Archives for posts with tag: Mental Illness

Book

By chance, this is the second Margaret Drabble novel that I have read in recent weeks. I came across a second hand copy of the 1965 The Millstone in Paris a few weeks ago, a book I had not read for some decades.

The Pure Gold Baby was first published in 2013. Having just read two Margaret Drabble novels written almost 50 years apart, I can see both what seduces me in her writing, and also what can challenge the reader. Drabble’s prose tends to have minimal dialogue, and is both intense and dense in terms of content and word. Yet, to skip over a sentence or a paragraph renders the reading experience incomplete and much less satisfying.

As a result, reading The Pure Gold Baby, although a relatively short book at less that 300 pages, takes time and commitment. Which it deserves.

The novel tells the story, narrated by a friend, of Jess and her daughter Anna, the gold baby of the title. Anna was the result of a short affair between Jess, an academic and an anthropologist, and her professor. A delightful and good-natured child, it slowly became apparent that Anna had developmental problems – she was clumsy, uncoordinated, slow to walk and to talk, and never mastered reading. There was no definitive diagnosis, but a vague label of ‘learning difficulties’ and ‘special needs’, which necessitated alternative schooling and an inability to lead an independent life, hovered over Anna’s and Jess’s lives:

‘Anna’s condition did not seem to answer with any precision to any known conditions. Like the shoebill, she was of her own kind, allotted her own genus and species. She did not suffer from any metabolic disorder, of either rare or frequent incidence. Brain damage in the womb or at birth was not ruled out, but could not be confirmed…An obvious genetic cause was sought in vain.’

Anna’s problems were not immediately obvious, especially to strangers. As a result, no leeway was given to her, which caused much anxiety for Jess as well as confusion as to the extent to which she should protect her daughter from the insensitivity of others.

The story largely concerns Jess’s life as she watches over and protects her much loved daughter. Drabble’s narrative style fascinates – not just how she unfolds the lives and thoughts of her characters, but also the details she delivers on the society that her characters inhabit.

The Pure Gold Baby is set in an earlier mid/late 20th century England – ‘We didn’t known about cholesterol then. It hadn’t been invented’. It is also the tail-end of the era of asylums. Colney Hatch, the Friern Barnet asylum that had been purpose-built in 1850 was being slowly decommissioned at the time; ‘Colney Hatch’ at the time had become slang for ‘barmy’. There is also reference  to ‘the experimental programmes of R.D. Laing’, and his community based management of schizophrenics at Kingsley Hall:

‘ ‘Yes,’ said Susie, ‘Kingsley Hall was Liberty Hall, that’s what I heard. No rules, no discipline. The patients did what they liked; they didn’t have to take their medication if they didn’t want. They could stay in bed all day if they fancied. They could paint the walls with shit if they wanted.’ ‘

In part a social study against the backdrop of the evolving narrative of the lives of Jess and Anna, the novel also contains many literary and anthropological references, including Melanie Weiss’s Bagration Island, Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape, and the writings of Proust and Wordsworth amongst many others.

The ‘new forms of asylum, of the communities of the mad where the sick were reborn or, as a phrase of the day had it, rebirthed’, took on a personal significance for Jess when her friend, the ‘depressed poet’ Steve, attempted suicide. Steve successfully recuperated in a new 1960s therapeutic unit in Essex. This event poignantly highlighted a significant different between Steve’s condition and Anna’s – ‘There was material in Steve’:

‘Anna’s condition was not very interesting, except to Jess. It lacked drama and progress and the possibility of a surprising or successful outcome…Whereas Steve was in need, and might respond to a cure, and in a suitable haven, recover.’

Much happens and challenges the day to day lives of Jess and Anna. But theirs is not an unhappy or ultimately sorrowful story:

‘I will leave [Jess and Anna] in mid-air, but you will know that they landed safely…’

Earlier, the narrator shares a more fatalistic viewpoint while listening to Sibelius:

‘The natural world would survive us whatever we did to it. We could cement and tarmac it over and turn it into a motorway a mile wide, but it would break through in the end. That’s what Sibelius was telling us.’

The Pure Gold Baby is a rich, textured and complex book. At the very least it is a story of mothering, of the challenges that face those who do not fit into our idea of ‘normal’, and of what loving and being loved can overcome. The personal also interweaves with a social and anthropological narrative.

