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Pollyanna Problems: On Katharine Butler Hathaway’s The Little Locksmith and the Pitfalls of Excessive Optimism
by Ashley P. Taylor

I. Two Pollyannas

To be “a Pollyanna” is a complicated thing. According to Merriam-Webster, a Pollyanna is “a person characterized by irrepressible optimism and a tendency to find good in everything.” The original Pollyanna, the protagonist in Eleanor H. Porter’s 1913 novel of that name, suffers endless bad luck but copes by playing “the glad game,” which consists of finding reasons to be happy about anything and everything. Pollyanna’s father teaches her the game one Christmas when Pollyanna, who is hoping for a doll, instead receives a pair of crutches from the missionary barrel. Through the game, Pollyanna decides that she is glad re: the crutches because she doesn’t need to use them. The Pollyannas and Pollyanna-ish of the world are the same way: They manage to be happy or at least optimistic about situations that others would deplore.

For all the positivity of its definition, “Pollyanna” has a slightly negative connotation. “At the risk of sounding Pollyanna-ish,” people will say to preface sanguine views. Though making the best of things and counting blessings are habits we humans tend to encourage, Pollyannas get a bad rep from taking their optimism too far. When I asked my Facebook friends about the term, they overwhelmingly associated it with naiveté. The Google definition of Pollyanna, “an excessively cheerful or optimistic person,” includes that twinge of judgment. And a fair judgment it is: Unfaltering optimism is excessive. To be glad no matter what is to deny how difficult and unpleasant life can be.

I want to tell you about two more Pollyannas. The first is Katharine Butler Hathaway, author of the memoir The Little Locksmith, which was serialized in the Atlantic Monthly in 1942, published in book form in 1943, and reprinted in 2000 by The Feminist Press. Hathaway—Katharine, as I’ll call her—spent ten years of her turn-of-the-century childhood strapped down and stretched out in bed to prevent spinal tuberculosis from giving her a hunchback. To everyone’s dismay, however, she developed a hunchback anyway and grew no larger than a ten-year-old. Despite these medical problems, Katharine delighted in her life, always. Her memoir is the story of a person who made the most of a difficult situation from the beginning, then stumbled upon even greater happiness. These later joys came in the forms of a house in Maine, where Katharine lived alone and found her independence, then marriage. Only looking back did she realize that there had been something missing before.

The memoir’s title refers to the Butler family’s locksmith, who was short and had a hunchback. Katharine’s parents said her confinement to bed was meant to keep her from becoming like him, as if there were something so bad about that (“Somehow I knew that there was a special word that the grownups called a person shaped like the little locksmith, and I knew that to ordinary healthy grownups, it was a terrible word.”). By titling her triumphant memoir after the little locksmith, Katharine reclaims the moniker and honors the man. “I am the little locksmith,” her book seems to say, “and I am glad.”

Where the fictional Pollyanna played the glad game, Katharine practiced “the magic of transformation.” She could turn any circumstance into something worth celebrating. “I am shocked by the ignorance and wastefulness with which persons who should know better throw away the things they do not like,” Katharine writes. “If you throw away a thing it is gone. . . . Your hands are empty, they have nothing to work on. Whereas, almost all those things which get thrown away are capable of being worked over by a little simple magic into just the opposite of what they were. So that in the place of something you detested you have something you can adore.”

Katharine’s powers worked on two levels. First, she could appreciate the lovely things in her circumscribed world. Tiny objects she could literally handle—a ceramic rabbit, a bullet from the Revolutionary War—were her favorite toys. “The child who is denied his natural scope seems to develop a compensating activity on a microscopic scale,” Katharine writes. “Everything small, everything near at hand, becomes magnified in its importance, and very dear and delightful to him.” On a larger scale, Katharine transformed her entire illness into a boon. When her siblings ran off to play, she writes, “I never felt a pang as might have been expected, nor any sense of being left behind. . . . There was no need for me to feel sad because we all so wholeheartedly took it for granted that no other amusement was really interesting compared with drawing or writing or making something. It seemed as if I were the lucky one because I could do these things all day long and never be interrupted by having somebody tell me to pick up my clothes or start for school.”

In part this transformative magic is a way of looking on the bright side and rightly understanding that a medical condition and/or disability does not automatically mean living a sad life. But Katharine’s Pollyanna-ism also had a cost: Katharine used her skill at transforming difficulty into delight as a way of denying the difficulty altogether. How sincere can Katharine be when she claims she’s lucky to be confined to bed because it gives her more time for creative projects? Perhaps what started as a practice of transformation gradually became a pair of rose-colored glasses for Katharine, automating the transformation and hiding the original version of the thing transformed.

But I’m not writing just to criticize Katharine; the second Pollyanna is myself.

