For those willing to ‘brave the dark without a candle‘, this slim volume, Before the Knife: Memories of an African Childhood, will move and disturb in equal measure. It’s immensely readable, powerful and totally absorbing.
It’s author is Carolyn Slaughter and she writes with beauty and courage of the devastating childhood experiences that affected her life for decades. The second of three daughters, she was abused – sexually and physically – by her father from the age of six; so traumatised that she blocked out the images and memories. Nevertheless her troubled past manifested itself in wild and self-destructive behaviours. Her mother and older sister knew what was going on but turned a blind eye; their mutual silence destroying them all each in their own way.
Carolyn’s father was a government official who was posted to various colonies in India and Africa, and she captures the country, the landscapes, the smells, the political intrigues, the class distinctions in wonderfully evocative language. I’ll try to give you a flavour.
‘… the great plains and deserts stretched as far as you could see, wild beasts roamed the vast savannahs, tracing and retracing their paths across ancient migration trails, moving to and from water, decay and death. On the grasslands and at the edges of the deserts, the black man lived and reigned as he had for all eternity: tilling his small fields, slaughtering his cattle and goats in times of plenty, starving or dying out when the rains didn’t come, or when marauding tribes from over the hill brought his days to an end. Women pounded the maize, stirring black pots over wood fires that sent up small blue columns of blue smoke that vanished into the clear blue sky. Sweet potatoes and fat speckled pumpkins hugged the brown earth, and under mimosa trees with spikes long as a child’s finger they fed their babies and shooed chickens from underfoot, waiting for their men to come back from the bush. When the sun rose in the morning, little boys shook out their limbs and led goats out to graze, trailing sticks in the sand and wandering silently through the shorn landscape dotted with thorn bushes, interrupted only by a solitary acacia tree with branches laid flat across a sky as endless and blue as the sea.
But then one day, into this eternity we came marching. We sailed across the Atlantic, tall masts and white sails brilliant in the sunlight, and announced that we’d discovered Africa, We took a quick look around and, picking up the four corners of the sleeping continent like a picnic cloth, we shook it up, cut it into pieces and flung it back down in our own image. White faces radiant in the sun, we brought in our columns of mercenaries, or guns and whips; we spread our diseases and plagues, and toppled the landscape and the languid people who’d lived on it since time began. We stayed on for a while, sojourning in Africa the way we had in India, never really intending to stay, dreaming always of England, and those blue remembered hills. But, for all the coming and going of white feet, the snatching of lands and lakes, and all the ivory, gem, gold and trophy collecting, and the building of farms and cities, in the end it was always a short visit: white men coming to make a hurried living along the beautiful acres of the equator that stretch all the way up into the show-peaked crests of mountains put down a few hundred million years ago. We took what we needed and packed up again, and in no time at all, the life of the white man, so transitory and scattered, so greedy and impatient, would be over: one by one, nation by nation, we pulled up and went back over the sea, and once we had gone it was as if we’d never been. We left no memory of ourselves on the still air, no trace of our footsteps on the scorched plains – we were gone – no more than a handful of bleached bones on the lap of a continent that could remember man’s first startled smile.’
The young Carolyn lived alongside racial discrimination, brutality and white domination and tried to make sense of life with precious little guidance. Small wonder that she was bowled over by her first experience of warm ‘maternal’ love from Rena on the farm, and obsessed by sixth-former Virginia who showed her understanding, sympathy and affection.
In her eloquent writing she brings partition and aparthied, tribal superstitions and imperial rule to life. She describes her fractured relationships with her parents with brutal honesty. She also explores the dark places of her own mind with breathtaking clarity; I wanted to reach out and pluck her from that precarious edge and wrap her in safety and warmth. Her volatile temper, her own urge to hurt and kill, her wild and untethered youth, her rebellion, her intoxication with risk – they all make sense in face of the revelation she sketches briefly in the prologue and eventually recounts in the epilogue.
