Henry James’ Tale of Resilience

Filmmakers Scott McGehee and David Siegel have set Henry James’ 1897 novel, What Maisie Knew, in present-day Manhattan and portrayed it with nuance with the help of a first-rate cast including Julianne Moore and, in the title role, the young Onata Aprile.

In case you haven’t seen the newly-released film or read the book, what Maisie knew, ultimately, was whom to trust. A heart-wrenching story about a six-year-old coping with the dissolution of her parents’ marriage and their stunning-though-disconcertingly-believable self involvement, this is, in fact, a hopeful tale. We watch Maisie weather a series of disappointments and abandonments with considerable grit and compelling heart. With her, in a way, we come to the realization that parenting is, first of all, about showing up.

The film adaptation ties up the details a little too neatly for my taste. Without giving you enough information to spoil the story, I’d call the denouement for the adult characters sentimental. Yet I highly recommend both the film and the read. For those of you attached to the original version of the story, Gerald Peary’s review in The Arts Fuse, “Arts Fuse Film Review: ‘What Maisie Knew’ — Henry James’ Dark Screwball Comedy,” and David Denby’s New Yorker article, “Couples” (limited to subscribers), address the question of the transformation of James’ story in the film.

In their foreward to the 2013 reprint of the book, screenwriters Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne suggest that Maisie is “protected from the toxicity of her situation by her inability to fully grasp it — and by her sterling good nature” (p. viii). I’d argue that the key to Maisie’s survival is her ability to recognize and attach herself to adults who believe in her and champion her cause. The story brings me back to Robert Brooks’ Raising Resilient Children (2001, McGraw Hill). In Brooks’ terms, Maisie finds safety and comfort in the presence of “charismatic adults” other than her parents, leading all of us in the audience to cheer her on.

I’m reminded also of a recent pair of articles about affluent parenting in New York: one in the New York Post, “Poor Li’l Rich Kids: Posh Schools Scold Parents Who Send Nannies,” and a follow-up from the New York Observer, “Never Mind the Nannies, Drivers are the New Dads.” I detected a snarky tone in both of these, making me wish to shake a finger at the press to say that the absence of parents knows no socio-economic boundaries and is sad wherever it occurs.

We, as school leaders, need to make room in our hearts for all of the adults supporting the growth of the child. While we might not be pleased to accept the driver or nanny (or the older sibling or the grandparent) as parental substitute, let’s make room for them at the parent-teacher conference table! They may be the ones showing up.

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