I was consumed and enriched by the sum of much more than 291 pages of text.

 

CQ

 

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I have been thinking about this recently.

The reflection was initially precipitated by a report earlier this year, which suggested that ‘spiritual’ people are at a higher risk of mental health problems [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/9774259/Spiritual-people-at-higher-risk-of-mental-health-problems.html]. I have not read the original paper – from researchers at UCL – but seemingly those who have ‘a spiritual understanding of life’ are more predisposed towards anxiety disorders, phobias and neuroses, eating disorders and drug problems’ than ‘those with an understanding that was neither religious nor spiritual.’

The study was based on a survey of more than 7,000 randomly selected men and women in England. What is unclear from the brief report is how spirituality was defined, and also how the researchers came to separate ‘spirituality’ from ‘conventional religion’ or ‘agnosticism’ and ‘atheism’.

I know many people who claim to be spiritual, but are also religious or atheist. The overlap between what people view as spirituality and some belief system, whether religious or non-religious or anti-religious, seems huge, and the notions are often inextricably bound together.

There is of course a significant problem with how spirituality is defined. As a teenage, when I emphatically renounced Catholicism, and shortly afterwards all religious beliefs, I announced myself (in hindsight arrogantly) as ‘not religious, but spiritual’, as if the label ‘spiritual’ conferred depth, and that I occupied a more-meaningful-areligious-but-holier-than-thou-world.

I abandoned the label some years ago, having become increasingly unsure what it truly meant, both to myself and in a wider context. Today, I remain an atheist, who attempts to live every moment as richly and as appreciatively as I can. Perhaps that equates with ‘spiritual’ for someone else.

Today, out of curiosity I did a mini survey at the office on how my colleagues view spirituality. The religious tended to equate the experience with things God-related. Others, who were no longer religious, viewed it as something outside and beyond themselves, something that connects to a way of being that is intangible, inexplicable, but present within.

I remain unsure of the label, and reluctant to attach it to my own way of being.

I am sure of very little. But the present feels important to me, how I live it, how I appreciate it, and how I can positively interact with those in my immediate life and beyond.

And kindness. I am a huge fan. Perhaps that is my ‘spirituality’, but I will stick with the original word.

CQ

I set myself the task of reading all six shortlisted books, and failed… three more to go on the eve of the announcement.

However, I did get a taste of all six books, as well as an introduction to their creators, at an event at the Southbank tonight where the shortlisted authors read an excerpt from their work and were interviewed live by James Naughtie. It was a thrilling event, and a literary buzz pervaded the auditorium as the six very different authors, both in terms of personality and literary style, shared the stage.

But there did seem to be a common thread across all the books presented. An audience member questioned whether the thread might be mental illness. This was answered by Deborah Levy, author of Swimming Home. She disagreed that insanity was the central theme of her book, but rather that the central characters, outwardly ‘normal’ who were just about coping with life and its challenges, were easily unhinged, like many of us perhaps, by external and unexpected events. Will Self (Umbrella) questioned the prominence and popularity of mental illness in literary fiction today, and particularly the ease with which we so cleanly separate insanity from sanity, similar to good from bad, whereas in fact the distinctions are arbitrary.

So, mental illness is not the accepted common thread.

For me, memory, its essentiality for our functioning and being, and the act of remembering as a re-enactment of loss and suffering, appeared prominent throughout most of the texts. In Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse, the central character Futh is haunted and driven by Proustian memory that he cannot escape nor move on from. In Umbrella, those affected by encephalitis lethargica can spend significant lengths of time in a coma, a void of memories and of remembering. In Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists, the central character develops aphasia as she seeks to deal with memories of war and the loss of her sister.

The fact of memory inevitably implies a remembering, and a past. Hilary Mantel (Bringing Up the Bodies) put forward an interesting take on the past, as important in its own right, rather than a going back or an imprint on the present…

And then there is Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, which has a Bombay opium den in the 1970s and 1980s at its centre… A performance artist primarily, the brief excerpt Thayil read tonight was poetic and seductive.

I will continue and complete reading the shortlist, beyond tomorrow’s announcement. It promises to be a diverse and rich read.

The stuff of memories…

CQ