Ten-year-old Harriet Grieves liked Bette Davis best. Now that she had the VCR, she not only didn’t have to stay up late to see her classic films, she could tape them and watch them over and over. She could memorize and study them scene by scene! Bad Sister (1931), Now, Voyager (1942), Jezebel (1938). Bette. Those eyes. That voice. But, never, never, had Harriet seen anything like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), and, bonus, it starred Harriet’s second favorite, Joan Crawford – the only time the two women, who hated each other, starred in a film together.
Harriet loved the movie, but when she finally got it on video tape, she became obsessed. By watching, pausing, and rewinding it repeatedly, she memorized all the lines and Davis’ expressions. Harriet began reciting parts of the film to her family, who laughed, though uncomfortably. Later, she began using Davis’ words in place of her own in conversations. For example, when her mother asked her to empty the dishwasher, Harriet would reply, “You don’t think I remember anything, do you?” She smiled secretly at the reference her mother did not catch. To her sisters, Millie and Greta, she’d say, “Every time I think about something nice, you remind me of bad things.”
Two years younger and easily manipulated, Millie found herself coerced into playing Baby Jane’s sister, Blanche Hudson, when Harriet suggested acting out scenes from the movie. A wheelchair became a much-desired acquisition for Blanche’s role. Luckily, their neighbor, Mr. Joseph, much to the regret of the Grieves parents, came up with a remnant of his late wife’s final illness. Harriet’s production had all it needed to progress.
“My Carol would be thrilled the kids in the neighborhood are getting some joy out of this,” he said, glowing, handing over the wheelchair. Harriet, not caring about Carol, fixated on becoming Jane Hudson and framing her scene. Millie rolled herself around in the chair, happily going backward and forward, but Harriet wanted her in character, practicing her main line: “You wouldn’t be able to do these awful things to me if I weren’t still in this chair!” Then, Jane/Harriet, could reply, “ But you are, Blanche, you are in that chair!”
Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Grieves waited for this particular, “Harriet Fixation” to end. There had been a few others:
· The Holocaust
· The Dust Bowl
· The Spanish Flu Epidemic
· The nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
This Baby Jane obsession, Harriet’s first foray into the world of fiction, initially seemed to her parents to be a more benign preoccupation than the historical predecessors. But when Harriet freeze-framed Baby Jane Hudson’s face on the screen and began taking notes on her hair and makeup, Mrs. Grieves started feeling a dark dread. “This one seems more intense,” she told her husband.
The Grieves family began to almost entirely refer to Harriet as BJH, Baby Jane Hudson, the character inhabiting the body of their daughter and sister. They’d say, “Has BJH had breakfast?” “Just wait, Millie, for BJH to stop bugging you and then you can go play.” “Can you get BJH to bring the trash out?” This, the jokey, haha, isn’t Harriet funny, winky winky part kept things relatively light-hearted. But it put terror in their hearts when they saw BJH all powdered and eyelinery and dark-red- lipsticked with a wig and a strange, childlike dress. The dress, the one Harriet found in her closet, the one with the sailor collar, originally dismissed when it came from the store as “ridiculous,” was perfect for the BJH role. Harriet’s blonde Halloween wig pulled back in a chignon at the base of her neck completed the look.
“You cannot wear that to school. You. Can. Not,” Mrs. Grieves told her, not knowing for sure if the school rules included something somewhere about children not attending school dressed as Baby Jane Hudson.
The Grieves attempted to get Harriet onto another actress. “What about Bette Midler? She was named after Bette Davis and even had a mental breakdown once!” Mrs. Grieves said hopefully. Mr. Grieves stood beside his wife, hands on hips, scowling in shared concern.
But Harriet couldn’t see past Baby Jane. She felt Baby Jane’s pain at being a washed-up star. She told Mr. Joseph, peering out from her black circled eyes, mouthing her words with blood stained lips, “I was a star once! And now no one cares!”
“Ok, honey, ok, you’re always a star to me,” Mr. Joseph said soothingly.
Things got really bad when Millie refused to play Blanche. “I don’t like it! It’s scary! It’s not fun! Mom says I don’t have to!” her sister shouted, revealing a wrench in the plan Harriet had not expected. She required a Blanche to yell at and abuse in order to play Baby Jane. A doll would not do.
One day, when the girls were home after school waiting for Mrs. Grieves to return from work, Harriet overcame her sister in the back hallway and duct taped her to the wheelchair, not an easy task for a slight ten year old girl. Finding Millie hysterical and practically hyperventilating, Mrs. Grieves said, “Ok. This is over. We need to go visit Miss Lindsay again,” Mrs. Grieves said. “Go upstairs. Take that hideous makeup off. I’m giving Mr. Joseph his wife’s wheelchair back and you are not allowed to watch Baby Jane or any Bette Davis movie for a long, long time.” Harriet burst into tears and ran upstairs. Her dark eyes and rouged cheeks stained her white pillowcase. Miss Lindsay, the therapist, she despaired. Blanche Hudson’s words played in her head, ”Yes, she’s emotionally disturbed. She’s unbalanced.” Again, Harriet felt solidarity with Jane. She knew what it felt like to be treated like a crazy person.
Every child (and adult) knows that there is only so long you can cry on your bed, so Harriet finally rose from her desperate pose, walked to her dressing table and began wiping all the Baby Jane makeup off, removing the wig, which kind of smelled, and the dress, which also kind of smelled. She did feel slightly happy to be comfortable and free in her jeans and flannel shirt. She went downstairs to meet the smiling, relieved faces of her parents. “Sorry, Millie,” she offered. Milie grimaced in return halfheartedly. Harriet sat down and ate her meatloaf and pea supper, allowing herself full-body exhaustion take over. She really needed a break from playing Baby Jane.
“It’s good to see my girl again. I’ve missed you,” Mrs. Grieves said as she hugged her daughter goodnight.
“Goodnight, Mommy,” Harriet said softly. She turned and trudged up the stairs, fighting the flashes in her mind of Baby Jane’s staircase. She couldn’t help but picture Blanche in her wheelchair at the top of the steps, and she couldn’t stop the words from coming out of her mouth in a whisper, “You aren’t ever gonna sell this house and you aren’t ever gonna leave it, either.” Harriet entered her room and closed the door.
About the Author:
Maggie Nerz Iribarne is a wife, mother, teacher, and lifelong writer of poetry, journals, memoir, fiction, creative nonfiction, and essays. She needs to write to feel grounded, happy, and fulfilled.