I have just finished reading Sarah Polley’s Run Towards the Danger, a book like none I’ve ever read before.
It might be the most authentic autobiography I’ve ever encountered. Except that it’s not an autobiography.
I notice too that while Polley’s book has some celebrities in it –herself included– and tells us a fair bit about a life making film & TV & theatre content, the book does not contain the usual pictures, no photos of the famous. She doesn’t seem to exploit her fame. Indeed she seems kind of shy & reserved.
I like Polley for that.
Run Towards the Danger is a series of essays. Each pertains to a different period of Polley’s life. They’re not in chronological order but so what. I’m still trying to make sense of the first tumultuous decade of my life (when my dad died, when my mom tried to cope as a single mom with four kids), so this makes lots of sense to me. Doing things chronologically might work for a history book, but surely this is better.
You may recall that William Wordsworth said of poetry that it’s “a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”, and also “emotion recollected in tranquility”. There’s a gap or even a contradiction between the two: the action (overflow) and the passion (emotion), somehow reconciled by writing.
I’m thinking of this after reading Polley’s book. She’s still so young but she’s seen and felt a great deal already. It’s not a poetry book but it’s full of a kind of poetry.
I’ll give the titles of each essay but prefer not to say too much in the spirit of being spoiler-free. They’re inter-connected by the life of the author, her work in film & television, her family dynamics. There is a great deal going on under the surface, suggesting connections & additional layers. I delighted in the richness even as I sometimes paused, as though gaping at an abyss opening before me, pondering the enormous depths of feeling.
I’m looking forward to re-reading the book, knowing and enjoying the knowledge that a story –like a Beethoven concerto or a Shakespeare tragedy –reads differently when you know the outcome, when you can anticipate where it’s leading you, when you know the character and can guess where the underlying motivations will take the storyline.
It helps too if you’re captivated, trusting the sensibility of the author.
There are six essays.
In “Alice, Collapsing”, a young Sarah Polley played Lewis Carroll’s Alice in an adaptation for the stage at the Stratford Festival, and dealt with the physical ailment scoliosis. Sarah and Alice are both discovering aspects & attributes of a life and a physique that is changing, sometimes due to the normal process of a young body that’s maturing sometimes due to something else. Polley’s prose conflating the text by Lewis Carroll with her own life experience is wonderfully rich with overtones & resonances.
The Woman Who Stayed Silent refers to the time when Jian Ghomeshi was in the news, leading me to a brand new appreciation of the word “consent”. Yes there are the legal complexities, but I’m thinking more of how it feels. I did not expect to be changed by what I read. Men especially should read this.
High Risk is about pregnancy, meaning Polley’s. I’m suddenly remembering Molly Shannon’s book, another memoir of a young woman who lost her mother in childhood. Forgive me if I’m over-simplifying in seeing parallels. But Polley & Molly are two of the bravest people I’ve encountered lately, possibly because of the problematic aspects of their relationship with their father. In this essay Polley is boldly jocular in strolling to the ambulance & chatting about labour negotiations (no pun intended) rather than her health. I’m also reminded of one of my favorite sayings, that denial ain’t just a river in Egypt, it’s a pain management strategy. Polley is full of wit & humour while dancing around some very serious topics.
Mad Genius is about Terry Gilliam, director of The adventures of Baron Munchausen: I wrote a bit about this already. Every essay returns to the key themes of her book, at least a little bit.
Dissolving the Boundaries seemed to be an interlude, a departure from the tone of the rest of the book, including a trip to PEI. But here too we’re talking about some serious subjects at least obliquely. Polley is older, now a mom recollecting her childhood acting rather than describing the experiences as in previous chapters, also looking back at the experience of her mother’s death and how it was filtered through her performances. This isn’t the first time in the book that I’m struck by how much life Polley has had.
Run Towards the Danger, the final essay, concerns a concussion. The title is subtle yet profound as a kind of directive that could apply to every essay at least a little bit. It’s much more than just the mantra of a brave person, but that works for starters.
Polley has a gift, writing prose that grabs you. Sometimes she’s telling simple stories, sometimes unfolding something complex. But I found the book so compelling I’m re-reading parts already, enjoying connections between the essays, between periods of her life.
I recommend this book without reservation although some people especially need to see it. People who don’t get the idea of consent. People who let the famous live by different rules than the rest of us. I’m a father who thinks every dad could stand to read this.
I tried not to give too much away, forgive me for being a big mouth. But I do love this book.