By Sarah Polley
"These are the most dangerous stories of my life. The ones I have avoided, the ones I haven’t told, the ones that have kept me awake on countless nights. As these stories found echoes in my adult life, and then went another, better way than they did in childhood, they became lighter and easier to carry." — Sarah Polley
Sarah Polley’s work as an actor, screenwriter, and director is celebrated for its honesty, complexity, and deep humanity. She brings all those qualities, along with her exquisite storytelling chops, to these six essays. Each one captures a piece of Polley’s life as she remembers it, while at the same time examining the fallibility of memory, the mutability of reality in the mind, and the possibility of experiencing the past anew, as the person she is now but was not then. As Polley writes, the past and present are in a “reciprocal pressure dance.”
Polley contemplates stories from her own life ranging from stage fright to high-risk childbirth to endangerment and more. After struggling with the aftermath of a concussion, Polley met a specialist who gave her wholly new advice: to recover from a traumatic injury, she had to retrain her mind to strength by charging towards the very activities that triggered her symptoms. With riveting clarity, she shows the power of applying that same advice to other areas of her life in order to find a path forward, a way through. Rather than live in a protective crouch, she had to run towards the danger.
In this extraordinary book, Polley explores what it is to live in one’s body, in a constant state of becoming, learning, and changing.
Laurel Douma will read Run Towards the Danger by Sarah Polley. A native of the Hanover area, Laurel grew up on a farm southeast of town where her parents still live. A member of Hanover Public Library Board for the 2022-26 Council term, she has also been involved with several book clubs over the years. She will represent Hanover.
In a series of six essays, Sarah Polley explores six pivotal experiences in her life since the beginning of her career as an actor at age 8 in the film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, through a run as Alice in Alice Through the Looking-Glass at the Stratford festival, and her starring role on the CBC program Road to Avonlea, to her social justice advocacy and finally her current award-winning directorial and screenwriting projects. This professional success, Polley contrasts with the concurrent, pivotal experiences of her personal life in a candid and heart-breaking way — from the death of her mother from cancer when she is 11 and her father’s subsequent mental collapse, spinal surgery at 15 to correct spinal stenosis, an abusive relationship, a life-threatening pregnancy and ultimately, a traumatic brain injury as a young mother that left her debilitated for years — the recovery from which is the inspiration for the title of this memoir, Run Towards the Danger, her neurologist’s ‘prescription’ that most helped her heal, both mentally and physically.
As this is a collection of personal essays, the main “plot” or purpose of this book is, as Polley states in her preface, to write through the difficult times of her life. As she did so she saw how “the meaning of long-ago experiences transformed in the context of the ever-changing present.” Polley took this collection of essays, which she had written over many years and only now was collecting and refreshing and used them to explore her memories of past physical trauma through the fresh lens of the present in an effort to dilute their power over her present. Whether she does so successfully, perhaps only she can say, but it is a fascinating and inspiring journey to take with her.
The essays are not laid out chronologically and the narrative of each interweave into each other as one story reminds us of another. Her first essay in the book “Alice, Collapsing,” explores her experience in portraying Alice in “Alice Through the Looking Glass” at the Stratford Festival when she was 15. Having begun an acting career at the age of 9, by this time she had several years of experience, but during this job, she developed a debilitating case of stage fright and was suffering more and more from scoliosis that was worsening as her body was maturing. She eventually chose to drop out of the play to have spinal surgery to correct it. The context of “Alice, Through the Looking Glass” provides a richness and depth to her experience of the madness in the play, including the mismatched casting of playing a child when in every way in reality she had become a woman, the quirks she developed as her performance anxiety increased, and her body itself became more and more crooked. As part of this looking back, she comments on how it was lost on her at the time “that I was likely surrounded by people who had experienced stage fright and had, over many years, learned techniques for managing it.”
Polley’s second essay selection is “The Woman Who Stayed Silent,” in which she recounts her story about remaining silent after an alleged assault by Jian Gomeshi when she was 16. This is the most uncomfortable of the essays and delves deepest into the theme of the body and memory. The issue of the fallibility of memory and the body’s own desire to protect itself through forgetting. The accounting of this time of her life is supported by the memories of her family who remembered what she had forgotten of her reaction to this event that she had whitewashed into an “uncomfortable” experience rather than a violent assault in her memory.
