How LITTLE WOMEN Saved Me

On my tenth Christmas, I peeled back the wrapping paper to find a book about the size of a dictionary. The cover was printed with the image of a living room. Around a piano, five white women stood singing in the light of a hurricane lamp. Their dresses could easily be mistaken for curtains. The page edges were painted a brilliant, velvety blue. Embossed in gold and printed in cursive, the title didn’t interest me.

Little Women.

My grandma leaned over her knees, eyes bright. “I read this book when I was about your age,” she said. “It’s a book that meant a lot to me growing up. So now I’m giving it to you.”

My favorite books at the time were Lloyd Alexander’s fantasy series, The Chronicles of Prydain, Nancy Drew, and anything by E.B. White or Roald Dahl.

I opened to the first chapter. A rough black and white sketch of a Christmas tree, sentences about girls wanting presents. It looked old-fashioned and tedious. “Thank you,” I said.

“You’re welcome.” She leaned back into our rocking chair. “Now you read that and let me know what you think.”

I did try.

I tried several times over the next two years to get past the opening lines:

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

But I couldn’t. My copy was well over 600 pages—and 600 pages of that? Children complaining about insignificant problems? Give me a Pegasus and a woman wielding a sword any day. But this? I just couldn’t do it. I felt weighed down by the boredom it promised every time I picked it up. So the book sat on my shelf unread, a fine layer of dust coating the blue pages. My father’s mother either forgot or was too polite to ask.

*             *             *

Then, when I was 12, I stood up to my abusive father (more about this assault here). I tried to stop his emotional abuse of my mother. And I succeeded. I sacrificed myself. And I became the target. For the next 13 years, until I cut him off, my father would concentrate the majority of his abuse on me. That day, shortly before the end of sixth grade, the child I had been and the person I could have become died.

I became someone else.

That’s what violence does to children.

I thought my father wanted to kill me.

And, in a substantial way, he did.

We moved shortly after his beating, and I stopped talking at school. I spent most of my time alone, with my mother returning to work and my friends all back in my old neighborhood. Before his attack, I had wanted adventure, heroism, swashbuckling sword fights.

Now, I just wanted to feel safe. I wanted someone to tell me that everything would be okay. I wanted someone to say that I would survive my father, that he wouldn’t succeed at destroying me, and that I would never become anything like him.

*             *             *

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One afternoon when I was 13 and the house was empty as usual, I pulled down the enormous blue volume of Little Women. I opened it to the first page. And the lines had changed.

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

“It’s so dreadful to be poor!”

These girls knew what it was like to want something you couldn’t have. And they knew that somehow, you had to learn to live with that.

I turned the page.

“We haven’t got father, and shall not have him for a long time.” She didn’t say “perhaps never,” but each silently added it.

I settled the book onto the carpet in front of me and curled myself around it, forgetting the drum of rain against the skylights as I read. I wasn’t alone anymore.

*             *             *

The book astonished me. As a child with PTSD in a white suburb that was eager to dismiss anything unpleasant, I felt like Jo: I didn’t fit in. She was constantly ruining her clothes and breaking rules and ticking off authority figures like Aunt March. But unlike my parents, Marmee treasured Jo. She saw her difficulties as possibilities. Jo herself told people she was going to do “something heroic or wonderful” someday, and no one punished her for thinking highly of herself. No one locked her behind doors or laughed at her screams.

By the time I was 14, I was the family scapegoat. My father could blame me for anything, and my mother and brother went along with it. I began to stand up to him more, channeling Jo. He was a bully, and it felt like the ethical thing to do.

So when I read this passage, I knew exactly what Alcott was getting at.

“For when women are the advisers, the lords of creation don’t take the advice till they have persuaded themselves that it is just what they intended to do. Then they act upon it, and, if it succeeds, they give the weaker vessel half the credit of it. If it fails, they generously give her the whole.”

Alcott introduced me to feminism, and I began to recognize my father’s abuse for what it was: a particularly ugly strain of misogyny. He hated my mother and me for having opinions that differed from his. He resented his mother, despised his half-sister, and loathed the women he worked with as peers. He believed he was ordained by god to have authority over all women, by force if necessary. I felt in my bones this was evil. But Alcott gave me the language for it.

She also taught me that outside my own home, the world could be gentler than I imagined. In Little Women, the stern, forbidding Mr. Laurence turns out to be a kind, grieving father. Friends come along at just the right moment. And the family draws together to support each other when Beth dies.

It was the way I wished my world really was. But when I was reading Alcott, I didn’t have to wish. She invited me into her version of humanity: kinder, nobler, more compassionate. I couldn’t get enough.

