Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Mysterious, Mellifluous Opal

Opal Irene Whiteley (14)

In introducing Opal Irene Whiteley, I'd like to  propose that people--all of us--are complex.

We have--as Shrek the Ogre emphatically stated--layers.  Yes, like an onion.

We have our public selves and our private selves.  Our younger selves and our adult selves.  Our strong selves and our vulnerable selves.

With this in mind, let's consider the controversial Opal Whiteley.

Opal and her sisters. (6)

Opal (1)
Opal was born on December 11, 1897 in Washington state. (5)  Her father worked in the lumber mills of the Pacific Northwest--a hard, back-breaking and seasonal job that required he and his family to move when the layoffs inevitably occurred. (5).

Opal (the oldest of five children) (4)  and her family moved to Oregon in 1902, and thus the heart of her story begins.

The story goes that at the age of six Opal began writing her thoughts down on scraps of paper.  Her verses--a combination of invented spelling and her own creative voice-- gradually grew into a diary.

The diary was filled with descriptions of the people and events in Opal's small, young life.  And running through every aspect of her writings was her fascination with nature.   Trees, flowers, birds, insects, stars--all of it delighted her and she collected innumerable specimens to explore and study (4).   As she grew older her natural affinity for nature was bolstered by her rumored photographic memory and her reading of numerous books about  nature and science.

Opal became somewhat of a local celebrity--the poor but brilliant young girl with the  photographic memory and encyclopedic knowledge of natural science.  Newspaper reporters seized upon the idea of Opal being a kind of fairy-like genius in the rough.  She began giving nature lectures and eventually found her way into attending the University of Oregon. (5)

And here is where Opal's story begins to take on a kind of strange Alice in Wonderland feel.

One of Opal's staged photos. (10)
It is also where my heart goes out to her.

From the University of Oregon, Opal set out for Los Angeles, CA, in hopes of becoming a movie actress.  She even went so far as to stage promotional photos--perhaps an early form of today's "head shots"--which she brought with her to show  movie studio executives.

When her efforts at becoming a movie star failed, she turned back to giving nature lectures and  writing  in her efforts to not only support herself, but to also try to find a direction for her life. (4)

It was during these years that various sources point to the accelerating decline of Opal's mental health. (8)

Opal brought her work to Ellery Sedgewick at the Atlantic. (5)   Sedgewick was more interested in her chance mentioning of her childhood diary than in her current work.  Believing he had a potential blockbuster on his hands, Sedgewick sponsored Opal in exchange for her to put back together the pieces of her diary (which she claimed had been ripped to pieces by her younger sister).

The transformation of her diary into a published book highlighted some interesting--or perhaps disturbing--facts.

Opal's diary not only contained charming tales of her childhood and nature, but also snippets of French--a language she could not speak and had never studied--and an underlying suggestion that she was not just a young girl from the lumber camps of Oregon, but actually the daughter of French aristocrat Henri d'Orleans, sent forth for her own safety after her royal French family had been deposed. (4)

And thus began the whispers that Opal's diary was nothing more than a desperate creation to save her floundering writing career.   Hints that perhaps she was suffering from a mental collapse.

The public became divided into two camps when it came to Opal and her story:  either they believed her with frantic devotion, or they decried her a charlatan.

In the face of all the tumult and controversy, Opal tried to defend herself, spinning even more fantastic tales about international intrigue, kidnapping, and finally her adoption into a poor family in Oregon. (5)

She finally fled to India and onward to London, where she continued to wrestle with failing mental health.  Various theories have been raised as to the nature of her illness, but there is general agreement that it must have been some form of schizophrenia (5, 8), although how far back into her life her mental illness stretched is not known.   Researchers far more wise and proficient than I point to evidence that Opal suffered a mental breakdown in early adulthood, and point to the possibility that her mother also suffered from delusions not unlike Opal's claims to be the daughter of a French aristocrat. (8)

Still other researchers  believe that Opal may have had Autism or Asperger's Syndrome (12),  both of which I believe would've been treated at the time in the same way as schizophrenia--with the sufferer committed to a mental institution.

Opal, found starving and living in squalor in London, eventually was admitted to the Napsbury Mental Hospital in 1948. (13)

She spent the next 50 years of her life within the walls of that mental institution until her death in 1992. (13)

And so here we are.

Still asking questions about the little girl with the muddy feet who sang hymns to worms, collected butterflies and named the trees.

Was she real?
Did she really write a diary?

Who was Opal Whiteley really?

Most of us, in our sage wisdom and skeptical 21st century self-assurance would decry Opal a charlatan at worst, and a pitiable spinner of tales at best--a woman suffering from life-long mental illness that led to delusions and finally a tragic death within the walls of a mental asylum.

But I have to ask:  must we pigeonhole Opal Whiteley into either of these prisons?

Whether or not Opal's childhood diary is real matters less to me than the charming story it told about a fanciful, imaginative, wise-beyond-her years child for whom the world was both magical and cruel.  Whether Opal wrote it at the age of six or the age of twenty pales against the fact that Opal gave us a unique and charming world into which we could disappear.

And I take Opal's story as a heartbreaking warning:  she lived in a world that understood mental illness even less than we do today--and this is not saying much.  Today people still harbor prejudice against those who suffer from mental illness.  People still reduce mental illness into either a joke or criminality.  Our health care and health insurance  system still, for the most part,  punishes those least able to defend themselves.

When I read Opal's words, I wonder what other incredible stories  she might have been able to give us if she had received proper treatment for her mental challenges.  If she had been guided towards the beauty of creating stories that did not have to be real to be real to the reader.

I don't have to believe that "Opal: The Journey of an Understanding Heart" is a true story for me to
offer Opal my own understanding heart.

She left behind a beautiful gift and legacy.

Her story.



2. http://www.opalonline.org/

3. http://www.ochcom.org/whiteley/

4. http://www.intangible.org/Features/Opal/OpalHome.html

5. http://www.oregonquarterly.com/curiouser-and-curiouser-embracing-opal-whiteley

6. http://dorenahistoricalsociety.com/tag/opal-whiteley/

7. http://www.notablebiographies.com/supp/Supplement-Sp-Z/Whiteley-Opal.html

8. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/opal-whiteleys-riddles

9. "Opal-The Journal of an Understanding Heart" by Oapl Whiteley, Adapted by Jane Boulton. Tioga Publishing Company, Palo Alto. CA. 1984.

10. http://moonshinejunkyard.blogspot.com/2010/07/opal-whiteley-and-singing-creek-where.html 

11. http://egajd.blogspot.com/2012/09/20120922-opal-whitelely-and-kyra.html

12. http://members.efn.org/~opal/mental.htm

13. https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/whiteley_opal/#.WnnTf5OpnEY

14. https://beta.prx.org/stories/48389


  1. "I don't have to believe that "Opal: The Journey of an Understanding Heart" is a true story for me to
    offer Opal my own understanding heart.

    She left behind a beautiful gift and legacy."
    I SO agree. She touches my heart, soul and imagination and I am fascinated with her story.

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