As the first pimples of puberty appeared on my face, my moods took a downward turn. While all around me my classmates were morphing into butterflies, I was stuck in a perennial pupa stage. I was dismayed by this ungainly self that seemingly overnight had dropped over me like a disguise that I didn’t recognize and couldn’t escape. Disturbed by my low spirits, my mother hastened to remind me that I had good health, loving parents, a reasonable level of intelligence, and food and shelter—i.e., nothing to be depressed about.
“Count yourself lucky,” she went on, “that you didn’t have to go through what your father and I had to go through when we were young.”
She was talking about the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, of course. As a teenager living with her parents and siblings on their farm, many nights she had had to shelter in a ditch to escape bombardments. My father, then in his early twenties, spent those years hiding in my grandparents’ apartment in Barcelona, to avoid being executed by the anarchist gangs that terrorized the city. Food was so scarce that the family would fill their stomachs with water at night so they could sleep. I had to admit that, compared to that, my pimples and awkwardness were less than trivial.
Not only did I have nothing to complain about, my mother said, but I had a moral obligation to be happy. Not surprisingly, though, the more she insisted that I should be happy, the more discontented I grew. Then one day she found a Spanish translation (we were living in Ecuador at the time) of Eleanor Porter’s 1913 book, Pollyanna. She thought it was just what I needed.
“Read this book!” she said. “It’s wonderful! It’s about a girl who finds something to be happy about even when bad things happen to her. I would like you to be like her.”
At my age, any girl that my mother held up as a shining example was bound to make me run in the opposite direction, and so it was with Pollyanna. But it wasn’t just that my mother thought I should be like her. I found her preachy and self-satisfied, and I refused to believe that her disgusting cheerfulness spread to everyone she encountered, adults included. I sneered when I read, in the final chapters, that she even found reasons to smile when she lost the use of her legs after an accident. Instead of turning me into a little ray of sunshine, the book had turned me into a child cynic.
“Have you finished it? Didn’t you think it was fantastic?” my mother wanted to know.
“I hate it! I hate Pollyanna!” I growled. “She is stupid because she ignores all the terrible things in the world, the hunger and the diseases and the earthquakes. And she’s conceited, I can tell.” At twelve, that was the limit of my critical abilities, but the vehemence of my dislike for positive thinking did not dissuade my mother from her goal of persuading me to be happy. Day in and day out she countered my frowns with rational sermons on the virtues of optimism.
Predictably, she failed. Although I was as compliant a child as you could imagine–respectful, studious, devout, polite—in the matter of happiness I saw my one opportunity for rebellion. My parents could expect proper external behaviors from me, but they could NOT, they could NEVER, control my inner states or my worldview.
If my mother had been a little more devious, she might have let the topic of happiness rest. But she was too naïve a believer in logic, expecting that when presented with a syllogism—only tragic events justify unhappiness; there are no tragic events in your life; therefore, you should not feel unhappy—my rational self would bow down and adopt its conclusion.
And that is how it happened that, from an adolescent desire to rebel against my mother, I adopted a darkish view of the world, one that I harbor to this day. I have at various times urged myself to see the glass as half full, to walk on the sunny side of the street and let a smile be my umbrella, with no success. But lately I have decided to befriend the vein of melancholy that runs through my psyche, and as a result I’ve cheered up a bit.