Living with Alice in Wonderland

Living with Alice in Wonderla d

Most people think Alice in Wonderland is an amusing story for kids. But it’s never been that for me, thanks to the name my parents gave me.

For many years there was no love lost between me and that other Alice. But I’ve warmed to her.

I’ve been inspired to write about my name by the Jungian writer Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul and The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life. Moore writes of the particular resonances of his own name.

Alice is a name with some epic resonances.

Alice in Wonderland is considered one of the cornerstones of children’s literature.

It belongs to a genre called “literary nonsense”. This is a particularly English genre that features whimsy, surreal scenarios and wordplay. Edward Lear, Ogden Nash, Spike Milligan and John Lennon are all exponents of literary nonsense.

Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane intones in White Rabbit: “Go ask Alice… I think she’ll know…”

In Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland films from 2010 and 2016 Johnny Depp incarnates the Mad Hatter with crazy trickster menace.

I owned a copy of Alice in Wonderland long before I could read. It’s a 1965 Children’s Press edition with drawings by Normy Robinson. On the inside front cover it asserts that the characters are “old friends” “… an undying source of delight for generations of children.”

It continues: “To open the pages of Alice in Wonderland is to enter another world, to leave behind the matter-of-fact, everyday world we live in and to find ourselves in a land where nothing is ordinary.”

I wouldn’t take issue with that, except that I already had very little of the ordinary or everyday in my life.

Not much of my family life could be described as normal. (I know, this is sounding like the beginning of a Harry Potter book.)

Many kids have impossible parents, but I think I had a bigger case of it than most.

What my parents did didn’t make sense to many people outside our family. Somehow they got away with it.

My father, Ralph, was a six foot six (plus a bit) Cambridge-trained social anthropologist who delighted in the birds of paradise in the remote New Guinea highlands.

My mother, Sue, was a five foot six archaeologist from Pasadena, California, with a passion for the prehistory of the Pacific.

Here are a couple of posts I’ve written about my larger than life parents: My father the Giant and Farewell, Sue.

I know plenty of people who find Alice in Wonderland playful and humorous and inspiring.

My friends Lois and Steve Webster had a glorious Wonderland-themed 50th wedding celebration. I attended, but not as Alice. I dressed as a member of Sergeant Pepper’s band. (Who aren’t Wonderland characters, but could quite easily be.)

Pepperland meets Wonderland: jamming with “Alice” (Lois and Steve’s granddaughter, Georgia) at the Wonderland party.

Alice was an unusual name for my generation.

“Alice in Wonderland!” was most people’s response when they heard my name. I couldn’t get away from it.

At five I was spinning in the giant teacups at Disneyland and getting motion sickness. I quickly outgrew my Alice dress-up costume.

Like my namesake, I was always changing size.

Alice in Wonderland felt like a template for my childhood experiences.

Every so often I’d take another look at the book and wonder why people thought it was a cute tale suitable for children. From my perspective it was a nightmare that I knew only too well.

I identified with the story of the young girl who fell down a rabbit hole into a world where everything was weird and crazy and counter-intuitive.

My childhood felt like a cumulative series of Alice in Wonderland ordeals. Scary, physically uncomfortable, deeply bewildering, sometimes interesting but ironically, quite often boring as well.

I’ve often wondered if there are other children who feel this way.

I was named after four Alices.

My parents chose my name because it was something they could agree on.

As well as Alice in Wonderland, there was my father’s great-aunt Alice Hughes of Anglesea. Alice was the sister of my dad’s paternal grandmother, Caroline Bulmer nee Hughes, “Granny Holyhead”.

Alice Hughes was a nurse in the First World War. She never married. She was remembered with great affection by her younger relatives, including my father.

I have a photo of Aunt Alice looking serious in her nurse’s uniform. Smiling for photos wasn’t a general thing in those days before selfies.

My great-great aunt, Alice Hughes of Anglesea.

On my mother’s side, there was Alice Largent, Sue’s best friend from junior high school in Pasadena, California. Sue and Alice went to Girl Scout camps together.

Their lives diverged when Alice married her high school sweetheart, Bob Niderost, after graduating from college. Sue was Alice’s bridesmaid before she went off to have adventures, exploring across the Pacific.

Alice and Bob had four children. They live in San Diego. I visited Alice for lunch last month when I was in California.

My mother, Susie Hirsh, was bridesmaid to her friend Alice Largent.

The other Alice was a friend of Sue’s from her university student days in Hawaii.  I don’t know anything about her, but I think this is a photo of her.

My mother, Sue, at left, with friends at university in Hawaii. I think it’s Alice in the centre. I don’t know the name of the woman on the right.

Cheshire cats and tea parties

My parents were weird and eccentric enough to be characters in Alice in Wonderland.

Ralph had Cheshire Cat qualities: he would appear and disappear at random intervals.

Alice in Wonderland was an important part of my father’s middle-class British, Oxbridge cultural milieu.

He would have adored being a character at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Whereas Sue would only have agreed to attend if she could talk about archaeology.

Sue wasn’t interested in Alice in Wonderland. Star Trek was closer to her cultural story. Or maybe The Wizard of Oz.

Random events

One of the many things about Alice in Wonderland that made me uncomfortable as a child, is that it lacks the sense of narrative that most kids’ stories (and stories in general) have. Strange things happen, and then other strange things happen. Everything is just … weird.

Nothing stays the same. Nothing is trustworthy. There are no wise elders: parents, fairy godmothers, wizards, etc.

That was all too familiar to me.

In my childhood I was flipped through scenarios of constant change: from Auckland to Southern California, to Cambridge, England, to Port Moresby and then to the remote New Guinea highlands, and back again.

