What made me pick up a second-hand copy of Jean Nathan’s The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll I can’t recall. But, after reading the prologue, I stopped at the local library branch and checked out four of Dare Wright’s children’s books.
As a child, I had never read the stories of Edith, a doll who is lonely until the arrival of Mr. Bear and Little Bear. Edith and Little Bear pursue mischief and adventure that often finishes with Edith’s rear-end over Mr. Bear’s knee. The text is simple, but the photographs are not. Dare diligently posed Edith, often in hand-made clothes, and her teddy bear friend in complex environments that were both fantasy and real. To look at Edith, with her blonde hair and heavy bangs, sideways glance, and absent smile, you might think of a classic girls’ toy. But once you know the life of her owner, you see Dare Wright in plastic and felt – her anxiety, childhood absences, and sexual hesitation finally manifested.
Nathan’s fascinatingly rich biography brings intimacy between Dare and the reader. To highlight Dare’s life in a few sentences will leave out the emotional tenderness and bizarre passions that Nathan captures. However, an overview will reveal new meanings in Dare’s strangely dark children’s stories.
Her mother was Edie Stevenson Wright, a famous portrait painter who was serious about her ego and more serious about her looks. Dare had an older brother Blaine, who disappeared from her and her mother’s life when Dare was just 3. As a child with few friends, Dare proved herself to be as artistic as her mother, and even more beautiful. More than anything in life, Dare wanted to please her mother, a goal she would maintain until Edie’s death.
In her twenties, Dare dabbled in theater and modeling, but with little success and certainly without passion. Longing for family, Dare set out to find her brother. When the two reconnected, Dare’s passion was ignited. Their love was both familial and romantic; Nathan’s elaboration of their relationship leaves the reader uncomfortable. Dare became engaged to a friend of Blaine’s, though never went through with the wedding and never made any effort at relationships outside of those with her brother and mother.
Dare finally found career comfort behind the camera, as a fashion photographer and then as a children’s book author. Her first book, The Lonely Doll, was a huge success, though the spanking scene made some wonder. In all, Dare wrote and photographed 19 children’s books, most of them with doll Edith as the main character. In these books, she also found friendship – particularly in Edith and Little Bear. Dare seemed to participate in the real world of adults through her children’s toys’ staged escapades.
Common themes in Dare’s fantasy books parallel her real life paranoia and anxieties. Edith, named for Dare’s mother, is lonely and desperate for a friend. When she finally finds one, it’s not another doll, but a teddy bear, adorable but masculine, kind-hearted but stubborn. Their friendship echos Dare’s relationship with her brother. Edith and Little Bear often play dress up, an enjoyable past-time for Dare and her mother, who often photographed these play sessions. As a consequence of misbehaving, Edith often ended up angering Mr. Bear – the father she never knew. Mr. Bear would threaten leaving and Edith would beg forgiveness with an almost sadomasochistic tinge. A good spanking and some stern words to behave, or else, are followed by tears and hugs that end the story.