The Legend of Opal Whiteley
Born 1897, Buried 1948, Died 1992
By Stephen H. Williamson
Opal Whiteley Homepage
University of Oregon Picture Book of Opal’s Diary
Opal Whiteley. Does her name ring a bell? In the early days of this century, Opal was the most popular teenager in Oregon. It was thought she might become the greatest scientist, writer and teacher that Oregon had ever produced. Instead, in 1921, she became biggest Oregon literature's biggest embarrassment ‑ and mystery.
By age 5 Opal was keeping a diary. Regarded as a child genius, by age 13 she was giving talks on wildlife and geology, mixing natural science with religion. Since childhood she had heard "voices" from plants, animals and God. A brilliant student, she so amazed the University of Oregon with her knowledge of natural history, that she was admitted without a high school diploma!
At the age of 21, Opal traveled to Boston with her book, The Fairyland Around Us, one of the most remarkable blends of science and faith ever written. The Atlantic Monthly turned that book down, but did publish her childhood diary. It quickly became a worldwide best seller. Presidents and Kings read it. Mothers named their babies after her. Opal was an international star - at least outside Oregon!
Opal's diary describes the life of a lonely child from logging camps in the Cascade Mountains. Below is her description of the seasons changes from fall to winter, written circa November, 1904.
Now comes the days of brown leaves. They fall from the trees. They flutter on the ground. When the leaves flutter, they are saying little things. I hear them tell of their borning days when they did come into the world as leaves. Today they told me how they were a part of the earth and air before their tree borning days. And now, they are going back. In gray days of winter they go back to the earth. But they do not die.
Opal had shown signs of both child abuse and schizophrenia as a young girl. But, when her diary was published, she began to say that she was a lost princess from France! She told people that she was not really a Whiteley, but had only been raised by them. She also told about abuse she had suffered growing up, something that was not talked about in 1920. The media uproar between supporters who believed Opal and those who did not, finally drove her family to change their name and move away from Cottage Grove. Disgraced, Opal went to Europe to prove her story. She never returned.
In her later years Opal worked as a writer for several magazines. She even traveled to India as a Maharajah's guest! However, in 1948 she was found nearly starving in her London apartment. She was surrounded by thousands of books on every subject ‑ especially European history. Since childhood Opal had always spent her money on books rather than food. Then, something tragic happened.
In 1948 Opal was committed to Napsbury Mental Hospital in England. She died there in 1992 at the age of 95. The gifted child genius from Oregon's wilderness spent nearly fifty years buried in a tiny cell on a crowded asylum ward. In the 1950's she was given a lobotomy. Opal never wrote another book. Her brilliant mind rotted away like the tree stumps her logger father had cut down so long ago. Only 10 people attended Opal's funeral. No memorial was held in Oregon.
Opal Whiteley's fate is one of the saddest in literature. She was a victim of abuse, mental illness, and society's attempts to change her. For half a century the asylum tried to make her give up her ideas and use the name of Whiteley. She did not. In fact, after about 25 years the hospital gave up and began to call her "Princess". Opal finally became what she believed she was - a Princess - even if imprisoned. However, Opal’s persistence paid off and today she is listed in European genealogies as an “alleged” child of Prince Henri d’Orléans. Even a few members of the family accept her!
Today, new research challenges the old idea that Opal had schizophrenia. She more likely had Asperger’s Syndrome. Asperger’s is a milder form of autism. People with AS often excel at one intellectual activity, but can have poor social skills. They may be near genius IQ’s, and lack common sense. People with AS can have brilliant imaginations and can be very difficult to talk out of a fixed belief. Some researches wonder if AS should even be classified as a “mental illness”. Perhaps people with Asperger’s are a necessary addition to the gene pool, since we get so many gifts from them.
Fortunately, Opal did live long enough to see her book reprinted by Benjamin Hoff, best-selling author of the Tao of Pooh. Hoff spent years researching this mysterious and misunderstood woman. The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow, the Mystical Nature Diary of Opal Whiteley is now in paperback from Penguin Books. A poetry version of her diary and a children's storybook, both by Jane Boulton, are also available. There is an Opal classic for all ages!
Opal Whiteley is only now being included in lists of women writers. For nearly 75 years her beautiful writings about nature and children gathered dust, almost forgotten. However, that is now changing. The town of Cottage Grove has hosted several tourist events, and the library even has a life-sized statue of her. She is on a large mural that overlooks Main Street, right downtown. You can drive or bike along a self-guided tour of the places Opal lived and wrote. A map of the tour is on the Opal Whiteley homepage www.opalnet.org.
Opal has several web pages on the Internet. The University of Oregon has put her entire diary on line for readers and researchers, complete with many historic photographs. A songwriter, Anne Hills has produced a lovely musical cd of Opal’s writings called “Beauty Attends.” Also, her diary has now been translated into German, Chinese and even French. Opal has certainly made a literary comeback!
To this day there is controversy - "What Happened to Opal?"
Different people see her Differently - like the Opal Gemstone.
Was Opal a Mystic or was she Mad? Was she a Fraud or a real Princess? Those Mysteries - and Others Remain Unanswered.