What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness - Candia McWilliam (2012)
PART ONE: SPECTACLES
Q: What do you call a no-eyed deer?
A: No idea.
For many years before I began writing this, I was thinking about it. I thought about it in terms of glimpses and of incidents showing the inner life of those who surround me and whom I love; above all I thought of it in terms of scenes depicted, conveying the evolution of this scattered human soul. Whom did I have in mind as a possible reader when writing it? In writing a novel I think it is important to have no one save the ideal reader in mind, as though you are writing a letter to life about life. This isn’t a novel, but it is perhaps a bread-and-butter letter to life from someone who has loved it but not sufficiently belonged to it.
Which almost leads me, but not quite yet, to the subject of religion that has underlain my whole life. But first I must answer the question about who this book is for.
When I was sighted, it would undoubtedly have been for those few readers who are interested in the minds of writers. I have no celebrity and any success I have ever been close to, I have shrunk from, if not sabotaged.
Then there is the question that had already entered my mind a year or two after my stay at Clouds House, of how to write a book that is not merely an episodic story of the dreadful scrapes addiction has got you into (a genre that usually does well at the tills), but a book about addiction that somehow touches the addictive synapses of other addicts, as a novel touches the synapses of those who are addicted to fiction. In other words, I suppose I was keen to try to find the pleasure centres of the brain, those centres that keep people gobbling the sugar, glugging the caffeine, swallowing the delicious fiction. When I was an undergraduate, my friend Anthony Appiah and I used gently to tussle about whether or not it mattered if fiction was untrue. I thought it certainly didn’t matter because, actually, fiction is true. At that time of his life, Anthony was already picked out for stardom in the philosophical world, editing a learned journal called Theoria to Theory with Elizabeth Anscombe and other distinguished philosophers. He is now not only a philosopher at the top of his powers and an expert on African-American studies, he is a poet and an extremely readable novelist, the old fibber. I think he has written more novels than I have, which wouldn’t be hard.
I’ve been thinking of writing a memoir for some time or at least a long poetic visit through unearthed memory to Scotland. Now I think I’ll do that next, because this book has not been that. Maybe I shall never be equipped to write it if I remain blind, so distorting is memory; otherwise readers of the putative book might accuse me of having invented Scotland.
That we each invent a world I do not deny. Mine feels unwhole to me at present, without sight and without a presence to give love to, though with many beloved absences, but I know that when I write fiction, I can make something external to myself that is whole. If one cannot daily build love, one must make something. I am digging a hole through the dark.
So, there I was contemplating an, as it were, if not curative, at least helpful book for other addicts. I don’t think this is it.
Then came blindness and the knowledge that here was something I really could share with very many other sufferers. I also had the more self-interested thought that by writing about my blindness and the life that, some doctors hint, has brought it, I might lift it from my eyes.
I’ve never written a novel without having at the start a clear picture of its architectural shape in my mind. To cheer myself up and to give some sort of idea of how I work to my kind amanuensis, who was to type all this out as I spoke it, I thought to write this book in the shape of a pair of spectacles. There’s no point forcing these metaphorical matters; they happen or they don’t.
At this point I’ll touch on religion, or rather, as it feels to me, on faith. To each of the psychiatrists I have seen in my blindness, none of whom has been a Christian (they include two Jews, a Muslim, a Hindu and some humanist atheists), I have made the tired comment that I was born, Darwinianly, with the gene for faith. I think that perhaps rather than calling it a gene for faith, I might more precisely call it an impulse to thank and a consciousness of the creation that, and here’s the rub, I saw so vividly. It was almost in my eyes that my faith inhered and one of the reasons, I am sure, that I have been so unpersoned by my blindness is that I was my eyes, my eyes were how I got to being me. My eyes saw the edges of things and the insides of things and permitted me to write novels about these matters. My eyes gave me jokes that led me to friends who enjoyed my company. Without my eyes, did I still believe?
I still prayed, because I believe that the only way to eradicate a habit is to install a new one and for drink I substituted a different kind of praying from that I conducted while I howled to the dead in drink. It is interesting that in his novel Greenvoe, George Mackay Brown has a drunk woman who, when pixillated, puts herself in the dock and hurls accusations at herself from other personae who reside within her. That’s me.
