Madness

Emma Forrest’s memoir of madness and renewal Your Voice In My Head was a compelling, fascinating and surprisingly funny read. And having read the book and got to the end of that sentence, I have to wonder whether it’s somehow morally right to find a book about severe mental disorder entertaining. In the act of reading, Forrest’s voice was so cleverly, so quirkily performative that I did little else other than sit back and listen to it admiringly. Now that a few days have passed I still admire the voice, but wonder about the real Emma Forrest behind it, the woman who really did crack up spectacularly, and whether as much cure has been effected as she suggests. Although the memoir purports to tell all in a vivid and naked sort of way, I actually think in retrospect that much that was human and painful and ordinary and tiresome has been hidden away.

When she was 22, Emma Forrest moved to New York; she was on contract to The Guardian and was awaiting the publication of her first novel. Although she does not admit to it, she was a child prodigy, publishing articles in The Times from the age of sixteen and touring with rock bands as a hip teen journalist. I don’t think we can overstate this enough, although Forrest herself downplays it, but that kind of creative, imaginative intelligence is as much a curse as it is a blessing, and coupled with huge precocious achievement it must have been a surefire recipe for mental instability. In New York, Forrest’s sanity began to break down; she was cutting herself and bingeing and purging as well as engaging in a series of self-destructive relationships. Realising that her life was out of control, she found herself a psychotherapist, Dr. R, but not in time to prevent a suicide attempt. The subsequent relationship she had with Dr. R brought her back to fully functioning good health, and she was just scaling down her sessions with him when abruptly she discovered that he had died of a disease that he’d kept hidden from his patients.

I bought this memoir essentially because it promised to be a tribute to Dr. R, but in fact this was the only part of it that left me a little disappointed. Forrest does describe several of their sessions, but in the way of a Hollywood screenplay (and her main career now is screenplay writing) in which they quip at one another in a jolly fashion, or he dispenses some rather trite wisdom. The tough, troublesome, unexceptional work of therapy is not what this book is about. Although it is never less than crystal clear that Dr. R was one of those outstanding individuals who truly did touch everyone he worked with, and the portrait she paints of him is wry and amusing. I suppose the attachment is described, but not the process that brought the attachment about, and whilst other readers will probably feel differently, I would have liked to read more about what went on in the therapeutic work they undertook together. I wondered whether my interest was invasive, but then Forrest spends plenty of time telling me about sexual encounters, ugly and otherwise, of which I could have lived in ignorance – of the details, at least. This is what intrigues me about the memoir: what’s put on view is often what ought to be deemed obscene (ie belonging off stage), whereas what is unsparkly and analytical is kept well away.

So the focus of this book is not quite where I expected it; just as Forrest finds out about the demise of her psychotherapist, so a serious and important love affair she has been having comes to an end. Essentially, the bulk of the book is concerned with charting these emotional white waters as Forrest struggles with a double grief that would give the most stable of minds a significant blow.  Here’s another little point of intrigue: the relationship was with a big movie star and although Forrest is obliged to be discreet (I’m not; it was Colin Farrell), this part of the book again raises as many questions as it answers. Forrest clearly loved him and struggles desperately to understand why his intense devotion cooled over the course of one single plane flight, and from planning a family together they were reduced to saying hasty goodbyes. It’s all very moving and searing, until it reaches the point where I, at least, felt a) it’s Colin Farrell!! One look at the man’s previous relationship career might have suggested the strong likelihood of a pattern and b) the superstar status of Farrell does something odd to the account of the breakup, giving it a sheen of celebrity memoir even as Forrest’s wonderful writing does its best to avoid it. It begins to read like a story, not like a memoir, if you see what I mean.

But one thing did stick out for me, and that’s the hideousness of contemporary fame. As soon as it becomes common knowledge that she’s dating him, Farrell’s fans besiege the internet sites with unpleasantness about Emma Forrest. ‘“Maybe we’ll get lucky and she’ll take an overdose of lithium,” says one. The sentence ends with a smiley face icon. One hasn’t lived until one has experienced death threat by emoticon.’ This made me wonder about all the madness that never gets properly named as such, the common or garden ugliness that lurks inside so many minds, and so many of those writing anonymously online. But madness directed at others seems to be something that can easily be lived with, and it’s only when the madness turns inwards in a self-aware way that medication and therapy become a necessity.

