Opal Whiteley and Our Untrue Stories
Updated: Jan 10, 2022
What of the stories we tell about ourselves and the world are true?
“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards” - Queen, Alice in Wonderland
What stories do we tell about ourselves? About our world? Are these stories true? Is their truth worth more than their sentiment?
I’d like to introduce you to someone. One of my long-time Fool-Hearted heroes.
Over 100 years ago a diary was written by a 6 year-old girl with a mystical understanding of nature. The diary was published in 1920, when she was a young adult.
"Earth-voices are glad voices, and earth-songs come up from the ground through the plants, and in their flowering, and in the days before these days are come, they do tell the earth-songs to the wind. And the wind in her goings does whisper them to folks to print for other folks, so other folks do have knowings of earth's songs. When I grow up, I am going to write for children -- and grownups that haven't grown up too much -- all the earth-songs I now do hear."
Her name was Opal Whiteley. She had a condition (a gift) that allowed her to see the world through the lens of interbeing, interconnection. A true empath.
"I did pick up all the sticks my arms could hold. While I was picking them up, I looked long looks at them. I went not to the kitchen with them in a quick way. I was meditating. I did have thinks about the tree they all were before they got chopped up. I did wonder how I would feel, if I was a very little piece of wood that got chopped out of a very big tree. I did think that it would have hurt my feelings. I felt of the feelings of the wood. They did have a very sad feel."
When Opal, then in her twenties, went on a search for a commercial publisher, she did not intend to have her childhood diary published. She went to pitch another manusctript on natural history called The Fairyland Among Us. But as the publisher, Ellery Sedgwick of the Atlantic Monthly, learned of the diary Opal kept as a child, he asked to see a copy. However, this wasn’t such a straightforward request. The diary had been previously torn to pieces and stored away in boxes. Upon Ellery’s urging, Opal painstakingly reassembled the fragments.
The diary was celebrated upon its release in 1920, a voice of beauty, a channel of truth singing the story of nature, not separate from us, but a part of us. However, just one year after her diary was published, the public who had initially adored her voice began to question the validity of the diary. It was deemed to be written not by an empathic child, but fabricated by a conniving adult. The New York Tribune wrote of the doubters, “They are certain that no six-year-old could have written these chronicles, so rich in classic lore, so well sustained in narrative interest, and, above all, so extensive that the mere physical labor involved would be worthy of a highly systematized author of bestsellers.”
“Now are come the days of brown leaves. They fall from the trees; they flutter on the ground. When the brown leaves flutter, they are saying little things. They talk with the wind. I hear them tell of their borning days, when they did come into the world as leaves.
Opal, whose diary was published with the title “The Journal of an Understanding Heart” suffered from the misunderstanding of others. Despite her gifts of insight and empathy, or because of it, she ended up living the last 40 years of her life in a mental institution. She lived separated from others, never quite able to recover from the experience of this public shaming. She once had aspirations to be a great writer, to help others understand the natural world. But her unique perspective also came with the price of being ostracized.
Many historians and psychologists conclude that Opal likely had some neurodivergence, such as being on the spectrum, which certainly wasn’t understood in the early 20th century. And it is believed that, as an adult, she suffered from schizophrenia. The contention around her diary is that she makes claims which seem preposterous, like being the child of French nobility. She writes that the grownups she lives with in her cabin in rural Oregon are not her real family. In her diary she gives many indications of the abuse she suffered from her “grownups”. In an interview given by her grandmother during the height of the controversy, she openly talks of corporal punishment.
"Switching didn't seem to make her any different," her grandmother said. "She would climb up in a big evergreen over the pigpen, and get to studying about something, and drop out of the tree into the mud. Lizzie would spank her or switch her, or if Lizzie wasn't feeling up to it, I would. I would talk to her, and she would look right at me, as solemn as an owl...She would say, ‘I was thinking of something else. What did you say?’ And I would have to spank her all over again."
Is it so strange for a child who likely suffered abuse to create fantasies about “Angel” parents, as she calls them, who love her unconditionally?
This is where I wonder again why it matters so much whether she wrote this diary as an adult or a child. The language is mystical and beautiful regardless of any supposed hoax. Her words are captivating, transporting. They encourage me to love the earth more deeply. To hold nature with even greater reverence and awe.
“I did look looks about. This woods is gray in winter, when come the cold days. And gray shadows walk among the trees. They touch one’s face with velvet fingers, when one goes walking there in the woods. In the winter, old gray leaves grow to look like lace. They are very beautiful.”
“People either love Opal, or they don't seem to have any feeling for her at all”, says Benjamin Hoff, one of her biographers. "But I think that those people have forgotten what it was like to be a kid.” He encourages us to open our hearts to Opal’s writing. “That joy flows through the pages of her book, from beginning to end, like the singing waters of the creek she loved. It is unmistakably real.”
"When I arrived, I took off my shoes. I hung my stockings on a willow branch. Then I sat on the edge of the bank, and dabbled my toes. One drinks in so much inspiration while one is dabbling one’s toes in a willow creek. And one does hear the talkings of plants that dwell near unto the water."
When she finally died in 1992 at the Napsbury Mental Hospital in Hertfordshire, England, she was registered there, not as Opal Whiteley, but as Françoise d’Orléans.
“Now I think I shall go out of the bedroom window and talk to the stars. They always smile so friendly. This is a very wonderful world to live in. “
Sweet dreams, Francoise d’Orleans, may we carry on your legacy by embracing our own understanding hearts.
If you’d like to learn more about this mystical person and read more of her writing, I highly recommend The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow by Benjamin Hoff. This is part a loving biography by the author of The Tao of Pooh, and part the diary itself.
Imagine you are your six-year old self. What and how would you write about your life?
Leave a comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org I'd love to hear your reflections.
*Journaling tips can be found here.
If this tickled your fool's heart, you might also enjoy https://www.fool-hearted.com/post/here-is-everything