The Great Below

living the feeling life


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Thanks for the memory

I haven’t been writing any kind of ‘coronavirus diary’ but I’m glad that some people are. It’s important to keep a record of how it feels to live through such an extraordinary event – like the Mass Observation diaries during and after the Second World War, which are being revived for our times. From my mother’s schoolgirl diaries, I get a strong sense of what it was like being in London during the Blitz.

For many years I wrote an occasional diary of my thoughts and feelings, rather than of external events, but I haven’t done so for a long time now. The last time I kept any regular account was after my husband Michael Donaghy died in 2004 – it was a terrible and confusing time, and I knew that I would not remember clearly how it felt later on, as even at the time it was hard to pin down the ever-changing emotional landscape.

I started it in a brand new notebook, which I originally titled the Book of Unacceptable Feelings. In it, I wanted to be completely honest, day by day, about how things truly felt – not how I was expected (or expecting) to feel, or how various ‘psychologies of grieving’ laid out that it should proceed. I didn’t intend for it to be read by anyone else, except perhaps hoping that one day it might serve as an account for my son, who was eight at the time, of what it had been like when his father died.

That diary eventually became a book about grief, and about my relationship with Michael, called The Great Below. The book in turn gave birth to this blog, which has now become a place to put down my reflections as I write a new and different book, the one about my mother. Different – but also a book about memory, about loss, about love and its challenges.

I used to write a lot of letters – we all did. It was the main way that friends and family who were separated stayed in communication, before the internet and cheap telephone calls. In particular, I wrote long letters home when, in my late teens and twenties, I was travelling around the world or living abroad for periods of time, in France and the USA. In these I freely poured out my feelings, experiences, relationships, philosophical and political musings, and observations of the places I visited, using them in much the same way as a diary.

My mother – always the hoarder – kept every single one of my letters home, sometimes making multiple copies. She apparently used to read out passages or pass them on to friends and family, hopefully leaving out some of the more personal details. So I still have all of those letters, and my mother also somehow managed to retrieve all the letters she had written to me, which I am now using as material for my book.

When my parents were moving out of our family home and I had to retrieve all my stuff from their loft, I remember sitting down and systematically throwing away all the letters I had kept over the years from friends and family. At the time, I thought that it would have been more interesting to see my own part of the correspondence. Now I rather wish I had kept some of those testaments of friendship, the kind of which we no longer send each other. Like many things in our youth, letter-writing seemed something that would go on forever.

In one of my mother’s letters to me, she urged me to start writing in my diary again because “The memory is much more frail for feelings and detail than you ever think it will be at the time. The essence has a habit of paling.” And yet her letters to me, written by hand without corrections or edits; by turns absorbing, funny, prosaic, perceptive, rambling ; all signed and sealed with love – these strongly conjure the essence of her, and of our relationship.

I had to look out a couple of my own letters this week, to check the details of something my mother had referred to in hers. They are up in my loft, awaiting re-reading. But I resisted diving too deeply into that particular Pandora’s box right now, because I knew it would swallow me up for the duration; it’s a journey into the past which I’ll save for another day – or maybe never.


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Christmas 1945

My mother’s 1946 diary begins with an entry on the flyleaf, written on Christmas Day 1945: “I am sitting in the front room writing this and am by myself. We have five days holiday over Christmas. What can I write here? There is so much to say that cannot be put into words. How tired we all are. Things this Christmas are a deal worse than they were last year, although they say it is our first peace-time Xmas. Ours perhaps, as regards actual physical fighting, but the fight in our minds still goes on. There is fighting still in Java with the Indonesians, and our men are still being killed, even as I sit here writing this. How lucky are the Americans and Canadians. From what we hear things have very much returned to normal over there, and food is wasted each year, as much as could feed the British Nation for a year. We are hard up, but living in Paradise in comparison to some of the peoples in Europe. We have had two chickens and a joint of pork, Christmas pudding and a rich fruit cake and much of the usual Christmas fare, including oranges. But no bananas or nuts. We haven’t seen these for five years.”

