Today, August 30th, is the 225th birthday of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Her mother invented feminism, her father founded anarchy; her step-mother translated fairy tales for the Grimm Brothers, and for her whole life, Mary was surrounded by the greatest philosphers, theologians, poets, and artists of her age. So how remarkable is it that, at the age of 18, she published a book that outclassed them all and changed the whole world?
As an inescapable result of this teenager’s remarkable achievement, I’m delighted to wish everyone a Happy Frankenstein Day!
I was in second grade when I first read FRANKENSTEIN. The previous year, I’d received a Frankenstein’s Monster action figure and the 1931 film for my birthday (which tells you instantly what kind of kid I was). That toy was the Woody to my Andy; the movie my STAR WARS. Soon, I was drawing Frankenstein’s Monster everywhere and driving everyone crazy with how much I wanted to talk about the lonely Monster. So when I found the book at a school book fair, I knew it was the next logical step — despite concern from my parents that it might be too difficult for a seven-year-old to comprehend.
But I was determined. Its vocabulary was so hard that it took me nearly the whole year and subsequent summer to finish it (I remember where I was when I did — sitting in a rocking chair at my grandparents’ home in Pelican, Louisiana). But every time I dove in, I was completely absorbed by this tale of madness, obsession, hubris, revenge, and (most of all) isolation. I remember finishing the book, sitting in a daze as I took it all in, and then flipping straight back to the first page and starting it again.
Thirty-three years or so later, I never exactly stopped reading FRANKENSTEIN. A copy is always in reach. Sometimes, I’ll revisit it all the way through; other times, I’ll pick up and select certain passages. I’ve spent a lifetime reflecting on its images, its meaning, its expanding literary interpretations, its historical contexts. Even as its words never change, they always resonate with something new — a reflection of how it has been a guiding compass for my evolution around it. I’ve read about its origins, Mary’s inspirations. I’ve studied its diverse and eclectic adaptations. You may say that I’ve deconstructed it, so that I know it inside and out; yet every time I open its pages again, I remain that seven-year old child with a sense of awe that I even have the privilege to hold it in my hand. There has been no stage in my life — no obstacle or hardship — in which FRANKENSTEIN wasn’t an anchor.
There’s never been a time in my life when Mary’s beautiful characters have not spoken to me — particularly her lonely and savage Creature. When I walked away from my evangelical upbringing, it was in his words that I drew inspiration to keep going: “I am fearless, and therefore powerful.” Fearless, because I knew I’d already taken the hardest step in risking my eternal soul; powerful, because I knew that if I had the strength for such an undertaking, I could make it through anything. Many times, I returned to this text when I needed reminders; along the way, I realized that more than any other literary work, FRANKENSTEIN had truly become my sacred text — the story to which I’ve always returned to find myself.
Read FRANKENSTEIN at my funeral. It is the only sacred text I will ever require.
As you read these words, I also sincerely hope that it inspires you to think of your own sacred text — one to which you return over and over again, which has been a guiding light to you, no matter where you’ve found yourself on the often unpredictable path that is life’s wilderness. We assume that such a text has to be authoritative or “holy,” but I don’t believe that is true. It must simply touch you in a way that compels you to return to it, over and over again, and to find yourself within its words and inspire you even as you change. It is a text that simply reminds you of your own humanity in a way that empowers and compels you to get up every day to face your next fight. May you find your own FRANKENSTEIN.
I love you. Remember to be kind of yourselves and to each other.
(Pictured: The cover of my very first copy of Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN.)