‘…the moment when everything changed only really came the night that my father first raped me. I was six years old. This rape, and the others that were to follow, obliterated in one moment both the innocence of my childhood and the fragile structure of our English family life. We all knew. I showed my mother all the proof she needed, and my older sister was right there in the room with me, in the bed across from mine. But once it had happened, we decided that it had never happened at all. In our privileged and protected world, we chose to bury it, we put it out of sight and memory, never said another word.’
Set against our modern understanding of abuse and its effects, of repressed memories and mental illness, this story is heartrending. No wonder it took 50 years and a wealth of support to write it down. One can only hope that the process has been cathartic and now in her 70s, she has found some peace.
And yet, in spite of the horrors she endured, in the end Carolyn’s story is one of triumph and enormous courage. I recommend this book to anyone who can bear to feel the pain of a lonely and deeply damaged child.
When she faced the prospect of returning to England she wondered how she could survive living amongst people who had no concept of her life in Africa.
‘How could I bring them the magic of the river in Maun, or of the African women walking down to the mealie fields with their babies strapped to their backs? How could I tell them how guinea fowl stepped lightly through splashes of moonlight, or describe how the scorched plains vibrated and hummed when the sun was high? What could they know of the slithery nights when the hyenas bayed at the moon and the lion gave out its solitary cry; how could they understand the underwater silence of the crocs sidling among the water-lily stems? How could I tell them any of it?’
We know about those slithery nights and scorched plains because she has brought them to us so eloquently.
You’ve probably already heard of the American Eugenics Sterilization Program, in operation in the late 19th, early 20th century. If not … a quick résumé by way of context for today’s post.
The ‘program’ was designed to preserve and improve the strongest and ‘best’ within the society, and it did so by preventing the birth of babies to men and women with mental and social problems: the ‘mentally defective‘, ‘morons‘, the ‘feeble-minded‘, those with epilepsy, families on ‘welfare‘ – the very language makes us cringe today, doesn’t it? But sterilizing these unfortunate citizens was considered to be in the ‘public good‘. It was later judged – rightly – as a terrible violation of human rights, but it’s only in the last few years that any sense of justice or compensation has been offered.
Most states stopped this practice after World War II, uncomfortable with the comparison with the Nazi eugenic experiments in Germany, about which much more is known, but North Carolina continued, and is said to have carried out as many as 7600 such operations between 1929 and 1975. North Carolina was also the only state to give social workers the power to petition for the operation for specific individuals; elsewhere it was limited to those already in institutions.
It’s against this shameful period of American history that Diane Chamberlain sets her novel, Necessary Lies. As a former social worker herself, she’s probably got a certain edge when it comes to writing on this subject; she beautifully captures the ambivalence some professionals felt in determining what was in the best interests of their clients at a time when few choices existed; punitive views relating to sexual behaviour were prevalent; little was known about genetic inheritance; racial intolerance was rife; and class distinctions were very much the norm.
Jane Forrester is a young idealistic woman, newly married to a doctor, Robert, who disapproves of wives working. Jane unilaterally decides to postpone having children herself in order to become a social worker and help vulnerable families. When she encounters the Harts – two teenage girls, an illegitimate son, and an ageing grandmother – living in abject poverty, she simply cannot stand by while their rights are abused by well-meaning professionals. Before long she’s in deep trouble with her husband, her colleagues, and the police.
Chamberlain herself acknowledges that this was a research-heavy novel, but it doesn’t come across that way. The simplicity of the narrators’ voices, the un-sensationalised story line, the authentic emotions, combine to make this tale both challenging and gripping, heart-stopping and powerful. I’m not sure I’d have had the courage to be a Jane Forrester, but I’d definitely have wanted her on my side, deceptions and head lice notwithstanding! How about you?
You probably saw in the news this week that a leading Iranian model, Elham Arab, has been forced to publicly apologise for posting photographs of herself online without a head covering. Seven of the country’s leading models have been arrested, charged with ‘promoting corruption’ and ‘promiscuity’. This crackdown on the fashion industry is part of increased pressure by the new regime to honour ‘Islamic values’, and it leads me nicely to a book I read last week that I found both challenging and fascinating.