The war had ended several months earlier, but food rationing would continue until 1954 – two years after my parents were married, and only four years before I was born. In 1946 most of the wheat harvest was destroyed by rain, and for the first time bread was rationed, to widespread public outrage. In 1947 potatoes – a wartime staple – underwent a similar fate. Sugar, meat, cheese, butter, eggs, tea – all remained on coupons for years. Even items that weren’t rationed were often hard to obtain: in January 1946 my mother’s diary reports that a cousin has sent them some pepper in the post, because “we can’t get any”, and later on the acquisition of a bottle of gin merits a special mention in capitals.

But my mother also speaks of a kind of spiritual weariness, hardly surprising after six years of privation, fear, death and destruction. At least with the ending of the blackout the lights had gone back on, but much of the city was in ruins, and there was no money or materials for reconstruction. London had suffered renewed attacks in 1944/1945 from the terrifying V1 flying bombs and V2 rockets – the latter capable of wiping out an entire street with absolutely no warning.  My mother had also been profoundly affected by the dropping of two atom bombs on Japan, and would remain vehemently opposed to nuclear weapons throughout her life.

Small wonder then that, having lost her religious faith during the war, she talks of trying to find it again  now, although “when life is so hard it is difficult to believe. I shall try to do so with all my heart.”


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Heredity

Does mental illness run in families? In the past, people were prevented from marrying – and thus procreating – if they were considered to come from a ‘tainted’ line. In the 20th century, theories of the heritability of mental illness fed the development of eugenics and the horrors of Nazi ‘experimentation’. Latterly, scientists have found that there is indeed a genetic element in the predisposition to certain mental illnesses, albeit influenced equally by the social and emotional conditions of a person’s life.

On my mother’s side several generations have suffered from psychiatric illnesses. My great-grandmother was diagnosed with ‘religious melancholia’ and was in and out of hospital, until ultimately dying in an asylum at the age of 61. She would prostrate herself in prayer for days at a time, refusing to eat until she began to hallucinate and hear voices. In past eras she might have been considered a visionary, or joined a strict religious order: think of the ‘anchorites’ of the Middle Ages, a majority of whom were women, who were literally walled up in small cells for a lifetime of prayer. But my great-grandmother had three children, a husband – she could only withdraw through madness.

Her condition might today be called ‘scrupulosity’, a form of obsessive compulsive disorder characterised by pathological guilt and the fear of divine judgement for perceived sins. But the word ‘melancholia’ also suggests depression and the hallucinations and voices something more. Recent research has found a significant genetic link between depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia*. My mother suffered from severe lifelong depression, and a young male cousin of hers hanged himself at sixteen in what was at the time passed off as an ‘accident’, suicide being illegal at the time, as well as a source of shame and opprobrium. Alzheimers disease, which also has strong links to depression, has affected three generations of my mother’s family, including her mother and her sister.

In my generation, one of my cousins has schizophrenia. She is the youngest daughter of the youngest daughter of the youngest daughter of my great-grandmother, who was herself a youngest daughter – it’s as though the illness has trickled down the female line to land in her lap, which sounds rather like a bad fairy-tale. Our understanding and labelling of mental illnesses keeps changing, as well as the degree of openness with which they are discussed, so I may well have other family members whose conditions remained secret or who I simply do not know about.

The recent science of epigenetics has begun exploring how what we experience can alter how our genes work, leading to changes in the brain and how we manage stress hormones. It’s not yet conclusive whether or how that alteration is actually passed on to future generations through the DNA. What seems certain, however, is that trauma can be and often is passed on through the generations by psychological means, especially trauma that is unresolved or unacknowledged. How a parent responds to their child, how they respond to events, how they teach their child to respond – either deliberately or by unconscious example – all shape that child’s psychological development and how, in turn, they will parent their own offspring. Even trying to parent differently, as most of us attempt in one way or another, does not always alter the underlying pattern – as a friend once commented: ‘180 degrees from wrong is not necessarily right.’

You could argue that there is barely a family without trauma in its background: poverty, displacement, early death, loss of children, sexual or physical abuse – these are the stuff of human history and you don’t have to look very far to find them. Above all, in the past century, there is war, on a scale and of a magnitude unprecedented in history, and wars encompass all of the other kinds of trauma imaginable, and add plenty of their own. We are all children of war, in one way or another, whether or not our families were directly involved, and it is the cumulative effects of this trauma in my family and society that is the main subject of my book.

 

*https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2812%2962129-1/fulltext