Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Goddess Speaks...


     There is a fantastic interview of Alison Arngrim, who played Little House on the Prairie's most loathed and spoiled kid, Nellie Oleson, over on Retroality.tv.  Alison is star of a new one woman show, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch.

     In the interview, Arngrim talks about what it was like growing up with at least one stranger a day calling her a bitch to her face.  The experience left her with a tough skin, a great sense of humor, and an activist's heart.

    People ask, “Did you know what the heck you were doing? Where’d that come from?” I think one of the reasons I got such flack from grown-ups and why people were so afraid of me is they didn’t want to believe I was acting, that I knew what I was doing. So they thought, “My God, that child must be a terror.” People thought I had to be like that in real life, because who could make that up?
    In school, luckily … they knew me. So they just went, “Oh, Alison’s doing something really weird again. She got this job. Meh.” But new people were difficult because they were afraid. Adults had a worse time with it than kids.  They were like, “You’re 12. You can’t be acting.”

    I did get beat up at a fair. The only time I went out in costume I got beat up. And I did get an orange soda thrown at my head during the Santa Claus Lane Hollywood Christmas Parade. People actually did throw things at me in public.
     In part two of the interview, Arngrim speaks of her work as an AIDS activist, of the death of her on-screen husband, Steve Tracy, who died of HIV-AIDS in 1986 after being one of the first actors to publicly talk about having AIDS:
     It was just sad. People were not coming forward. And Steve did go on national television and to the Enquirer and say, “Yes, I have AIDS.” Of all people, someone from Little House on the Prairie. It was unheard of.
      And I was put in what I call the Linda Evans position, because everyone thought Linda Evans must have AIDS since she kissed Rock Hudson. “Oh, my God, Linda Evans has AIDS?” I got phone calls like that: “Do you have it now?” I’m like, “Okay, we didn’t exchange bodily fluids. It wasn’t that kind of a show. I mean, what did you think they were doin’ on the prairie?”
     I was very young and really hadn’t had a lot of people die in my life, aside from very elderly people. So to have someone so close to my age have this terrible disease and die … It wasn’t like now when someone says, “I have AIDS” and now how long they have to live is anyone’s guess depending who their doctor is, which meds they take and what they do. You can pull a Magic Johnson now; we don’t know. But in ’85-’86 if someone said, “I have AIDS,” I think the average life expectancy was nine months if you were be treated. Untreated, it was several weeks.
      So it was very stressing and it was very traumatic to have someone in my life die that young. And I wanted to help. He was very lucky to have things like medical insurance, some money and a place to live. And his mom and his sister flew in; his family stood by him. So he wasn’t sitting there languishing alone. And he was no dummy. He called up everyone: AIDS Project Los Angeles, he tapped out every service they had going. So he was working the system and his mom was all over it.
      But when I got involved, what I saw was most people’s mothers were not out on the next plane. People’s mothers were disowning them and leaving them to die. And they weren’t getting services, and they didn’t have a doctor, and they didn’t have health insurance, and they hadn’t called up APLA or anybody else. It was a train wreck for most people. So that’s why I started helping. I wound up at the (Southern California) AIDS Hotline and the speakers bureau. I really worked pretty much any volunteer capacity they had. People weren’t getting food. It was ridiculous. It was a forest fire burning out of control, so I did everything I could.
     Arngrim went on to become an advocate for children with AIDS, and has also been politically active in the marriage equality movement and in challenging incest laws around the country.  She herself was a victim of incest and sexual abuse, and working with the National Association to Protect Children, she spoke out and led the charge against hypocritical and unjust laws that protected perpetrators of incest:
    I know people have gone on TV and talked about being abused, either just to talk about it or to sell a book. I’d never gone on TV and talked about it. My friends knew, my husband knew and I told my therapist. Then I got embroiled in changing the law in California. We had this freaky-deaky thing in California—actually, it’s all over the country, in 30 states—where if you’re related to the victim, even if you plead guilty … you will not only not get jail time, you also get deferred entry of judgment so you never had a conviction.
    It’s very much a white-collar crime. It’s very much a middle class, privileged white guy defense. Poor people tend to go to jail. But if you’re a middle class guy, you can say, “Well, I’m the breadwinner in the household, I’m a pillar in my community and all I did was rape all four of my daughters every day for several years”—and you don’t have to go to jail … (The family-member provision) included “someone like a family member living in the home.” So the boyfriend and houseguests also are included in that. And boy did they work it. It was the loophole of doom and defense lawyers and child molesters across America were like, “Yee-haw!”
     The molester would leave court and go home with the victim. In some cases, they would order the victim into therapy with their molester, whether the victim wanted to go or not. We had a woman testify that when she was 12 and her stepdad raped her, he had to pick up trash on the freeway … and she had to go to therapy with him. She said, “I don’t want to go to therapy with him. If you want to send him to therapy, fine. I’ll even concede that. Send the poor bastard to therapy. Just leave me the hell alone.” The court order was, “You have to go to therapy, and if you don’t go, we’ll send you to jail while your dad is picking up trash on the road.” And she testified to this in Sacramento in front of a committee.
     There is much, much more about the intriguing life of this activist and humorist in the interviews over at Retroality.tv.  I had the pleasure of meeting Alison last year, and after getting reacquainted with her work as an adult, I'm truly in awe.  I even had her "Nellie Oleson" enshrined as the "Goddess of Hate" on the blog for the past few months, but I've now retired that shrine.  Whether or not Nellie was deserving of loathing, Alison is not.  She's someone who was hit with many horrible things in her life and has made the excruciating journey from victim to advocate.  She deserves not hate, but gratitude and admiration.

     Keep up the great work, Alison!  I can't wait to see your show.