Imagine … you’re sixteen (the same age as my eldest granddaughter, so I’m using her as my personal yardstick). The year is 1996. The place is Kabul. To a great extent, the norm of living your whole life in wartime, never experiencing true peace, has numbed you to ‘the overall tragedy’ encompassing your country, to the ‘ultimate threat’ that’s to come. Having said that, until today you’ve enjoyed life, relative freedom, and the security of an enlightened and loving family.
But now … it’s 27 September. Suddenly everything changes. The Taliban have taken over your city. The president and his brother have been publicly tortured and hanged. Ferocious laws and prohibitions are imposed. Fingers are sliced off for sporting nail polish. Faces and backs are whipped because white shoes peep from beneath an all-enveloping burqa. Innocent young girls are gang raped and genitally mutilated for no reason at all. Women are dying because they are denied medical care. Small children are kidnapped, raped, strangled and thrown onto a rubbish dump for daring to seek clandestine lessons.
And in one fell swoop your whole future has been taken away. Why? Because you are female. You can’t study. You can’t work. You can’t go out without a male escort. You can’t be seen without oppressive clothing and heavy veiling.
Nor are men protected from degradation and horror. Football is replaced by a new atrocity. ‘Now justice takes place in public. They hang the accused from the goal posts, cut off the hands of thieves, execute supposedly adulterous women with a bullet in the back of the neck. This is a monstrous spectacle, intercut with obligatory prayers. Spectators are forced into the stadium with whip lashes.’ Two criminals are butchered to death by the father of their victims, a macabre spectacle watch by an estimated audience of 35,000.
Your brother is summonsed to the university where he sees the aftermath of an appalling massacre, bleeding human remains everywhere, which he is expected to help clear up. ‘I saw a woman completely undressed … She was … she was nailed to one of those swinging doors at the faculty. They had cut her in two … in two parts. On each panel of the doors, there was half of her. Half of her nailed up body … And the door opened and shut. It was appalling.’
Propaganda attributes the ‘cleansing’ to religious motivation. But as your father explains to you: ‘A Muslim doesn’t kill another Muslim. Nowhere in the Koran is it written that we should take life. This is the final proof that they’re inventing their own Sharia, all the while wanting us to believe that whatever they decide is written in the Koran. Their laws aren’t written in the sacred book. They come out of the heads of a few mullahs who would do better to keep them for themselves.’ I’d guess most fathers in this country would use much stronger language that he does to condemn these atrocities!
If you still find it hard to imagine, I recommend you read My Forbidden Face: Growing up under the Taliban. Even the cover says so much: unseen dark eyes looking from behind a mesh of intricate embroidery onto a hostile unfathomable world, the very size of the mesh proscribed, reduced.
The author is known only as Latifa – unlikely to be her real name. She modestly hopes that her story will ‘serve as a key for other women, those whose speech has been padlocked and who have buried their testimony in their hearts or their memories.’ She dedicates it to ‘all those Afghani girls and women who have kept their dignity until their last breath; to those women who have been deprived of their rights in their country, and who live in obscurity, despite the fact that we are in the twenty-first century; to all those executed in public, without trial and without pity, and under the eyes of their children and loved ones.’ Read it and weep.
Weeping is seldom allowable for Latifa. Emotions are frowned upon. ‘We each keep our sorrows to ourselves … This is a particularly Afghan way of proceeding.‘
She perceives the Taliban as dangerous and virulent bacteria propagating by spreading serious diseases, diseases that strike a mortal blow at freedom. She believes the world has forgotten her people. ‘I asked myself what kind of a world this was, so very distant from God.’
When she becomes ill and has to travel to Pakistan for treatment, she can’t help but compare the girls there with her own lot in life; so carefree, blase about their opportunities, not valuing education enough. She says of her friend: ‘She seems more superficial, less concerned than she used to be. Maybe that’s one of the things that freedom does.’
