As a kid, I always identified with unconventional heroes — people who bucked the mold and disregarded the rules, who were dismissed and ignored but came out triumphant.
I liked to imagine myself as that kind of hero. These days, I find myself identifying more with those heroes’ parents. I will always adore Anne Shirley of Green Gables, but I have a lot of empathy for Marilla Cuthbert and her exasperation at all the flighty, immature and selfish things Anne does. My childhood favorites will always have a special place, but the way I see characters and stories has changed.
When I first read "A Wrinkle In Time," it was, of course, Meg Murry where I most clearly saw myself. I also had glasses and braces and felt like something of a nerdy outcast. I had certainly thought, if not said aloud, the same things as Meg: I am a monster. I wish I were a different person. And I longed to do something extraordinary or perhaps, more accurately, longed to believe that I could.
But now I am a mature and self-assured adult and so, as I set out recently to re-read Madeleine L'Engle's young adult classic, I assumed it would probably be Mrs. Murry, a slightly distracted mother who fiercely loves her children, who would speak most clearly to me. Or perhaps I would see myself in the ethereal Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which — not the divine creatures from another dimension part so much as their role as guardians and caretakers of vulnerable children part. What could I still have in common with a naïve, self-conscious, impulsive little girl?
As it happened, a lot.
For starters, being an adult doesn’t somehow magically free you from feeling left out, left behind, different or inadequate. I still sometimes wish I were different —skinnier, a better mom, more organized, more hip, more popular. Grown-ups have more sophisticated ways of coping with our insecurities, and they may change shape over time, but that doesn’t mean they go away. And so Meg’s struggle to find herself, her voice and her place — as well as her joy and amazement when she succeeds — felt just as relevant and real to me as when I was a kid.
I also found that I admired Meg just as much now as I did then for seeing a challenge that seemed impossible and agreeing to do it anyway. (I am currently potty training a toddler, so I know a thing or two about this.) As Meg prepares to go into danger and rescue her beloved brother from the clutches of IT, Mrs. Whatsit asks if she has the courage to go alone. “No,” Meg replies, “but it doesn’t matter.” To know the thing ahead is hard but to do it anyway — that is a real and rare kind of bravery that anyone can and should admire.
As a kid I loved Meg because that bravery allowed her to save other people. It was she — the unassuming and underestimated — not the genius Charles Wallace, the confident Calvin or the more capable adults, who became the hero. I loved imagining that I, too, could someday rise to a superhuman task and come to the heroic rescue of everyone who ignored me and never invited me to their parties. Any story where the unpopular kid triumphs is one I can get behind.
And I still feel that way, but as an adult I see Meg’s greatest triumph as something else.
Here is a girl who wishes she were different than she is, which is just another way of saying she wishes she were the same as everyone else. And here is a being, a power that says it can give her exactly that. IT is not just a supernatural darkness spreading throughout the universe. It is the voice in Meg’s head telling her it is better to be like everyone else, it is safer to leave your choices to others, it is more rewarding to give up yourself and be an “us” rather than a “them.”
Isn’t that what Meg always wanted, to be more like other people and less like herself? But when she has the chance to just give in, she fights instead. She is fighting for her brother and her father, yes, but — consciously or not — she is above all fighting for herself. By facing IT, Meg is facing her own demons and insecurities head on and sending them packing. That is her greatest challenge — and the greatest challenge any of the rest of us will face. Her greatest triumph is one of self-love and acceptance, and anyone who can show us how to do that is a hero who stands the test of time.