“You never complain,” a sixth-grade teacher once praised me. I wondered to myself what I had to complain about. Looking back, however, I see that this teacher might have flagged potential causes for complaint—or unhappiness—in our every interaction because I have a lifelong medical condition that is readily apparent. A person meeting me won’t know “what’s wrong,” but they will probably notice that I move one side of my mouth more than the other, that my voice is unusual, and that my left eye does not track with the right.

I was born with hydrocephalus as well as a brain tumor that turned out to be benign. The tumor, on the brainstem, seems to have affected my balance and my bodily symmetry. The hydrocephalus, meaning that my brain does not properly drain its cerebrospinal fluid to regulate the pressure in my skull, is treated with a shunt that releases fluid as necessary to keep the pressure steady. When the shunt is working, I’m basically fine, but once in a while, the shunt gets clogged and I need brain surgery to replace it.

By sixth grade, shunt-related emergencies had twice disrupted my life. Yet it wasn’t until my late twenties that I realized that my condition made me different. Going to the doctor, going to the hospital—these were things everybody did. As a kid, I thought of myself as being not disadvantaged but, rather, uniquely talented—special in a good way. I didn’t complain, not because I was consciously making the best of sad things but because I didn’t realize I had hardships to accommodate. This rosy view left me unprepared for the very different way that others seemed to perceive me.

 

II. Jolts

When the magic of transformation is reversed, when we see ourselves as others do, the perspectival shift is jarring—a jolt. Katharine had this feeling when children stared at her and at the apparatus that stretched her out in bed: “Something repulsive had come into my room, something that surely had nothing to do with me. Yet . . . the child’s staring eyes said that it had everything to do with me, they said that the repulsive thing was myself and my halter and rope.”

As I describe in the essay “Public Art,” I felt a jolt when a comment by a well-meaning friend made me realize that there might be a connection between my hydrocephalus—and the trache I’d had during my first two years, which meant I couldn’t talk, and the physical and occupational therapy sessions I’d endured—and the fact that my mother had co-founded an organization to help kids with special needs. This organization ran a Fourth of July children’s fair every year in the town where I grew up. Of Special Children’s Friends and the fair, I write: “Typically, I didn’t think this had anything to do with me. . . . I decided to play the fiddle at the fair one year to raise tips for the cause, and at the end of the day, as we were all packing up, one of my parents’ friends mentioned to me that I was really ‘the poster child’ for the organization.” But I don’t have special needs, I thought to myself. Then it sank in.

 

III. Denial

Jolts seed the mind with worries. Just as Katharine’s magic of transformation improved upon neutral and pleasant circumstances, I fear it made the difficult things worse. If you’re going to transform a situation, you have less reason to pay attention to just how bad or not-so-bad it truly is. When Katharine wasn’t transforming or dismissing negative things, she was worrying about them and, Pollyanna that she was, doing so in secret.

Toward the end of that period when Katharine was confined to bed, she began to worry whether she would have a hunchback when she got up. “There had been a baffling silence in regard to that side of my illness, and I never dared to ask. Nobody guessed that I was secretly worried about it, and I could not tell them. Nobody guessed, because, I suppose, I gave the impression of being such a happy, humorous child. But when I was alone in the room I sometimes slid my hand up under me to explore that fateful part,” she writes.

Though “baffling silence” generally prevailed on the part of Katharine’s parents, there were signs that they worried too. Whenever Mrs. Butler, normally “dull and uninteresting,” did speak of her daughter’s illness, it became apparent that the silence was not because Mrs. Butler had no thoughts on the subject but because it upset her so much that she couldn’t talk about it. Mrs. Butler would almost cry but hold the tears back in what looked to Katharine like a struggle with a wild animal. “When she was like that I could not very well not notice her or think she was uninteresting. Then her aliveness frightened me.”

Mrs. Butler’s anger and sadness made Katharine realize that, deny it as she might, she felt those same emotions, “a sorrow over my own plight that leaped up out of the depth of me, and answered her with a grieving that seemed to understand and match her own.”

When Katharine first got out of bed, looked in the mirror, and viewed her profile for the first time in a decade, she “felt numb. That person in the mirror couldn’t be me. I felt inside like a healthy, ordinary, lucky person—oh not like the one in the mirror!” The one with a hunchback. But she told no one.

“What I felt that day did not fit in with the pleasant cheerful atmosphere of our family, any more than my horrors had fitted in,” Katharine writes. “I would have died rather than let that come to the surface of our cheerful life, for [my mother] to see and endure in me.” To preserve their “pleasant cheerful atmosphere,” the family left their fears unspoken and unresolved.

Though as a kid, Katharine didn’t consciously fret about her medical condition, she did experience “horrors” that kept her awake at night. When she couldn’t stand it any more, she would call for her father, who would sit, a calming presence, beside her bed. But he was so calm that Katharine felt her fears—about the endlessness of space and time—would be too much for him and so did not tell him why she was upset. Adults seem so “panic-proof that the child is driven to conceal from them all the really queer and terrible things he thinks or feels,” Katharine writes.

