by Letha Dawson Scanzoni
(From EEWC Update, Spring, 2001)
Recently I rented the video 42 Up, the latest* installment of a documentary film series by British director Michael Apted. In 1964, Apted, then in his 20s, came up with the idea of filming the same group of children every seven years. Fourteen representative seven-year-olds from various backgrounds were interviewed and filmed and then re-interviewed every seven years. As each film was released, viewers began feeling they knew these persons—first as children, then adolescents, then 21-year-olds, and so on.
The 1999-released 42 Up shows these same individuals at middle-age, with footage from their earlier interviews as well. Watching the unfolding of their lives, we come to understand whether or not they achieved their dreams, how much they have or have not changed over the years, what part family background and the socioeconomic system played over the course of their lives, and so on.
And then it gets the viewer thinking: What about my own life? What would it feel like to watch a moving picture of me every seven years from childhood forward?
How do I feel about who I was then, who I am now, and who I am becoming?
In her book, The Girl Within (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1989), psychologist Emily Hancock tells of interviewing twenty women aged 30 to 75. In telling their life stories, these women,“stumbled almost by chance on the girl they had long ago left behind,” says Hancock, “They themselves were distressed to find that they had lost her—a disturbing insight that often came to them unbidden when they confronted the contrived self that had stolen in to take her place” (p.4).
Who is this girl left behind as adolescence begins and then is missed and claimed much later in life? Hancock describes a girl at age nine—riding her bike, enjoying her collections, adventurous, independent. “Often a tomboy, she may be a gymnast or a sleuth—or a junior scientist whose prize possession is her own microscope. . . . The faster she can run, the higher she can jump, the more she is admired. Being a girl is secondary to being an athlete, a wizard at word games.” Hancock concludes that a girl in the 8-to-10 year age range “enjoys a wholeness of self, a unity with the cosmos, a natural radiance.”
But something happens as she nears adolescence and her “self-ownership is negated,” writes Hancock. “Suddenly, well before puberty, along comes the culture with the pruning shears, ruthlessly trimming back her spirit” (p. 18). Then, according to Hancock, “instead of crystallizing an identity during adolescence, women as adults reach back to girlhood to retrieve the original sense of self” (p.232).
She found that even women who had experienced difficult and painful childhoods possessed “uncommon clarity” at age 8 or 9 that had given them strength to cope with damaging situations and use their experiences outside the home to imagine what life could be when when they would be free to live their own lives.
I had been thinking about all this and speaking on the topic when, in 1997, I was invited to lead a women’s retreat that was part of a conference sponsored by Evangelicals Concerned Western Region. (Evangelicals Concerned is an organization made up of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Christians and their friends, supportive families, and other allies.)
At one of the sessions of the retreat, I talked about Hancock’s study. And then I asked the women (who ranged in age from young adult through late middle age) to think about their own lives at age nine and then write a letter to the girl-they-had-been. We then read them aloud.
Ten of the women at that gathering gave me permission to publish their letters anonymously in EEWC Update. Here is what they wrote. As you read them, think about what you would say to your own “girl within.”
Dear Young Self,
By now you must know I love you because I have spent so many years healing all the wounds you suffered.
Your Older Self
You are a wonderful, valuable little girl, and what you do and feel and think and want are important. You are the only “you” there will ever be, and only you can be you. Don’t ever believe that your dreams are unimportant or silly. Don’t ever let anyone—especially yourself—make you less than you are.
Try to remember those years. God was with you even then, and he loved you then just like he loves you now. You are a blessed child of God.
Dear Little E,
Remember how you used to be called Nellie Fox [White Sox ballplayer Jacob Nelson “Nellie” Fox was an American League All-Star in the 1950s], because you always had skinned knees and torn dresses from playing hard and sliding into home plate?
Remember how your bike was your best friend because it gave you freedom? You were free to run barefoot, free to look at the stars and think about God.
You were free to explore, build, and pretend without restraints.
When you were nine, do you remember how you wanted to write a novel? You only finished five chapters, because you didn’t know how to finish a novel. You didn’t know how to end your story—so you just quit.
That dream is still alive and well—and just so you know, I still have problems finishing my stories.
Now listen, you’ve been in a box long enough, dear Little E. Now it’s time to make a full circle and reclaim those dreams of writing and recapture those feelings of freedom and carefree days.
Don’t allow the opinions of other people and society to affect you and keep you from being you. Stand tall and strong in God’s love for you and acceptance of you.
This is just a short note to tell you that life will be much better for you when you are an adult. Keep playing with your trucks; someday you’ll own your own.
