We devote much of this week to the Charlotte Grimshaw memoir that everyone is talking about. Today: an excerpt from The Mirror Book
It was those banal, mundane life events that changed everything for me. My marriage blew up, I found myself alone, and in the aftermath I lost some family support. And suddenly, for the first time, I wanted more: I wanted to understand. I entered territory unthinkable in my literary family. I consulted a psychiatrist and then a clinical psychologist. And I went to the literature — not fiction, not the Russian novels, but books and articles on psychology.
This was what struck me: the infinite variety of human behaviour, and its sameness. That a disorder will produce recognisable modes of thinking and action. That a mental illness manifests with symptoms as identifiable as those of a physical disorder. That mind and body are one, and all is reaction.That we are all animals, displaying our animal behaviour. We are unpredictable, but so much more predictable than we think.
As Trump was being diagnosed a narcissist and everyone was becoming familiar with terms like gaslighting (Trump is gaslighting the American people!), I was poring over the ways narcissism manifests itself.
My understanding of the texts was variable and imperfect, but I’d got hooked on the material and on trying to understand. It was a revelation, a fascinating ride into human complexity.
Kay had always specifically warned me off counsellors (they were frauds, sinister creeps), and she and Karl took a fairly dim view of psychiatry. When she heard I’d seen a psychologist she referred grimly to ‘Freud’. They’ll be talking all that Freud. Their friend Janet Frame had spent years in mental institutions, and had just avoided being lobotomised, and they had in mind the infamous cases of satanic ritual allegations, dubious recovered memory cases, all that.
Was there a hint of misogyny in my own writing? Was I a person who had regarded women as terrifyingly bitchy and way too fond of shopping?
At a dinner at Tohunga Crescent, the subject came up, when one of Kay and Karl’s friends, the poet Kevin Ireland, said he’d had such a terrible childhood he’d been happy ever since. The only way was up. I found this entirely persuasive; Kevin was a cheerful guy, and great company. He was dismissive, though, of those who consult psychiatrists.
He said, “They seize on this stuff about it being their parents’ fault because they want an excuse for their fucked-up lives.”
This was, I thought (to myself ), underrating psychology as a science (it’s all babble and mumbo jumbo) and was also the crux of the generational clash. I’d got interested in finding out what was wrong with me, to try to cure it and also, if anything had been ‘caused by my parents’, to understand it and not pass it on in my own family.
It seemed likely that a person’s life was affected by upbringing, by environment. But surely ‘blame and fault’ were as irrelevant as ‘excuse’. I thought it was a given that if you’d been, as per Philip Larkin, fucked up by your mum and dad, your mum and dad had in turn been fucked up by theirs. It seemed to me the code of blame and shame my parents’ generation operated on prevented understanding and perpetuated problems. If anything went wrong they had to suppress it, move on, pretend it didn’t happen — and go on messing things up.
For Kay and Karl, because of the Sixties, there was a narrative about children turning on their parents — actually turning on them — not out of anything to do with the dynamic between them, but out of rebellion. They’d hated their parents’ conservatism and ignorance, and now their own kids would probably turn on them, and what could they do? It was inevitable. I found this rather a grim view of family.
I was interested in free will.
There’s a story in my collection Opportunity called “Free Will”, about the degree of control we really have. It seemed to me there wasn’t much room for free will — but there was room.
I thought the way to disrupt the baleful maxim in Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939”, that those on the receiving end of evil do evil in return, was to acknowledge the evil, understand it and do something different. There seemed to me something oddly powerless about my parents’ acceptance of the state of things: genes, fate, the unalterable. Things were the way they were. What could you do except, if necessary, lie?
It was clear, though, we didn’t go in for ‘sharing.’ We didn’t do any kind of introspection, or looking behind the façade.
We polished the façade; if it looked tarnished we buffed it up a little more.
I was aware of, I felt, the feminist outrage at Trump, whose presidency was the spectacle of misogyny that supercharged the Me Too movement. Kay had always rejected feminism (the wimmin, she derisively called them). I’d been somewhat influenced by my family’s take, but was increasingly less so. Now I felt mostly opposed to their stance.
As the writer Suzanne Moore noted in The Guardian, this was a time when old male French intellectuals were complaining about climate campaigner Greta Thunberg because she wasn’t ‘sexy’ enough. When I forwarded him Suzanne Moore’s column, Karl, unimpressed, sent me a bristling email that said something to the effect of: “Let’s be serious intellectuals, not fashionable whingers on behalf of ‘my gender’.”
Enough of that, I thought.
Had I grown up in a sexist environment? Was this linked to my lack of confidence and social connection? It seemed to me comically evident: Karl sure hated a bossy woman.
But if I’d grown up in a ‘sexist environment’, I had to re-examine my own record. Misogyny, you could speculate, might be caused by early experience: being fucked up — Larkin again — by your mum and dad. Was there a hint of misogyny in my own writing? Was I a person who, because of experience, had regarded women as opaque and impenetrable, terrifyingly bitchy and way too fond of shopping?
Had I written sceptically on some women’s issues because of this? This was the terror and the comedy of interrogating the past: it wasn’t about blaming someone else for my fucked-up life, it was about reassembling something out of a mental structure that had been hit by an earthquake, much of it in ruins, the rest teetering on the brink of collapse.
Karl lamented, “Where is the girl who had such a clear sense of reality…replaced by this scolding fantasist?”
At that dinner at Tohunga Crescent when psychiatry was panned, I had another (again private) thought: was it too presumptuous, too outrageous a proposition (yes it was) that if Karl and Kay had given themselves a break from front and face, if they’d relaxed their uncompromising insistence on a rigid narrative, they could have been easier on themselves, more humane towards everyone including themselves, and allowed toxic shame to evaporate into the air?
I was changing and I felt the force of my literary family’s reaction: their dismay, incomprehension, occasional anger. I had become alien, charmless and, worst of all, a feminist. My quest to find out what was wrong with me could be cast as brutal within the family. I’d become some grim inquisitor, bent on exposing sensitive secrets and causing hurt. They accused me of humourlessness, of being in thrall to bogus shrinks. They urged me to come to my senses.
Karl lamented, “Where is the girl who had such a clear sense of reality and its boundaries and such a marvellous sense of humour — replaced by this scolding (as it seems to me) fantasist?”
It was no use replying that I hadn’t gone anywhere. It was just that I’d broken loose. I’d got fixed on the idea of finding out.
But I would come back to that rhetorical question of his. Where is the girl who . . .? It was the sentence that roused up the writer in me, and made me think that no matter where it led me, or what trouble I got into, I would formulate some kind of response.
This was the father I’d sometimes told when growing up, “You are my favourite person in the world.” From the time I was very young, we understood each other’s jokes. We played verbal games. I made him laugh; we made each other laugh. When I read his poetry, I could hear a tone in it I identified as an iron quality, marvellous and uniquely his. I loved his long poems, “Scoria”, “Quesada”. The language excited me, as did his vivid evocation of light and landscape and weather. I loved the wit of his Catullus poems.
I adored his sense of humour, his take on reality (always bracing, cogent, original, rigorous) and his fantasies, the stories he made up, the stories we invented together.
But now. Now I wanted to talk about our real lives, to stop repeating the accepted lines and ask a few questions, this was too much. It was too much reality and light.
Everything changed. We got into disputes.
An excerpt from The Mirror Book by Charlotte Grimshaw (Vintage, $38), available at bookstores nationwide. Tomorrow at ReadingRoom: Steve Braunias on Charlotte Grimshaw’s memoir