Keeping a diary was to all intents and purposes forbidden in my house when I was growing up. Or at least, it was severely frowned upon. My mother was never one for ‘airing one’s dirty laundry in public’; and so she was concerned that a diary might be found and ‘made public’ after one’s death, and then everyone would know one’s innermost thoughts. Quite why that mattered, if you were no longer around to witness it, I was never quite sure.
And so I kept a secret but infrequent record in a book that contains about forty entries over a ten year period, from about the ages of nine to nineteen. When I attempted a more regular record in my late teens, before I went to university, it was discovered (and, I am convinced, read, though this was denied by my parents) and I had to abandon it as the point was quite forcefully made that this was not a good idea.
Nevertheless, my therapist commented at the end of my most recent session, that not many people have such a record of their childhood. I realised that she is right, and that I am very grateful for the ways in which I was able to express myself and to keep a record. I may not have kept a diary, but I have around sixty poems, and a number of short stories or attempts at stories or essays, spanning the ages of around thirteen to twenty three, with the most material concentrated in the period aged fourteen to eighteen. They may not be written in the first person, but they are deeply and obviously autobiographical, despite the altered contexts and the details deliberately changed (sometimes to the very opposite of what they were in ‘real life’). They provide hugely valuable insight and a reminder of how I felt growing up, and what the atmosphere at home was like. And they illuminate the impact of some major events in my life, which I cannot properly remember, either factually or emotionally.
I have shared some of those poems and stories in therapy, and they have proved immensely fruitful and important. I think they have helped my therapist as much as me, because they paint a picture that my very incomplete memories do not allow me to paint; and they put meat on the bones of the little I am able to tell her of my childhood, so much of which is impressionistic, and lacking in detail.
Last week I sent her a short story which I wrote at around the age of sixteen or seventeen. It is unfinished (I don’t think I had the emotional vocabulary to finish it at that age – I knew nothing about how to handle grief); and some of the details and circumstances are the very opposite of my own situation growing up. But in the emotional content I recognise myself immediately. I recognise the picture of a child carrying a responsibility she is not old enough to bear, though in my own case that responsibility was for family members’ emotional well-being, rather than their physical well-being. I recognise – and how little it seems that things have changed since I was sixteen! – the desire for perfect understanding and oneness with another human being who means the world. And I certainly recognise the guilt of failing to keep someone else alive, either emotionally or physically; of abandoning someone in their final hours and depriving them of the comfort or solace that they needed, in a way that is utterly non-reversible and impossible to either seek forgiveness or be forgiven for.
Until I read that story, I’d forgotten the true extent to which my childhood had felt constrained and restricted; the degree to which I felt burdened, angry and resentful of being unable to seek support for my own emotional needs, because they were too much of a threat to other people’s. I had forgotten the extent to which, despite the good times I did have, my growing up was nevertheless accompanied by panic, fear of death, fear of going mad, and the constant denial of self and burying of emotion and sadness.
Sharing that story with my therapist has given me the courage to share it here, as well. It’s only the confidence that she gives me because she is genuinely interested in me, and affirms me, that makes it possible. Although it is ‘just a story’, I hope others might find something they recognise in it as well. Albert Camus wrote that “bad authors are those who write with reference to an inner context which the reader cannot know”. Although the context is my own life and my own emotions, I hope I am not a ‘bad author’ – because I think the internal script in question is one that many of us share, at least in part, even if the individual circumstances are rather different. You will bring your own version of that script to the story, as you read; and I hope that you will be able to take something away from it, too. The story follows in the next post; I feel myself now in a position where I have the emotional vocabulary to write another section or two, and that may come in time. But I still have no idea how the story ends….
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October 25, 2015 at 12:49 pm
I’m glad you were able to create and hold onto at least a small portion of your life from these limited writings. I was also not allowed to keep a diary. I did anyway and it was used against me to hospitalize me, among other things. Cultures of secrecy can be profoundly damaging.
October 26, 2015 at 10:03 pm
😦 I’m so sorry it was used against you in that way – that sounds appalling and like such a betrayal. I completely agree with you about cultures of secrecy -being a parent now, I find it so hard to believe that a parent could remove a child’s means of expression and encourage suppression and keeping things in. Do you still have it and has it been useful for therapy (or do you think it will be?) Take care x
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October 26, 2015 at 11:16 pm
Yeah I have one small journal from when I was in high school. My old therapist held it for me. I gave it to Zooey to read and took it back when she terminated. I hope someday to go over some of the stuff in it with my current therapist.
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October 26, 2015 at 8:41 pm
The comment from Camus is interesting. I think great artists are able to make that which is specific to them into something closer to universal. In music I can think of at least three who did: Gustav Mahler, Josef Suk (in his Asrael Symphony), and Alan Pettersson, the 20th Century Swedish composer.
October 26, 2015 at 9:59 pm
Need to investigate these pieces of music. But YES – completely agree. It’s about writing with one’s own voice but in a way that allows others to connect and feel it’s their voice too. Thank you for reading 🙂
October 26, 2015 at 10:01 pm
You might start with the Mahler song, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen:” I am Lost to the World. It is the most heartbreakingly beautiful piece of music I can think of.
October 26, 2015 at 10:25 pm
I will do, and will let you know how it goes. Your description of it makes me think it must be absolutely wonderful – as well as discovering a new piece of beautiful music, I am also intrigued to find out what music draws you in, and breaks your heart……
October 26, 2015 at 11:18 pm
Which version do you prefer? I have found orchestral with female vocal, and piano only with male vocal….
October 26, 2015 at 11:26 pm
I found this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Xu_ZRs8aE8 and was amused to read one viewer/listener describe it as a ‘narcissistic performance’ 🙂 . Perhaps it is my exposure to male-voice choirs, but I think I prefer the male voice version, and I like the simplicity of the piano….
October 27, 2015 at 12:26 am
The singer certainly does put on a show for the camera. I like the color of the orchestra, for example the sound of the English Horn at the beginning. There are many fine performances. Among women, Kathleen Ferrier, a genuine contralto, recorded this with the conductor Bruno Walter. Walter was 16 years Mahler’s junior and the most famous of his disciples. When Walter was 80 he was asked what distinguished Mahler from Bruckner as composers. He said that Mahler was searching for god in each of his compositions while Bruckner had found god. Janet Baker and Sir John Barbirolli made a wonderful recording of this piece. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau also had a strong attachment to the piece. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Mahler wrote lots of songs and nine numbered symphonies along with a song-symphony called “Das Lied von der Erde and an unfinished 10th Symphony. They were hardly played until the Mahler centenary (1960) and then took off. Now they are probably overplayed. If you are close to a major city, try to hear one of the symphonies “live.” The physical sensation of a Mahler symphony cannot be captured even on a super audio system.
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