Lyndon Invents Pamela L. Travers

pamela-travers-actress

Before Pamela L. Travers, there was Helen Lyndon Goff, a lonely child with vivid imagination.

Helen Lyndon Goff discovered the world of dramatic arts in her teen years, at the time when she finally accepted her father’s death, a painful experience exacerbated by the mental breakdown of her mother and the domineering presence of her spinster great-aunt Ellie.

Although, at first, her mother and her aunt opposed to her acting attempts, in the spring of 1921 (when she was about 22 years old) Lyndon joined an acting company and briefly toured Australia and New Zealand.

According to her biographer, Lyndon felt her name was not romantic enough and decided to take up a stage name. She chose Pamela, a name apparently in vogue at that time, and she chose as her last name her deceased father’s name, Travers.

Now, it is not unusual for artists to choose a stage name. Often the motivation behind such a choice is the perceived unattractiveness of the performer’s name, the difficulty to pronounce or spell the name, or because another notable individual uses a similar name, or simply because the name in question projects an undesired image.

At first glance, in the context of her acting debut, Lyndon’s change of name fits well into this concept.

♥ But the curious thing about her stage name is that it remained even though her acting career was short-lived. Indeed, in 1922, Pamela met a young journalist in New Zealand who lead her to a new life as a journalist and a poet. So from a stage name, Pamela L. Travers, appears to have morphed into a pen name.

Pen names, in a similar way to stage names, are usually used to make the author’s name more distinctive, to disguise his or her gender, to distance an author from some or all of his or her previous works, to protect the author from retribution for his or her writings, to combine more than one author into a single author, or for any of a number of reasons related to the marketing or aesthetic presentation of the work.

♥ Yet, somehow, I feel that her pen name is more than a pen name.  To me, there is a deeper meaning, a symbolic meaning, in the decision of changing her name. And I got the confirmation of the correctness of that feeling while reading one of Pamela L. Travers’s interviews published in The Paris Review, No. 63:

I have a strong feeling about names, that names are a part of a person, a very privative thing to each one. I am always amazed at the way Christian names are seized upon in America as if by right instead of as something to be given. One of the fairy tales, Rumpelstiltskin, deals with the extraordinary privacy and inward nature of the name. It’s always been a big taboo in the fairy tales and in myth that you do not name a person.

And then again in “Name No Name”, published in Parabola in 1982:

So-the name discovered, the named one is lost, or at least deprived of his power.

Could it be then, I asked myself, that by taking up a new name she was trying to come up with a new identity, to start afresh and release inner feelings of inadequacy? Could it be that she never felt comfortable enough in her real name, as if Helen Lyndon was just not good enough and needed to be hidden from the world ? Why else would she experience an inner trembling” when people used her Christian name?

I believe that Pamela L. Travers’s name change was an attempt to escape the painful experiences of her childhood: the early loss of her father, the weakness of her mother, the heavy burden of the family financial needs, and what seemed to be her  future role as her mother’s helper.

Discussing Pamela’s acting experience in Mary Poppins She Wrote, Valerie Lawson makes the following comment: “The stage fulfilled cravings in Lyndon for applause. Somebody, even if it was an audience of complete strangers was now paying attention to little Lyndon. She longed to do this all the time.”

If Pamela appreciated the applause, I believe that was because the audience’s  attention operated as a temporary substitute for  love and emotional connection. The truth is, she didn’t crave applause, she craved love. And isn’t it a curious coincidence that the Greek translation for Pamela is “all sweet” or “all loving”?

When her father was still alive, she and her sisters were just like lumps in the family porridge. The family life was organised around her parent’s moods. It was clear that they had their own existence – busy, contained, important.

♥ Her parents never truly paid attention to her emotional needs. And when they did pay some attention to her, it was not in a positive way.

After her father’s death (Lyndon was 7 years of age) everything began to revolve around her mother’s emotional needs and the survival needs of the family.  So in the following years, from a lonely child Lyndon became, as the oldest of her siblings, a sort of pillar for her mother; That seemed to be my role and I wondered if there was anything else for me in life.”  She ended up rejecting this role on February 9, 1924 at 11:30 am as she sailed off to England in search of a new meaning for her life.

As the years went by, her pen name gradually changed from Pamela L. Travers to P.L. Travers, and in the late years of her life, to simply PLT.

♥ It is as if she never gained enough strength to drop the pseudonym she was using as a mental hiding place and as if the mental hiding place needed to be continuously reinforced. Why? My theory is that Pamela L. Travers was a mental construct, a protective shield Helen Lyndon Goff needed to function in the world.

