Dear Mr Dahl,
It is such a privilege and an honour to be writing to such a literary great. Indeed, it is incredibly humbling. I apologise in advance for writing such a long letter but I had no idea how many twists and turns our journey would take. Or, that the man who has made the whole world laugh, had endured so much grief.
When I was a little girl, you brought all my chocolate fantasies to life in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory and seemingly wrote about my own daughter in Matilda. Even though she is little, she is very strong-willed, determined and capable. As a parent yourself, I’m sure you can appreciate how this iron will can be a force for good and let’s just say “not so good”.
Anyway, now that I’ve captured your attention, would you mind just sitting still for a moment. NO! DON’T MOVE!! I told you. SIT STILL. This won’t take a moment. The best way for me to see inside your head, is climbing through your ear. Just need to scrape away a bit of wax. No use trying your nose when you’ve got a cold. Ah! In like Flynn! I apologise or the ongoing discomfort while I pull out my map, compass and torch. When you’re walking around inside someone else’s head, you really need to be prepared. Don’t want any accidents, especially when I can be rather wobbly on my feet and I didn’t bring my walking stick.
Sorry for popping in on you like this but if it’s any consolation, I didn’t get a lot of notice either. I was simply walking along the beach with my dogs photographing the clouds, when someone or something, jumped inside my ear and suggested that I write Letters To Dead Poets. Not just any dead poets but the ones who have inspired and spoken to me. Lit that spark!
So here I am with my notebook in hand ready D for Roald Dahl. Indeed, I’m just peering out through your nose. So, please don’t sneeze! That’s NOT how I want to learn how to fly. That said, I’m open to other suggestions!
There is so much that I would to ask you and so much I’d like to share that my words and thoughts are flying all over the place, each with a mind of its own. Sounding like your Vicar of Nibbleswicke, perhaps I need to fly around in circles to make sense of my thoughts. However, should I go forwards or back? Goodness knows!
While I’d like to come back to you another time to ask you about your writing, this letter has assumed quite a different purpose.
Plane Crash 19th September, 1940.
I’d like to ask you how that plane crash in WWII changed and influenced your life. You fractured your skull and temporally lost your sight. Prior to the crash you were working in business for Shell and afterwards you emerged as a writer with such an incredible imagination…as well as a sense that something had changed in you.
As your biographer, Donald Sturrock noted in Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl:
“A monumental bash on the head” was how Dahl once described this accident in the Western Desert, claiming that it directly led to his becoming a writer. This was not just because his first published piece of writing was a semi-fictionalised account of the crash, but also because he suspected that the brain injuries which he received there had materially altered his personality and inclined him to creative writing.
His daughter Ophelia recalled her father’s fascination with tales of people who had experienced dramatic psychological and physiological changes – such as losing or recovering sight – after suffering a blow to the head. He also told her that he was convinced something of this sort had happened to him, as it explained why a budding corporate businessman working for Shell, without any particular artistic ambition, was transformed into someone with a burning need to write and tell stories. This hypothesis was doubtless attractive, too, because it pushed potentially more complex psychological issues about the sources of his desire to write into the background.
Nowadays doctors might well have diagnosed Dahl as suffering from what is called post-concussive syndrome. The initial symptoms of this condition are normally forgetfulness, irritability, an inability to concentrate and severe headaches. Dahl suffered from all of these. In some patients the symptoms disappear, but leave behind longer-lasting behavioral changes, which are usually associated with mood swings and an increased lack of inhibition. In some cases, too, it can also result in a fundamental alteration of the perception of the self.
With Dahl, these alterations were marginal, but they were nonetheless significant. His sense of embarrassment – already minimal – was further diminished, his sense of fantasy heightened, while his desire to shock became even more pronounced. He emerged from his crisis more confident, more determined to make a mark .
However, this plane crash was only your entre to the workings of the human brain.
Theo’s Dreadful Accident 5th December, 1960- Hydrocephalus.
By some horrible twist of fate, while your four month old son Theo was out with his nanny, a taxi drove into his pram fracturing skull and causing hydrocephalus, or fluid on the brain. It was a horrific accident and he was lucky to survive. However, after some promising signs, his condition rapidly deteriorated and he had surgery to insert a valve to drain the excess fluid into his heart. This valve kept blocking putting him through surgery after surgery, each time further increasing the likelihood of permanent brain damage and blindness. So, you did what Dads do. You went to fix the problem. You knew a bloke who made hydraulic pumps or model aeroplanes which didn’t block and you linked him up with neurosurgeon and the Wade-Dahl-Till (DWT) valve was developed. While Theo’s condition improved and he didn’t need to use that shunt, their invention changed the lives of 3,000 children…thanks to the love for your son and your resourceful thinking.
My Journey with Hydrocephalus.
Like Theo, I also have hydrocephalus and quite coincidentally, we were born on the same day nine years apart. Given your sense of humour, I don’t know whether you’re now wondering whether being born on the 30th July means you’re going to have expansive water views inside your head, or maybe not. Indeed, when I was first diagnosed, I pictured a cheeky cartoon character called Bart Simpson surfing inside my head. So, my imagination is alive and well too!
