Alison Arngrim spent seven years of her life playing Nellie Oleson, a selfish, scheming, manipulative brat on one of TV history’s most beloved series, “Little House on the Prairie.” Some 30 years later, fans of the show still get whipped up into emotional furies and throw stray cans of soda at Arngrim’s head when they see her — but she doesn’t mind. Really.
In her new book “Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated,” Arngrim writes: “I, for one, am happy I was ‘the Nellie.’ No, not just happy, proud. And eternally grateful.” This excerpt from the book explains why.
The Los Angeles County Fair is probably not the first place you’d go if you were seeking to be forgiven of your sins, but I have a tendency to find strange things in strange places. Or, more accurately, they find me.
A few years ago, the fair decided to host a celebrity autograph show as a novelty attraction. Plunked down in a tent, right there with the Ferris wheels, prize-winning cows, and endless fried food, fairgoers could also find their favorite TV celebrities happily chatting away and signing our names to stacks of eight-by-ten glossies. My husband, Bob, and I thought this would be a fun way to spend the day (besides, they gave us free tickets, so we could go on all the rides afterward). So, as we were sitting there in the intermittently air-conditioned tent, passing the time with some of the more amusing celebs — Pugsley from “The Addams Family” is always a delight! — a woman strolled in and stopped dead in her tracks.
She stood, frozen in front of my table, not moving, not speaking, just staring down at the sign with my name on it. Then she slowly looked up at me. She was perhaps in her early 40s, with long hair, casually dressed in jeans and some sort of vaguely western shirt, like 90 percent of the people I’d seen at the fair that day.
She looked like someone who’d spent a lot of time in the sun. But I couldn’t tell if she was really sunburned or not, because she was so incredibly angry that her face was turning several different colors, one after the other. She quickly went from what seemed to be abject shock and horror to boiling rage.She was even shaking. She shut her eyes and took several long, deep breaths through her nose, in an obvious effort to compose herself. She then swallowed hard and opened her eyes. I thought she was going to burst into tears, but she held her head up proudly, looked at me, and announced in all seriousness, “I forgive you!”
Then she turned on her heels and marched out of the tent. No autograph, no “Hi, how are you?” No “Loved your show!” Nothing.
Bob, who, after more than fifteen years of being married to me, had come to accept these scenes with a Zen-like sense of bemusement, said matter-of-factly, “You know, we really have to start bringing the video camera to these things.”
I was still openmouthed in amazement. “What the hell was THAT?!”
Bob looked on the bright side. “Well, she forgave you. Of course, she didn’t really say for what. Maybe for everything you’ve ever done? That’s great! My God, you’ve just been absolved at the L.A. County Fair! How many people can say that?”
“You have a point,” I replied. “Maybe they should advertise: ‘The L.A. County Fair — where you can receive complete absolution and eat a deep-fried Snickers bar at the same time!’”
We laughed, but we both knew what she meant. This woman didn’t know me. She had never seen me before in her life. She had no knowledge of what transgressions I may or may not have actually committed. But she knew what She had done. Bob and I knew she was talking about Her.
A grown woman had been driven to a state of rage and was forgiving me for what I’d done on television ... while pretending to be someone else ... nearly thirty years ago.
Welcome to my world.
Nellie has ‘given me everything’I live every day with the knowledge that what was supposed to have been simply a really good gig, a major role on a long-running TV series, with lots of good times and fun memories, has instead morphed into a bizarre alternate version of reality, where I am repeatedly held to account for the actions of a fictitious character as if they were my own. And not just any character. A bitch. A horrible, wretched, scheming, evil, lying, manipulative, selfish brat, whose narcissism and hostility toward others knew no bounds. A girl who millions of people all over the world had grown to hate. But she was a girl I grew to love.
And why wouldn’t I? She’s given me everything I’ve ever wanted and more. She put food on my table, clothes on my back, and a roof over my head for most of my life. She got me out of my house when I thought there was no escape. She aided and protected me like no other creature, real or imagined. She transformed me from a shy, abused little girl afraid of her own shadow to the in-your-face, outspoken, world-traveling, politically active, big-mouthed bitch I am today. She taught me to fight back, to be bold, daring, and determined, and, yes, to be down-right sneaky when I needed to be.
Despite the occasional outburst and stray can of soda thrown at my head, I meet people from all over the world who grew up watching “Little House on the Prairie” (and still watch it) and tell me the most amazing things about what the show means to them. There was the chef of a four-star restaurant who grew up watching it in Bangladesh and the bookstore manager from Borneo who told me his grandmother still watches the show in their village. Then there’s the man who grew up on an island near Singapore, where his family, who had electricity for only a few hours a day, used it to watch “Little House.” They had one of the few TVs in the town, and the neighbors would gather in front of their house and stare through the living room window to watch the show. I was in a bar in New York where the bartender was from Israel, the waitress was from Argentina, and the manager was from Iran. They compared notes on their favorite episodes. I receive fan mail regularly from Poland, Germany, Japan, Argentina, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and dozens of other countries. The show is popular in both Iran and Iraq. I am told that even Saddam Hussein was an avid fan and never missed an episode. (I have not heard from Osama bin Laden, but I read that he used to like “Bonanza” when he was young, so what are the odds? Did even he follow Michael Landon’s Little Joe all the way to the prairie?)
I know several totally unrelated people who have never met each other, who each told me a heart-wrenching story of terrible illness or incapacitation — horrible tragedies involving car accidents, full body casts, cancer, severe depression, blood diseases. But all their tales had one thing in common: each of them, while lying in bed, unable to move and on the verge of giving up all hope, had turned on “Little House on the Prairie.” They watched episode after episode, forgetting about their pain and gradually recovering their strength and sometimes even their will to live.
I cannot count the number of people who have told me that “Little House on the Prairie” saved their lives or the number of ways people have incorporated it into their lives, going so far as to name their children Laura and Mary and, of course, Michael. But no Nellies. I have heard from people who name their cats and even their cows Nellie, but they don’t dare name their daughters after her.Free from ‘bourgeois prison of likeability’
Well, I, for one, am happy I was “the Nellie.” No, not just happy, proud. And eternally grateful. All I can say is, thank you. It’s like I tell people at my stand-up shows: by making me a bitch, you have given me my freedom, the freedom to say and do things I couldn’t do if I was “a nice girl” with some sort of stupid, goody-two-shoes image to keep up. Things that require courage. Things that require balls. Things that need to be done. By making me a bitch, you have freed me from the trite, sexist, bourgeois prison of “likeability.” Any idiot can be liked. It takes talent to scare the crap out of people.
And if enjoying that as much as I do makes me a bitch, well, goody. Playing Nellie and being marked a bitch for life is the best thing that ever happened to me. I constantly hear actors complain about being strongly identified with a character they played ages ago. They reject the character, refuse to talk about “that old show,” and dismiss their fans as silly and “uncool.” Not me, buddy. It took me a long time to figure out which side my bread was buttered on, but once I did, I never turned back. I will happily, wholeheartedlyembrace Nellie Oleson, “Little House on the Prairie,” and all the fans worldwide until the last bitchy breath leaves my body.
Perhaps now, in writing this book, I can finally explain how much it all meant to me. Sometimes people tell me that the reason they loved the show so much was because, sadly, their childhood just wasn’t like that.
Neither was mine.
And I’ve had people tell me they really needed Nellie Oleson in their lives. Nowhere as much as I did ...
Excerpted with permission from “Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated” by Alison Arngrim (It Books, 2010).