 I believe that Helen Lyndon Goff experienced a major blockage during the maturation process  of her psyche caused by unattended childhood wounds. What were those? That will be the subject of my next post.

What the Bee Told Me

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Today, as promised in last week’s post, I am sharing my thoughts on What the Bee Knows, Reflections on Myth, Symbol and Story , the book which Pamela L. Travers was willing to discuss with her biographer, Valerie Lawson. Unfortunately, this discussion never took place. 

This blog is an attempt to perform a postpartum inner viewing. Maybe the ideas discussed here will have some healing power, maybe, somehow, they can travel beyond time and space and bring healing on the other side, wherever that might be.

Pamela L. Travers was of the opinion that if you wanted to know a writer you had to study his or her works. She also said, In everything I write one can read between the lines.” So I started my reading of her works with the fervent desire and hope to receive some insight into her psyche, connect somehow with her, and gain a deeper understanding of her personality.

What the Bee Knows, Reflections on Myth, Symbol and Story, published for the first time by Aquarian Press in 1989, is a collection of literary, and somewhat spiritual, essays most of which were written for and published in Parabola, The Magazine of Myth and Tradition, founded in the 1970’s by a friend of Pamela’s, D.M. Dooling. The focus of the magazine was (and still is) mythology and spirituality. Most of the writings compiled in What the Bee Knows were composed during the “crone” stage of Pamela’s life. She was 77 years old in 1976 when she wrote The World of the Hero for the inaugural issue of Parabola.

♥  To begin with, I was expecting to read a scholarly work. To my surprise, this collection of literary essays revealed itself to be of a different nature; not at all scholarly in a traditional sense. Actually, I experienced this book as a sort of encoded personal soul diary. 

In these writings, Pamela L. Travers explores mythical themes with poetical virtuosity and occasionally opens up and recollects events from her childhood, something that she was extremely reluctant to do in the earlier stages of her life. And maybe because her work on myth seems to be so closely entangled with her subjective experience of life and her personal beliefs system, she never gained a serious status as a scholar, at least not to the extent of her aspirations. 

Anyhow, I had to read some of the articles more than once and I do not claim to have grasped all of their meaning or appreciated all the subtleties of the mythological references.

♥  After some initial confusion, I sensed that to find what I was looking for I needed to pay close attention to the feelings and emotions expressed by her words instead of focusing on (and being almost intimidated by) the mythical references and sometimes hermetic links.

By the way, I was comforted to learn later on while reading Lively Oracle, The Centennial celebration of P.L.Travers Creator of Mary Poppins that the difficulty that I experienced in reading these essays was not a case of my own ignorance on the subject of myth; even the editorial staff of Parabola sometimes puzzled over her texts. Regardless of these initial difficulties a major theme came into view.

♥  Reading What the Bee Knows, one realises that Pamela was embarked on a quest for self discovery.

What makes me say that? Her constant, compulsive questioning, put in Pamela’s own words, I will not cease from mental fight”.

what-the-bee-knows-2

 Here, read for yourself:

Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “How can I live in accordance with reality?”

Perhaps myths are telling us that these endeavors are not so much voyages of discovery as of rediscovery. That the hero is seeking not for something new but for something old, a treasure that was lost and has to be found, his own self, his identity.”

The World of the Hero, 1976

Who walks the world under my name?

Fear No More The Heat Of The Sun, 1977 

Who am I? What is my purpose? Why through me, Leda, should the fuse have run that exploding, toppled Illium’s towers and made of Sparta a name of shame must cause ever carry on its back effects so much greater than itself, as a grain of sand carries the sea? 

Leda’s Lament, 1982

I am lost and astray in the universe.

Walking the Maze at Chartes, 1983

 Who am I? I inquired of myself and nothing reply. Oh, then, indeed, I was upside-down, a meare head walking the earth.  What shall I do? … Then deep within me something wept – I who had never wept before nor needed the gift of weeping – and I knew what had to be done.

The Hanged Man, 1984

I who had been a mere particle, a scantling of the whole I knew, had now become an entity, separate, a thing in itself, whose reflections threw themselves back at me from a glassy hall of mirrors. Surprised at my new infinity, I turned among the images, delighting in each pose and posture, trying them on as though they were garments to see which was most becoming. Is this I? Or this? Or this?

Now, Farewell and Hair, 1985 

♥  In the light of these examples (and many more), it is my humble opinion that Pamela L.Travers was experiencing profound identity issues.

