I wake up, remembering my father-in law turning my first novel over in his hands and saying, “This is pornography” while I sat on the hideous blue sofa wondering how a man can judge me so wrongly, my work and everything about me.
His own daughter would arrive an hour later. He would put his arm around her shoulders as she sat primly in her Laura Ashley summer dress, replete with flowers and ankle-covering length, as though she embodied everything holy in a woman. What he didn’t know was that his daughter’s husband was a drug addict and a bully. What he didn’t know what that her marriage was dissolving. What he didn’t know was that his daughter was miserable. What he didn’t know was everything.
Until she arrived, however, it was only me in the room and the novel he so hated and which he held tightly as evidence against me. Where was my husband at the time, that young man I loved so much? Distracted, in another room, helping with the tea tray, reaching a top shelf for his mother. Doing someone a kindness, anyway.
I wanted him to return and save me from his father, who stared at me through his reading glasses and spoke as though in curses, “I found myself aroused reading it because of its pornographic content.”
Because I am a writer, and because it is time for my regularly scheduled depression, I am remembering, too, a boyfriend who yelled at me (not in public but later, privately). He was cross that I’d confessed a shameful fact about myself to a friend of his whose fiancée shared the same secret. My crime was over-sharing. Even worse, I wouldn’t apologise or give any space to the shame he endured on my behalf. No, I wouldn’t.
Another image. My husband no longer the sweet young man I looked for to save me from his father’s unkind judgments and humiliations, but a presence that disrupts my creativity. In his greatcoat and tie, holding his gloves, pointing a finger, he is looming above me. Why did you have to write that? he insists upon knowing. He is referring to something he didn’t like, or thought improper, or that broke the security system he held in place with the muscle of his disapproval.
Because…I don’t know… why does it matter? I say, and I cannot explain. He’s rattled me. I cannot think. I ought to have said, Because I am a writer. This is what we do. If I were a photographer, I’d set up my lenses. If I were a painter, I’d paint. If I were a marksman, I’d shoot a paper full of holes.
And later, in his fifties, with all the gravitas his age grants him, another awful moment that plays in my mind today, along with all the others (because it is time for my regularly scheduled depression). We are in the living room, in front of the wood burning stove that in previous days he’d swept clean and filled with wood he’d freshly chopped. We are surrounded by canvases our daughter has painted, sitting next to a coffee table on which every game, from My Little Pony to Texas Hold ‘Em, has been played.
He’s yelling, Why HIM anyway?
This moment is shorthand to every ironic wrongness suffered by me in my marriage. The man he is talking about came months after my husband had moved out due to his own infidelity, not mine. I hadn’t done anything wrong, unless you take the line that once-married-always-married. In what is the safest of locations, my home with all its memories and messiness and marks upon its walls, he misshaped and transformed me. Here is what he saw: his sexed-up ex-wife who’d had a man in her life rather than live as a nun for a year.
And what provoked all that yelling? Nothing I was doing at the time. I’d dispatched the man elsewhere.; we’d repaired the marriage. He was angry about something he’d read a blog on my site, a blog about hammams. That had driven him into the tantrum. I didn’t hear the words so much as the disgust. I didn’t want him to even look at me, not because I’d done anything wrong, but because it felt like he wanted me dead. Isn’t that the great history of women in Britain? To die because some man thinks you’re a whore or a witch?
Maybe I am a little nuts. In a 1996 piece in the New York Times called, How Crazy Was Zelda?, Peter Kramer asks, “What is normal excitation and what is mania? What is individual and what is familial? When does literary aspiration become ’a complex about writing’’? This puzzlement is still with us — about an ailment that can appear all but indistinguishable from self.”
I’ve not been hospitalized, nor ever felt myself in the least bit mentally ill, but when I read (as I have done in the Kramer piece and elsewhere) about the relationship between a sparkling, provocative personality and psychosis, it does make me wonder. And reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letters to the doctors looking after Zelda in hospital, this line brought me to attention: Against her writing, there is the nervous strain of the work itself, the nervous strain of recapitulating old agonies best forgotten…
Do any writers manage to avoid those old agonies? It seems to me that I’ve virtually made a living off old agonies. I think there is a certain genius in taking the lemons that life throws at you, then squeezing. And F. Scott’s letters, themselves, make for hearty reading, managing at once to convey a wish to help his wife and to enquire as to what would be the best treatment, while also clearly allowing him his own literary and intellectual indulgences in expressing these concerns.
How do I recognize these two traits (authentic caring mixed with a little showing off) rolled into a single missive? Because I do it all the time.
Maybe it is a faulty precuneous— the precuneous being a part of the brain that lights up seldomly in normal people but is apparently over-active in “creatives”. There is an article called Creativity and Schizotypy from The Neuroscience Perspective by Dr. Andreas Fink et al. which concludes “that originality and schizotypy show similar functional brain activity patterns during creative ideation (i.e., reduced deactivation of the right precuneus) strongly supports the contention that similar mental processes may be implicated in creativity and in psychosis proneness.”
In the article, The Distressing Downside of Creative Genius, Cody Delistrasy explains that “Fink’s hypothesis is that the most creative people are continually making associations between the external world and their internal experiences and memories. They cannot focus on one thing quite like the average person. Essentially, their stream of ideas is always running — the tap does not shut off — and, as a result, creative people show schizophrenic, borderline manic-depressive tendencies.”
Shall I conclude, therefore, that I am insane (or borderline so)? Is that even useful? I am not so far gone that I will fail to interrupt my own work right now in order to both shop for groceries and then collect my son from school. I think such self-control in tandem with practical concerns puts me firmly into the sane category for the moment.
However, there is something odd about the way I think that I cannot deny. I am already wondering if my husband (with whom I reconciled, with whom I live quite peaceably at present), will decide this blog requires yet another display of his disapproval. I can almost imagine him shaking his head at his misfortune to be married to such a woman who, when she types at a keyboard, produces words that are not part of dinner recipes.
I can hear him already, (not actually hear him, you understand, I do not hear voices), even as I type out this draft: why did you write it in your blog, Marti? What did you want out of that? (Are you truly asking? I will tell you then. Listen.) I wrote it because writing is an antidote. Writing is a cure and corrective. I wrote it because I need my fingers to move over letters in order to think straight after yesterday’s argument about money. I wrote it because I have a head full of poisonous thoughts that unstick themselves from my mind as they take form on the page.
But did I need to write it publicly? Yes and no. I wrote it publicly because the cyber world contains within it both the privacy of my own thoughts and the public arena I need in order to share those thoughts and break their power. Also, I’m trying to save my friends some agony. To lean so heavily on a few, strong friends may over-burden them. By writing publicly, I avoid doing so. And if I don’t write, I might truly get depressed, not in this vague and transitory manner that only serves to concentrate my thoughts, but in a dangerous and more permanent one.
Maybe the cure for the overactive precuneous, is to allow it freedom to light up the brain. Maybe the best way to consider old agonies is to rob their of their power by embedding them in alternative narratives, ones that enhance a writer’s life rather than destroy it.
Virginia Woolf wrote that the perfect wife was “…intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed daily. If there was a chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it … Above all, she was pure.” (Woolf, 1966: 2, 285).
Woolf is of course speaking of Patmore’s The Angel In The House. I am no angel in my house. I stand up for myself. I fight. I write. I love who I wish and I am honest, too, even as it costs me. But sometimes I can understand how previous incarnations of women like me might have filled their pockets with rocks. Zelda, in your sanctuary, how I would have liked to visit you.