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  • "Sarah Polley Needs No Introduction"The Year in Canada
  • Alana Bell (bio)

Sarah Polley's latest film, Women Talking, had not been released when I decided to write about her memoir, Run Towards the Danger. Yet even before Polley's haunting film prompted a resurgence of adoration for her, her cultural significance in Canada was undeniable. Though Polley has become one of our most celebrated filmmakers, many Canadians first knew her as an actor. In the late 1990s, as Heather O'Neill points out, "if she was in a movie, it signalled that the movie was going to be cool." Before that, she grew up in front of Canadian audiences as the star of CBC's Road to Avonlea, an immensely popular television series based on L. M. Montgomery's stories of wholesome, early-1900s settler childhood that helped shape Canadians' understanding of their history, and established Polley as "Canada's sweetheart." It is precisely because "Sarah Polley needs no introduction," as Eva-Lynn Jagoe has recognized, that this collection of essays narrating Polley's experience from her own perspective is necessary. Wrestling with a public self forged when Polley was too young to have agency and a private self built on a traumatic childhood and youth, this book is about running toward the danger of traumatic memory, and it explores the intersection between memory, the body, and power on an individual and institutional level.

Written over a span of decades, this award-winning memoir presents an episodic life, overlapping in time from when Polley was the eight-year-old star of Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, an older child on Road to Avonlea, a teen portraying Alice in the Stratford Festival production of Alice Through the Looking Glass, an expectant mother hospitalized with placenta previa, and a filmmaker and mother of three navigating the hazy disruption of self caused by a severe concussion. While something of a chronology exists, the essays are self-contained, with narratives spanning from the distant past to the present, circling backwards and forwards to convey an identity always in progress.

Several essays examine Polley's career as a child actor and arrive at the thesis that "Children shouldn't work," a seemingly agreed-upon ethical principle, except, Polley laments, in "an industry known for its exploitation and self-serving nature" [End Page 9] (187). Though far from the only trauma Polley explores in her book, the exploitation and abuse she experiences as a child actor form a fundamental part of her identity, and one that runs contrary to the public self created for her by the film industry. Like the writers in Leigh Gilmore and Elizabeth Marshall's Witnessing Girlhood, Polley "return[s] to the experience" of childhood "to offer fine-grained and strategically shaped accounts" of her early life that "allow new audiences to understand [her] vulnerability and suffering, but also the role that authorities"—in this case, parents, directors, producers, her union, and even fans—"played in enabling violence" (7).

Detailing instances of physical endangerment, emotional abuse, and sexual harassment, Polley counters the public narrative of her childhood life, holding the adults around her to account. Forced to go back to "gruelling hours at work" on Avonlea the week after her mother died (189), Polley disputes producer Kevin Sullivan's assertion that working "helped take her mind off things," and that requiring her to deliver a monologue as Sara Stanley shortly thereafter about "missing my mother's hands and forgetting the sound of her voice" (195) was intended to allow Polley "to mourn her own mom," rather than to exploit her personal grief for public consumption (196). In multiple essays about acting, Polley describes the performance of a public self both onscreen and in marketing roles that is at times too close to her own experience and at times so divergent from her private self that it forces a kind of dissolution. As Sara Stanley, Polley conjured an ideal Canadian childhood while she herself lived "in a house that was in constant squalor, motherless, and often working thirteen- to fifteen-hour days" (182), feeling "tired" and "used," and contemplating suicide (190). Underscoring the contrast between the self marketed for...

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