Our Responsibility, Our Joy, and Our Privilege

Photo by Gage Skidmore

Mara Wilson made her film debut at the age of six in the 1993 comedy Mrs. Doubtfire, starring alongside Robin Williams and Sally Field. In 1994 she appeared in the remake of Miracle on 34th Street as the little girl whose task it is to prove the magic of Santa Claus, and two years later played the title character in Matilda. The film is an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book, which was one of her favorites as a child. After starring in three other films, Wilson retired from film acting. She graduated from Idyllwild School of Music & Arts in 2005 and then attended New York University. In 2015, after a fifteen-year hiatus from acting, Wilson returned in the comedy-drama Billie Bob Joe. The following year she appeared in an episode of the TV show Broad City that paid homage to the Heimlich scene in Mrs. Doubtfire.

Her latest efforts are mostly focused off-screen, with a regular appearance on the podcast Welcome to Night Vale and voice roles for animated TV and film. Her written work has appeared on Elle.com, McSweeney’s, the New York Times, Vanity Fair, the Daily Beast, Jezebel, The Toast, and elsewhere. Her play Sheeple premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2013, and she is the author of the 2016 autobiography Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame, which was listed in NPR’s “Guide to 2016’s Great Reads.” Wilson also posts regularly on her blog—Shan’t We Tell The Vicar?—where she tells stories of Hollywood, friendships, parental loss, mental health, and more.

Diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder at the age of twelve, and having dealt with depression and anxiety as well, in 2015 Wilson partnered with Project UROK—a nonprofit geared towards teens and young adults with the goal of ending the stigma and isolation of mental illness. “It’s very hard to be a perfectionist growing up in the film world,” she said in a 2014 interview. “It reinforces all of your worst fears about perfection and doing things right. It got me into what I think is a pretty toxic mental pattern for a kid, and it’s taken me years to break out of that.” In 2016, Wilson came out as bisexual.

Mara Wilson was honored by the American Humanist Association with the 2019 LGBTQ Humanist Award, which she accepted on June 8 at the AHA annual conference at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. The following are her remarks in acceptance of the award, reprinted with her permission.

I HAD A VERY STRANGE CHILDHOOD. A lot of people are surprised when I tell them that I actually grew up very religious. My family were conservative Jews, and on the outer sides of the family there were even Orthodox Jews. And I was a pretty fervent believer, although I did always have my own struggles. Well, some will call them struggles and others will just call them questions about faith and belief. I was very obsessive about that.

Growing up Jewish, I never did believe in Santa Claus, which made it very ironic that I was in a Santa Claus movie. Although, because they need something to show every Christmas, I would recommend, even if you’re Jewish or a nonbeliever or both, being in a Christmas movie or writing a Christmas song. It brings in a lot of money. (My Christmas movie helped pay for college and health insurance.)

But the mythical figure I feel I probably identified with and loved most as a kid was the tooth fairy. I just loved the idea of there being a little fairy who could come in and take your baby teeth away and make good use of them somehow. Maybe they were a form of currency. The idea of fairies is very exciting to children, and I know that I very much liked it.

My mom, who was a very strong, independent-minded woman and very into academics, really liked the idea of using the tooth fairy as a writing prompt. She would insist we write letters to the tooth fairy, and the tooth fairy would write letters back in my mom’s handwriting. And they were always very sweet. (Incidentally, I once lost a tooth during an Entertainment Tonight interview. Yeah, it really was that cutesy growing up.) I loved that letter writing exchange with the tooth fairy and with my mother.

My mother became sick with cancer when I was seven. I actually had teeth taken out a few weeks before she died, and I remember somehow knowing that the tooth fairy wouldn’t be able to come. I left the teeth in a little red case the oral surgeon had given me and put it on a desk, where it stayed for years. I knew at the time that I didn’t really believe in the tooth fairy anymore. I definitely knew it a few months later when I was at a friend’s house. She lost a tooth and her parents seemed very supportive and very excited about the tooth fairy. Meanwhile, I cried myself to sleep.

This was also around the time I started having doubts about religion, because I didn’t understand why the prayers of an eight year old weren’t useful, weren’t helpful. I didn’t like that idea. I remember getting into an argument with my cousin and she said, “God will punish you for being mean.” When I pressed her to explain, she said, “We’ve already had one tragedy in our family.” As you can imagine, I was furious with her. I had a lot of questions and struggled a lot for many years.

I felt sad when I would think about my mom and the tooth fairy and the things that we used to believe in. But then something kind of amazing happened a couple of years later. My sister, who is six years younger than me, started losing her teeth. She was just starting to be able to write and communicate. My stepmother didn’t really understand that this was a thing we did in our family. I wanted to keep the tradition alive the same way that I keep being Jewish alive. Even though I don’t believe in a lot of it, it’s still tradition. It’s culture. It’s being in touch with your family. That kind of thing.

She told my sister that she could write letters to the tooth fairy if she wanted, and we decided I’d write back. So around the age of fourteen I became the tooth fairy. I loved having that responsibility. I loved having that joy. Of course, eventually my sister would realize that there wasn’t a tooth fairy, but at the time it felt good to carry on that tradition.

When I came out a couple of years ago, I’d had a very difficult year. A friend of mine had died. It was the twentieth anniversary of my mom’s death. Our family dog died, and then my grandmother died the same week. I was grieving in a way that I hadn’t grieved in two decades. I’d also been quietly talking about my sexuality and quietly discussing it, but I didn’t want to make a big pronouncement. Then the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando happened, and I came out as bisexual in solidarity with the LGBTQ community. If I had it to do over again, I don’t know that I’d come out that way, because I was accused of a lot of things. I was accused of wanting attention. I was accused of co-opting something for my own benefit. That was definitely not my intention.

I was also struggling because I didn’t feel like I saw very many positive representations of bisexual people in media. I saw them portrayed as evil, as degenerate. All I ever heard about bisexual people was that they were confused, or they were mentally ill, or that they wanted attention—all things people were accusing me of. Then I had a sudden realization: I thought, well, I guess I’m just going to have to be it myself. I’m going to have to try to be the role model I want to see in the world, which I consider the boring bisexual. The stay-home-on-a-Saturday-night-to-watch-Cosmos bisexual. That’s who I am. I wanted to show other people that you can be what you are and who you are in the way that you are. I thought, all right, I guess it’s my responsibility.

That’s also how I felt for a very long time about secular humanism and humanistic Judaism—two things I’m very, very proud to be a part of, because as far as I can tell there isn’t any justice coming from above. I don’t think there are any personal gods. I could be wrong, but I don’t see evidence of that. And so, in the absence of any evidence, the responsibility falls to us.

With humanism, I really like the idea that we aren’t necessarily against something. We’re for something. I know a lot of people don’t like the idea of a personal god, but as somebody who lost a parent very young, I do like the idea of somebody always looking out for you. Somebody always there. That’s our responsibility and our joy and our privilege—to take care of the world, a world without a personal god or without the tooth fairy.