Tuesday, September 14, 2010

who was Opal Whiteley?


Now comes the days of brown leaves.
They fall from the trees.
They flutter on the ground.
When the leaves flutter,
they are saying little things.
I hear them tell of their borning days
when they did come into the world as leaves.

Today they told me how they were a part
of the earth and air before their tree borning days.
And now, they are going back.
In gray days of winter they go back to the earth.
But they do not die.

Opal Whiteley

Opal Whiteley, age 17

My dear friend, Annell, of Somethings I Think About, happened to come across the book The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow, by Benjamin Hoff, in her local second-hand bookstore and immediately thought of me. It arrived at the manor last week, and although I have not yet finished reading it, I am totally intrigued. It is a biography of Opal Whiteley (1897-1992), an American nature writer and diarist whose childhood journal, published in 1920 as The Story of Opal, in serialized form in the Atlantic Monthly, and later as a book with the title The Story of Opal: The Journal of an Understanding Heart.

Biographers have confirmed that as early as age five, Whiteley, a brilliant child prodigy was already keeping a journal, as an amateur naturalist. Family members claim that Opal Irene Whiteley was born in Colton, Washington, the first of five children, in an impoverished family who moved frequently among logging camps. Whiteley, however, claimed to be the daughter of Henri, Prince of Orléans, who died unmarried in 1901, was taken to Oregon in 1902, and brought to a lumber camp where she was adopted by Ed and Lizzie Whiteley. While Opal Whiteley used several names during her lifetime, the one she preferred, and was later buried under, was Françoise Marie de Bourbon-Orléans.

Though considered odd by everyone, no one knew she was schizophrenic. Through her heightened senses and a genius for expressing herself, she crafted the most fascinating diary ever written. Opal hid her diary in a hollow log in the woods near her home. But when she was 14, her younger sister found it and tore it to pieces. Heartbroken, Opal kept the pieces at a neighbor's house in a hat box.

At 23, Opal met Ellery Sedgwick, publisher of the Atlantic Monthly who asked if she had kept a diary as a child. She said that she had, and he asked to see it at once. For months, Opal worked to piece her diary back together, and in 1920, The Story of Opal was published. Hailed as a work of genius, it became a national best-seller. But because of its brilliance, people soon began to question if one so young could have written it.

Ten months after its publication, the diary was out of print and Opal was disgraced. People returned their copies and demanded repayment. Accused of literary fraud, Opal left for England. In 1948, she was found rummaging through the rubble of bombed-out buildings during World War II. She was taken to a public mental hospital where she remained until her death on February 16, 1992. She was buried at Highgate Cemetery, where her gravestone bears the inscription "I spake as a child".

Whiteley's true origins and the veracity of her diary are still questioned today. Several plays have been written about her mysterious life, as well as Robert Lindsey Nassif's award winning musical Opal, 1993. Thank you, Annell, for introducing me to this fascinating woman. I've been thoroughly enjoying all things "Opal".

63 comments:

  1. This is an amazing tale...reminds me of my mother also native american and schizophrenic...would love to read it to..I would like to think she wrote it...thank you for sharing...I will now have an eye open for it...bkm

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  2. Wow, that's an incredible story. I love things like that. My only hope is that Opal (or whatever her real name was) lived out her days with some peace of mind.

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  3. This is fascinating - thanks for the introduction to someone I'd never heard of, and such a beautiful photo of her.

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  4. This is fascinating - thanks for the introduction to someone I'd never heard of, and such a beautiful photo of her.

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  5. Bonnie at Original Art Studio posted about what fictions might guide our lives, and so this story stands out in poignancy today for me. It's here. The line between fiction and memoir has been in the media these last years, and it gets Inge and me talking about how we each perceive "realities" around us. Whether myth or fiction, schizophrenic even, there seem to be layers of beauty in her story.

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  6. I have to read that! I am going to my online library catalog and requesting it now. Willow thanks again for another wonderful post. FYI, I just posted a list of my favorite foreign films from Netflix if you are interested. Kristen

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  7. this is incredibly intriguing .
    I am going to search and learn more about this woman , and her story.
    It's sad and complex and beautiful.
    thank you for sharing this.

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  8. I find this so interesting. I will reading about Opal, for sure. Thank you so much for introducing me to her.

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  9. What beauty it is in the sad sometimes.
    Wishing she could have stayed on and written.
    Lovely told.

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  10. Dontcha love when people send you interesting things that they know you'll love?
    It's Bloggy Love. And this is an interesting story.

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  11. You're so right, CG. Bloggy love is the best!