So what of my granddaughter’s generation today, in this country, with unlimited choice, enormous freedom? What are the lessons for them? I leave the last word with Latifa’s father: ‘You haven’t done this in vain. Trust me. Women listen to other women. Your testimony will make people here understand.’
Early May it may be, but summer has arrived with a vengeance in my neck of the woods, so I seized the opportunity and took a fresh book into the garden to soak up the vitamins. One True Thing by Anne Quindlen. It’s about mercy killing so very much in my field of interest; just the ticket, then. Hmmm. I note that it was published in 2011 so I’m not sure why it’s taken so long to come to my attention. Anyway …
We know from the outset that Ellen Gulden is arrested and sent to jail accused of willfully killing her terminally ill mother, Kate. We also know that she didn’t do it. First person narrative: ‘I only wished I had.‘
Ellen is a journalist (like Quindlen) living an independent life when her mother is diagnosed with untreatable cancer. Under pressure from her father, she returns home to help look after her, resentful that her Professor-of-English father sees no need to give up his life, annoyed with herself that she still seeks his approval. Nor is he the one to offer bail to free her while the case is prepared; her erstwhile English teacher not only does that but offers her sanctuary too.
Caring for her mother isn’t any easier than Ellen anticipated. Kate Gulden’s deterioration is swift and brutal; the author doesn’t skimp on the unsavoury detail. She has to take large doses of morphine to deal with the pain. When the oncologist orders an autopsy, no one questions the means – the morphine was there in large doses, legitimately supplied by the visiting nurse. And the odds seem stacked against Ellen. It’s common knowledge that she is in favour of mercy killing; her prize-winning schoolgirl essay is trumpeted far and wide in the press. Plus she was the last person to see Kate alive. And she wanted this phase to be over, to get back to her old life; plenty of people can and do give testament to that. The evidence appears damning.
So, if Ellen didn’t administer the overdose, who did? And that’s what the book explores. Ellen herself is pretty sure she knows, but I’m not going to spoil it for you by giving away any more of the plot.
However, the book offers more that a whodunnit. It challenges the reader with some profound thoughts.
‘We cry to give voice to our pain.’
‘It’s so much easier to know just how you feel about things, what you believe, when you’re writing it on paper than when you really have to do anything about it or live with it.’
‘And knowing I could have killed her was nothing compared to knowing I could not save her.’
‘When your mother’s gone, you’ve lost your past. It’s so much more than love. Even when there’s no love, it’s so much more than anything else in your life.’
Would I have ended that awful pain, indignity and suffering if someone I loved begged me to help?
Oh and I loved this sentence: ‘My father’s regular features had lost flesh in some places, sagged in others, his rather thin mouth becoming more of a liability as the parentheses of middle age appeared around it.’
So no new arguments for me personally, but a very readable rehearsal of the old ones.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about size lately. Not as in personal dimensions – although that’s obviously been a feature of my recent writing; no, I’m referring to books. Doorstoppers in particular.
Take Hilary Mantel‘s huge tomes for example – excepting her memoir Giving up the Ghost which I sped through in a couple of sittings. Wolf Hall and A Place of Greater Safety have been staring at me reproachfully from my shelves for ages, but I can’t quite bring myself to set aside a large enough block of time to plough through them. I’m not one of these razor sharp people who can have several books on the go at any one time and so afford to have a massive volume on the bedside table to dip into over many months whilst steaming through an alternative pile of quick-reads. I lose track of characters and story-lines far too easily. And books which impinge directly on my own area of expertise/current writing tend always to take precedence.
Ken Follett‘s sprawling tales – each of these is two inches thick! – are another example from my library. I loved his The Third Twin which I read aeons ago, so I bought these three on the strength of that recommendation. They’ve remained unopened to date. Same reasons.
Likewise Penny Vincenzi and … but I won’t bore you with a list.