In fact this memoir left me wondering what madness is, where it comes from, whether it is but for the grace of God, etc, or whether you are born with it. Forrest suggests that New York brought out what was latent within her; she had been in therapy aged eight and considering suicide since twelve, something she laughs off as part of her intellectual Jewish legacy. For me the best parts of the book deal with her family and the clearly loving relationship she has with them. She is, she claims, the child of ‘two perfect jigsaw pieces of neurotica’. Her father is the kind of man who receives a credit card for ‘Sir Jeffrey Forrest’ because ‘American Express was dumb enough to send him an application form with the statement ‘Print your name as you would wish it to appear.’’ And when approached in a hotel by a woman saying ‘Last night we thought you were Sean Connery’ he replies ‘Last night I was Sean Connery.’ Her mother gets anxious very easily: ‘Something that is a source of calm (she watches her cat as he laps the water bowl. ‘Good boy, Jojo! What a good boy!) can turn, like the weather (the cat keeps lapping. Her smile fades. ‘Why are you drinking so much water, Jojo? What’s the matter, Jojo? Are you sick?’)’ There’s a fullness and insight to these characterizations that is really delightful, because Forrest isn’t afraid to show them in multiple lights. Farrell is a tragedy and Dr. R is a hero, but her family is real; loopy, odd, pained, supportive, overwhelming, insufficient, steadfast. Forrest knows how much she has cost them in worry and sorrow, but they stick together in mutual forgiving acceptance.

There are strong messages of optimism embedded in this account: that being suicidal doesn’t mean you’ll have to forgo a sense of humour, that life breaks our spirits over and over again, and it’s only in the process of being broken and mended that we realize how resilient and strong is the spiritual soul, and that not only can we change, we may change. The universe does give us permission, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. This is a fine and exquisitely written memoir, but in its care to keep anything boring and ordinary out of sight, I wondered about its narrator. Part of me feels that she has not yet come to terms with her own ordinary, unexciting humanity and that she needs to be spectacular still, in various ways. I could have lived with more of the real woman and less of the quirky, witty fictional construct, although her voice does make for a continually compelling and amusing read.

19 thoughts on “Madness

  1. One of the most precious books of all time, for me, is Joanna Greenberg’s I Never Promised you a Rose Garden, which is about the author’s struggles with paranoid schizophrenia and her eventual decision (yes, it is framed somewhat in this way), after years of psychoanalysis, to choose at once terrifying and dull everyday reality over her rich, beautiful but increasingly punishing, internal reality. The book genuinely is a tribute to her psychoanalyst, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, one of very few proponents of the talking cure to have demonstrable success with schizophrenics and other psychotics. It made me go out and buy Fromm-Reichmann’s biography, To redeem One Person is To Redeem the World by Gail Hornstein, which I also found fascinating and oh so moving. You may already know these books. If you don’t, I have a feeling they might appeal to you. Thanks again for your blog; I read often.

  2. As I read your comments on this book I could feel an overwhelming fear for the writer growing in me. If I’ve understood it properly from what you say then this reads like someone who is as the high end of a bipolar swing and as I’ve seen in a very dear friend, when you reach the highest point anything can happen. There are days when my life feels pretty dull and there are days when I feel very grateful for the fact.

  3. Killerchick – I do love it when my comments lead me to new and exciting reading territory. Both the authors you mention are unknown to me, but the subject matter is indeed right up my street! I’ll be looking them up on amazon very shortly… and thank you so much for commenting. I’m delighted that you did.

    Annie – I must say I do cherish the ordinary and everyday – such riches without risk or threat! But what I think about creativity and imagination is that they can be enjoyed without menacing mental stability so long as they are free from other compulsive factors, perhaps notably the compulsion to succeed. Creativity can be a wild state, but I think that’s fine, if there’s plenty of space and freedom around it. I think problems begin if the writer also feels compelled to achieve or to gain recognition or to create quickly or in a way that pleases the maximum amount of people. Adding such extra pressures can be destabilising I think. When it’s like play – open ended, free, undirected – then creativity is bound to be simply a pleasure. So don’t fear for the writer inside you – just take away the pressures and make sure you have plenty of permission to play freely.

  4. This sounds fascinating. I’ve been on such a good memoir kick lately, that I’m tempted to put it on my list, although there’s always the danger of overdoing it. But questions of self-representation are just SO interesting, and it’s one of the things I love about memoir. There’s the quality of the writing to enjoy if the memoir is good, and there’s also the fun of thinking about what the writer included and didn’t and why.

