“Being brave doesn’t mean you aren’t scared. Being brave means you are scared, really scared, badly scared, and you do the right thing anyway”.
“I’ve started running into women who tell me that Coraline got them through hard times in their lives. That when they were scared they thought of Coraline, and they did the right thing anyway”.
— Neil Gaiman, on Coraline (2002)
Neil Gaiman’s book, Coraline, tells the story of the eponymous girl-heroine who goes through a mysterious door at home and finds a parallel-but-more-than-slightly-off version of her family life.
At first the door opens onto a bricked-up wall – a barrier between the here and there – but for Coraline it later reveals a once-hidden corridor to a place where her parents have buttons for eyes and everything is a little too perfect for comfort.
Like Pandora and Alice before her, Coraline’s curiosity (and profound boredom) compels her to open the door and enter without thinking first about the risks. Her mantra is and remains, “I’m an explorer”, and because her parents are too wrapped up in work to notice her departure, she takes advantage of the free rein.
In the breathtakingly spooky stop-motion animated version of the book made by Henry Selick in 2009, the door is a tiny cut-out set low to the floor. It has been papered over but its outline and keyhole are still visible and the old key still works in the lock. It’s a door that just begs to be opened.
Once unlocked, it exposes a magical, blue-lit worm tunnel that seems to shudder and move like it’s alive; I don’t think it’s a stretch to see it as a fantasy birth canal, delivering Coraline into the place beyond the door.
Searching for fun, adventure and nourishment, our girl finds her Other Mother and Other Father waiting on the other side to ‘love’ and ‘entertain’ her.
They are creepy renditions of her real parents, like the doll she is given that bears a resemblance to her but loses something vital in translation from fabric to girl.
But Coraline is smart and she instinctively reads a warning in the outer signs of this same-but-different world, like the horrifying, black buttons everyone has instead of eyes. There’s something so shiny yet dead about them – no smile will ever be reflected there, nor anything natural or good.
Though filled with freedoms and delights unavailable to Coraline ‘back home’, this ‘other’ place is really an elaborate trap. It’s a web dressed up to look like her heart’s desire by a very cunning spider (the Other Mother), who aims to catch, keep and devour her.
The request to have her own eyes sown with buttons by the Other Mother is a bit of deal-breaker for Coraline, as you can well imagine. The last time she goes through the door, it’s to rescue her real parents who have been captured by the Other Mother to draw Coraline back to her.
The courageous girl confronts many fears in her fight against the will of the spider-in-Mother’s-clothing; hideous things like dog-bats, a slug in an egg-case “as if two Plasticine people had been warmed and rolled together, squashed and pressed into one thing”, and a shapeless grub, with twig-like hands lunging at her in a dark basement.
Despite this catalogue of horrors, Coraline tells herself that she’s not frightened “and as she thought it she knew that it was true”. One can only marvel at her bravery, at her brilliant use of positive self-talk.
Gaiman’s wonderful, terrifying story and its film adaptation struck a huge chord in me. Aside from the delicious thrill of the tale as I tucked my feet under my body (lest a spidery hand should grab me from under the couch), the idea of being caught in one world while longing for another was painfully familiar.
Most of us live with disappointments and frustrations in the ‘real’ world and perhaps fantasise about an ‘other’ world, where the colours are so vivid and the experiences so rich we don’t have to confront hard things.
Coraline imagined a world where her parents would be different, remoulded into people who cook her appetising meals and exist solely to amuse her, and so she was offered a brief glimpse of what that life might be like.
It is a credit to her that she rejects that life as a lie, even if her real existence is less than ideal.
For me, an ‘other’ world would be a place where I have no big-ticket worries. In it, the Other Amelia, the facsimile of my daughter, is not deaf. She can hear everything and anything and she can speak fluently and tell me her mind. And she definitely does NOT have buttons for eyes.
The Other Amelia is a child without autism. The words disorder and delay are unknown to her, to me. There is no sensory chaos and making friends is easy. Anger, rage and hyperactivity belong to another hemisphere of experience. To another child.
We walk together slowly and she holds my hand, never running away. And we sleep for a very long time.
But if I take these things away from her, who is the child left over? Is it still Amelia or a distilled version of her, a person negated? Does she become like one of those husks left behind when the Other Mother is finished feasting on little souls?
She would be different, yes, and maybe her life (and ours) would be easier, I am not afraid to admit that I do wish it sometimes.
But she would not be my Amelia. To excise one element would be to ruin the whole, to make her less than she should be and much less than her strong personality makes her.
I myself have opened many doors containing fearful things since that first one, when I gave birth to my girl, and there is nothing scarier than suddenly becoming responsible for a tiny, vulnerable human being.
I didn’t know for instance that deafness was behind another secret door in the house of my family. I only knew that there was some dark problem lurking there and it had to be unlocked, no matter how afraid we were.
As for autism, perhaps my greatest fear of all, well, that one has whispered to me through keyholes from the beginning, and over time it has become a shrill and insistent voice, demanding to be heard. Okay, I surrender; we have opened that door now and let the truth of it in.
Like calling out the bogeyman who lives under your bed (or Bob from Twin Peaks who crouched under mine for all of my adolescence and part of my adulthood), the most dreaded thing is never as daunting when you drag it out into the light.
I love Amelia more than I love my own life or anyone else’s. She isn’t defined by her challenges but they are part of what is shaping her, in the mix with her character, her brain, and her heart. So we must embrace it ALL if we are to keep her happy and safe on this side of the door with us.
But my anxiety about further unknowns surrounds me always, crowding me for space and air, and I can’t just hide from it in some fantasy world.
Because like Coraline, who my own gutsy daughter adores for her blue hair (and insists her own hair be styled to match), I have to do the right thing and face up to what scares me and keep telling myself, “I will be brave. No, I am brave”.