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.