In my case, the hydrocephalus was probably caused by a particularly difficult birth and wasn’t diagnosed until my mid-twenties. For some reason, whatever compensating mechanisms I’d had, suddenly stopped working and I plummeted into a terrifying neurological abyss. I had brain surgery to insert a shunt, followed by at least six months of intensive rehabilitation. By the way, my shunt also blocked.
Surgery launched me on the precarious pathway towards recovery but also a strange sense that something had changed. A feeling you also expressed. Having a bruised or broken brain, isn’t the same as having a broken leg. You can seem quite alright on the outside and yet there are “complications”, subtle changes and with it, much confusion. These subtleties are not easily understood from within and are even harder to explain. I wish we could have talked about that. Perhaps, we could’ve nutted a few things out together, which not only would’ve helped ourselves but could also help our “colleagues”. I’m not talking about fellow writers here but you already knew that.
At the time, a friend mentioned that you had invented the shunt. That surprised me. After all, you don’t usually expect writers with such an extraordinary imagination, to be equally good at “nuts and bolts”. I thought we were all dreamers lucky to have a toe dangling anywhere near terra firma, let alone both feet. However, there is always an exception and thank goodness for that!
Ever since my diagnosis, I have wondered how different my life would’ve been if I’d been diagnosed as a baby. Reading Theo’s story gave me some serious insights into just how different it could have been, especially if it had been symptomatic at the time. That was pretty scary. Although some things might have been easier, I’ve always suspected that I would’ve been that fragile, special child kept locked up in the china cabinet and only brought out on special occasions. There would have been no netball, climbing trees or undertaking other “risky” activities. No adventures at all…just sitting still.
Yet, basking in ignorance, I learned to read when I was four, pulled off an Arts Degree with Honours from the University of Sydney. At 22, a friend and I boarded a KLM Flight bound for Amsterdam. We had open tickets and could stay away for 12 months. Our only plans were to spend 3 weeks in Paris. During that time, I did a solo poetry reading at the famous Shakespeare Bookshop where the likes of Ernest Hemingway had hung out. I didn’t know that then or that even the Proprietor, George Whitman, was a larger than life figure. I was simply an intrepid 23 year old backpacker from Sydney who’d self-published her anthology on a photocopier. That’s all.
Then, in my mid-twenties, these ripples suddenly and inexplicably took off with a vengeance, raged into a tsunami. There was no doubt then that surgery was a matter of life and death and my neurological functioning was seriously impaired.
So, to a large extent, I don’t need to imagine what it was like for your family when Theo was struck down, although he was so much younger. After all, it’s very rare that even when two people are travelling along very same road, that they walk in the same shoes. Have the exact experience. The story always veers left or right but there’s still that common ground. By the way, I also remember my Dad thinking about how the shunt was made, why it blocked and how to manage the pressure.
Anyway, that was my story. Unfortunately, your affair with the Neurology Department wasn’t over yet.
Your Wife – Actress Patricia Neal – Has A Burst Aneurism – February 1965.
In February, 1965 while pregnant with your fourth daughter, Lucy, your wife had a burst aneurysm. Following emergency surgery, Pat remained in a coma for almost three weeks, lying on an ice mattress to minimise swelling and besieged by tubes. Antibiotics to prevent infection and anticonvulsants to prevent further damage to the brain dripped constantly into her system. You sat by her side, hour after hour, endlessly repeating: “Pat, this is Roald.”
For days there was no improvement in Pat’s condition. But on March 10, almost three weeks after the haemorrhage, she began to regain consciousness and went home a week later.
However, as Pat struggled to put her thoughts into words, to teach herself the names of colours, to work out how to use her right arm and feed herself, she became overwhelmed by the awareness of exactly what she had lost. The fact that she was pregnant, also made relearning how to walk particularly exhausting. You later described her condition in stark terms: “If left alone, she would sit and stare into space and in half an hour a great black cloud of depression would envelop her mind. Unless I was prepared to have a bad-tempered desperately unhappy nitwit in the house, some very drastic action would have to be taken.”
Apparently, your methods were Spartan. No self-pity, no indulgence toward the illness, just a determination to beat all the disabilities. With an approach based on “common sense”, your aim was to avoid “inertia, boredom, frustration and depression” and “get me to do it myself”. You sent her for physiotherapy at a nearby RAF military hospital. Then each day, between nine and 12 in the morning and two and five in the afternoon, you arranged for friends and neighbours to visit. These amateur therapists read children’s books to her and played elementary word games, simple arithmetic and puzzles…activities to stretch her mind.
On New Year’s Day 1966, you publicly raised the stakes on your wife’s recovery, telling the press that he felt certain she would be “working again within the year”.
After knocking back a few roles, finally, Edgar Lansbury offered her the lead in a film version of the Tony Award–winning play: The Subject Was Roses by Frank Gilroy. Pat liked the part of Nettie. Her therapist Val Eaton Griffith convinced her to accept it.