Taken singly, any of these experiences could have been everyday. (Okay, maybe not Papua New Guinea in the late 1960s, a generation from the Stone Age.)

Cumulatively, the rapid succession was surreal.

Time after time I’d bond with playmates and never see them again. Kind, attentive adults were few and far between. My parents were far too absorbed in their passions to pay attention to whether their kids were feeling safe. Let alone whether we actually were safe!

It felt like I spent months of my young life sitting in planes and ships and waiting around in airports.

I was constantly adjusting myself to new scenarios. I had no peer group to share experiences with. My only reference point was my two brothers, and expecting younger boys to understand or sympathise with an older girl is just unfeasible. Besides, they were coping with their own version of events.

Taking up too much space

Alice in Wonderland keeps suddenly growing and shrinking. I could identify with this too.

I was always a tall kid for my age. There are a lot of judgements on kids based on size. People expected me to be older and more mature than I was.

I felt like I was always too big.

My California grandmother, Mormor, loved sewing pretty dresses for me. Here’s a link to a post I wrote about my Mormor.

But the dresses were inevitably the wrong size – either far too small or far too big. And then they sat forgotten in a cupboard while I outgrew them.

Because we were such a long way away (and lacking good communication with my parents) it was impossible for her to keep track of my growth.

When I was five, my family spent six weeks on an ocean liner, travelling from New Zealand to the UK. I wasn’t allowed in the kindergarten with my mother and brothers, because I was too tall. I had to go to the ship’s school room, with kids many years older than me.

At 12, I was a huge gawky adolescent in the New Guinea highlands, already 5 foot 6, towering over the tiny bare-breasted highlander women.

When I was 16 my mother decided I was getting a bit chubby – too many female curves. She told me to go on a diet.

And I finally figured out how to shrink myself. I don’t recommend it.

My tattered copy of Alice in Wonderland, flanked by Alice-themed diaries created by my friend Anna Fairley.

Queens and croquet

Several scenes in Alice in Wonderland feature rules which are repeatedly subverted – notably the croquet game, where the Queen of Hearts keeps shouting “Off with her head!” and the trial scene.

To a kid who was continually trying to figure out the rules in new places and different education systems, this was unsettling and confusing.

The most outrageous Queen of Hearts scenario of my whole life was my first New Zealand high school.

I arrived at Auckland Girls Grammar, fresh from the New Guinea highlands. I was looking forward to some consistency and familiarity. I expected things to be normal, everyday.

Instead I found an institution with endless pages of regulations. At daily assemblies we were harangued about what would happen if we didn’t follow the rules.

There were rules about all sorts of things.

I particularly remember some of the uniform regulations: The top button of my blouse had to be buttoned up at all times when I was outside the school gate. There were rules about underwear too.

But I soon realised that (as with the trial scene in Alice in Wonderland) nobody seemed to be following the rules. Most of my fellow students ignored them. Most of the staff, including the senior management, didn’t enforce them.

However, like Alice in Wonderland, the authorities could be capricious. The rules were enforced on random occasions. I remember the music mistress driving down Karangahape Road in her tiny car, booking students for going into Hudson and Halls’s ice-cream parlour while wearing school uniform. (Probably their top buttons were undone too.)

I was a veteran of six different schools in three countries, including a year in an English girls’ grammar school. But I had never experienced anything like this before.

At Auckland Girls’ Grammar I couldn’t find a place of safety, clear boundaries about what I could or couldn’t do.

Nobody else seemed to think there was anything strange about this.

But it did my head in.

Alice in the digital age

Alice in Wonderland isn’t fantasy or fairy story or hero’s journey. There’s no narrative, no supernatural aspects, no moral or meaning.

Alice isn’t a heroine, except in that she is the central character and gets out alive.

Alice in Wonderland makes more sense in the digital age than it does as a traditional story. It’s just a series of episodes/ experiences. Characters keep appearing and disappearing.

This fits with digital media theorist Lev Manovich’s principle of variability: nothing in the digital media is fixed in size or location.

Like digital media, Alice in Wonderland is visual and intellectual. There’s no physical, emotional, spiritual. Readers have to add those elements themselves.

Underworld story

Alice in Wonderland can also be seen as an underworld story.

But it doesn’t have the narrative arc that underpins myths, e.g. Persephone or Ariadne, Perseus and the Minotaur.

Shamanism also deals with underworld journeys. But usually in a shamanic journey there are guardians, power animals and wise beings. Alice in Wonderland is a shamanic journey peopled with only tricksters.

The meanings of Alice

I think the message of Alice in Wonderland is that we can expect everything to change, drastically and suddenly and continually; that there are no wise and trustworthy authority figures; and that we have to adjust ourselves repeatedly to fit our circumstances.

Stop making sense

Lewis Carroll’s Alice tries to reason with each scenario in turn without success, and eventually decides not to bother.

I wasted a lot of energy trying to understand what was going on. That’s the world my parents lived in: reason and the brain were everything.

Artist/ performer Amanda Palmer, author of The Art of Asking, says her family didn’t deal with metaphors. Neither did mine.

It’s the fictional Alice’s conscious brain that gets her out in the end. “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” she says, and she’s free to go back to her everyday life.

But this solution didn’t work for me.

My exit was a lot more complicated than this. My life wasn’t a card game.

It’s taken emotional, physical and spiritual skills. When I came out of the rabbit hole I wasn’t in the same place I’d left (unlike Lewis Carroll’s Alice).

It’s taken me a lifetime to grow into my name, but I’m finally getting there.

I’ve learned to appreciate being Alice. These days I can enjoy tea parties, Cheshire cats and hookah-smoking caterpillars. 

I’ve never much liked croquet though.