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  12. Willow---I have this book and have had it for years. I have to admit, I have never finished it! Maybe that will have to be on my "to do" list once I am through working the end of October. Thanks for reminding me.

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  13. You teach me the most interesting things Willow. My mind expands just visiting your blog - always so full of obscure (to me) information. I do love the manor so. Poor Opal. Sounds like a fascinating read.

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  14. What a beautiful post Willow, I feel like racing out and buying this book to read it myself; what a sad end to her life. I love the photo of her 17 year old self, so spiritual.

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  15. And now we followers of the Manor
    are introduced to Opal Whiteley,
    whom I admit, I had never heard
    of prior to this. Thank you Willow
    for stirring the pot of interest.
    It seems that the lady spent
    several decades toward the
    end of her life in London; born
    in Colton, WA; almost a neighbor
    to me.

    "Whiteley suffered a head injury during the bombing of London,and soon thereafter was committed to Napsbury psychiatric hospital. Whiteley was known to the staff of Napsbury as "the Princess," and visitors remarked that she actually behaved like one. Whiteley remained at Napbury until her death. She was buried at Highgate Cemetery, where her gravestone bears the inscription "I spake as a child".

    You are the teacher, the guide, the Muse,
    one who challenges and directs us, and
    we simply cannot get enough of your
    whimsey, wit, and wisdom.

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  16. Absolutely fascinating! She spent all those years in a mental hospital? :-(

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  17. A fascinating tale, willow. Thanks for sharing it with us. I fancy I've read/heard about Opal before. I must dig around to see if I made any notes at the time.

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  18. Sad but intriguing story.
    She looks so beautiful in the picture.
    I posted a work on my blog just last night,titled ' Variable thruth' and here is a perfect example.

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  19. What a sad story. Poor Opal ended her days in such a horrible way, institutionalized and forgotten, basically.

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  20. Quite an enigma, Willow. How sad to be incarcerated for such a long time.

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  21. Fascinating tale of Opal Whiteley. Thank you for introducing this tale, albeit a sad one.

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  22. How many of the most beautiful, fertile minds wind up in hospitals? What is it about us as humans that we close ranks against anything DIFFERENT (while longing for it at the same time)?

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  23. Dear Willow: Have to wonder what her epithet meant; "she spake as a child". Does that mean she was a child prodigy (which she was) or does it mean she spoke like a child as an adult (which she seemed to do carrying on the childish "princess" act abit too far making her nariccistic or simple schziophrenic? Genius is 1 degree shy of insanity. So the saying goes...At least she danced and sang her own song. Sure has piqued my interest in anything D'Orlean and French aristocracy and/or French lit! Maybe she was related to the French heads of state. She sounds traumatized as a youth; sensitive words. Pretty woman.

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  24. Willow,
    Whether her hx is known or not, the story is thought provoking and the writing stands for itself.....
    rel

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  25. I remember as a child being told "children should be seen and not heard" ~ I found that frustrating. "I spake as a child". So glad Opal found her voice and spoke! Sounds like she lead a very interesting life. Sad too, but I happen to think better to have lived even a sad life and said something, than to have lived in silence.

    Her picture is WONDERFUL!

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  26. whew,
    sisters can be so mean.

    the story is so fantastic and tragic.
    -the frail of mind can certainly have the hardest time of it
    with no one to advocate for them.

    love to you xx

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  27. I have read of Opal before and may have long ago read her book. However, I don't remember that she was schizophrenic nor did I recall her sad end. An end that many creative women of that era endured. Such as Camille Claudel (artist) and many others. I also didnt know about the musical and will try to find it on Netflix. Thanks Willow for another fascinating post.

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  28. I started rerading the poem and thought, "this doesn't sound like Willow's writing", and duh @ me, it wasn't. Einstein said that energy is never destroyed, it only changes form, and because life is energy, therefore nothing really dies, just changes form. Exactly what the poem is saying. I love those circles!

    What a life you describe here. It brings to mind all the stuff about the thin line between genius and madness, etc. How sad about her sister destroying the journal and her having to repair it so painstakingly. What people don't understand, they often discount as impossible or crazy. Who knows if the journal was genuine? But it could have been.

    Wonderful post. Thank you.

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  29. I am so pleased you liked the book, and the story of Opal. I think it is a magic book, and will only go to someone who believes in magic. I can see you have accepted Opal with tender hands and heart. Thanks for posting about Opal, maybe there will be other that will also be charmed by Opal. xoxoxoxox

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  30. In 1994, I was on a mission, a maiden voyage, of sorts, when I was "lead" to the book. And now it has found it's way to you. I didn't realize it was so soon after her death. Thanks again.

