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Melissa Gilbert began playing Laura Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie when she was 9 years old. Looking back, she has an overwhelming amount of beautiful memories acting on the show as a child. In fact, she says playing Laura was a great escape from her real life, which was far from perfect.

Melissa Gilbert as Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder, Alison Arngrim as Nellie Oleson in 'Little House on the Prairie'
Melissa Gilbert as Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder, Alison Arngrim as Nellie Oleson | NBCU Photo Bank

Melissa Gilbert’s childhood was nothing like Laura Ingalls’ on ‘Little House on the Prairie’

In Gilbert’s memoir, Prairie Tale, she writes about how her mother controlled every facet of her life growing up.

“My mother was at the helm of everything, including my career, my food intake, and how I dressed–my whole life,” she wrote. “I never questioned her or rebelled. Speaking out against the family was the ultimate form of disloyalty, and disloyalty was not tolerated.”

At just 9, Gilbert was often interviewed by the press thanks to her role on the hit show. In an effort to not disappoint her mother, whenever Gilbert was interviewed, she gave her real life an idyllic quality it didn’t really possess.

“So in an interview back when I was ten years old, I’d likely have said that everything was wonderful, everyone in my life was fantastic, I was happy, and life was perfect,” she wrote. “But most of that was untrue.”

Gilbert goes on to write that much of her life “has been an illusion.” 

“For my first couple of decades, there was fairy dust sprinkled over everything in my life courtesy of my mother,” she wrote. “According to her, and via her, through the press, everything was sparkly, beautiful, and perfect. Everyone was well behaved. We didn’t have any problems. We never had colds.” 

“In reality, things were quite different… and not okay,” Gilbert added.  

Playing Laura Ingalls on ‘Little House on the Prairie’ was an escape for Melissa Gilbert

Gilbert writes that, to this day, she receives letters from women who would escape the terrible situations they were in by watching Laura in Little House on the Prairie.

“I still get letters from women whose lives were and often still are truly horrible, victims of physical and sexual abuse,” she wrote. “These women say the one escape they had growing up was Little House on the Prairie. They wished they had Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life the way I played her.”

Melissa Gilbert as Laura Elizabeth Ingalls, Melissa Sue Anderson as Mary Ingalls
Melissa Gilbert as Laura Elizabeth Ingalls, Melissa Sue Anderson as Mary Ingalls | NBCU Photo Bank

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But what Gilbert never writes back is that playing Laura was an escape for her, too.

“For me, work was a fantasy where I was a happy-go-lucky kid with a larger-than-life surrogate father, Michael Landon,” she wrote. “There were people I could talk to and count on, and horses and cows and other animals I could play with in an idyllic outdoor setting.”

In real life, Gilbert was struggling “with the mythology of my existence.” She was adopted the day after she was born and faced a lot of unanswered questions growing up.

Melissa Gilbert today

Gilbert is 56 years old today, and she is happy.

“I play drums, surf, meditate,” she wrote in her memoir. “I’m in a peaceful state of mind most of the time.”

But she put in a lot of work to get where she is.

“I wasn’t always like this,” she wrote. “I wasn’t always at peace. I wasn’t always content to let life happen.”