Page Sixty-six

Wednesday 14 July 2010        Turners rancid, sataa

In 2006, while I was still in my own life, still with my animals, still listening to public radio, I started hearing little blurb-stories and occasionally a song by a person called Opal Whiteley, of whom I had never heard. The first few times these bits came on, I was doing things around the apartment and didn’t catch on to the fact that the person who had written the words being quoted or sung had written those words when she was 6 and 7 years old. Only in 2007 did I sit and listen to one of the stories long enough to learn about this amazing child, whose adult life ended up being a hell of even greater proportions than my own. And now certain psychologists who’ve made a study of her life and words are saying that she probably had Asperger’s.

Before I say anything more about her, I want to quote just a few of the many, many gentle and endearing words she wrote when she was a little girl.

“I went to look for the fairies. I went to the near woods.”

“I am piper for the lichens that dwell on the gray rocks, and the lichen that cling to the trees grown old.”

Once I realized that these words and songs had originated with a child, I had to pursue her. The local bookstore found out for me that her diary, after many years of purgatory, was once again in print, and I ordered it. I bought Anne Hills’ CD online.

I devoured Opal’s childhood journal, and almost immediately thought she must have had Asperger’s, even before I read that anyone else had said that. What Opal was as a child is similar to what I became as an adult: someone who wanders around in nature with animal companions, naming things and having adventures, and always loathe to return to the oppressive world within walls and within the constraints that human beings are constantly imposing. The child Opal who wrote this absolutely prodigious journal is so like the adult Anne who moved over the years more and more away from the pursuits of the banal human parade.

But there are differences, too. There was this one fixed idea she got at about age 19 and seems never to have shaken: that her real parents were members of the French royal family. I often find it hard to fathom that the people who raised her could have produced her, but she looks so much like her sisters that she has to be a biological Whiteley. So she couldn’t shake this delusion, and it only got fiercer as she got older.                                                             


Updating now a couple of weeks later. Though I said in my comment I was going to skip it, the library ended up getting me the Kathrine Beck book (they’d said at first that they weren’t able to), and so I read it (it’s the first print book I’ve been able to read in nearly a year).

The advantages to the Beck book over that edited by Benjamin Hoff is that there’s more information about certain people in Opal’s life and certain time periods. That’s it. I often get the feeling that Beck is derisive both of Opal and of those of us who see her childhood diary as poetic and communicative genius. She calls us Opalites, like Trekkies or something. And Beck never once mentions Asperger’s, even though she interviews Stephen Williamson, who might have been the first to put forth the idea that Opal was autistic as well as schizophrenic. Despite this silence, Beck’s book has convinced me even more strongly that Opal had Asperger’s Syndrome.

It seems fairly certain, at least to me, that Opal added the French parts and the refernces to Angel Mother and Angel Father to her childhood diary later, when she was in Boston piecing together the torn bits for Ellery Sedgwick. She certainly had opportunity to do that, and she did not study French and anacrostics from books until she was 19. But I myself, along with many others, believe that the bulk of the diary was written when she was 6 and 7, by a child whose genius and prodigious memory were later drastically eroded by her schizophrenia and by the seemingly unending stress of her first 40 years.

Which is, of course, a tremendous shame. It’s always a shame when severe psychological conditions decimate anyone’s potential, but I find it particularly sad for me in Opal’s case because the adult that I became is so similar to the child that she was. I feel a certain kind of sisterhood with the child Opal. I love the child who wrote that diary, who was so astonishingly brilliant and yet lacked all common sense (like so many of us Aspies), who lived in total connection with animals and nature, and devised herself a diction that is both extremely odd and extremely poetic.

I happen to believe that any frailty any person has, whether physical or psychological, is going to constantly be worsened by living in depleting/stressful/abusive environments. And Opal had more bullies in her life than you can shake a stick at. Her mother was a physical bully, but she had a great many psychological bullies as well. People who would house her and finance her as long as they could exert power over her.  I think the almost constant bullying and other stresses in the first 40 years of her life did a great deal to worsen her mental state and erode her genius. And we all lose when genius is taken from our world.

What is so much larger and more important than anything else in considering the value of her diary is that she was a prodigy, a genius, a person whose bodily rhythms seemed to be completely tuned to those of nature and animals, and an extremely gentle temperament that could not withstand all of the brutalities that came her way.


                               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

                                                 ~~  o.w.


                             ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~  website


                                                   more opal

(opal pendant from www.gaelsong.com)

(The Singing Creek Where The Willows Grow: The Mystical Nature Diary of Opal Whiteley, edited by Benjamin Hoff, Penguin Books.  ~~   “Beauty Attends: The Heartsongs of Opal Whiteley”  available at Anne Hills’ website, or at collectiveworksmedia.com  ****  update: my research assistant, Bx3, has just told me that there’s a Whiteley biography I hadn’t heard of. As I haven’t yet read it, I can’t tell you whether I think it’s wisdom or tripe. It’s called simply OPAL, and is written by Kathrine Beck, published by Viking).


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~   Share  ~~~~~~~

 a href=”http://twitter.com/share” data-count=”none” data-via=”annegrace2″ data-related=”ziidjian:outre tweeting”>Tweet</a><script type=”text/javascript” src=”http://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js”></script

all photos, graphics, poems and text copyright 2008-2011 by anne nakis, unless otherwise stated. all rights reserved.



  1. Babs said,

    July 14, 2010 at 9:17 pm

    “Between the ranch-house and the house we live in is the singing creek where the willows grow. We have conversations. And there I do dabble my toes beside the willows. I feel the feels of gladness they do feel.”
    What great stuff – thanks for the introduction to Opal. It is always so exciting to discover someone “new”.

  2. braon said,

    July 14, 2010 at 10:57 pm

    Opal as a child makes my heart both fly and crash to the ground. You’ll read in the Hoff book how hard her childhood was in some ways. And Opal as an adult makes me very anxious, for myself, and for those certain other Aspergians who can excel, but who are also unusually fragile.

  3. braon said,

    July 20, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    So here is the review of the Beck book. Bx3 slaved over it all weekend, and as I trust her judgment in matters of good writing and bad writing, I myself am going to skip the Beck book. Others will make their own decisions.

    “So I have finished Kathrine Beck’s book on Opal. I am left wondering why she chose her as a subject at all. It’s really quite a tedious book. I was reading in the shade in the backyard and fell asleep more than once. Which by the way, was not a pretty sight as I awoke with a snort and a little froth of slobber about the chops. Anyway, it’s a fairly straight piece of reportage with evidence presented both pro and con for the validity of the diary. She then presents the vast cast of characters that populated Opals life with a brief explanation of what their involvement with her was and the author’s supposition as to their motives. Yawn. The one thing that she does do successfully is place Opal historically and makes the point that in the aftermath of the First World War many were longing to look back to a simpler more innocent time and that made for a very receptive audience for her. Also this was a time when America was establishing the first national parks and there was the first glimmer of the idea that nature was more than just a resource to be exploited. The author seems to respect Opal only as a master of self-promotion and thinks that the thing that drove her was a fierce ambition.”

    “There was a similar fracas over Beryl Markham’s “West with the Night” and ultimately that sort of literary detective work doesn’t really matter. The work stands on it’s own.” ~~~ Bx3

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: