How Matilda by Roald Dahl Has Helped Me Through My Childhood

by Güneş Yıldız

            Growing up, Matilda by Roald Dahl was my favorite book. I read the novel at least ten times between the ages of six and ten. I would refuse to start a new book and read Matilda instead, over and over again. My obsession with Matilda was quite inexplicable at the time. It couldn't have been only Dahl's witty writing and Quentin Blake's impressive illustrations that infatuated me, although they were important factors. It wasn't until my teens that I figured out what Matilda meant for me.

Our parents always knew the best. We were supposed to appreciate everything they did, for they thought about our well-being in every action; at least that was what we were taught. We were to have unconditional love and respect for them, just like we had to love and respect our teachers.

            Matilda was a little girl with abusive parents who cared little about her and favored her brother. Her only consolation was the little game of punishing her parents with pranks and the books that she read in a public library while her mother was out playing bridge with her friends. She taught herself how to read when she was three, and by the age of six, she had read all the classics from Charles Dickens to Charlotte Bronte. "These books gave her a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone."

            I have to admit that I yearned to pull pranks on my parents, too, though I never implemented any. Super gluing my dad's hat so it would stick to his hair wouldn't work. One, he doesn't have any hats; two, he doesn't have any hair. I didn't know anyone who could lend me their parrot so I could teach it how to talk like a ghost and hide it inside our fireplace, which didn't exist, to spook out my parents. I didn't have access to peroxide or freshwater animals to use for my vengeance pranks. Once I used a ball of wool to turn my dad's room into a labyrinth, imitating some sort of laser detector structure that I saw in movies, the ones that are set to protect precious artifacts in museums. The ones that you need ninja skills to pass through. It was a failure as dad simply leaped over each string of wool with ease, no ninja skills required. I don't remember why dad deserved that prank. Maybe it was just a trial. But I vividly remember thinking of ways to punish their ill-treatment at night. Not coming up with good ideas. Crying because the shadows of my toys that fall on my walls would come to life.

            All my childhood, I've watched mom collapse on the ground, having seizures. I thought I caused them. When she said she wanted to kill herself because I was such a disobedient and impudent girl, I believed her. The things she criticized would range from me not wanting to drink milk to me not tidying up my bed to not practicing chess enough. She would start the fire, and I would watch her skin get red as the tomato she had just sliced with the knife she held in her hand. I would watch her eyes whirl as swiftly as the chandelier that swung due to the pomegranate trinket mom threw. My mother would turn into a monster.

            No one explained to me until much later that mom would sometimes be in an extremely elevated mood, or she could have depressive episodes every once in a while. I can see now why my mom treats me the way she does as she is bipolar. My brother told me about her disorder when he talked me through a crisis at home two years ago. It's funny how I don't remember what caused it. Although, I remember that mom emptied the cupboards by breaking half of the plates and cups. I remember that she said she would cut off her fingers if I came any nearer. As always, dad's phone was out of battery and I couldn't reach him. All I could do was text my brother, who saved himself from the household by moving to the U.S. years ago. Now he acts as a mediator between mom and me. He gets me. In many ways, he had it worse than I did. He had to learn how to navigate his life as a gay kid in a predominantly Muslim country, apart from figuring out how to go about having a bipolar mother.

No one in this story has a great childhood. Mom, too, had a horrible one. She lost her father to a motorcycle accident at an early age, and she had to look after my aunt and uncles while maintaining the household. My grandma didn't send her to school and beat her regularly. My grandpa was a carpenter, and granny sold every piece of furniture he'd made and his entire record collection, which constituted every memory of him. Like a drowning man clutches the straw, Mom ran off with the first man she's ever been with who later on became an alcoholic and my older brother's father. I feel bad for her, but not as much as I do for my younger self. None of these facts justify the traumatic experiences she's put me through. It's not my fault that she doesn't take her meds, and it's not my fault that she is not being treated for her disorder even though my father is a doctor.

            I think dad is the one who had the best childhood in my family, even though he lived in poverty. His parents were elementary school teachers in a small village and had cattle. Dad was the smart kid who won scholarships and continued his education in boarding schools in the city, later on in a medical school. As I recently learned, he was a badass, and he was involved with communist groups and served time during his college years. He said he read almost half of the books he has ever read in jail, even though he was imprisoned for a short time. He is calm and prudent; people often say I take after dad. When I was a little girl, he would always take me to political rallies, football games, plays, book fairs, museums, and all those sophisticated events in İstanbul. I loved taking the ferry to commute from Asia to Europe, and I loved how he held me by my waist as I fed the seagulls with simit[1]. He was the one who introduced me to Matilda. I don't remember how and when things went down between us, and now we don't talk, but I certainly know why.

