I still remember watching E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in the theater as a kid. The nearest movie theater was an hour’s drive from our little town in the Deep Midwest, so we didn’t get to go more than a few times a year. I’d been begging my parents to take us to see E.T. for weeks when they finally surprised me for my 8th birthday. I was enchanted from the start, so wrapped up in the story by the time Eliot said goodbye to E.T. that I cried all the way home. When they re-released the movie in theaters 20 years later in 2002, I was so excited to watch it again that I left work early on a Friday just to be able to see an earlier showing. But watching it as an adult, something strange happened: the magic was gone. Instead of being charmed, I was turned off by Spielberg’s emotional manipulation and left the theater angry and disappointed, wishing I hadn’t ruined one of my favorite childhood memories.
I have a similar relationship with A Wrinkle in Time. I still remember reading it for the first time not long after watching E.T. Our family had supper one evening at the neighboring farm of one of our church’s elders, and afterwards, my sister and I went downstairs to the family room while the adults talked church upstairs. I found this book on the shelf and sat on the couch reading while my sister pouted because I wouldn’t play cards with her. I feel asleep with the book still in my hand, so the elder’s wife sent it home with my mom so I could finish it.
I felt a strong connection with the two main characters: morose, misunderstood Meg and precocious but reticent Charles Wallace. I loved trying to picture the magical and mysterious Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and especially Mrs. Which. I felt so smart when I understood the idea of tessering as illustrated with the ant and the piece of string. I despaired when things looked grim for Meg and Charles Wallace, and I cheered when they all worked together to defeat the Black Thing.
Our church was part of the push in the late 70’s/early 80’s towards the new evangelical fundamentalism inspired by the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan and the influence of the Moral Majority, and I’d been so indoctrinated at that point that the religious elements of this book didn’t make much of an impression on me. It wasn’t until I reread it last week that I realized just how integral those elements were to the story, and I have to admit that I found it really upsetting.
Much like the other propaganda we were fed at church, L’Engle gets downright Orwellian when she declares religion the path to freedom and atheism the path to conformity and authoritarianism. Since this was written in the 1960’s, I can easily imagine that she used the anti-religious Soviet regime as her model for the sinister CENTRAL Central Intelligence on Camazotz. And of course, Meg and the others can only beat the Black Thing not with their limited human understanding of science but instead by putting their complete faith in what they cannot see.
For me, the book is a perfect representation of fundamentalist religion, though probably not in the way L’Engle intended: the story is trite, patriarchal, self-referential, and can’t stand up to scrutiny once its own circular logic is removed. I don’t begrudge anyone else their enjoyment of this book, but it took me a lot of years to escape from beneath the weight of my religious upbringing, and I wish I hadn’t reopened that wound by rereading this book.