In the alcoholic home and wherever there is addiction or mental illness, children are often forced to deny the things they see and feel. In fact, the unofficial slogan of the dysfunctional family is “don’t talk; don’t feel; don’t trust.”
How confusing to depend upon such people for one’s very existence. How strange to love people so disconnected from reality.
Having seen Disney’s Mary Poppins film, the books came as quite a surprise. That Mary is magical and practically perfect in every way is nothing new. But her relationship with the children really threw me for a loop. After nearly every magic exploit, the children, Michael and Jane, turn to her and comment it. Mary Poppins then turns upon them with rage for insinuating any such thing ever happened.
The wild part is how desperately in love with her they are. Why would these children be so enthralled with such a conceited, despotic, critical woman who makes them feel crazy for talking about their day?
Repeatedly she looks upon them so dangerously, that Michael and Jane dare not press the point. Repeatedly, she denies that anyone from her family could ever act with such impropriety as they have suggested. Repeatedly, she threatens them, tells them what a tiresome burden they are, and describes how short of the mark they fall.
She is certainly an early example of gaslighting. But she is also something more. She is the embodiment of the conflict which any child will experience around alcoholism, addiction, mental illness, or grave sin. She is both a source of wonder and excitement, as well as an authority figure who is not to be questioned. She is both the most proper and prim woman they know, but also the most strange and unstable.
Is Mary Poppins herself the embodiment of the conflict which the author, P.L. Travers, experienced around her father, an alcoholic? Is Mary Poppins not simultaneously an image of all that is most wonderful and fantastic in the world, while also terrible and frightening? And is not what is most terrible her conflicted relationship with reality?
The children’s love for Mary just may be an analogue of the uncompromising love of the author for her father, whose name she took as a pen name for her career as an author.
Perhaps in Mary Poppins, she was able to break away, if only in a small measure, from those terrible rules and learned to talk, to feel, and to trust. I wonder.
I would not be surprised if her favorite moment of these novels was when the children, despairing of confirmation from Mary, happen upon some clue which proves the magic all along was real–that what they had heard, and felt, and seen, was not simply their imagination.