I first encountered Harriet the Spy in a hallway closet of my childhood home, sitting on a stack of sheets. It’s appropriate that the world’s most famous child spy would be hidden away, waiting for me to find her at the right age (nine). If the book was planted by my parents, I didn’t consider that at the time. It looked interesting enough, so I took it back to my room, flopped on my bed, and began to read. This was back when I read entire books in an afternoon, a time of my life I look back on with the same romantic feelings that some have for their teenage years.
I had never seen a character like Harriet before. Ramona Quimby had her moments of brattiness, but she was overall a nice girl. The characters in the American Girls series were only defiant when standing up for their beliefs. And the Babysitters’ Club books, the dominant literary force in my life at the time, were definitely nothing like Harriet. Kristy, Mary Anne, Stacey, Claudia, Dawn, Mallory, and Jesse — their names even sound sweeter. The babysitters were the type of kids who did good deeds for the sake of doing them. Though Ann M. Martin first began the series in 1985, by the mid-90s, these characters reflected traits that have since been attributed more to Millennials than Gen-X: cheerful, people-pleasing, ambitious.
Harriet wouldn’t babysit for all the tomato sandwiches in the world. I saw in her the side of me that I didn’t like, the part that’s bratty, selfish, and mean. I was raised Catholic and I wanted more than anything to be nice. I suffered, and still suffer, from intense guilt over my inability to always be good. I would fight with my siblings, talk out of turn in class, and — hardest of all to accept — have not-so-nice thoughts about people. These thoughts were the honest observations that children have at that age, such as noticing that someone is weird-looking or bad-smelling or unusual from the norm in some way. I wouldn't vocalize these observations. Just thinking them was enough for me to feel horrible. I’m still fighting that guilt now, well into adulthood.
Like most first-time Harriet readers, I tried my hand at spying. My espionage career was short. I walked a block away until I found neighbors outside in their yard. I stood on the other side of their fence and took a couple notes in an old composition notebook while they talked about what to have for dinner that night.
“Is someone in the alley?” I heard one of them ask. I dropped to the ground and crawled along the grass strip until I was behind the next door neighbor’s garage. I wanted to hear about unusual people and interesting stories. Instead, I learned that I was not very good at being inconspicuous and my suburban neighborhood was pretty boring.
The real peak of my Harriet influence happened months later during a family dinner. The meal is lost to the folds of memory — chicken, perhaps, maybe with rice. The third item on my plate was the one that I really despised, most likely canned green beans. No matter what it was, I didn’t want to eat it, and emboldened by a re-read of my favorite book, I took a different approach than my usual protests.
“I’ll be damned if I eat this,” I said.
A chill descended as my family processed what they just heard. Then, everything exploded.
In the book, Harriet responds to her parents’ insistence that she take dance lessons by shouting, “I’ll be damned if I go to dancing school.” Her parents are a bit shocked at her language but treat it lightly. Her father even made a joke about it. The opposite happened in my house. My father’s face turned red and my mother’s eyes went wide.
“You’ll be WHAT.”
“Nothing,” I mumbled, slouching in my seat.
“Not nothing. Where did you hear that word?”
Though neither of my parents swore, the word ‘damn’ left my grandfather’s lips on a regular basis. It was the usage in verb form that threw them. I didn’t want to tell the truth because I knew the book would be taken away from me, so I went with my standby excuse, playing dumb.
“I don’t know,” I insisted. “I don’t know.”
“I don’t buy that,” my dad said.
My parents grilled me for what felt like hours. Did you hear that on television? You must have, since you won’t say. What show was it? That Clarissa Explains It All, with her smart mouth? MTV?? The night ended with me in my room, back in bed with that trouble-causing book, banned from watching TV for a week.
At the end of the book, Harriet gets advice from her nanny, Ol’ Golly, after her classmates read her not-so-nice notes on them. “You have to do two things. You have to apologize and you have to lie.” The thought of lying was incredulous to me and in direct violation of my Catholic upbringing. At that age, I understood lies in a literal sense, such as blaming my sister for a mess I made or denying that I ate the last piece of candy. It wasn’t until years later that I understood and realized this was already a part of my life.
I had been lying like this every time I said or did something in the name of nice that was contrary to my gut. Saying yes to something when I really wanted to say no. Grinning and going with the flow instead of speaking up. Any occasion where it was easier to protect someone else’s feelings instead of caring for my own. The concept of lying by omission was not a source of guilt in my life. In my mind, I was the picture of nice.
Over time, I learned the delicate necessity of this deception. Ol’ Golly was right. Sometimes, life requires lying. Wishing a friend good luck on a decision even if I disagree with their choice. Respecting someone’s wishes when their tastes differ from mine. Growing up is learning the line between sharing an opinion for the sake of honesty and staying silent so others can make choices without our influence.
The book also taught me how to be brave. Before I ever heard the phrase, “It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission,” I saw it in action on those pages. I’m worrier, not a natural risk-taker. I overthink my decisions, soliciting opinions from everyone in my life until it feels like I have enough people on my side to move forward. Only now am I realizing that I need to trust myself.
I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, but of course I knew in my gut that saying ‘damned’ at the dinner table was a bad idea. It was Harriet, by being bold, who taught me to take that chance. I think I was curious to see what would happen. It didn’t go as well as it did in her case, but I would have never known if I hadn’t tried it. Mistakes made in the name of bravery are the ones that stay with us, the ones that make us interesting people with stories to tell.
Harriet saw everything, good and bad, and had no problem writing it all down. She did what she wanted unapologetically and with a purpose. For me, that lack of apology hit me as revolutionary. Harriet the Spy was the first book I remember reading about being a person, a flawed but honest human being.