  5. Some aspects of insanity are hilarious, maybe this does sound questionable but there is no denying it. I just wonder if she laughs about it or makes fun for the memoir or whether this is her way of dealing with it. Should the latter be the case, I’m afraid there is no cure in sight. That’s what Radical Acceptance teaches, at a certain point you have to fully experience the pain in order to be able to let go. I think you touch an interesting point. Many people with mental illnesses, even depression etc. don’t want to let go of it as it is their way out of the ordinary. I always meant to read I Never Promised you a Rose Garden. It was once widely read in Germany.
    I was wondering if you ever read Marie Cardinal’s Les mots pour le dire? It is very fascinating although not the therapeutic approach I would recommend.

  6. Fascinating. I had not heard of Emma Forest, and will look for this book. Much of your criticism of and disappointment with the choices of her narrative leads me back to her youth. She’s too young, isn’t she, to have done all this, to have expressed all this, and very likely that is why she doesn’t leave space for the ordinary? One hopes she’ll come around to it, rather than burning herself out.

  7. Hmm, not that young, I see, having looked her up – it’s ABOUT when she was young. Maybe success when very young makes you kind of stuck there…

  8. Fascinating review of a book that I’d heard of but don’t particularly want to read. I’ve seen what bipolar does to people and it’s exhausting. Throw in a teenage prodigy, a celebrity ex-boyfriend (or super-celebrity) and the sudden death of a beloved therapist and you’re bound to have a crazy mix. I’m sure she writes excellently though so perhaps I should give it a try. But I’m with you in wishing for more accounts of the everyday, non-sparkling nature of therapy. All that laughing at yourself comes at a price I would guess. And maybe that price is a further distancing from difficult emotions?

  9. Interesting post.

    My memoir is out in a month and I am soon to blog about another’s…memoir is a very very tricky genre. The book I will be blogging about is a memoir by a woman in her mid-30s, an American, who moved to California and got caught up in the vicious recession here. She became pregnant accidentally and kept the child then moved with her husband and baby back to her mother’s house in Maine….

    All of these choices are largely unquestioned in her book. But not in my head!

    The role of the memoir narrator is challenging. You must be lively, interesting, engaging enough that even if your story isn’t alluring, YOU (as a character) still are…or vice versa! It’s really tough to figure out, even with a smart and tough editor, what to include and what to omit, what to highlight and what to completely skip over.

    Every memoir is de facto cleaned up and heavily edited for the widest possible commercial audience. The best ones are still great anyway.

  10. “Part of me feels that she has not yet come to terms with her own ordinary, unexciting humanity and that she needs to be spectacular still, in various ways.” What a perfect summation of your post, Litlove. I so enjoyed reading this and thinking about memoir and what I’d like to see in it. I think my reaction would be much like yours.

  11. I’m not sure this is the right kind of book for me, but you write about it so well, and bring up its more interesting questions that I’m almost tempted. It must be quite difficult for a sensitive person to deal with celebrity in our modern age – even tough people have their moments. Sometimes I wish the world of celebrity had a lot less money and a lot more privacy, I suspect it would be better for everyone.

  12. I’ve been reading quite a few memoirs lately and have told myself I need to take a break from them for awhile. This is one I will add to my future list. I can’t help but be fascinated by people and who they are, how they are, etc.

  13. Dear LL – I would have come by sooner had I known you were back at it (see how a corporate project can fuzz over one’s true vision and awareness?)
    What a fine book review.
    I should say that you’ve really got a another calling here should the University/school ever make the mistake of letting you get away. Yes, I’m serious; a fine book review is as engaging as a fine book itself, that is, it doesn’t really matter a fig if one has heard of the book or author. The review bears reading.
    I likely won’t read this book but am glad to know about it and loved hearing the characterization of Forrest’s parents.

  14. As a psychologist, I never think of the word “madness.” It is a literary word, just as I never think of “insanity” which is a legal word. I think of the complexities and layers of disorders which, based on your description, for this author is probably a combination of bipolar disorder (a mood disorder) and borderline personality (an underlying instability of personality that can come off in the superficial self-dramatizing way you describe). Virginia Woolf, for example, who was probably far more insightful, did not have a personality disorder and only bipolar, in my humble opinion. I also like the distinction you make between “story” voice and “memoir” voice. I think about that a lot.

