Willingness to Confront Tough Topics
Distinguishes Marilyn Maple’s Book, Films
The woman who went to college to be a missionary in Borneo never brought Christianity to the
headhunters, but Marilyn Maple has brought solace and understanding to thousands of terminally
ill children and their parents.
Her willingness to talk to sick kids about death—even when their parents
couldn’t bear to—led to Maple writing On the Wings of a Butterfly,
which describes a young cancer patient’s friendship with a caterpillar. As the
caterpillar prepares for transformation into a butterfly, the two share their fears and concerns
about the unknown.
Intended to encourage discussion about death as a normal part of life, this book grew out of
Maple’s friendships with several children who participated in a series of film
documentaries she created for the parents of terminally ill children. Two years in the making, the
series addressed such issues as accepting death and letting go of children, topics that allowed
Maple to see some incredibly brave and strong children and parents.
Maple didn’t start out to make films and write books about death. She spent
several years in the media and in advertising and in 1967, with a move to Gainesville, Florida, was
hired to make historical films for school children. In 1970 she moved to a job in medical media,
where she explored a variety of film techniques, matching message and audience to medium. She
made everything from animated shorts—what most of us call
cartoons—on topics such as safety and drug abuse to MTV-style videos for
teenagers on nutrition.
Along the way, she co-founded the University of Florida Medical School’s Arts in
Medicine program, which taught the terminally and chronically ill to express their pain and fear
through painting, poetry, dance, music and even cooking. Research in these activities, now called
psychoneuroimmunology, showed that people who could express their emotions have stronger
Maple has no shortage of ways to express her emotions. Born to actors—her
mother was her father’s leading lady—she attended what is now
Washington, D.C.’s Duke Ellington School of the Performing Arts. She studied
piano as a young woman, painted and, after earning her doctorate in mid-life, began an MFA
program in theater arts. Just months after she retired from the University of Florida, she was off
to Greece with a student and faculty group that performed Shakespeare’s
“The Tempest” both in Athens and on the island of Spetses. She
returned home to have one of her own plays, “Riverbank,”
produced both in Gainesville by a community group and then in Valdez, Alaska at the Last
Frontier Theatre Conference competition featuring playwright Edward Albee. Recently she put
the wrap on a video about Gainesville’s homeless, a gritty film that shows the
physically and mentally ill who are unable to work themselves out of poverty.
On the Wings of a Butterfly