By Teddy Robertson
When I was about eight years old I was very sick with a fever that must have been unusually high. What caused it or what my mother and grandmother surmised it might be, I don’t remember now. But I was in bed in a dark room, restless and confused.
The family prescription was that I needed to sleep, sleep being the general cure-all in household pediatric advice, circa 1953. But domestic illness lore also warned that fever would spike at night.
Worry must have been considerable. We lived in an undeveloped area in Marin County, miles away from the nearest town, Mill Valley. In the early 1950s neighbors were sparse, doctors unavailable. Few people had telephones in those party line days.
My Kentucky-born grandmother mobilized. Her remedy was a large spoon in which she crushed a single aspirin which she then dissolved with a droplet of warm water. Into this she sprinkled some sugar and added a generous dollop of whiskey. I know that spoon’s size and pattern—the same family silverware rests in my kitchen drawer now.
My mother propped me up and cajoled me into swallowing this potion, encouraged with a more sugar water as a chaser.
The fever broke of course, but what I remembered as vividly as my grandmother’s nostrum was a mysterious experience I had at the time. At some point in the darkness a large, an overstuffed armchair loomed and grew, magnifying as it moved toward me. Other objects, chiefly furniture, ballooned and closed in on me. Advancing, then retreating. Expanding, then shrinking, the shapes tinged with a reddish halo. I could close my eyes and block out the images, but when I opened them, they returned.
I think I told my mother about this—maybe that’s what galvanized my grandmother to resort to the sugar and whiskey.
My hallucinatory experience (and I had it at least one time later) is a phenomenon called “Alice in Wonderland syndrome” (AWS) or “Alice in Wonderland-like syndrome” (AWLS). I had nearly forgotten my childhood sensations of it until I saw an article in The New York Times (“I Had Alice in Wonderland Syndrome,” June 23, 2014). Author Helene Stapinski reports the experience of her daughter who suffered from a bad headache at bedtime and then saw distorted perceptions like what I remembered. A first-hand account by Robin Tricoles in the Atlantic (“Objects in the Brain May Be Bigger than They Appear,” March 9, 2015) confirms continued research and notes the distinction now made between AWS and AWLS.
Characteristic perceptions during “Alice in Wonderland-like syndrome” include micropsia (objects appear small) or the opposite—what I experienced—macropsia (objects appear large). In “Alice in Wonderland Syndrome” body parts grow or shrink. The phenomenon appears chiefly in childhood, often at sleep onset, and in most cases the experience is outgrown. Triggers seem to be infection, migraine (reputedly Lewis Carroll suffered from them), or perhaps a type of aura that precedes a migraine. Stress or drugs—particularly cough medicines—may stimulate the syndrome, but in many cases no cause is found.
Cursory web surfing didn’t bring up much more, so—tickled as I was to recapture the memory of a strange event from over sixty years ago—I turned to the classic that gave its name to this odd childhood phenomenon. Had I ever really read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or just seen a movie or TV adaptation? Time to pay Wonderland a visit.
Reading Alice delighted me—it’s a gleeful take down of education, Victorian manners and smugness, and the indoctrination of children. Nonsensical animal banter softens the parody of learning by rote and ridicule, and authority asserted by bombast and bluster. Perplexed at the play of language and logic, disconcerted by alternately growing and shrinking, still Alice presses on. Even the grotesque Duchess or Queen of Hearts does not diminish the enticing beauty of Wonderland; curiosity propels Alice forward.
The Wonderland adventures climax in the final two chapters where satire turns sharp. Carroll skewers the English court system. Accusations rest on evidence no one understands and the Queen’s dictum, “Sentence first—verdict afterward,” satisfies foolish jurors.
The plucky heroine is at an impasse. Only a return to her real size rescues Alice. She outgrows the Wonderland world. In the original Tenniel drawings Alice raises her arms in mock horror, exclaiming as she escapes that it was all “nothing but a pack of cards.”
It’s pretty easy to see that Alice’s adventures mimic growing up and exploring identity. Fantasy and whimsy capture the child’s perception of the adult world in all its bewildering arbitrariness. But Alice is inquisitive and intrepid. Changing size may be unsettling, but our girl is on to the main issue of life. As she declares to the White Rabbit, “Who in the world am I? THAT is the great puzzle.”
My only gripe concerns Carroll’s condescending narrator; why did a Cambridge mathematician choose a voice so unworthy of this fantasy? When Alice first encounters the White Rabbit, narrator cavils that Alice “should have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural.” At the end he grows priggishly sentimental, blathering that one day as an adult Alice’s sister will recall funny stories and a sunny afternoon on the riverbank.
Give me a break.
Childhood—even a loving and secure one like mine—is a weird combination of things that don’t make sense to a kid but seem quite natural. Like my fevered experience of macropsia. Growing up means negotiating the contradictory admonitions and exhortations of adults, being frightened and at the same time dependent on big people in a world of rules and riddles.
My 1950s childhood seemed natural to me too. And I navigated it pretty well. I was a compliant kid, more eager to please than (I’m embarrassed to admit) to question—out loud at least. Rebellion came later in the 1960s—when the wonderland garden of adulthood that beckoned to me was the counter culture. Not psychedelic hippiedom, but political protest and a rejection of middle class expectations that spumed out of dissent. My parents were appalled. In the end the social side of my rebellion mattered less than they feared. By the 1990s, many proprieties of my forebears, conventions I grew up with, collapsed and fluttered away like Alice’s pack of cards. Flimsy and foolish.
I’m in my seventh decade of life with a lot of time to mull over my past, a biohazard of longevity. A strange childhood event and a literary allegory of adulthood has set me to musing. That pack of adulthood cards—or at least the part of the deck called middle age—has fluttered away. In its stead, the “great puzzle” of who I am seems to have returned. I feel as if I am growing again, coming to myself as an older adult.
It’s all a bit disconcerting, as might have been said in Alice’s day. Did I expect at this at this point to have more certainty, more peace of mind? I never thought about it. My memory of that childhood fever recalls my redoubtable maternal forebears who cared for me, and whose genes I share. And like Alice, I am curious; there are still mysteries of my inner life to explore and a self and a story to explain.
Columnist Teddy Robertson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.