The third essay, “High Risk” is the most harrowing of the six essays. It deals with Polley’s experience with her first pregnancy and the birth of her eldest daughter, Eve. Her pregnancy was fraught with disaster, dealing with scarring due to undiagnosed endometriosis, placenta previa and gestational diabetes, all of which kept her on bed rest in hospital from thirty-three weeks until Eve’s premature birth. The process of becoming a mother for the first time was overshadowed by the memory of Polley’s mother’s death from cancer when Polley was just 11. An event that permeates through all the essays and is foundational to the creation of her character.
In “Mad Genius” we finally begin at the chronological beginning, with the story of Polley’s first professional acting job on the film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen by Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame. Perhaps the story appears at this stage in the book as it is the memory of which she is most uncertain. It also includes the beginning of her mother’s illness and returns the theme of madness first touched on in “Alice, Collapsing.” The filming of this movie was the stuff of movie-making legend, with an over-the-top script, and mad and violent stunts that put many of the cast’s lives at risk but was particularly traumatic for the young Polley who had an explosion go off very near her, rendering her deaf and was nearly trampled by a horse, both of which had her hospitalized. Part of the difficulty in reconciling our memories of an experience is having to accept that they could have been allowed to happen at all. This story required the most corroboration for Polley between her own felt experience and the perception of the others in the situation as well. Those in authority were more likely to discount her fear while those who were an active part of the experience affirmed both the terror and the violence that affected Polley for years after.
In “Dissolving Boundaries,” the penultimate essay in the collection, Polley and her family revisit Prince Edward Island in a spur of the moment vacation inspired by a dream Polley had of walking on the beach with her daughter. The height of Polley’s acting fame occurred during her pre-teen years as a star on “Road to Avonlea.” And, while not filmed in Prince Edward Island, the island felt a certain ownership over her and her popularity on the island was extraordinary. Those years of her life were a hellish time for Polley, dealing with her mother’s death, the spinal scoliosis that was increasingly deforming her, the overwhelming work required by the show and the disconnection of playing a child when she was leaving that part of her life behind in reality. Revisiting Prince Edward Island was a journey she had been putting off for years. It symbolized all the emotional pain and awkwardness of that time in her life. She returned to an island that once dogged her every step as though she were royalty, to one that no longer recognized her. At this site of trauma, she was now a ghost. Her fears of her children’s exuberance drawing attention to them in the airport were unfounded as they were received as though they were any ordinary family on vacation. By having the courage to go back to the island, the boundary that kept her from enjoying it and feeling free to be who she is now there dissolved away. As she walked on the beach with her children, with no crowds following behind them, she was able to but that trauma to bed and live out her new dreams.
The final essay of the collection is the story of the inspiration for the whole book – Run Towards the Danger. In 2015, Polley experiences a traumatic brain injury when a fire extinguisher falls on her head at the local pool. What horrifies me most about this story is that she is alone and while some people so ask her if she is o.k. No ambulance is called, no one walks her home even. She wanders off home, disoriented and receives no treatment until many months later when the effects of the undiagnosed concussion become unbearable. She no longer has the energy to mother her young children, the concentration to do her job (at this point in her life she is primarily a screenwriter), light and noise overwhelm her and she has debilitating headaches. She becomes more and more fearful of going outside and as many who suffer from chronic illness know, the compassion and sympathy of her friends and family are waning as the months and years drag on. Advice from doctors and other sufferers is conflicting and largely unhelpful but the predominant advice is to rest. “Sleep is your friend.” Other professionals advise her to walk and engage in ordinary activities, with accommodations such as dark glasses and noise-cancelling headphones, and then just up to the point where she begins to feel the pain and disorientation coming on but no further. And then rest. After the birth of their third daughter, Polley’s headaches become unbearable and she becomes unrecognizable to her children as the energetic, playful, engaged mother she once was. On the recommendation of a friend who was able to recover from her traumatic brain injury, Polley consults Dr. Michael Collins, in Pittsburgh. His advice: “Run towards the danger. Stop focussing on your symptoms and start paying attention to when and how you recover from them. Basically, focus on the positive result you want to see and expand them. He “prescribes” her exercises and demands she reengage with the life she wants to be leading.
“I should now view my symptoms... not as something to be avoided but as opportunities to increase my threshold of tolerance. I must learn to run into the discomfort instead of away from it.
In order to recover, I require daily exposure to anything that has traditionally triggered symptoms or caused me pain… my avoidance of the things that has bothered me has made it more and more difficult for my brain to cope with them.” p234
As she works through the exercises, pushes through the pain, doing the ordinary things of life, moments of clarity begin to happen. They pass, but the happen again and more often. They become longer. After three and a half years of suffering, she recovers after six weeks of this program. People who did not know her before her accident, don’t recognize her. This book follows eight months later.