Once Katharine became an adult herself, she realized that her father had had worries, too, but that both parents had kept their concerns from her. “Why couldn’t we both have cried out and told each other all about our horrors and clung together and really known each other, father and child?” she asks.

When I was young, my parents taught me that I was wonderful [despite my medical condition] and that life was good [despite my medical condition]. But the messages I got were that I was wonderful and that life was good, period. I didn’t realize that in our happiness we were, in part, making the best of my medical issues because we didn’t talk about them. My health came up only during medical emergencies and it felt, then, like a momentary problem, not the lifelong issue that it really was.

I became more conscious of how the condition affects my life when, in my late twenties, I had two shunt emergencies and surgeries within a year. But I didn’t discuss these new thoughts with my parents; I would rather have written about them for the public. And so I did: My mom first found out how I was feeling through “Public Art.” Though I did show the essay to her before it was published, I was afraid to do so. I felt uncomfortable revealing to her that others saw flaws in me and was afraid to learn that she saw them too. Plus, I didn’t want my mom worry about my feelings toward my health when, physically, I was fine. My mother read the essay, and then we talked.

Parents try to comfort children by acting as if everything is normal, even if it’s not. The danger is that the child, so convinced that everything is fine and should be fine, will worry in secret or, perhaps, conclude from her parents’ silence that matters are unspeakably bad. As Katharine put it so well, “In the dim background of that period I can now see my mother watching me, and suffering for me, and hiding her suffering because she thought it might suggest painful thoughts to me that I had not yet had. She didn’t realize that her silence harmed me more than anything she could have said.”

What was the result, for Katharine, of all this silence and denial? Instead of trying to change her circumstances, Katharine made the best of them by escaping into fantasy and art—in particular, writing.

 

IV. Role play

When reality offers little to be glad about, the imagination can serve as “the bright side.” Katharine was prone to fantasies. At the theater, as a private game, Katharine would pick out a beautiful, aloof woman and pretend to be her. Katharine had to sit on her feet and coat in order to see over the seat in front of her, “and yet from this humiliating level I utterly forgot the little locksmith that I was, while my eyes . . . made me believe that in the conspicuously beautiful and regal girl I was gazing at, who was in everything the very antithesis of me, I was staring at my own defrauded self.” It’s part fantasy or metaphor—pretending to be like someone else when you know you’re not—part delusion. The delusion is the belief that you are like that other person, only nobody can tell.

But sometimes you don’t get to choose the role you play. Katharine recalls her brother’s college friends casting her not as a romantic heroine but as a spinster or jester. These young people wrongly assumed that Katharine wasn’t interested in men or sex. “They acted toward me as if I were a mysterious little sage, a highbrow, and a very special person, never as if I were a young human being like themselves.” Though they did not treat her as an eligible bachelorette, they didn’t scorn her, either. By playing her assigned part, funny and smart, Katharine could win acceptance. So she did that, even when it meant hiding the part of her that was or wanted to be haughty, regal, desirable.

“I felt that somewhere underneath my disguise there was imprisoned a spirit even more gay and pleasure-loving than theirs,” Katharine writes. “Yet when I found that the only social success I could possibly hope for among the girls and boys of my own age consisted in my being thought cute and funny and childish, in my thirst and hunger to mingle with them and to be accepted I began to cultivate in myself for these social needs the character of the appealing little clown . . . the jester at court [who is] respected and beloved in a way in which no other kind of person is respected and beloved.”

Intertwined with the idea of playing the jester is that of not playing the romantic lead. While Katharine’s siblings and friends began to pair off, Katharine continued along in her role as the pleasant, occasionally entertaining observer, and nobody suggested she should—or could—do otherwise. Katharine grew to suspect that she would never have sex. “By an unspoken understanding it was taken for granted that I was not to have what was apparently considered the most thrilling and important experience in adult life. Nobody explained the reason why. . . . The reason was there in every mirror for me to see.”

Having essentially resigned herself to celibacy, Katharine decided that while other people devoted themselves to each other, she would devote herself to other things instead. Of her writing, she says, “Since I was denied that form [romance] I had found this lonelier way of expressing my feeling of passionate adoration toward the mystery of life.” She also loved her house in Maine and speaks of a “mystic marriage” to the place where she could finally be herself, not the sage, jester, or invalid that she was in other people’s imaginations. Of her habit of staring at frosty beauties, Katharine writes, “I owned a little arrogant set of substitutes for those things which I believed were really mine . . . In order to maintain my own beguiling jolly feeling of superiority I could not afford to let anything shatter my precious little set of substitutes.” This “set of substitutes” extended beyond Katharine’s voyeurism to all of the ways in which she compensated for the absence of romantic love in her life.

