I think it was that great guru Adam Phillips who asked the somewhat blunt question: What use are other people to us? And answered it with the salvationary statement: To make a difference. He was, I believe, inquiring into the reasons and justifications for the act of psychoanalysis, and at the same time describing the strange alchemy that can take place when one person tells their story to another and finds it strangely altered in reflection. Other people, in their difference, release us from the monstrous claustrophobia of our own point of view, and they make a difference to us, to the situation we are in, to the problems and the joys we experience, by simply being there to see it all differently.
In many ways the notion of other people making a difference is what underlies the latest novel I’ve read, the unspeakably brilliant The Other Side of You, by Salley Vickers, which was itself recommended to me by Bookboxed (unwittingly making a difference). I found this to be one of the best (if not the best) novel I’ve read so far this year. It was one of those books that tackles an ostensibly tragic topic in such a way as to move you profoundly without manipulation or sentiment, and to bring you, finally, to a place of enlightenment and serenity. It was also extremely beautifully written, and I have an overwhelming urge to memorize a number of quotations and passages from it so that I can repeat them to myself, mantra-like, in times of trouble.
The story is narrated by psychiatrist Dr David McBride, who works almost exclusively with suicide cases. David understands the fragile line between life and death, having witnessed as a young child the tragic death of his brother, run over whilst they were crossing the road on the way to school. David’s urge to bring people back from the brink of death must be understood as a lengthy expiation, on some level, of the guilt and incompletion he has felt ever since. Although he comes to doubt his vocation and his ability over the course of the narrative, David shows us his quality in the way he helps his strangely reticent patient, Elizabeth Cruikshank. Elizabeth was one of those suicides who meant to do it, whose actions were not a cry for help but an attempt at a swift cure for the intolerable business of living. Only there is no cure for life, David’s analytic mentor, Gus, declares, the real question is how to live. Something clearly terrible has happened in Elizabeth’s life to foreclose all possibility of finding a ‘how’, and only after many false starts is David’s patience rewarded with the story of what has brought her to this point of despair.
The central concern of this novel is love: many years ago, Elizabeth met a man in a brief, charged enconter that should have developed into something more profound, but the affair was thwarted by the silent hand of fate, working in ways that neither she, nor the man involved, were aware of. But their time together left a permanent mark. ‘My patient’s heart having been so swiftly and suddenly suborned, her affections were thoroughly compromised. She was taking the first hard steps in learning that the way of things as you go on is not the way when you try to go back, and there exist invisible turnstiles which, having let us pass easily through them, yield to none of our most strenuous efforts at return.’ Elizabeth marries unwisely, and goes on to live an insufficient half-life, out of place and marking time, until, fifteen years later, coincidence seats her on a plane to Rome, beside the man she met and lost. Their reconciliation is definitive; a passionate affair begins between them but Elizabeth is now perilously torn between the duty of her marriage and the release and fulfillment of a life with Thomas. David is intuitive enough to realize that what holds her back is not really a sense of righteous obligation, nor even the fear of hurting others unnecessarily, but primarily a belief that she is not worthy of such happiness. ‘Confidence, con fides, with faith’ he reminds us. ‘It takes faith to love. But perhaps it takes greater faith to be loved: beloved, the meaning of my own name.’ Thomas, Elizabeth’s lover, has a parallel perspective on the matter. ‘Good things are much harder to believe than bad things. Much. Human beings are shockingly bad at believing good things. They prefer bad news.’ And it is under the weight of both her own lack of faith in her lovability, and her failure to find the reality of happiness convincing, that Elizabeth allows herself to be led astray from love, life and vitality.
I won’t give any more details away on that part of the story, as I really do think anybody reading this should go out and get a copy of this book right now. It ought to be recommended reading for life studies, and certainly anyone who has ever entertained the wish to be loved might find it enlightening. Why do we base so much hope and expectation on being loved, sighs the underlying theme, when love is so hard to find, so hard to give, so hard to receive? Implicitly the narrative suggests it’s because we think love must needs be about doing things – about performing a transaction, making a contract, filling a space or repairing a loss. ‘Love,’ says the worldly-wise Gus, ‘is letting be. Letting the other be as they are… Wanting to help them be that, not by doing anything – you can’t do anything for anyone anyway – but simply by wanting them to be nothing other than they are.’ But there is also another method of loving that involves making a difference to the other person, albeit in the simplest and least interventionary way possible, and that is by letting things happen in the space between people who care deeply and genuinely for one another. And this book suggests that at its best, the psychoanalytic encounter is a fine model for this form of loving:
‘This is the kind of thing which can happen,’ David proposes, ‘when we dare to truly engage. Two people with open hearts, and the willingness to speak from them, create a reality more powerful and more salient than either individual… What transpired between myself and my patient was the emergence of a truth, born of our meeting, which only came to life through our conversation. It was not a truth I immediately recognized. Because you don’t immediately recognize truth when it emerges. Very often it appears alien and strange. Sometimes downright objectionable. Nor was it a miracle, except the kind of everyday miracle which occurs when stories are told and heard in conditions of love and trust.’
David is speaking my language here, because I often contend that the giving and receiving of stories is one of the most enlightening, transformative and constructive endeavours in which we can engage. I’m not sure I would want to define love, but when a story is told from the heart, and heard with openness and unmotivated interest, then the structure for love to emerge is delicately but resiliently in place. Perhaps hearing the other person speak – and really hearing them, not just hearing one’s own expectations and prejudices – is one way of allowing them to be themselves. And we do all have stories to tell, we are all in some way walking wounded. Not fatally, perhaps, the way Elizabeth was, but with one ventricle of the heart withered or failing in a way that only those prepared to love us can really see. ‘I had always felt that the world where our real selves reside – our hopes, perplexities, anxieties, aversions, longings, fears and loves, those elements which make up our sense of who we are – remains always invisible to others’, David says. In some ways that’s why stories are so necessary and enriching – through them we finally have access to that whole shadowy world, denied in the everyday, which is the home of all we cherish as being most real.
It’s not surprising, then, that in this novel it should be a work of art – a Caravaggio painting – that finally provokes Elizabeth into speech. Her lover, Thomas, is an expert on the painter, and his own world view has become infused with what he understands as being the truth value of art: ‘Most people make themselves up. They wrap themselves up with a lot of tinsel and flummery: precepts and morals and habits and fibs and shams and other pathetic dishonesties. Artists don’t do that. Or rather, if they do, they make sure they unwrap themselves when they work. The greater the artist, the less wrapped up they come.’ So what I fell in love with in this book was an implicit belief that good art – that’s to say art that can really move us – is created through the clear-eyed embrace of the reality of that shadowy world. And on those terms this beautiful, gentle, profoundly moving book is very good art indeed. Read it, and be enriched.