*             *             *

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Louisa May Alcott, by Charles Santore

I read everything of hers I could find. Even my new friends, as I began to make some, noticed my addiction and bought copies for birthday gifts. Jo’s Boys. Little Men. Eight Cousins. A neighbor I baby-sat for bought me The Inheritance when the manuscript was discovered and published. My mother bought me a volume of Alcott’s penny-dreadful stories A Whisper in the Dark.

When I ran out of her fiction, I bought a volume of her letters and journals. I read it cover to cover, two or three times. I came to know her voice. Her moods. I felt like she was here, in the room with me.

She became, in that magical thinking of traumatized children, my guardian angel.

*             *             *

I learned that Louisa May Alcott’s father, Bronson Alcott, was a Transcendentalist. She grew up near Thoreau and Emerson and had childhood crushes on these married men. She even joked later that as a child, she courted them with flowers at their doorsteps.

Her parents founded a short-lived Transcendentalist commune, Fruitlands (yes, Transcendentalists were the original hippies), and some of Alcott’s earliest memories were of that failed social experiment. It lasted only eight months, financially ruining her family. Both her mother and Alcott struggled to forgive Bronson his many financial failures in reckless pursuit of his ideals.

In all her fiction, both the sensational stories for adults and her children’s literature, she explores that tension between human failings, pragmatism, and the Transcendentalist ideal of aiming for perfection. How far could ideals really get you if you can’t put food on the table?

Her parents were also committed abolitionists who believed in the equal rights of black people to freedom, safety, paid work in any profession they desired, self-actualization, and the pursuit of happiness. They believed it so much that they staked their lives on it, serving on the Underground Railroad and developing an acquaintance with Frederick Douglass.

Alcott remembered opening their stove to find the terrified face of an escaped slave. She never forgot that look of terror, the vision of trauma and incomprehensible pain in another human being.

And so when she was 30 and the Civil War began, she yearned to enlist but was barred due to gender. So she served as a Union nurse instead. Her tenure was short-lived. She fell ill with typhoid after six weeks and never fully recovered. But she wrote of her experiences tending Union soldiers and published her letters home in Hospital Sketches, her first bestseller.

Alcott was also a dedicated suffragette. She even registered and cast her vote illegally in protest. Jo’s and Amy’s passionate speeches on independence and equality are all Alcott. In much of her writing, Alcott addresses the objectification of girls, heteronormative gender performance (which was far more strictly regulated in the 1800s), and gender discrimination in the world of paid work.

Finally, by the time Alcott published Little Women, her sister Elizabeth had died ten years earlier, her parents were in ill health, and she lived at home with them as their caregiver. She outlived her entire immediate family except her oldest sister, Anna, on whom she had modeled Meg March. Alcott spent most of her life caring for and trying to financially support her family, including an orphaned niece, often working herself to exhaustion and damaging her fragile health.

Alcott never married, wording her orientation and gender identity in ways that would be readily understood today: “I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body. … because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.”

She died in 1888 at the age of 55, a national celebrity and one of the most adored children’s authors in history.

*             *             *

Abused children often come to believe they are terrible, that they contain some evil that invites the abuse. Why else, the abused child rationalizes, would adults charged with their care hurt them? Why else would parents, who are supposed to love them, instead act on selfish, violent impulses? Somehow, it must be their fault, the child decides.

It is too terrifying to consider that the parent is the destructive one. When a child needs some sense of control over a world that has spun out of control, a common thought is: I did this. And this internalization is partly why the effects of childhood trauma can last a lifetime. How can you leave it behind if it lives inside you?

Louisa May Alcott really was my guardian angel. She came along and told me the facts.

Even Marmee has a temper, but she knows there’s no excuse for such cruelty towards children. It’s her duty to model self-control and kindness as a parent.

There’s nothing wrong with you. You just have a strong will, like Jo, and that will lead you to achievements and love you can’t even dream of yet. 

Look at me. I just set out to help my family and do my duty, and I contributed my little part to the end of slavery, the rights of women everywhere, and the dignity of girlhood. 

As Alcott herself wrote in Little Women and which I read many times:

“Be comforted, dear soul! There is always light behind the clouds.”

Little Women did for me what all great children’s literature does: it insulated me from some of childhood’s hardships, kept intact the best parts of myself, and ennobled me. Alcott gave me hope of one day finding love and joy, and a way to make a better world.

She helped me survive childhood trauma. And then, too, she gave me something to steer for after I was free.

Coming across her name is, for me, like encountering an old friend.

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