            My resentment for dad stems from my relationship with mom. I don't think I can ever forgive him for not taking my side in fights. Not facilitating the help she needs from a professional. Not signing her to a mental institute when she needed it. Being indifferent to her frequent kicking me out of the house saying I was not her daughter anymore. Especially for letting me move to another city to live only with mom during the time of their one-year separation.

When I was 8, mom decided she wanted to move to Trabzon, a super conservative city in Blacksea. Dad was excluded from the plan because he couldn't find a job there, or so they told me. The deal was closed in a couple of months. Mom went there and rented a house and found me a school. She came back and told me, "We got a beautiful house with a pool, and you are in the class of the best teacher in Trabzon." It was an adventure to embark on. I was excited.

            I said goodbye to my teacher and friends and got on the plane, thrilled to meet my new teacher and friends to come. My teacher Memiş, which translates into "Boobie" in Turkish, was an old man who abused his students. Boobie called his way of slapping boys "Ottoman slap." He pulled girls' hair and slammed their heads on their desks. What was I expecting from the teacher mom specifically chose for me? Boobie never touched me, though. He only mocked me when I misspelled a word on the blackboard. He was cruel, and he always looked bloodthirsty. Every time he looked at you, you would ask yourself, "What did I do wrong this time?" He was the male version of Mrs. Trunchbull, the headmistress in Matilda. Whenever he wrenched a girl's hair, I pictured the scene in which Mrs. Trunchbull grabbed a little girl by her pigtail, spun her in the air, and finally let go of it, as if throwing a hammer. Boobie didn't have the athletic and muscular body of Mrs. Trunchbull, though. In fact, he loathed sports, almost as much as he hated his students. He skipped P.E. lessons and made us solve math questions instead because his favorite student had died  due to a concussion while they were playing football. His love for children must have vanished with his love for sports after that incident. Everyone in the class detested him. They all mocked him by his name. I found it odd; how could they jeer an authority they were supposed to venerate? I had met my Mrs. Trunchbull, but where was my Ms. Honey? To this day, I still don't know why mom sent me to that school even though I told her how Boobie beat my classmates. I had no friends; I could see that no one in the class liked me. I felt lonely. I would look through my window that faced a graveyard at night and wonder if the dead were better off than me. Dad shouldn't have left me alone there.

            We couldn't last more than a year in Trabzon and moved back to İstanbul. I reread Matilda the same day I retrieved my room with purple flower prints. I remember talking to my mother about how ludicrous it was that Matilda and her family ate dinner on trays while watching television, without conversing. Not long after that, we started dining in separate rooms: mom in the living room, me in my room, dad in his workspace. This habit, I believe, started--as absurd as it sounds--when mom developed an addiction to an online game called "Okey" when I was 8, quite like Matilda's mother's addiction to bridge. She would sit in front of the computer at least 10 hours a day, playing it on Facebook. At the time, Pepsi cola had passwords to free points on that game. She would force me to drink Pepsi. We would buy cans of coke and pour them down the sink. One time, I was sick, and mom told me to go to the market and buy coke. I was lying on my bed with a temperature of 39 degrees Celsius. After a quarrel, I did go to the market and bought her the cans of coke she asked for. Both of the passwords earned her the lowest points possible. I was accountable for those points. If I were to give the cans to her earlier, the website could have given her higher points. Damn, mom.

            There was always a lack of communication in our house. However, in my teens, I started deliberately avoiding any form of communication with my parents as I realized I felt like a piece of shit every time we talked. I came 6th in the Turkish Chess Championship in my category when I was 9, and expecting congratulations from my mom for qualifying for the National Team, I was scolded for not ranking among the top three. When I was 14 and cried myself to sleep at night, all mom did was say, "You look like the time I had depression and didn't leave the bed. You're fine, get your shit up." It hurt. It hurt when she hit me with a pan on the head. It hurt when she held me by my hair instead of my hand on the streets and pulled it. It hurt when she grasped me by my puny arm and kicked me out of the house in my pink pajamas, barefoot, at the age of four. She still claims that I deserved the last one because I would drive her crazy by not falling asleep and asking her to hold me until I'm asleep. I didn't deserve any of that.

