(Editor’s note: I’ve decided to do a little blog work on memories. I am hoping to tell one story from a past memory each week. This post begins that practice.)
When I was a young girl, my middle sister and I shared a full-size bed in one bedroom. At night, my mom would read us a Little Golden Book. One book that sticks in my mind more than any other was called Good Little, Bad Little Girl. The story was about one little girl who sometimes was well-behaved and other times was not, just like most humans. The “good” little girl was depicted as being neat, clean, calm, and polite, the very ideal of femininity. The “bad” little girl was messy, disheveled, emotional, stubborn, and rude, everything a little girl was not meant to be. As I look back at the book now, I find it appallingly sexist. At the time, however, that is not at all how I understood the story.
The good little girl in the story looked a lot like the sister I shared that bedroom with. She had lovely, smooth, straight, blonde hair that was easy to comb through and was held neatly in barrettes. She was sweet with her baby doll toys, compliant with parents’ wishes, and not any trouble at all. The bad little girl in the story reminded me of myself. She was depicted with unruly hair, sticking her tongue out, pulling the good girl’s hair, and acting like a tomboy. She was not at all what she was “supposed” to be. The parallels between the good and bad girls in the story and my sister and I were uncanny in my young mind. This story was about us.
When my mother read that story to us, I was probably 5 or 6. I didn’t realize the tale was about one girl. I thought it really was about two girls, one good and one bad. At the end of the book, though, the narrator says (spoiler alert): “If you would be happy, if you would be wise, open your ears and open your eyes. Make the bad little girl grow smaller and smaller. Make the good little girl grow taller and taller.” My understanding of that passage at the time was that I, with my less than perfect hair, behavior, and demeanor, was so bad that perhaps I should simply disappear. I had no idea that the girl in the story was one young female child who simply had good days and bad days and was alternately sweet and ornery. I didn’t understand that the book was meant to be a cautionary (if outdated and sexist) tale for young girls about how to best behave. Because my sister looked and acted like the girl in the book, because my mother often held up my sister to me as an example of a good girl (look at how nicely she holds her baby doll), I understood that I simply was the “bad” girl. I realize that my mother was just reading a story book, but we never had any qualifying conversations about the meaning of the book. There was no objective talk to break down the notion that most of us are basically good people with bad days and that, if we strive to be the best versions of ourselves, our bad behaviors may dissipate with time. Without that conversation, my creative mind was left to run wild. And run wild it did. I did not like that book, but it came to be the one I most identified with. It has stuck with me for 48 years.
I’ve discussed this Little Golden Book book in therapy because it is one of the earliest memories I have about how I internalized the notion that I was not a good, acceptable person deserving of love exactly the way I am. There are many stories about myself that I accepted over the years without stopping to question their veracity. I will continue to work on growing my self-esteem through self-compassion until I can put this book (and other stories I was sold about myself) behind me as false narratives that were never true and that I no longer need to carry.
While I am, in nearly all cases, against banning or destroying books, maybe someday I will get my hands on a copy of this book. Then I will burn it for the symbolic and therapeutic relief it will provide. Don’t worry, though. I will leave The Poky Puppy, The Little Red Hen, Scruffy the Tugboat, and Tootle in tact.