What is your favourite childhood story? What does it mean to you, and how can it help you to make sense of the world around you? The stories we learn and love in childhood often resonate throughout our entire lives, and the lessons we learn from them can be profound.
I have a vivid memory of being on holiday with my family in Llandudno in North Wales: I’m seven years old and I’m clutching my copy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and gazing at the cakes in the bakery window with ‘Eat Me’ iced on them.
Although nearly thirty years have passed since that day, Alice remains very important to me. As I write this article I’m surrounded by Alice paraphernalia; I own at least fifteen different copies of the book (including the original copy I got in Llandudno), and I am sipping tea from a beautiful Alice cup and saucer! So, why this Wonderland madness?
Alice shows us so many emotions and personality traits that we can all identify with. At first she is lonely, confused and so sad that she is literally drowning in a sea of her own tears. Later, she shows bravery, kindness, and of course - famously - curiosity.
“Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).”
Alice’s tale tells of a journey through Wonderland, and of the various curious and wonderful people and creatures she encounters along the way - what a wonderful metaphor for life! (Alice is often meeting these characters on a one-to-one basis for a short period of time before moving onto the next meeting - does this sound familiar to fellow therapists I wonder?)
The meeting which most resembles a therapy session is with the mysterious caterpillar, who asks, ‘Who Are You?’ Poor Alice is not sure at all as she ponders all the changes she has gone through that day.
“I - I hardly know, sir, just at present - at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then.”
There is so much symbolism in 'Alice' that is forever helping me to make sense of the often nonsensical-seeming world I find myself living in. When I am rushing here, there and everywhere, I am in White Rabbit mode. When I am taking my time and being mindful I am in Alice mode. On dark days when my head is filled with ‘shoulds’, ‘musts’ and ‘self-criticism’, my inner Red Queen is in charge.
“Off with his head!”
Stories are a wonderful way for us to connect with others. They enable us to share ideas that move us, and pass on the memories and feelings that a tale well told can kindle within us.
Alice connects me to my inner child, to my Grandma (who also loved Alice), and to my Great Auntie who lives in Oxford where the stories were written more than 150 years ago.
A recent report showed that only 31% of children’s books have a female protagonist*. Imagine how shocking and intriguing this little character must have been in 1865, when Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published! Alice really was quite a rebel, and some would say a feminist icon - bold and brave and true to what she felt was right.
It’s amazing to think that these children’s books are still having such a cultural impact so long after publication. Tim Burton has released two Hollywood blockbusters inspired by the stories (and there have been numerous other TV and cinema adaptations over the years), and modern-day artists such as Gwen Stefani and Taylor Swift have written songs which evoke the magic and surreality of Wonderland. Damon Albarn’s take on the story (‘Wonder.Land’) is currently playing at the National Theatre, and the Grammy award-winning Wonderland the Musical has taken Broadway and the West End by storm. It’s a story which has captured the imaginations of generations, and whose magic shows no signs of fading
The main thing that Alice teaches me is to be curious. Don’t rush around like the White Rabbit or let the Red Queen bring you down - look around at the wonder of life and enjoy the adventure, wherever it may take you.
Elizabeth is a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist currently working in an NHS IAPT service and private practice - Forrest Talking Therapies. She is also Secretary for the BABCP Liverpool Branch and an affiliate with Ieso Digital Health Ltd.
To hear more from Elizabeth you can get in touch via her website Here
*J McCabe et al ‘Gender in 20th Century Children’s Books’ Sage Journals.
Carroll - Alices Adventures in Wonderland 1865