            She never said sorry. She never accepted my apologies. She taught me apologies meant shit because you couldn't take your actions back; “a broken vase would never be unbroken.” When she gave me the silent treatment, I would write her apology letters. I would write, "sory" with my tiny hands that held colorful crayons. I would adorn the paper with hearts, flowers, and glitters. She would rip them in half.

            After being called stupid by my mother for years when I knew I wasn't, just like Matilda, and putting up with the projections of my parents' frustrations, I ended up becoming an introverted teen with many insecurities. Being a teen sucked even more than being a child. At the age of fourteen, not receiving the love and affection I needed, I searched for it in boys. As a self-loathing teen, I was a magnet to teens with problems of their own. I remember being forced to engage in activities I didn't want to do with a boyfriend who would tell me he would hurt himself otherwise. I had been trapped into a relationship by a dude who wrote my name on his body with razor blades. With my long sleeves and thick bracelets, I was alone in a world full of elated teens and evil adults. No one was aching as much I did, or so I thought. I was a freak, and it was me against the whole world. Until a teacher reminded me that not all adults would fail me.

            The turning point in Matilda's life was when she started school and met Ms. Honey. When Matilda's brain-power transcended the world as we knew it, and she developed the ability of telekinesis, Ms. Honey, her teacher, was there to guide her through that unprecedented experience. "What she needed was just one person, one wise and sympathetic grown-up who could help her to understand the meaning of this extraordinary happening." Ms. Honey befriended her and welcomed Matilda in her humble hut, which she called home. Even though what I was going through was not nearly as exciting as moving objects by mental power, I had unusual things happen in my brain that I could not explain, and I felt things that I could not express with words. I would go to bed crying, wishing not to wake up in the morning, and I would wake up wishing I could sleep forever. Some days I wouldn't sleep at all. At some point, it became difficult for me to distinguish between the menstrual blood and blood from cuts on my sheets. Just when I thought I hit rock bottom and there was no escape from that deep, dark pit, Mr. Perry was there to provide me with tools to help me climb up. 

            In the first year of high school, one day, in my English Communications class, feeling like a failure after receiving a low grade, I left the class without saying a word to cry in the lady's room, shutting the door loudly. I lowered down the toilet cap, sat on it, hugging my knees, kept crying and crying. For the rest of the period and the lunch break. A total of about an hour. No one checked in on me. I wanted to hit my head to the wall incessantly and see the bloodstains on the wall the way a plumpy mosquito leaves when you kill it with a newspaper. I wished I took my backpack with me so I could reach my blades. I wished I could bleed one last time. Just when I was thinking about these, a group of girls came in and knocked on my door. They assumed it got locked, for I didn't answer. One of them complained about how her new mascara didn't curl her eyelashes as good as her previous one as if it was the end of the world. I wished the biggest problem in my life was the volume of my lashes.

            I skipped school the next three days, not daring to face my classmates. Afterward, I apologized to my teacher for my angsty behavior in a lengthy email, telling him how unhappy I had been feeling lately. Mr. Perry offered to touch base with me the next day after class, replying to my email with endless sympathy. It was the first time in a long while I felt that someone genuinely cared about me. At that point, I was ready to open up to him fully.

            The day I got back to school was the day I was scheduled to talk with Mr. Perry. On my way to school, I looked at the railroad tracks and thought, “If Mr. Perry doesn’t do the trick, that’s the end.”

I eagerly waited for the seventh period to come, for it was Mr. Perry's lesson. I ran to his classroom from my sixth-period Spanish class. Going to his desk, I handed in my homework from the days I was absent. He looked at me with solace in his eyes and put his right hand on his heart. After the bell rang, waiting for my classmates to leave, he took a chair and sat in front of me. He asked me if he could help me in any way. I said I didn't know. He said that given my email I sent to him, he could see how upset and resentful I am and that he knew how much being a teen sucked. I told him I needed to confide in him about something but he had to keep it a secret. He got up, walked to the door which was ajar, shut it close, and came back. Then asked me, "Güneş, are you in danger?" "No," I said with a squeaky voice. I turned my eyes away from him to my hands. Pulled my sleeves and tightened them inside my palms. I said, "I may be cutting myself." He put his hand on my shoulder and said, "You're not the only one." He told me there were many people out there who had the same coping mechanism, but I needed professional help. Our conversation lasted more than 10 minutes, exceeding the break time. The students of the next period stood behind the door until I was ready to leave. When our conversation was over, I ignored the students' scornful looks in front of the door and walked downstairs to my English Literature class. I had hope.