This troubled me because she was the one to believe that For where we know it or not, or wish it or not, we all – like the hero- live in myth, or rather the context of myth. “ So, she knew she was the hero of her own life story but apparently knowing it was not enough to succeed in the endeavour.

♥ All of the above questions formulated at such an advanced age indicate that Pamela L.Travers never successfully completed her journey of finding herself. She never found inner peace.  

In the Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell talks about the journey of the hero on a spiritual path, the path on which Pamela traveled. This is what he said,The other kind is the spiritual deed, in which the hero learns to experience the supernormal range of human spiritual life and then comes back with a message.”

♥  Pamela L. Travers’s overall message (as I heard it) is one of anxiety and confusion.

For now, let me just say that she never became the wise crone, a concept which she so admired and I assume aspired to embody.  She hinted of wisdom, she hinted she might know more than what she chose to reveal…but did she? 

No one seems to have been interested in understanding the why,  what sort of psychological torments she experienced,  what caused them and why they remained unresolved despite all her efforts to heal herself. 

♥  I beleive that her obsession with myth, fairy tales, and her spiritual gurus are only that, failed attempts to heal her mind and her body .

Throughout her life (and it was a long one, she died at the venerable age of 97) she struggled with anxiety and possibly depression and other physical ailments. And in spite of all these weaknesses, she remained strong in her fragility.

People simply assume she was difficult and self-centered for the sake of being difficult and self-centered. At best, she was and still is qualified as an eccentric.

It was one of her eccentricities that captured my attention. In the article, Name and No Name published in 1982, she made a strange statement:

But, familiarity to wrench from another his personal name before he has had the chance – or, indeed, the wish – to offer it, is to degrade him, to snatch away his dignity, his private innerness. If there is alive in him some of his old ancestral stuff, it will quiver with apprehension – and withdraw.  … The door has to be knocked at gently if we want to know who is within.

She didn’t like to be called by her real name, Helen Lyndon. Why was Helen Lyndon hiding? I started thinking about the way Pamela L. Travers seemed to have related to her real name throughout her life and how her pen name morphed from Pamela L. Travers to P.L. Travers to finally become PLT.

Then, another question arose as I read the last paragraph of the essay, What Aileth Thee, published in 1983. Here it is:

For the question is our own question. In our rational, fragmental, technological world, it is we, seeking deliverance, that needed to be asked; we ourselves must become the Grail hero who will set the waters free, not only in ourselves but in others. Secretly we are all sore wounded and need that the wound be noted and the necessary words of power spoken.”

♥ So I asked the question, “What aileth thee Helen Lyndon?” In response, an idea started forming itself.

Could Helen Lyndon’s change of name be more significant on a psychological level than a mere taking on of a pen name? 

And, this is where I will pick up from next week. I will explore how Pamela L. Travers related both to her Christian name and her pen name throughout the different periods of her life and where that led me in my explorations.

Reviewing Mary Poppins She Wrote

So here I go, my first post. But before we start I must tell you that, although I am an avid reader from the early age of four, I have no formal education or training in literature, psychology or mythology. It’s just that lately my heart goes naturally towards these fields.  And now that I have grown a little (just a little) older, and a little wiser (just a little), I allow myself to listen to my heart more often.

♥  This blog is my answer to my heart’s calling and it is intended as a personal creative outlet for my impressions and ideas about Mary Poppins and her controversial author, Pamela L. Travers.

Why did I choose this subject for my blog?  Well, it was not intentionally planned and kind of happened gradually.

My interest in Pamela L. Travers and her literary creation was aroused by Valerie Lawson’s book, Mary Poppins She Wrote, a book that landed in my hands by pure fluke. It was at the time when Saving Mr. Banks was coming out on the big screen and I was planning to go see it. I decided to read the Mary Poppins book in preparation for the movie. (I didn’t know that there were six Mary Poppins books written over a period of more than 50 years.) It turned out that my local bookstore did not have the Mary Poppins books in stock. However, the clerk did not return empty handed. She kindly handed me a book titled Mary Poppins, She Wrote which of course I ended up buying because of the inscription on its cover: “Explores the events that inspired the major motion picture Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks.” That was even better!

And this is how my obsession with Pamela L. Travers and Mary Poppins began developing: ♥   I was simply struck by her imagination and her fiercely rebellious nature.

♥  Above all, I was deeply moved by the first part of the book which describes her difficult childhood experiences. I fell in love with little Helen Lyndon Goff (Pamela L. Travers’s real name), an extremely sensitive, exceptionally perceptive, imaginative and creative little girl as you will discover in future posts.

