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Ironing Out the Wrinkles—The Complexities of Madeleine L’Engle

There are characters, and then there are creations—fictional people who nonetheless seem to exist among us, independently of the story they are created to tell: Atticus Finch or Holden Caulfield or Harry Potter. For half a century Meg Murry, the unhappy, awkward young protagonist of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, has been among these figures.

After A Wrinkle in Time won the 1963 Newbery Medal—the highest honor for children’s literature in the United States—it became a surprise bestseller. Surprising because the tale doesn’t sound like a typical blockbuster bildungsroman: frizzy-haired, gawky Meg travels with her younger brother Charles Wallace and three helpful angels to the planet Camazotz, where they must save their scientist father from the forces of IT, a malevolent disembodied brain. (Hapless critics charmingly stumbled, trying to explain the trippy, angels-in-space plot in less than a column inch.) But what is most notable is not that the book convinced millions of Americans to read an adventure story about scientists, but the fact that it is Meg who rescues her father and then, when her father cannot finish the task, her little brother as well. A female protagonist who saves her family and teaches her boyfriend how to do his math homework? Even after multiple waves of feminism, the novelty shines through.

L’Engle was always clear that Meg’s personality was semi-autobiographical, and she spent decades fleshing out their shared creation myth through lectures, interviews, and a series of memoirs that are known collectively as the Crosswicks Journals. The writings painted a picture of a real-life version of Meg: stubborn, loving, fiercely intelligent, and moody, Meg/Madeleine was an inspiration for bookish girls everywhere. L’Engle was eccentric and strange-looking—she often compared herself to a “giraffe”—but she also had a loving husband, adorable children, and legions of fans (not to mention an idyllic farmhouse in Connecticut and a grand apartment on the Upper West Side).

In 2004, a New Yorker profile by Cynthia Zarin attacked the public image of L’Engle that the Crosswicks Journals had honed. Zarin reported that L’Engle’s beloved son Bion (the inspiration for Charles Wallace, the golden child of Wrinkle) had died of late-stage alcoholism, which L’Engle would not acknowledge; that her absent father had died of the same illness (she said he had aggravated a war wound); and that her husband, actor Hugh Franklin, had engaged in multiple affairs, one of which continued until his death. Less dramatic, but nonetheless painful to fans, were the revelations that L’Engle’s children called her autobiographical work “pure fiction” and resented her willingness to cannibalize their lives for public consumption. “It’s hard to be the magic child,” Maria Rooney, L’Engle’s adopted daughter, says of Bion, who wouldn’t read his mother’s books.

Zarin’s article, which also revealed L’Engle’s increasingly fragile mental state, did not square with what readers wanted to believe. Meg marries her childhood sweetheart (and Wrinkle co-protagonist) Calvin O’Keefe, who is a loving and devoted father to their seven children as the series progresses. He doesn’t cheat on her, and her kids aren’t bitter about her career. (If such a quotidian fate had met Meg, what would it mean for the rest of us poor schlubs?) For devotees of her non-fiction, the half-truths were a betrayal; for fans of her fiction, the profile served as a reminder that her creation was, ultimately, just a character.

Leonard S. Marcus’s Listening for Madeleine is timed for the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Wrinkle, but it is responding more directly to Zarin’s profile, which, coming just a few years before L’Engle’s death, seemed to have the last word. Rather than writing a straightforward biography, Marcus has woven together a collection of interviews with friends, students, editors, and family members—fans and minor figures in her life, as well as the people who were closest to her. (L’Engle’s adopted daughter Maria refused to be interviewed for the book, but her other daughter and two grandchildren gave long interviews.)

The woman who emerges from these pages will remind readers that an actual human can be just as fascinatingly contradictory as a fictional being. L’Engle is a “queen,” “the archetypal WASP,” an “Earth Mother,” an “absentee, absent-minded, mother,” “so generous and warm-hearted,” “enormously bright,” “a bully,” “strong and indefatigable,” and “self-absorbed.” A woman beloved by thousands of children, who befriended and personally mentored dozens, found it difficult to relate to her own children. “How do you handle having a mother who was not just a celebrity but an institution?” the writer Sidney Offit asks, and the answer is not a cheery one. In another of her fictional children’s series, L’Engle wrote about an adopted daughter not unlike Maria who is spoiled and ungrateful and ultimately leaves the family. Much of her children’s bitterness sprang from L’Engle’s willingness to fictionalize their lives, without seeming to think much about how this dual reality might affect them. “How do you make yourself real to your own mother?” wonders L’Engle’s granddaughter Charlotte.

What emerges from this patchwork biography is not just a portrait of contradiction, but a portrait of a woman who was balancing—sometimes ineptly—the roles of mother, wife, and celebrated author. L’Engle published her memoir A Circle of Quiet at age 54 in 1972, the same year Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment and Title IX. Roe v. Wade would be decided the following year. “For young women who as preteen girls a decade earlier had caught compelling reflections of themselves in the out-of-sorts yet stupendously purposeful character Meg,” Marcus points out, “the new book came just in time to offer some guidance through the minefields of mid-twentieth century American womanhood.” As Marcus makes clear, L’Engle took this responsibility quite seriously, answering hundreds of letters, leading countless writing workshops and retreats, and taking on numerous speaking engagements.

But what many of her readers craved was a personal testimony that could serve as a roadmap for their own development. It was something she could not, or would not, offer, preferring to tell a story that she felt hewed closer to a subjective truth. “Something might be factually correct but still lead you to the wrong conclusion,” says her friend Barbara Braver. Indeed it might, but our current age has no patience for useful fictions presenting themselves as fact. In another interview, one of L’Engle’s former fiction editors tells Marcus that the Crosswicks Journals contain “a memoir ethos drawn from another time.” Marcus, on the other hand, has correctly identified that readers today appreciate full disclosure and are willing to sift through competing narratives. 

That is why for the early-twenty-first century reader, Marcus’s book is more instructive than the memoirs L’Engle left behind. The contradictions of L’Engle’s life offer the best insights into the complicated acrobatics we perform in the modern world in order to satisfy the competing claims of love, family, success, and ambition. Here, explained by her friends and loved ones, L’Engle’s shortcomings don’t come across as condemnations, but as humanizing counterpoints to her iconic status. While the person that emerges could be tiresome, didactic, and just plain weird—why is everyone always breaking into a hymn at her house?—she could also be tender and offered real insights into the difficulties of growing up. “But where,” she wrote in A Circle of Quiet, “after we have made the great decision to leave the security of childhood and move on into the vastness of maturity, does anybody ever feel completely at home?” Her desperate search for that idealized home eluded her in childhood and again as an adult, but eventually she did succeed; in the pages of A Wrinkle in Time, Meg welcomes readers to the land of understanding—an imperfect and beautifully human sanctuary from the ravages of adulthood.

Cara Parks is deputy managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine. Follow: @caraparks