            I started therapy with his guidance. He also suggested we start a book club. We would meet once a week to discuss the work we were reading, and he would check up on me. In the next few years, Mr. Perry's office became a safe space for me, just like Ms. Honey's hut was for Matilda. He once told me, "The fact that it hurts less later doesn't make it hurt less now, and for me to pretend that it does doesn't honor the way you feel now." As time went by, we started to talk more about books than my problems. Much like Matilda, I discovered more literary works I related to and found out that reading made me feel less lonely. I read the book Cut by Patricia McCormick, and it felt good to read Callie talk about her experience with self-injury. Walt Whitman taught me to be comfortable in my skin, and I became at peace with my body and sexuality. My heart ached for little Jane Eyre when her aunt locked her in a dark room as a punishment for a crime she didn't commit. Sylvia Plath became my Roald Dahl. Her poetry, fiction, and journals all had feelings I related to. I would open Plath's journals and read the lines, "I have too much conscience injected in me to break customs without disastrous effects; I can only lean enviously against the boundary and hate, hate, hate the boys who can dispel sexual hunger freely, without misgiving, and be whole, while I drag out from date to date in soggy desire, always unfulfilled… There is so much hurt in this game of searching for a mate, of testing, trying. And you realize suddenly that you forgot it was a game, and turn away in tears." after every awful date I had, crying on my bed. She also wrote, "Be stoic when necessary and write-you have seen a lot, felt deeply, and your problems are universal enough to be made meaningful-WRITE," and now I'm writing.

            I took up new hobbies as I healed. I started sewing, baking, and cooking. Mr. Perry was there to support me every step of the way. I brought my baked goods to our book club meetings. I sewed him a bookmark and an apron as he loves cooking and embroidered the logo of his favorite rap duo, "Run the Jewels," on its pocket. I can never say thank you to him enough. I'm not great at talking about my feelings, but I think he knows how grateful I am and what he means to me. I saw him for the last time in June when I went to school to clear out my locker. I gave him the mini cake I had made for him as a belated birthday gift because the school was closed in March, on his birthday, due to Coronavirus. I decorated the cake based on a childhood story he had told us is in the school's literary criticism club, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." It was a bittersweet moment when we sat on the stairway in front of the school. He and his wife, Ms. Brooks, who taught me one of the raddest classes I've ever taken in grade 9, were moving to Bogota to teach. I asked him if we were going to finish the Quran, which was the last book we had started. He said, "Heck yeah, and we will read many more!" He assured me we would stay friends. I sometimes selfishly wish our "ending" was more like Matilda and Ms. Honey's. Matilda's family had to flee to Spain because of the sketchy business her father had owned, leaving Matilda behind and letting Ms. Honey adopt her. To be honest, there is nothing I would want more than being brought up in a family like Mr. Perry and Ms. Brooks's. Their son is a lucky young boy.

            Mr. Perry has left the country permanently; however, our book club is still ongoing. We've read many works from fiction to poetry, poetry to scripture. These books gave me a hopeful and comforting message: I was not alone. As a kid, I sympathized with Matilda on many levels, and she helped ease the pain of my loneliness. In my teens, thanks to Mr. Perry and his affection, I got the opportunity to see from poets' and authors' points of view that I was not the only one who had a hard time. I learned to accept myself as who I am by reading about the characters' struggles. I didn't use reading as a way to isolate myself from the real world, but to strengthen my bonds to it. Now, at the age of 18, I am good at taking care of myself, and I am as good as I can be. However, it is never going to be alright as long as I'm under my parents' roof. I'll find a way to escape Turkey as my brother did, and I will never look back. I don't know what the future holds for me, but I'm eager to live it through.

 

 

[1] Turkish bagel

About the Author

Güneş is a high school senior who is currently living in İstanbul, Turkey. She is the editor of her school's magazine, Serçe, and writes for her school's newspaper. She loves to read poetry and has a dog called Sylvia, whom she named after Sylvia Plath.