Sarah Polley: The honesty and clarity of Polley’s writing don’t make you feel like you know her as she recounts these events, they make you feel like you are her, experiencing them for yourself. We become the “I” of these stories and so it becomes unavoidably relatable. I personally share none of the same experiences with this character, even obliquely, and yet I know how she feels and can feel her pain and her joy in her recovery and I definitely feel inspired by her courage. I find her likable in that she is unfailingly kind and generous even to those who have hurt her and her humour is gentle and ironic, not cruel and at the expense of others. The things I admire about her professional work, promoting the stories of women, championing their strengths and validating their stories, are what I admire about her personality. Her film work as a director and screenwriter is a reflection of her personality and what she values in life. What she reveals in this book is the individual behind the public face. These essays show how that developed over time and that moving into writing and directing allowed that where acting could not. I think the fatal flaw she reveals here is an inability to reach out for help and to isolate herself in her suffering, which is a flaw I think a lot of us share.
It may seem confusing at first to not have the essays in chronological order but ultimately because they are not, the allusions scattered throughout all the essays keep “the plot” moving very quickly as we learn bits and pieces of the story behind the story being told. Like in real life, everything is happening all at once, everywhere. For example, there is no single essay that is about the death of Polley’s mother, but in every essay we are always aware that that is the reality and it is always important and influential.
Trauma & the Body/ Madness:
The Subtitle “Confrontations with a Body of Memory” carries a double meaning. This is both a collection (body) of memories and the memories of the body.
Our memories are foundational to who we think we are and yet they are tenuous and fallible. Eyewitness statements are the least reliable form of evidence. No one sees the same thing the same way. Even as it’s happening.
'Mutability of reality in the mind’— the creation of false memories. The brain’s reaction to trauma is to forget, to downplay. What does it mean to live in one’s body when it is in a constant state of becoming, learning and changing?
“Your body, believe it or not, remembers everything. Sounds, smells, touches, tastes. But the memory is not held in your mind, locked somewhere in the recesses of your brain. Instead, it’s held in your body, all the way down at the cellular level. Sometimes, the memories that our body stores are not always memories that we consciously, as the survivor, remember. “The traumatic and the trivial are the two kinds of information your mind represses.” The trauma wasn’t just emotional. It was experienced on a cellular level. Respect that. There’s stored memories there. Don’t turn your back on it thinking it’s crazy. Nuts. Healing comes from accepting and being, open, honest. Transparent. There’s a hurt and you need to acknowledge it. Only then can the healing begin.” — Trauma, Body Memories & How to Heal Them, by Lia Mack, April 9, 2019
Dr. Collins’ cure for “madness”: …because certain areas of the brain become so good at talking to each other, the way to healing is to change that communication.”
This book touches on several current issues we can see everywhere:
Coping strategies we can learn to help recover from the pandemic:
Writing these stories, for Polley, was therapy, giving her a place to save herself and her memories and emotions at different times in her life. The act of collecting and rewriting them for this book was a further work of remembering and self-exploration – who was I and who am I now? How are they similar/dissimilar? Ultimately, this is a story for herself that we are getting to share with her. I found this story inspiring because I believe in knowing yourself and I admire her bravery in doing the difficult thing of exploring some of the traumatic events of her past that shaped her into the person she is today. It is such a quintessential female story. The “prescription” to run towards the danger she receives at the time of life when many of us feel a need to examine and perhaps embrace a change in our lives. It is when we read stories where others have taken on a physical adventure, such as climbing Mount Everest or walking a pilgrimage — some physical challenge that needs determination and fortitude to accomplish. Only here the adventure is one into the heart, into the psyche, and into memory. Truly dangerous and treacherous territory where few choose to tread. Grey County should read this book just to see that it can be done. That emotional and mental challenges can be overcome and we can know ourselves and be the person we want to be, not just the one shaped by trauma and circumstance.
Her final words in the book are the best summary of these essays and why you should read them:
“I know now that I will become weaker at what I avoid, that what I run towards will strengthen in me. I know to listen to my body, but not so much that I convince myself I can’t do things or that I can’t push myself; not so much that I can use the concept of listening to my body as a weapon against my vitality. I do the highway drive I’m nervous about doing. I prepare to make a film (Women Talking). I write the book I’ve always wanted to write. Run Towards the Danger is a way of being that I have taken into my life with me; a treasure, a spell, a sword.” p248