Canadian actor, director, and screenwriter Sarah Polley has released a new book that features a collection of essays reflecting on different parts of her life. Be forewarned: fans of the beloved TV series Road to Avonlea for which Polley is known will not get a heartfelt reflection on what a great show it was. Instead, readers can expect an honest, raw reflection on a life marred by tragedy and Polley’s journey to reclaim her power in a human, imperfect, and completely spectacular way.
The first essay features, among other things, a reflection on why ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is actually horrifying, and the parallels Polley saw in her own life. Between her own life experiences and the fact that Polley portrayed Lewis Carol’s titular character at the Stratford Festival Theatre, she’s uniquely qualified to provide this commentary. She analyzes Carol’s alleged pedophilia that inspired the works that remain popular today. It’s incredibly jarring reading this analysis, told by a woman who was exploited by basically every adult around her from when she was a literal child. As someone who has never liked anything related to ‘Alice in Wonderland’, this essay felt particularly validating.
Perhaps the essay that so many readers will want to jump to is the recounting of her experience with infamous former Canadian celebrity Jian Ghomeshi. Ghomeshi was accused of sexual assault by several colleagues over the years. He was never found guilty, as the judge presiding over the case specifically called out the women who came forward, implying that they were scheming together and were all-together incredible.
Polley perfectly summarizes the rock-and-hard place so many survivors, women in particular, find themselves between when deciding whether to come forward about abuse and assault allegations. She invites readers into an honest conversation about the genuine decisions survivors of assault and violence are faced with. It was incredibly revealing when, in the course of speaking to friends in the legal profession, the majority of them advised Polley that they would never recommend a survivor report a case of abuse or assault. In Canada at least, the system is not set up to seek justice for survivors, but rather to ensure that no innocent person is ever convicted of a crime. This often comes at the expense of victims, who routinely have their stories and characters dragged through the mud. It’s a difficult conversation to have, but an important one.
Fans of the CBC’s flagship 1990s show Road to Avonlea are sure to be disillusioned, and that’s more than a good thing. Polley candidly reflects on how the show became a benchmark of “family values” and a venue for pushing a right-wing political agenda in Canada and beyond. Based on Polley’s personal recollections, it’s completely believable that one of the best characters on the show in the first season was written off because he was acting like a literal child on set at the ripe age of 12. Polley delves deeper and comments on how Lucy Maud Montgomery’s works have been co-opted to white-wash Canada’s history and erase the stories of Indigenous people.
Relatedly, Polley’s candid reflections on the very real danger she faced as a child actor are terrifying. Her starring role in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen garnered Polley much acclaim. In her own words, however, the process of making this film was nothing less than horrifying, with scant regard for her well-being as a child. Her career as a child star was filled with so many opportunities adults around her missed to protect her from harm and danger. It’s an indictment of an industry that has too often become known for exploiting children at every stage of the artistic process.
Polley’s essay recounting her experience as a mom whose baby required care in a NICU will absolutely tug at the heartstrings. Polley’s children are still young, so it was a sobering and discouraging reminder that there are still “experts” who shame people who give birth into exclusively breastfeeding. It’s alarming to think that even in the midst of one of the worst crises new parents are faced with, there will always be someone who feels the need to prioritize their own agenda over supporting people in their hour of need.
The final essay, from which the book gleans its name, is Polley’s reflection on her experience with post-concussion syndrome and the long road to recovery. This was also a fascinating venue to explore the often stark contrasts between the Canadian and US healthcare systems. While those of us living in Canada constantly brag about our free access to healthcare (and there is plenty to brag about), it’s also true that the way certain illnesses and conditions are approached is often archaic. So it is with concussions and treating post-concussion syndrome. It’s a sad fact that so many don’t have access to the most up-to-date, evidence-based treatment when they need it most.
This essay collection is not without its shortcomings, however. As much as Polley has been an activist and has clearly made an effort to both educate herself and others about systemic world issues, there are clearly still blind spots. Polley does address her many privileges, however, these themes are never fully explored. To be fair, this lack of self-awareness has been a feature of left-wing spaces in Canada in particular. It isn’t that there’s no room for those who come from privileged backgrounds in these spaces, it’s just always worth exploring why these voices are moved to the forefront of the movement at the expense of marginalized communities.
Ultimately, Run Towards the Danger is a poignant reflection on the life of a woman who has experienced so much tragedy and triumphs in her life. Readers will no doubt be able to empathize with so much of what she speaks about, even if we haven’t lived lives that come close to the chaos Polley’s life was characterized by. The stories are a testament to the power of grit, and being surrounded by a loving community. Readers also may find that this book challenges them, and prompts a deeper reflection on the power of memory.
Run Towards the Danger is available now.