The idea that art might be a substitute for life and love is an idea that I, too, have had and have written about. In my short story “Silence Turned to Music,” a young woman who has never had sex gives a violin recital and plays a piece of music she deeply loves with a climax that she imagines must be equivalent to orgasm. The violinist loves music more than any other life experience she’s had. She wonders, though, if sex would top music, if the reason she thinks art is better than life is that she hasn’t fully experienced the latter.

 

V. “I could be better”

Rather than trying to change her quiet life, Katharine lived through fantasy and art—except when chance suggested she buy a big house in Castine, Maine, and she decided to go live there by herself. The house was something she didn’t even know she wanted. Everyone had expected that she would live in a tiny house, a “thimble,” where, in Pollyanna style, she would “make the most of whatever beguiling charm and appeal there might be in accepting and playing the part of a quaint, small, crumpled figure, who . . . was ageless and sexless and supernaturally wise.” Katharine probably would have been happy in a thimble, as she was everywhere.

But that didn’t mean she wouldn’t also be happy—happier, even—in a big house by the sea, as she discovered once she was installed in her new home. The urge for a larger life, she writes, this “greedy enormous dream of youth . . . must have demanded room at last, for it knocked aside all my modest notions and took for its scene of action the high square house on an azure bay, and I unsuspectingly obeyed the order.” In a similar vein, that Katharine could enjoy life without romance did not mean that she would not also find happiness in marriage, as the epilogue to The Little Locksmith indicates she did.

Making the best of a difficult situation should not mean denying the difficulty. It’s important to see one’s circumstances through clear glasses, not just rose-colored ones, in part because seeing a situation clearly gives one the possibility of improving it.

 

VI. Art as transformation

Throughout my pondering of Pollyana-ism and The Little Locksmith, I have considered “the glad game” and “the magic of transformation” to be forms of denial and opposed to seeing things clearly. Yet I consider writing about my life, in which try to be clear-eyed, to be a “magic of transformation.” The wonderful irony is that it’s possible to transform something and see it clearly at the same time.

Through writing, I can find beauty and meaning in events that, as I lived them, were frightening, sad, and uncertain. When I read my work, I do sometimes respond as Pollyanna did to her Christmas crutches: I’m glad I had these difficult experiences because they gave me an opportunity to make something beautiful.

It’s not just the art that makes me feel better. When I transform an experience into writing, I think about it differently. If the writing is beautiful, then my memory of the experience is . . . not beautified, necessarily, but certainly transformed. John Updike had it right when, in a Paris Review interview, he called writing “transforming pain into honey.” (“Being able to write becomes a kind of shield, a way of hiding, a way of too instantly transforming pain into honey,” he said. Updike, too, understood Pollyanna problems.)

Through her memoir, Katharine transformed the phrase “the little locksmith” from the foreboding symbol it represented to her parents into a proud name for herself and for her beloved book (“I love this book and I can hardly bear to leave it now,” she writes in the epilogue.).

I said earlier that when I was writing “Public Art,” I wanted to share my medical issues and related difficulties with the world yet preferred not to discuss them with my parents. This discrepancy comes down to the difference between making art and simply living. When I’m writing, I’m making something beautiful. I also feel a sense of remove. Writer Ashley P. Taylor is distinct from the character, Ashley, and when the character is having a terrible time, that distinction is a comfort.

Talking with my parents about my life has its benefits, but one downside is that in such a conversation, unlike in writing, there is no insulation between me and my experiences. I am connected in time to that baby who was born with hydrocephalus and that toddler who went to occupational therapy and that rising third grader who, during a bad headache, said she wanted to die. Her problems are mine. Whereas the stories I tell of her experiences sometimes have comforting conclusions, real life doesn’t have that. It just keeps going.

It almost seems, then, that a conversation with the relevant people would be a better way than writing to face things. Except that these conversations are so difficult that people avoid them. Except that I can’t think well or fast enough during those conversations, and certainly not when I’m upset.

It’s through making art that I have thought carefully about my life. Art is how I face things. Not only is it possible to transform something and at the same time see it clearly; for me, clarity may depend on that transformation.

 

Ashley P. Taylor is a Brooklyn-based writer of journalism, essays, and fiction. Her essays have appeared in LUMINA Online Journal, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Brooklyn Rail, Entropy, and Catapult and have been listed as notable in Best American Essays 2016 and 2017. Her short fiction has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn and Joyland.

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  • leslie lawrence

    What a wonderful–and important–essay this is! I’m a longtime fan of Katharine Butler Hathaway and now I’m a confirmed fan of Ashley P. Taylor. In this essay, as in others of hers that I’ve read, she writes with intellectual rigor, stylistic precision, and a fierce honesty, Here she tackles some of the big questions for our times–and all times. How do we live with joy and hope without denying truths that will eventually come back to haunt us.