An exception though, has been Matthew Thomas‘ debut novel, We Are Not Ourselves. (An inch and a half thick, if you’re interested.) For purely pragmatic reasons it rose instantly to the top of my pile: it’s in my ball park and a friend gave it to me for that reason; but I feel a degree of urgency to read and return it because I know her husband is next in line for it. So I’ve persevered doggedly to the bitter end and not allowed myself to be deflected.
It’s a sprawling tale about the Leary family spanning sixty years, tracking a college professor’s descent into Alzheimer’s and the effect on his wife and only son. It even has a chapter where the son is rehearsing for a debate on euthanasia! So yes indeedy, my kind of subject. But really! Does any fiction merit 620 pages of tiny text? It took Thomas ten years to write (in a one bedroom apartment with young twins); my own (impertinent?) judgement is he’d have been well advised to edit it severely and give the story more zing and pace. Comparisons can be odious but Lisa Genova‘s Still Alice accomplishes more in far less time and space.
It’s the massive annual Christian Aid Book Sale in George Street this month, so I’ve decided two things: to bequeath all my unread Follett novels to the cause (along with a boxful of others); and to resolutely set my face against buying more books until I’ve cleared some from my shelves. Snag is, most of the ones still jostling for attention I’m sure I shall love too much to part with even once I’ve read them.
Eebie jeebie! A year ago I invested (I use the word advisedly) in new spectacles. One pair cost some astronomical price so I got the second pair for next to nothing – they call it a special offer. Hmm. But hey, my eyes are beyond priceless, so they need cherishing.
This week I had my next regular annual check and oh woe, both eyes need stronger lenses. Ahah! Time to capitalise on the old investment and just replace the lenses, methought. And yes, these lovely smiling gentlemen specialists assured me, they could do that in such a way that I was able to keep one pair on while the other was re-glazed, and then swap them, so I’ll still be able to function as normal throughout the transition. Perfect.
However … yep, you knew there was a ‘but’ coming … even allowing for the miserly skin-flinty, curmudgeonly, option of recycling the old frames, the bill for four small ovals of plastic came to over £300! Phew! And it’s not as if everyone exclaims over one’s sartorial ocular elegance, is it? Who notices your lenses are brand spanking new? Who even recognises you’re wearing designer frames? Only an optician!
But hopefully my own eyes will, and they’ll return to days of intensive reading and peering at computer screens with renewed energy, comfort and ease. A precious blessing.
By way of celebration, after two weeks of intensive promotion of Inside of Me, I’m giving myself a mini break, allowing some reading-purely-for-pleasure to creep into the days between bursts of promotional activity. Feels like a weekend away! But just as I was starting to relax into Harlan Coben’s No Second Chance, up pops a profound thought to challenge my belief and opinions and put me into more work-like mode. The narrator is Dr Marc Seidman whose infant daughter Tara has been kidnapped and his wife Monica shot dead. Marc is a plastic surgeon who uses his skills, not to pander to the vanity of the rich and famous, but to help children severely deformed or damaged in accidents or war. I know people just like him and I really admire their selfless dedication and sacrifices. Marc also goes regularly to wheel his disabled father around the neighbourhood, and during one such jaunt he reflects on the values he holds:
‘I could be doing cosmetic plastic surgery and making a mint. My parents would be able to afford better care for my dad. They could move someplace nice, get the full-time nurse, find a place that could cater more for their needs. But I don’t do that. I don’t help them by taking the more traveled route because, quite frankly, working such a job would bore me. So I choose to do something more exciting, something I love to do. For that, people think I’m the heroic one, that I am the one making the sacrifice. Here’s the truth. The person who works with the poor? They are usually more selfish. We are not willing to sacrifice our needs. Working a job that provides for our families is not enough for us. Supporting those we love is secondary. We need personal satisfaction, even if our own family is made to do without. Those suits I now watch numbingly board the NJ Transit train? They often hate where they are going and what they are doing, but they do it anyway. They do it to take care of their families, to provide a better life for their spouses, their children, and maybe, just maybe, their aging and ill parents. So, really, which one of us is to be admired?’