Yet Pat remained anxious that she was not ready. Val, however, had already persuaded her to deliver a speech in New York in March 1967. You wrote the text of her address and Val coached Pat on it daily for a month, before accompanying her to New York for the celebrity dinner.
“An Evening with Patricia Neal” was a fund-raiser for brain-injured children held at the Waldorf-Astoria. Her speech won her a standing ovation. The adulation stimulated her desire to recover and she began to believe she might pull off the movie comeback.
That night she saluted you for your efforts. Later, she would articulate her gratitude more eloquently: “I knew at that moment that Roald the slave driver, Roald the b—–d, with his relentless courage, Roald the Rotten, as I had called him more than once, had thrown me back into the deep water. Where I belonged.”
Mr Dahl, I appreciated your patience with me or going over what must be old ground or you. However, I wanted to share the gallant way you fought to save your son and your wife. It would be such an encouragement to people affected by neurological conditions. It is my hope that people will read your story and feel great encouragement. That through hard work, persistence and courage they can improve their lot, even if they can’t go back to how things were before. They still have a future.
However, these rendez-vous with the Neurology Department were only the tip of a huge iceberg of grief. Despite your career’s stellar success, tragedy was seemingly just around every corner.
When you were only four years old, your seven year old sister, Asti, died. Overcome by grief, your father succumbed to pneumonia a few months later, leaving your mother to carry on. Then in 1962 when you were still dealing with the aftermath of Theo’s accident, your much loved daughter Olivia died from encephalitis due to complications from measles. Olivia was also seven…the same age as your sister.
Surely, you had to ask yourself, God and the world what all this insanity was all about? Why do such awful things happen to good people? Why are so many rotters out there still walking round alive, when your angel’s been snatched away? Now, I can’t help wondering if these thoughts were going through your mind as you wrote Charlie and The Chocolate Factory in the aftermath of Theo’s accident and your daughter’s death? One by one, the horrible children in the story disappeared until only Charlie was left. Was this your way of trying to grapple with your all-consuming anguish? Was this your way of saying that it should’ve been the other way around? That all the horrid people of this world should have been taken and your Olivia spared? I wouldn’t blame you for flying away in that great glass elevator either and somehow trying to find the happiness you’d lost.
Having picked up some of your bits and pieces, I can’t help but sense that you were caught up in a macabre, nightmarish déjà vu where the nightmares of your past repeated themselves and yet the characters and scenery had changed. I’m sure that trying to make sense or unravel it all had to be a burning obsession. How do you explain the strange happenings in the universe? What are you supposed to do with the all the random, floating pieces which haunt you in the night? Do you turn them into stories? Develop a sense of humour which something turns the darkness light, and the worse it all gets, the funnier you become? Is that how you wrote your greatest work: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory while coming to grips with your son’s accident and then losing your beloved daughter? You somehow ended up righting this cruel world by giving a poor working class boy the golden ticket and he is the one who ultimately gets the chocolate factory. His fortunes turn completely upside down and goodness and order is restored. There is some sense of fairness in this world and the knowledge good will triumph over all the bad, even though there is utter heartbreak all around you. Why was your beloved Theo, an innocent baby simply lying in his pram hit by a random out of control taxi and how could he fracture his skull and lose his sight (albeit temporarily) when you had also fractured your skull and lost your sight when your plane crash during WWII? How could your beloved daughter Olivia who was so vibrant, intelligent and alive suddenly contract measles and then die from encephalitis, a rare complication? It was hard enough for you to lose your daughter but she was only seven and the same age when your older sister, Asti died…a death which seemingly led to your father’s untimely death from pneumonia only a few months later and left your mother battling to hold the fort. When you lost Olivia, did you also wonder whether you would succumb like your own father? That you wouldn’t survive? After all, you seemed to be following the same script. Yet, it was during this time that you wrote your greatest work Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. However, a few years later, your wife Pat had a series of strokes following a burst aneurism while pregnant with your daughter Ophelia. While many would’ve packed the towel in by now, you sat by her bed side and spoke with her: “Pat, this is Roald” over and over again. No doubt you remembered what it meant to be all alone in the neuro ward and that incredible, crushing despair and you fought that beast with everything you had devising a gruelling rehabilitation program which might had had her cursing but brought her back.
Yet,while you’re family lie was travelling through hell, your literary career was travelling along a parallel street enjoying success. In 1961, James and the Giant Peach, your first famous book for children, was published. You had started working on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory shortly after finishing James and the Giant Peach and it as published in September 1963, initially in the USA with the UK following a few years later. Apparently, the idea for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory grew out of your love of chocolate and your experiences as acting as a taster for a well-known chocolate factory while at school.
I don’t think you or I can even begin to unravel or explain all of this but I do hope that by reading about how you suffered so much and truly knew the full meaning of anguish that it will give the living hope. That you could go through all of that, not give up and still laugh and seize the day.
I have found this poem very encouraging:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers – (314)
By Emily Dickinson
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
So, after what has been a very extended journey, it’s now time for me to pack up my bag and find my out. At the same time, something, tells me this letter is only the beginning.
Donald Sturrock, Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl.