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If Anne Frank had lived to be 80

If Anne Frank had lived to a wise old age instead of dying at 15 in Bergen Belsen, just weeks before the camp’s liberation, she would have turned 80 last month. Her birthday was June 12, her transcendent diary a gift on the day she turned 13. It had a red-checked cover and a tiny brass latch like the ones on girlhood diaries everywhere—including my own. I used to begin every entry “Dear Diana,” a homage to Anne’s “Dear Kitty.” I longed for a friend like Anne—so passionate and searching, yet so deft at sending up adult foibles. But I didn’t dare write the salutation “Dear Anne” for fear of betraying the envy that her formidable talent stirred in me.

Anne Frank 1941I remember precisely when I first heard of Anne Frank. It was August, 1958 and the latest issue of Life had just dropped through our mail slot with her face on the cover. Two months shy of my ninth birthday and nursing secret fantasies of fame, I’d never seen a child in the celebrated space where movie stars and heads of state held sway. The Anne of Life‘s cover barely hinted at the clear-eyed, quick-witted rebel of the diary. The magazine had picked a heartstring-tugger of a shot, all tender idealism and exquisite vulnerability. Yet when I think of Anne Frank, it’s still this image that I see in my mind. Anne as victim, too good for this world.

Back when I first read and reread Anne’s diary, in my airy corner bedroom with its view of mature maples, I actually thought of myself as a victim. My pompous parents belittle me! The blinkered conformists at my school don’t like me! Nobody understands me! Anne Frank would understand, I just knew it. Disdainful of the kids who would never invite me to their parties, I neverthelelss shared their adolescent outlook on the world: it was all about me, all the time.

Anne had a larger vision, sharpened by loss and confinement. She looked not only for her authentic self but for a way to make sense the catastrophe threatening her people. She wrote of the fractious group that shared her cramped hiding place: “I see the eight of us in the [Secret] Annex as if we were a patch of blue sky surrounded by menacing black clouds. The perfectly round spot on which we’re standing is still safe, but the clouds are moving in on us, and the ring between us and approaching danger is being pulled tighter and tighter. We’re surrounded by darkness and danger, and in our desperate search for a way out we keep bumping into each other. We look at the fighting down below and the peace and beauty up above. In the meantime, we’ve been cut off by the dark mass of clouds, so that we can go neither up nor down. It looms before us like an impenetrable wall, trying to crush us, but not yet able to. I can only cry out and implore, ‘Oh, ring, ring, open wide and let us out!'”

I must have skimmed this passage a good dozen times in adolescence, but it never held my attention. I was racing ahead to Anne’s first kiss with Peter van Daan, who conveniently had his own room unlike everyone else in the Annex. Returning to the diary after more than 40 years, I’m struck by Anne’s compassion for the group and all humanity, which deepens despite bursts of rage at human folly and evil. She often wrote about her mother in the most contemptuous terms, yet she could also reflect on her mother’s silent sorrow in a loveless marriage. It took me more than 30 years to understand that every life holds the constant potential for affirmation and betrayal, greatness and devastating failure. Anne had figured this out by age 15.

I have visited the Secret Annex and looked out the window where Anne and Peter once stood. Trust me, it was a cramped hiding place. Yet for Anne, so zealous with her writing and her schoolbooks, it contained a universe of discovery. Certain that her diary would one day be published, she edited relentlessly, cutting a wonderfully vivid passage (since restored) in which she contemplates her vagina. “There are little folds of skin all over the place, you can hardly find it. The little hole underneath is so terribly small that I simply can’t imagine how a man can get in there, let alone how a whole baby can get out!”

How exuberantly Anne could have loved a man (not the fumbling, inarticulate Peter, whose allure faded quickly; he was nothing near her equal). What a splendid mother she’d have been, large-hearted but challenging. So many books she might have written.

In honour of her 80th birthday, the Anne Frank Trust UK commissioned an age-progressed image of the woman she might be today. She looks infinitely gentle, the sort of apple-doll oldster who serves homemade cookies to her neighbours’ kids. The image did not impress a former playmate of Anne’s, who said, “Personally I think she would have been more bitter and disappointed.” Really? The grown woman Anne Frank should have been is burstingly present in the diary and despite her fiery side, she’s not one to tolerate bitterness. As she said herself, “Ultimately, people shape their own characters.” In my mind 80-year-old Anne is thumping her cane and writing up a storm, goading people all over the world to take a stand for justice.

Click here to read my post on rereading The Catcher in the Rye. I’m chagrined to admit that I once dreamed of a boyfriend like Holden Caulfield. For a fascinating perspective on Anne Frank’s diary, Carol Gilligan’s The Birth of Pleasure. Both a pioneering feminist psychologist and a writer of extraordinary grace, Gilligan is particularly illuminating on the subject of Anne’s relationship with her mother.


Posted by Rona

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