About 10 years ago I was sent galleys of the diary of Opal Whiteley and read them with enthusiasm and excitement. It is the journal of a lovable and precocious 7-year-old girl living in the wilderness of the American Northwest in the early years of this century, a child with an amazing ability to see and record the marvelous world of nature around her, in language that is poetically individual.
I loaned a friend the galleys on the assumption that ultimately I'd be sent the bound book. I never was. The book was, I believe,"The Journal of an Understanding Heart," beautifully edited by Jane Boulton, though I do not recall the publisher. I remember mostly that it was one of the most enchanting texts I'd read in a long time, and that there was some question of the diary's authenticity.
That it was authentic seemed obvious to me. It had the vision, the outlook, the senses of a very young child. The "angel parents" I took to be real, assuming them to be French or French-Canadian, and that Opal's original language was French--for the diary reads as though it had been thought in French, and set down carefully in the child's second language of English.
It is almost a disappointment to learn from Benjamin Hoff's thoughtful biography that Opal Whiteley was indeed Opal Whiteley and not the adopted child she thought she was. But ultimately, it adds to rather than detracts from her fascination. Nor are the "angel parents" that unusual. Almost all children, perhaps especially girls, go through a period in childhood when they believe themselves to be different from the rest of the family, changelings, perhaps, born of mysterious and usually extraordinary parents. This fancy can be taken quite seriously at the same time that the child knows quite well who the "real" parents are. It is easier in childhood than later on in life to believe in two mutually exclusive things simultaneously.
Although the biography is fair and in no way idealizes her, it is also written out of love for the subject, and this love adds to its charm.
The postlude, detailing Hoff's Herculean efforts to see the aged Whiteley under her deluded name of Francoise d'Orleans is an essay in frustration, and in the inability of bureaucracy to cut through the red tape of institutionalism to ordinary human kindness. It is not only the specific mental hospital of Napsbury in England; similar institutions all over the world can be equally heartless and frustrating. Sometimes our 20th-Century treatment of mental patients makes Bedlam seem compassionate.
It may be that it was a kindness to Benjamin Hoff that he was never able to see her. He knew that she would not be able to add to what he already knew. And, since he had not seen what he understood to be the aging wreck of a human being, grown fat on hospital food, his own vision of her was mercifully never shattered.
Opal, called "the princess," was registered in the hospital under the name of Francoise d'Orleans, and this is part of her tragedy. What is normal daydreaming in a child is insanity in a grown woman. It is heart-rending that life should so treat a brilliant and perceptive child and young woman that she is pushed over the edge of sanity and into dementia. Nor was this, I believe, inevitable. Not all children with her imagination and gift for understanding the interdependence of all creation end up in a Napsbury.
Hoff points out that there were signs of schizophrenia in Opal as a child. But what is indeed schizophrenic in an adult is not necessarily so in a child. Perhaps it is that many schizophrenics retain a sensitivity that most people lose as they move on in years, and that is therefore frightening to the adult world. We also find that it helps to label things. If we can call Opal schizophrenic, then we can understand her, and are not afraid of her brilliance.
Not that Hoff falls into this trap. It is more that he needs to explain Opal to others, than to himself. There is a sense that the two are kin, and that Hoff was able to make the transition from the world of childhood to that of adulthood without losing his sense of wonder, and Opal, alas, was not. Hoff has a special and tender understanding of this lost child.
In a world that would un-name us with social security and ID numbers, Opal was a Namer. She writes, "Back of the house are some nice wood rats. The most lovely of them is Thomas Chatterton Jupiter Zeus." What a wonderful name for a wood rat, and the child was amazingly well-read to know of English poet Thomas Chatterton, of Jupiter and Zeus. This precocious learning does not cast a shadow of doubt on the authenticity of the diary. Among my collection of family letters of the 19th and early 20th centuries are several written by children no older than Opal, written with equal precocity. What does this tell us about our current educational system?