Over the last two and a half years I have been without independence but with the great gift of the reawakening of my bond with Fram. He said at one point that my faith had been, throughout my life, simply yet another means of punishing myself. He himself does not experience guilt, which is a marvellous lack to have. I subjected his theory about my faith to analysis, scepticism, prayer, conversation with an ex-monk, discussion with religious friends, but there it stuck and I thought, ‘Yes that’s it, I’m blind and I’ve lost my faith. I’ve achieved it, I’ve become a stone, the thing I most fear, the thing my poor maternal grandmother pretended to be, the thing my mother-in-law turned herself into, the thing that Liv’s first name so extraordinarily, coincidentally, contradicts in her surname, a stone.’
Nonetheless, if this is true, why have I not enacted the instructions in the nasty little book I sent off for called Final Exit, an instruction book on how to kill yourself? You may ask how I read it and the answer is with difficulty, holding my eyelids up, very slowly and not fully. As an antidote to it I read the recently published and tremendously, as you would expect, sensible Easeful Death by the philosopher Dame Mary Warnock and a cancer specialist and lawyer, Elisabeth Macdonald.
I was alone, I was blind. Sometimes I felt ‘like death’. Nonetheless, I did not feel like dying. I could not wrest from myself that thing that poets track, that we feel when we wake up on good mornings, that slippery thing that is not death at all but the light that comes before death and that we call life. I couldn’t seem to shake off my faith just as I cannot seem to shake off a conviction that I shall see again, which is not to say that I am not frequently almost completely humanly reduced. It is often at points like this that Cousin Audrey, whose instincts are unerring, will call sometimes simply to say the words, ‘We’re lucky, darling. We’re not in Auschwitz.’ She rings many of my family with this message. It is an undeniable one. I had a glimpse of what the Great War did to Cousin Audrey’s life when last week she told me that every day of her girlhood at Lochinver Lodge began with the raw sound at 5 a.m. of her father vomiting his guts up. It was the trenches he was remembering. His body sicked them up every single dawn until his dying day.
Le Ballon Rouge, a film shown to me repeatedly in childhood, is the story of a little boy who loses his balloon and who is found by many millions of balloons which carry him away and up into the sky. The film, I see now, is about death and loss, and it has stuck with me. I seem, in spite of Fram’s suggestion that it is a punitive faith, still to have it and to understand it as not punitive. It is, if you like, the basket in which I put my few good eggs. I want nothing from it, it is simply my sense of attachedness to other minds, including those long dead, and to the created world. The punitive aspect of my life comes from something that happened to me that has made me mislike myself and agree with those who mislike me; I know it is wrong and a perversion, a bad habit, perhaps private, perhaps generational, perhaps inherited, possibly inflicted. I really don’t know. All I know is that I refuse to pass it on to my children.
This morning on the radio I heard ‘Thought for the Day’, which my devout and commonsensical first husband calls ‘Gutlift’. And yes it often does make you want to heave with the chumminess, the euphemism, the sidelong holy boasting and the presumption of familiarity. Today’s crasher touched on ‘the old lie: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’ He referred to the Latin words as ‘The poet Horace’s jingoistic soundbite’.
While there is such bracing illiteracy available in daily life I am too cross and too exhilaratedly pedantic just to curl up and die. What is the man talking about? I hope his wife bet him that he couldn’t get four solecisms into one duff phrase. Or perhaps there’s a stupidity race with points for really dim anachronisms and super-thick conflations. Perhaps then I’m trying to say that my faith is in language. Certainly it is so that the very greatest writers, those who manage by suggestion to give shape to their silences and omissions, come closest to expressing what I am reduced to calling an insistent urge to acknowledge what is and has been beautiful in its wholest sense about life.
Now: the hook of the earpiece of these spectacles. I had written the first lens when one of my doctors suggested that, in sequences of bunched years, I have another go at telling my story and that I, as it were, should blow my clinical cover and at least try to explain to the reader where I am now.
He also wanted me to speculate as to how I might have acted differently when it came to repeated behaviour. By this, I understand him to mean that I have brought unhappy events to bear upon me because I think that in some profound way I deserve it. He is dead right. My system of thought has run along the ‘it’s my fault’ tram-line since before my thought began. Of course, it bores and hampers me that when my brain is idling it is turning on itself. I have tried many antidotes to my obsessive gobbling up of blame, which, I don’t need to be reminded, is in itself a form of egotism.
Perhaps it’s my daughter who has taught me most. She has taught me that if I am imperfect then she doesn’t have to be perfect and so, she tells me, she will now dare to be the mother of daughters, whereas before she had sworn it would only be sons.
My memoir, or so I had thought until I found myself writing it, odd little unwritten book that it has proven to be, was to have been a love letter to Edinburgh and Scotland itself. I was made and born there. I miss it more than I miss my sight. I did not realise that was true until I said those words to Liv.