  15. I’m nearly always up for a mental illness memoir, even if it does mean wading through more sex stories than I’d ordinarily welcome. :p

    >>>This made me wonder about all the madness that never gets properly named as such, the common or garden ugliness that lurks inside so many minds, and so many of those writing anonymously online.

    Oh well, I think this is mostly just that being anonymous and online can (can! doesn’t always, just can!) divorce you from the consequences. Susan Sontag says this marvelous thing about how people can do make any decision if it’s made to seem weightless.

  16. In its care to keep anything boring and ordinary out of sight, I more wonder about its editor…

    Great review, LL. So business as usual in the Reading Room, I see.

  17. I don’t normally like books about mental illness (I recently read Running With Scissors and only finished it because my friend loved it so much and really wanted me to love it too) but, your review of this book has inspired me to add it to my wish list. Actually, I could probably buy this book just to look at the cover.

  18. Dorothy – I just love memoir too, and can’t get enough of them. I feel that they bring out the best in writers, who have that experience so close to their hearts that their focus naturally falls on finding the best words with which to narrate it. I am certainly going to read more this year.

    Caroline – not only have I read Les mots pour le dire, I used to teach it as part of a course on hysteria. That is one fine novel, and a fascinating one. I felt that the humour in the memoir was part of the author’s defence mechanisms, but I also felt it was an instinctual choice for what memoir is supposed to be in contemporary times. I’ve lost count of how often I’ve read reviews in newspapers and magazines that declare a book marvellous because it has no self-pity, or presents dreadful events in a cheery light. It may please the audience to see big acts of resilience, but you have to wonder for the person behind them.

    Jean – I couldn’t agree with you more – all her problems do seem to stem from those early years. Do you ever wonder why we allow child stars in the world? Precocious achievement leads SO OFTEN to huge mental problems, drug and alcohol dependency, breakdown – is it worth it, ever?

    Pete – I think so. I’m coming around to thinking that all writing to ‘make sense’ ends up moving the narrator further away from their emotional issues, not closer towards them. But I’m still pondering that one. I think narrative does a great job of release and closure, but not cure. As I say – these are thoughts in progress (and I’d love to know what you make of the book if you do read it!).

    Stefanie – isn’t the cover beautiful? I confess it caught my eye. And I did very much enjoy the book – it is a very compelling read.

    Broadside blog – yes, I really do wonder what goes into (and comes out in) that editorial process. Of course it has to happen, no author can be free of it, but I also feel it is steeped in ideology. I do wonder to what extent memoir is dictated by fashion – by what we deem appropriate to say at any point in time. You’ll know much more about this than I do!

    Lilian – thank you so much, what a lovely comment!

    Michelle – oh I so agree with you. This faustian pact, whereby people who become known for a talent or a skill and then are stripped of all privacy just horrifies me. Where is it written that we have to do that?

    Kathleen – I admit I find memoir fascinating too. How people work through their struggles is always fascinating.

    oh – bless you, what a sweetie you are. I would ADORE to review books for a living, but I don’t think it will happen any time soon, alas! But I get to do it here, and that’s wonderful in itself.

    Squirrel – well you are quite right, because madness is by no means as discrete and clear cut as that, is it? I think you are quite right about the bipolar bit, and possibly the borderline personality too, but I’m not sure she acts out enough. I say this with no clinical training! My baseline comparison for borderline personality is Anais Nin, just so you can see how I’m thinking about this. Do you think the self-awareness cultivated in all forms of celebrity makes people look like they have a bpd in any case? Something strange and narcissistic happens there, anyway.

    Jenny – Mmm, me too, I do love a good mad memoir. But don’t you think that people have to have a propensity towards aggression or hidden unresolved issues to become online trolls? I do think it’s too easy an outlet for latent mental issues and a way of perpetuating them rather than facing up to them (not that you’re saying anything different to that, I hasten to add).

    Doctordi – I wonder about all editors at the moment – it used to be about the language, now it’s about questions of structure and whole subject choice. Too much change is in their hands sometimes, I think.

    Naomi – I do love the cover! It’s even prettier in reality. I keep meaning to read Running with Scissors, but fear it is a bit brutal for me. Somehow, this one was much easier to read.

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