The Little Dirty Girl

May I brag for just a moment? Professors who assign amazing material and give incredible feedback are why I’m kicking my own ass to make perfect scores in my classes this semester (well, the classes that matter, anyway. We don’t talk about Geo. 😆) This is a comment one of my professors recently made on a essay I wrote for his class:

“This is one of the most impressive reflections on a work of fiction that I’ve ever had a student write. It is thoughtful and moving. If the author (Joanna Russ) was still alive, I’d suggest sending it to her, but unfortunately she passed away a few years ago. You’ve made me glad that I assigned this story!”

I’m glad he assigned it, too! This is the second time this professor has given us an assignment that hit me at my core, and this particular essay was in response to a story he had us read called “The Little Dirty Girl” (PDF versions can be found online, and I highly recommend it!) In the story, the narrator is approached by a spectacularly dirty little girl with tangled hair, a wrinkled dress, and snot and tear marks on her face. She looks “ignored, kicked out, bedraggled, like a cat caught in a thunderstorm.” At first, the narrator wants nothing to do with the Little Dirty Girl, but as time goes on the narrator begins trying to care for the her. At the end of the story, we come to understand that the LDG is the narrator’s own inner child, that repressed part of herself that she has ignored for far too long.

The story touched me deeply, and since I cannot share my thoughts with the author, I thought I would share them here (slightly edited to protect anonymity):

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“Remember me talking about ‘inside me?’ That little girl part that I’ve ignored for over twenty years? I don’t yet know how to honor her voice, but I have gotten so far as to have given her a voice, and right now that is both a blessing and a curse, because, before, she was regulated to her corner and stayed quiet. But now, I’ve done enough healing so that she is no longer muzzled and there are now times when she RAGES….”

A few years ago, I recognized that I seemed to have two “selves”—an inner self (where my true needs and desires lay) and a sort of outward representative who often trampled all over the “inner self” and completely ignored her wishes. This “outward self” continually laid aside my true desires out of a sense of obligation. As Joan Didion writes in Slouching Toward Bethlehem:

“We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gist for imaginative empathy, evidence of our own willingness to give. Of course I will play Francesca to your Paolo, Helen Keller to anyone’s Anne Sullivan: no expectation is too misplaced, no role too ludicrous. At the mercy of those we cannot but hold in contempt, we play roles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the urgency of divining and meeting the next demand made upon us.”

From that moment of recognition, I began working hard to live my life differently. I began having difficult conversations with friends and family members and began being much more honest about who I was and what I wanted. Slowly, slowly, that “inside voice” (which I began calling “the inside girl”) started to say and ask for more. As I worked to honor “her” wishes, my entire life began to change, and I felt more peace and joy than I’d ever experienced, before.

But last year, I became involved in a relationship that wasn’t right for me. In a effort not to lose the person I loved, I completely ignored this “inside girl” and continually did things I didn’t want to do and made concessions I didn’t want to make. Needless to say, it did not end well, and this eventually led to me writing a friend the lines at the beginning of this paper.

This will explain some of my unexpected reaction to the story “The Little Dirty Girl.” The ending, when the narrator embraces the LDG, initially brought tears to my eyes, but in looking the story over again to write this paper, it was a line found early in the book that struck me to the core. During their first interaction, the LDG looks at a candy bar the narrator is holding and states “I like those.” The narrator writes: “It wasn’t a hint, it was merely a social, adult remark, as if she had long ago given up expecting that telling anyone she wanted something would result in getting it.”

THIS. This is exactly what I had done for over twenty years and then did again during my recent relationship. I completely lost my own internal compass. Years ago, I had stopped listening to the voice. Or, rather, that “little girl” stopped speaking, because she knew I wouldn’t pay attention, anyway. But now, after having given her a voice, she was raging. My insides and outsides were fighting over my life as who I wanted to be battled who I wanted to be with. I had freed my inner self only to imprison her again, and no longer would she remain silent.

We see this exact thing happen with the LDG. But before we get to the point of rage, we see the narrator continually trying to “fix” the LDG. The LDG isn’t happy with these attempts and at one point, after having her hair brushed and hearing the narrator comment that she looks nice, LDG responds: “No I don’t, I look conventional.” Later, the narrator tells her: “I’ll get you anything you want, no, not what you want but anything you really, truly need,” and the Little Dirty Girl responds: “You can’t.” The narrator promises to try, and so the LDG promises to come back, but when she does, she is in worse shape than before. Dirty, soaked with rain, coughing, shivering from cold, and soiled in her own feces, she accuses the narrator:

“You hate me, you starve me, you want to clean me up because you don’t like me!”

“You hate me” … How often have I directed hatred toward myself in the form of negative self-talk and impossible, perfectionistic standards?
“You starve me”… Although I’m sure this line is meant to speak more toward unmet emotional needs, I have literally starved myself through anorexia.
“You want to clean me up because you don’t like me”… How often have I tried to change myself to conform to someone else’s standards?

I absolutely love that the little girl comes back to the narrator even more wretched than she was, literally having soiled herself. And somehow, that is okay. The narrator holds out her arms so that the “terror of ages could walk into them.”

The terror of ages.

Is there any better way to describe our innermost selves? Is it possible to more accurately express how we must be willing to embrace every single part of ourselves—even those parts we consider hideous, even those parts the whole world says are wrong–and love and honor them? I remember, while going through the process of embracing my own internal self the first time, being impacted by the following words by Heather Havrilesky:

“You’ve got to lean way in to what you already are. Lean way the fuck in. Look right at the worst — the so-called worst — things about yourself and figure out how to celebrate those things.”

This is what happens between the narrator and the Little Dirty Girl. Afterwards, they cry, they laugh, they fall asleep together, and the next day the little girl is gone (sort of).

I find it interesting that the story doesn’t end there, but that the narrator resolves to have a visit with her mother and “this time” be openly angry, only to discover that there is nothing to be angry about. She recounts spending the day with her mother and says she wishes she could describe a scene of reconciliation, but she can’t. Afterwards, however, we see the narrator and her mother slowly begin to have a changed relationship–not a close one, but a kinder, gentler one. I think this is what things are truly like when we make peace with and start to honor our “inside selves.” Maybe everything doesn’t fall into place right away, but things slowly get better. Maybe we never have a great relationship with the people who hurt us, but we learn to see things in a different light. We become be more patient, loving, kind, and accepting of what is instead of wishing for what could be.

At the end of the story, the narrator gives us an update on the girl–who is still called The Little Dirty Girl (I love this, because in my mind it illustrates the fact that none of us ever become fully “clean”). The narrator says the LDG compels her to go places she didn’t think she’d want to go and meet people she didn’t think she’d want to meet. She says that some of things she thought were good before she met LDG are no longer with her, but says she would be “lost without Little Dirty Girl, so it’s turned out all right in the end.” And then she writes my favorite line of the whole story:

“She clamors for a lot, lately, and I try to provide it.”

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