Playing the role of Nellie Oleson was very liberating, as actor Alison Arngrim told Ryan Tubridy today. Alison, now 58, says she loved being TV’s original ‘mean girl’; who she played from the age of 12. Just how liberating it was to play the boldest child in the village only came out much later, long after The Little House on The Prairie wound up in the early 1980’s. As it turns out, Alison was escaping from a darker reality.
In her 2010 book Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated, Alison Arngrim revealed that she had been physically and sexually abused from the age of 6 by a close family member. The abuse had stopped by the time she landed the part of Walnut Grove’s most extravagantly spoiled child, but Alison says it would be many more years before she told her parents about the assaults:
“I still had this secret, I didn’t dare tell anyone, and this absolutely contributed to my being shy and awkward and being bullied.”
Alison’s parents were both in showbiz; her mum was a voice actor and her dad managed huge acts like Liberace and Debbie Reynolds. She originally read for the part of Laura Ingalls Wilder in the American pioneer drama, but once she bust out her nasty Nellie moves in the audition, there was no looking back. Producer, writer and actor Michael Landon, who played the dad in the series, snapped her up immediately and history was made. It was the dream role for a girl with demons and Alison says there was a kind of therapeutic benefit to playing a girl who screamed and shouted and stamped her feet, even though she was nothing like Nellie in real life:
“It was such a bizarre turn of fate that I wound up playing Nellie Oleson. When I was very young, I was abused. I was physically and sexually abused. I was a victim of sexual abuse as a child. And of course you don’t tell anyone, because they tell you no one will believe you. ”
Alison says casting her as a tough girl and a spoilt bully was ironic, given her natural shyness and her – at the time- secret history of abuse:
“I was a very shy child. I got beaten up by the bullies at school. I was more the child who would have been the victim of a Nellie Oleson! I was not that type at all.”
Years of therapy led to writing her book and working on campaigns to change the law on sexual abuse across the United States. Alison Arngrim now serves on the board of www.protect.org who have achieved legal changes in a number of states:
“We wound up going into Sacramento, the capital of California, well, we’ve done several states now, and changing laws to benefit and better protect victims of sexual abuse.”
Volunteering is a huge part of Alison’s life now, and she has also branched out into stand-up comedy. She was due to tour her comedy act to France this year and to speak at a conference in this country, among many of her projects. All have now migrated online. A joyful, enthusiastic voice on air, Alison was brimming with enthusiasm to learn more about her Irish family tree – she’s descended from Bannins, with an “i”, she says, insisting there’s no connection whatsoever to President Trump’s former aide Steve Bannon. Nellie Oleson is still very much part of her life, and her husband won’t let her forget it:
“My husband says ‘Before that first cup of coffee in the morning, Nellie Oleson walks among us.’ Once I’ve had the coffee, I’m very nice.”
There’s more detail about Alison’s campaigns to get sex abuse laws changed across the U.S. as well as plenty of Nellie lore and inside stories about her time on Little House on the Prairie in the full interview with Ryan Tubridy here. Alison is speaking at the online conference Women’s Inspire Network on October 21st 2020. More information available here.
If you’re personally affected by any of the issues that Alison talks about in her interview with Ryan, you can contact The Rape Crisis Centre’s 24 hour helpline at 1800 77 88 88.
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