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….