Learn to read all you can so that your world will grow larger than the pain your world gives you now. Keep using your imagination and dreaming your dreams, because someday you’ll use those to write stories for others. And most of all, never let go of your precious faith in Jesus. Keep your heart that loves God, for someday you will share that message with many. Don’t quit. Never stop, and never give up. You are a precious child to God and others.
I want you to know that life gets better. Things seem impossible now, lots of life seems unfair. But when you get older you will gain greater victory over the “bad guys.
“The greatest advice I can give you now is to say a loud NO to those who violate your personal space. Then go and tell an adult, and keep telling until you get some action. You don’t have to say yes to adults just because they are adults. You have rights. You have alternatives to violence. Find an adult ally and be free. Life does get better. You don’t have to hurt yourself anymore or allow others to hurt you. I love you and you will make it.
P.S. It’s OK to like playing in the mud. You don’t have to always be “ladylike.”
I want to acknowledge your struggle to be who you were with others telling you [that] you weren’t OK—
Not feminine enough.
Not pretty enough.
A girl and not a boy.
I’m glad for your adventurous spirit, the creative ways you found to be your self—in fantasy in the backyard and not giving in to be like other girls. You really had lots of integrity and held on to the person God made you to be.
I will do my best to honor you and not give into others when it goes against who you are. Keep reminding me of your true feelings. Know that you were fearfully and wonderfully made by and in the image of God. You carry the Savior’s love in your heart and have a divine purpose. I love you.
Dear “1973 J.”
I think you’re pretty funny; you tell good jokes.
Your sister isn’t any smarter than you are—you don’t have to beat her in everything. Just do what you feel like doing.
You don’t have to copy anyone.
You are good enough. Mom’s only trying to help. I know you feel sad when she criticizes, but hang in there. Someday you’ll grow up and understand she just wants the best for you.
Until we meet in a few years down the road, have fun, keep on being joyful, and believe this: You’re gonna turn out fine. You’re a good kid—and you’ll be a great woman, too.
J at age 35
P.S. You’ll probably be cuter than your sister when you’re big. Trust me.
I know you want to be a boy so that you won’t be called a tomboy.
I’m here to say “Tomboy, celebrate your uniqueness, your specialness, Your God-given ability to play ping pong, baseball, and basketball better than those boys. Celebrate the athlete you are and know I celebrate with you.”
Realize God gave you gifts, talents, and possibilities as a girl.
Be proud of who you are and who you will become, for you are a child after my own heart.
Run like the wind, hit a ball like Mickey Mantle, climb trees, go fishing, and never, never, never lose sight of the dreams in your heart.
From the beginning, EEWC has emphasized not losing sight of the dreams in our hearts—and becoming all we were meant to be. We’ve believed that God meant us as women to be much more than our culture (including our churches) told us we could be. Or should be.
That’s why we in EEWC came together in the first place. Somehow when we began finding each other and not feeling so alone, it seemed easier to believe that it really was possible to become all that we could be.
And we still need each other to remind us that we continue to be in process—that we’re all becoming. Sometimes that means glancing into the rear view mirror as we’re moving forward—like the people in the film who were able to see who they were at various seven-year intervals.
You might want to get together with some Christian feminist friends and talk about who you were at age nine.
What did you dream about and believe you could accomplish?
When was it that you became aware of the culture applying its “pruning shears” and trimming back your spirit?
How did your ideas about God change during those years?
Perhaps you’ll even want to write your own letter to the girl you were. You might also discuss whether or not it is any different for today’s young girls than it was when you were that age (regardless of your stage of life today). Think about sharing your thoughts for a future issue of EEWC Update.**
* In the years since the publication of this 2001 article, Michael Apted has produced two more episodes of his UP series: 49 Up and 56 Up. (56 UP premiered on the PBS POV program in October, 2013. See the interview with Producer/Director Michael Apted here. (back to body of article)
** EEWC Update was our organization’s quarterly print publication. Its name was later changed to Christian Feminism Today, and in 2012, we went totally digital and moved our publication to the EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website. At the time the article, “Becoming,” was published, author Letha Dawson Scanzoni was editor of both the print publication and the website and continues her work as Content Manager/Editor of our website in its present form. She is the author or coauthor of numerous books, including All We’re Meant to Be (with Nancy Hardesty), Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? A Positive Christian Response (with Virginia Ramey Mollenkott), and What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (with David G. Myers).
© 2001 Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, EEWC Update, volume 25, number 1 , Spring, 2001