I Learned Everything I Know from Harriet the Spy

Brick houses, courtyard apartments with trees and dirt in the yards, alleys, little grocery stores and bickering neighbors: This was my world, and it was Harriet the Spy’s world, too. Harriet, age eleven, was the first fictional girl I’d met who lived in a big city and didn’t exist just to act like a little lady. Instead, she followed her burning curiosity by spying on neighbors, and wrote her thoughts and plans in a private notebook.

Harriet called it “working.” 

“I will be a spy and know everything!” she declared. She learned more from peeking into the lives of shopkeepers, lonely old people and domestic workers than she did at school.  Harriet the Spy seemed to have been written just for me — a solitary, rough-and-tumble eight-year-old who saw herself as smart and adventurous, too. The book showed me a path. 

“Mom,” I said, “I need a notebook.” I told her all about Harriet. My mom always liked my bright ideas, so she bought me a composition book on her next trip to the drugstore. 

Harriet the SpyI also studied author Louise Fitzhugh’s illustration of Harriet in her spy outfit: jeans with holes, a hoodie, glasses without lenses, and a rattling tool belt. I had glasses and long, straight hair like Harriet’s. Like her, I felt more like myself when I wore old jeans and sneakers. Ambition bloomed: maybe when I was nine, I could have a spy route, too. Maybe when I was eleven I would have a soda by myself at a diner — Harriet did it as she sat at the counter and eavesdropped. 

In the meantime, I put on my ripped jeans and sneakers, sat on the front steps, and wrote.

“Who are you always writing to?” asked my dad.

“Myself,” I said, stating a truth I couldn’t explain.

I wish we had a maid who was very nice, I wrote at age ten. I think Granny wants to go home. I want her to be happy. I want to make myself better at lots of things, but I can’t seem to change myself in the least. I had fun playing pinners. I think I’m sort of good at it. I hope I get plenty of things to write. If I don’t it’s boring. I hope I can make myself nicer at home. I wonder if I’m spoiled. I don’t think so because I have a lot of friends.

My mother’s health had deteriorated by then; and she was terminally ill with cancer. The worry in my dad’s face scared me. I believed, though no one said so, that I had to keep my life running smoothly to make things easier on him. My grandmother lived with us that year to help out.

Harriet’s governess, Ole Golly, who knew her better than her socialite parents, eventually left to get married. Awaiting her taxi, she gave Harriet a quick hug and ordered her not to cry. “None of that,” she said. “Tears won’t bring me back. Tears never bring anything back. Life is a struggle and a good spy gets in there and fights. Remember that. No nonsense.” The next day, Harriet wanted to cry, but reminded herself that crying was pointless. 

Emotional repression is a dark lesson, but it helped me survive the months surrounding my almost identity destroying loss. I was 11. No one in the family told me I shouldn’t cry, but no one worked to make room for my feelings — starting with worry — to emerge. Men like my father swept aside their emotions and carried on. Women cooked and served and shepherded families through wakes and funerals. Kids like me had no role. To show myself that I wasn’t spoiled and didn’t need coddling, I shoved my feelings behind me. In the pew at my mom’s funeral, with my dad weeping beside me, I thought, I’m glad I’m not falling apart. 

Solitude and writing helped me manage the dread of growing up without my mom. Harriet the Spy illustrated the value of these tools, and I trusted them (and myself). I resolved I would not let my mom’s death define who I was. Writing, like a secret weapon, made me feel unique and interesting. My notebook expanded my mind and gave me a bigger inner life to explore. 

Harriet’s writing eventually got her in trouble. The family’s cook is appalled by her sneaking around and listening at doors; her parents squirm with discomfort when she writes in front of them. Then her friends read her notebook and, hurt by what she’s written about them, go on the attack. 

This plot twist didn’t interest me at age eight. But around the time of my mother’s death, I was stunned when some of the girls at school started picking on me. They told me not to sit with them, called me immature (for loudly declaring I hated boys), and sent me a dirty Valentine card (supposedly from a boy). I don’t think the girls knew of my loss. I felt helpless to confront them. I knew my mom wouldn’t want me to change for those girls even if I knew how.

“I have never had to go through something like this,” Harriet wrote, after her friends turned against her. “I will have to be very brave.” 

I had three years of Harriet-style journal writing behind me by then, and I reread my notebooks often that year. I saw that, like Harriet’s, my own opinions grew out of clear observations: The boys acted mean, and the girls liked them. I couldn’t even try to fit in. Seeing what Harriet went through helped me distance myself from them. So did one school friend who saw what was happening and stuck with me.

I am glad I am alive, I wrote. I am ME and nobody else can take away ME! I AM SATISFIED WITH MYSELF.

Being unpopular at school and unsupervised at home gave me a strange, grim sense of freedom. I was free to refuse the traditional path of makeup and fashion and boy-chasing. Like Harriet, I could put on my favorite clothes, explore the alleys and yards, and write. My mother’s love had created my trust in myself. The discipline I learned from Harriet the Spy reinforced it. 

Ole Golly once told Harriet that she should look around as much as she could, and then choose how to live, rather than living just like her own family. Harriet used that open-minded imperative to rationalize her spying. As a teen, I knew I would let my curiosity drive me. Despite the ragged hole ripped through my childhood, by 19 I felt free enough and strong enough to start finding my place in the world.

I never stopped writing to myself. Harriet the Spy helped me again when I went to college at a local art school. In the freshman writing course, the first assignment was to start keeping a journal. My secret weapon was activated! Writing was my art form. I had found my major and my first vocation.  

Quotations not attributed to me are from: Fitzhugh, Louise. Harriet the Spy. Harper & Row, 1964.

Tell Us in the Comments

What do you think?

10 Responses

  1. Mary Beth

    What a beautiful, insightful piece. It is touching, humorous, and so very strong, all at the same time. More, please!

  2. Cassandra Hamilton

    How smart and wonderful you found an ally and inspiration in a bold character and your journal. You mother was so wise to support your writing. I’m inspired by how you took these gifts, cultivated them through challenges and found your way to marry your art form.

  3. Marsha Egan

    Where can I purchase this?
    I enjoyed reading this.

  4. Anne phillips

    Thank you for this, it gives me hope. I’m the mother who is dying and I’m a little bit obsessed with making my kids somewhat emotionally strong so they can survive my death.

    • Fran Mason
      Fran Mason

      Thank you for your comment. I’m so sorry for what you are going through and wish it could be different. I wish for your kids that they will have another close adult(s) to reflect them and help them see who they are as they grow.

  5. Betty Schulze

    Great heartfelt word pictures. I love that you were wise enough to write your feelings down. That your Mother’s love never left your heart. I’m thankful you and Tommy have found each other. I loved your story, Congratulations for being published


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