Sarah Polley begins her book of essays by quoting Lewis Carroll: ‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.’ This is a dizzying opening, as you’d hope from the Canadian filmmaker, whose first documentary, Stories We Tell (2012), expertly splices together interviews with relatives, old home movies, re-enactments of family stories and a voice-over from her father, the film whirling towards a breathtaking reveal. Run Towards the Danger is just as fantastically unorthodox.
In the first chapter, ‘Alice, Collapsing’, Polley is on stage, playing Lewis Carroll’s Alice. At fifteen she considers herself an independent woman. After her mother’s death, her father is unable to care for her. She lives with her boyfriend and is already a veteran child actor. She hates Alice because her father taught her that Alice was a precocious temptress who broke Carroll’s heart. But now she is playing her, her breasts are bound to make her look younger, and she stops wearing the back brace prescribed for her scoliosis, so her body is twisting into collapse. Cue extreme stage fright. She decides her only way out is to ask for urgent scoliosis surgery, even though she knows she doesn’t yet need it and also that she is betraying her fellow actors, who are counting on the play having an extended run. Full of shame, she leaves money for one actor who had been saving up for a carpet for her child’s room. She abandons the stage, though she continues to take film and television roles, and focuses on becoming an activist and a filmmaker.
This could be the start of what the New Yorker’s Parul Sehgal scathingly called a ‘trauma plot’, in which ‘trauma has become synonymous with backstory’. But Polley is not just writing about how her past experiences affect her now; she is also convinced of ‘the power of my