What d’you think?
Then much later defence lawyer Lenny Marcus says ‘I can only be as happy as my saddest child.’ Is this a universal truth? Does it apply to me?
Challenging thoughts. Such is the power of the written word.
You’d have to be an ostrich to miss all the attention given to mental health of late. It’s Depression Awareness Week this at this very moment. Heartening to see; we can all do with better understanding and sympathy.
Since Inside of Me came out, my own working days have been much taken up with fathoming the extent of provision for adolescents grappling with psychiatric ailments and issues. I had absolutely no concept of the number (hundreds in Britain) of centres and units and teams devoted to this vulnerable group. Impressive. And all this is going on largely unsung and unremarked.
Naturally I did a stack of research before and during the writing of Inside of Me, but now it’s published I’m exploring different aspects of the topics and finding them fascinating. Not only increases my own awareness but all helps when I’m being interviewed or fielding questions at book events.
There’s been plenty of exposure in the media too. The A Word, on BBC1, is currently unravelling the effect on the Hughes family of young Joe’s autism. It’s still ongoing so I won’t say too much about it meantime. But, knowing a number of people on the spectrum personally, I’m particularly interested in the reactions and behaviours of his parents struggling to accept the situation and deal with the comments and criticisms and insensitivities of other people, what it’s doing to the whole family.
I’ve also been reading a book written by a young man who has synaesthesia as well as Asperger’s: Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet. ‘I just did not seem to fit in anywhere, as though I had been born into the wrong world. The sense of never feeling quite comfortable and secure, of always being somewhat apart and separate, weighed heavily on me.‘ Not surprisingly Daniel craves order, security and predictability; but in many ways his life is outstandingly vibrant and uniquely different.
Numbers are never far from his thoughts no matter where he is or what he’s doing, but he sees them as shapes, colours and textures. Calendars delight him – all those numbers and patterns in one place. On the other hand social interaction is problematic, but if a person reminds him of a number he feels more comfortable around them.
Daniel also has savant syndrome for which he has become a minor celebrity. He can perform extraordinary mathematical calculations and memory feats in his head – outdoing sophisticated computers! He can learn to speak a foreign language fluently from scratch in a week – eat your heart out teens sitting exams this term!
Daniel Tammet was born in 1979 on a Wednesday. ‘Wednesdays are blue, like the number nine or the sound of loud voices arguing.’ Remarkably for the times, both his parents understood his needs and patiently provided a secure and encouraging environment for him, indulged his obsessions and believed in him. What’s more, in spite of the extra care their firstborn required, they went on to have a further three boys and five girls, who, by their noisy and continuous presence, forced Daniel to gradually develop interpersonal social skills. Nevertheless, he would be completely thrown by small distractions – squeaking shoes, inexplicable reactions, noisy breathing, would lose him a game of chess which he would otherwise easily win.
By the time Daniel was 13 he had eight siblings. By the time he was 19 he was ready to leave home and go abroad on VSO work. By the time he was 22 he was ready to live with his partner, Neil. By the time he was 25 he was ready to recite 22,514 digits of pi without error in public for 5 hours and 9 minutes thereby setting a new British and European record. So remarkable has his life been that he became the subject of a one-hour documentary, Brainman, filmed in Britain, the USA and Iceland in 2004. A year later he was confident enough to travel abroad unaccompanied, stay in unfamiliar hotels, stroll down unknown busy streets, and be interviewed for TV in the USA. He attributes much of his prowess to the constant unwavering love and support of his family, especially his parents. But reading his book you get an inkling of his own determination to overcome the odds.
Born on a Blue Day gives a compelling glimpse into a unique mind and life. Precisely and carefully written. Sometimes stilted. Sometimes meandering through detailed descriptions, sometimes diffidently explaining the differentness of Daniel’s thinking. Always gently enquiring, shy and grateful. Much like the Daniel Tammet who comes across in the film.