is another way of sharing something true.

    it seems that there’s a bit of a “big fish”-style complex going on here: that madeleine has not always told the facts about her life; she has mangled them and mixed them and exaggerated them and twisted them–but, i would argue, not for her own satisfaction. i would argue that though she has not always communicated the facts, she has communicated the truth. she has always been intent on the art of a story, the craft of one, what that story can teach in its beauty, form, and inherent honesty.

    this New Yorker article (though, again, i haven’t read it) is exposing nothing that l’engle hasn’t already owned up to and written about. and if this writer finds that truth can only be communicated through facts… well, it’s simply her loss. l’engle’s stories are magical and transcendent and life-changing for so many who read them. i don’t care a whit if it turns out that the storyteller herself is–could she be anything but?–only human.

  7. Laura Lansford
    Laura Lansford May 25, 2004 at 1:17 pm | | Reply

    I’m posting again because I just came across old notes that I made in a class with Madeleine in the summer of 1995. There is a quote that should settle this whole controversy. Madeleine said: “Write out truth, then translate it into another incident and a made-up person. Don’t hurt people.”

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