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  31. captivating story... i can understand how you have become fascinated with all things opal.... your interesting post has piqued my interest - the photo of her at 17 is enchanting.

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  32. Thanks for this Willow. Journals personal writings are among my favourite things to read. I've got someone new to explore!

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  33. Fireblossom, yes, I, too, love the beautiful circle of life in her simple, elegant poem.

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  34. Annell, life's synchronicities always amaze me. I know you were supposed to send me this book, and I am embracing all the reasons. Thanks again, dear friend.

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  35. How interesting. Many thanks for bringing this author to my attention.

    Greetings from London.

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  36. What a fascinating story. I will have to be more alert when I go to used book stores. I'm realizing one can find true gems.

    Thanks for sharing this one.

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  37. Wow, what a story! And such a tragic life. I might have to try to find that book too.

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  38. Love the poem and her look, so hopeful.
    Her background and behavior remind me of Grey Gardens..some other enigmatic women..

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  39. It sounds like a sad story of a brilliant mind. Too bad she was so misunderstood.

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  40. that was fascinating dear, really enjoyed this :)

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  41. I'd never heard of this woman. What a story -- I'm going to have to look into this a bit farther. Thanks, Willow!

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  42. Wow. THis is really interesting. Had never heard of her. Totally cool, Willow.

    Will she be coming to the Ball? Hope so. It would be pretty interesting to sit and talk with her!

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  43. ooohhhh willow...love the poem...

    so september

    so HAPPY to see you today, my friend...guess what i got at the grocery this morning? yep. all the goodies to make dilly bread...making chicken paprika with pasta...and and artichokes...thought the bread would be good... i will bake it late this afternoon so it is still warm...and think of you !

    kary
    xxx

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  44. Sooo interesting.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Yvonne

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  45. Now I need to order this book ir sounds intriguing! Thanks for sharing about it!

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  46. I, too, would like to believe that she wrote it. Hoe incredibly sad, though, if she did write it and was so doubted. Thanks for introducing me to her--I've never heard of her story before. Fascinating!

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  47. I read the book a couple of years ago and was amazed by Opal's precocity and imagination and her equanamity in the face of a family that did not understand her [no wonder she lived in a world of fantasy], finally I was heart broken that such talent was not recognized and then was doubted. It is a story to make us think very hard about the nature of genius and society's responses.

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  48. Opal reminds me of some people I know or knew. Nice post.

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  49. An interesting post about Opal -- barbara

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  50. Facinating!...and I feel as though I can see tragedy in her face in the photo...

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  51. Thank you so much for sharing this.

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  52. When I had the great fortune to work in a children's bookstore, I sold Opal with great pleasure. It was so beautifully written - who cares if it was truth or fiction? Thanks for reminding me of a lovely memory - both the book and the joy of a children's bookstore.

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  53. willow the wonderfully obscure
    without whom we'll miss I'm sure

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  54. I've never heard of Opal before. What a fascinating woman, one I would love to have as a friend, writing companion. I need to find & read more of her work. Thanks for the introduction.

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  55. I read of opal a decade ago and got hooked on her.

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  56. "before their tree borning days"

    Willow, this post is BRILLIANT!
    Thank you!

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  57. love everything in this post.

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  58. OPAL the Movie premiers soon. I'll find details and get back to you. Discovered her in an ancient library in the early 90s and was obsessed for the next few years(pre easy internet access) trying to track her down. I think almost anyone who has read her words falls in love.

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  59. Thanks, June! Keep me posted. Sounds fascinating!

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  60. I first found reference to Opal in a listing of people thought to be on the high end of the Autistic Spectrum. Her Wikipedia entry, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opal_Whiteley , makes reference to her being hospitalised after receiving a head injury. No mention is made in that article of Schizophrenia. People on the Autistic Spectrum can sometimes be mistakenly diagnosed as Schizophrenic, however, especially women on the Autistic Spectrum. I'm well aware of that, because, you see, I have Asperger's Syndrome myself. My understanding of reality was actually rather tenuous, in fact, until I was in my late forties, even. When apprehension of the outside world is not good, this can in some cases follow (although it is not a given, or even a prevalent occurrence). it can of course also be a kind of self-protective mechanism that can occur for children who are abused. She was obviously a woman of great depth and mystery, though, regardless of her possible diagnosis. Thank you for sharing her with others - I also enjoyed the poem.

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Inject a few raisins of conversation into the tasteless dough of existence.
― O. Henry (and me)