♥  I was saddened by the fact that this beautiful soul got trapped in the maze of illusions of the outer world and ended up alienated and alone. I wanted to understand why such an intelligent and creative woman could not heal her wounds. These issues were unfortunately not explored, at least not in serious depth, by Valerie Lawson. The more I read the book the more irritated I became.

Before I explain what drove me nuts about Mary Poppins, She Wrote I must admit that Valerie Lawson did an incredible job as an investigative journalist, which she is by profession.

It took her five years or so, and many trips to England, Ireland and Australia to uncover the life of Pamela L. Travers. If you have read the book, you know she succeeded in gathering many details about Pamela, her family, friends and acquaintances and even about the family and acquaintances of these acquaintances. Many people now know that Pamela had tumultuous, intimate relationships with men and women, was a follower of the peculiar spiritual guru Gurdjieff, and adopted a son without ever telling him that he was adopted (or that he had a twin brother). Lawson also made many links between real people from Pamela’s childhood and some of the characters in the Mary Poppins stories. And in my opinion that was the most enjoyable part of the book.

Disappointingly, Lawson failed to connect emotionally with Pamela L. Travers, although in the Preface of the book she tries (unsuccessfully in my opinion), to draw some similarities between herself and Pamela Travers:

My search for Pamela Travers began with the discovery that she was an Australian. Like myself, she had been a dancer, actress and writer. Going on “the Pamela hunt” [the underline is mine] became a five-year journey of discovery that took me down unexpected paths, both geographically and emotionally.”

However, Lawson never explains the emotional impact of writing Pamela’s biography on her personal life.

And honestly, is it only me that has an issue with the expression “the Pamela hunt?” It is certainly a funny concept, and a funny choice of words, of wanting to hunt her down. Doesn’t sound like an empathic endeavor, does it? It doesn’t even sound like a discovery quest.  Funny choice of words and the true meaning lies in the subtle nuances of language.

The most upsetting thing about this biography is that it could have been more insightful if only Lawson had a genuine interest in Pamela’s literary work as a gateway to her psyche.

Instead, this is what Lawson writes about her interest in Pamela:

For me, Travers became more fascinating the more I learned of her mystery. That was what intrigued me most, not her subject matter…

Overall, I was left with the uneasy feeling that Lawson purposefully decided to avoid meeting Pamela in person.

Lawson first contacted Pamela through her agent in 1994, Pamela was 95 years old. This was Pamela’s response:

 “Dear Miss Lawson,

I don’t like personal publicity but I’m willing to talk about my work any way you like.”

She also inquired if Lawson read her latest book What the Bee Knows.

Of course, Lawson didn’t know anything about the book because she was not interested in Pamela’s work; she was interested in the “Pamela hunt,” the hidden facts of a private life.

This is what she did after receiving Pamela’s response.

From an obscure Californian publisher I ordered a copy of What the Bee Knows, a book I quickly cast aside…I had no time then for Travers’s mythological references and search for heroes. One morning eighteen months later I woke knowing this was the right time of my life to write the book.” Seriously…

So in 1996, when Pamela was 97 she wrote again to her agent. The agent replied that Pamela was extremely ill and the day after the agent’s letter arrived in the mail Pamela died.

It seems to me that Valerie Lawson almost waited for Pamela to die before starting her biography. She probably thought it would be easier to write the book. What makes me say that? Lawson’s own words:

Despite her (Pamela’s) wish that no biography be written, I believe her death meant the ground rules changed. I took the same point of view as the biographer Michael Holroyd, who has said “I discriminate between the rights of the living and the dead…” When we are living we need all our sentimentalities, our evasions, our half-truths and our white lies, to get through life. When we are dead different rules apply.

I personally believe that we can’t truly know a person by only learning the facts of their lives. The facts are not the truth, just as Pamela used to say.

♥  Observable events are the outer reflection of an inner phenomenon. If you understand the inner phenomenon, you have a chance to interpret more accurately the facts and get a clearer image of the person. Even then, we all remain a little elusive; we all dwell in the world of perceptions and images. So how can we rely simply on other people’s perceptions about Pamela Travers? How can we get a clearer image of her, especially now, that she is irreversibly unavailable for an interview? Pamela gave the answer to Valerie Lawson. Read What the Bee Knows.

And this is where I will pick up in my next post, with my thoughts on Pamela’s last book What the Bee Knows.