There are some jokes about being blind. Liv–who by the way has a house of her own and a life to go to and is not with me for more than five hours a day–and I have just taken delivery of rather many blueberries, perhaps enough to constitute the entire five-a-day ruling and intake of Her Majesty’s Government, if only they could get over the colour. We have had problems with Zoflora disinfectant too; you might almost think I drank it. I buy online and sometimes blindly whack in the wrong number. I have thirty packs of Sheba cat food in delicious jelly. If you get any of that jelly on your fingers, your hands smell for days as though you were a whale’s midwife.
I will now try to implement what the cognitive behavioural therapist has asked of me, that is to say speculating on how I might have behaved in order to avert disaster. My mother’s death was, I think, outside my own power to affect. I might have asked for love from, and shown more loyalty to, my father. I should have, as Claudia has done, said no to the perfectionisms by which Fram’s mother was torturing him and he was involuntarily tormenting me. I should cease to collaborate with anyone who attacks me. I rushed too often to greet my literal or metaphorical attacker. I always argue against myself. I install routines that do me harm and I am unkind to myself because I think it somehow vulgar or American or wet to be kind to that person. I should have asked for help before I became completely blind instead of saying, ‘I’m fine’. I would say that I hate attracting attention, but this is not completely true, because I absolutely love reading my stories to people and am masochistically conscious of publicity.
It is late in a life to install straightforwardness, especially, come to think of it, when pursuing the metaphor of a hook, but I am pledged by these doctors to being more direct–and it may be working. I have kept up the habit of buying books and last week I nearly dared pick up a book to read but I was afraid lest I miss the wave, the exactly right wave that will take me out into the blue open, where I shall be able to see. It was a book of verse called The Lost Leader by Mick Imlah. Even to hold it was proper physical pleasure. Soon, if I’m careful and straightforward, I may be able to do more with this book than just smell it and look forward to it.
There is one thing I have not told because I am so ashamed of it. I used to have a photograph, black and white of course, of Mummy and me in her bed. She looks about thirty-three and I look about six. My mother is rangy, her long hair is down her back, her big mouth isn’t smiling, but it is relaxed. She had the cat face that Cate Blanchett has. I sometimes gasp when I see pictures of the actress, because I see Mummy. She was not anything like so beautiful but she had ‘it’, the cat thing and the mouth and the whirl of cheek and the poise and the sexy arms and angles.
In the photo, she is wrapped in a paisley shawl. She is easy, happy, at home in her marital bed. Presumably Daddy took the picture. I had not yet started to get fat and look like my mother save with a fringe and instead of her slanting eyes, large happy ones. I’m in a nightie from Mrs Virtue’s. When I moved to live with the Howards on Colonsay, I cut this photograph in half and put the little snap of me with their big professional photographs of their six children. God knows where it is now and I’ve lost the half with Mummy on too. I did not think I would be able to speak about this since I feel scissors at my heart when I do. Or ‘when I do’ because I never have before, not even at AA.
I went to an AA meeting in Aberdeen. There were four big men off the fishing boats. The cold on the boats, all that freezing salt fish, makes heroin a useful comforter, and drinking is forbidden at sea. There was a pretty little lady with black hair and there was the secretary of the meeting. I don’t think it’s breaking any rules to say that at the start of most AA meetings there is a talk which is called either the ‘chair’ or the ‘share’, I’ve never worked out which, so I allow it its bungy ambiguity. Quite frequently, a stranger is asked to do this part of the meeting, as everyone else is, or may be, familiar with the others’ stories, though something new always comes out no matter how often you hear someone tell their tale. What I have just said is almost invariably true unless you have the bad luck to go to a meeting where a famed clown or someone with a well known ‘terrific sense of humour’ is anticipated; in these cases I’ve often felt the slippy clitter of used coin.
In that little hall in Aberdeen, with the sound of rain bouncing back six feet off the pavement in its thick strength, I told my story and everyone shared back, which means talking about their own lives and relating them to yours, having attention to ‘the similarities, not the differences’. For a non-alcoholic the principles of AA are pretty useful. That one about similarities cannot but be, quite simply, right for civilian life too. It was what Ian McEwan said the day after the Twin Towers were struck, and he was spot on. Fiction is what takes us into the understanding of people who we are not. So it is with AA.
The wee lady with the black hair came up to me afterwards at the Aberdeen meeting and put her hand on my arm. AA is quite full of hugs, touches, taps, and, most terrifying, bear hugs. ‘There is a higher power,’ she said (the higher power is what it says it is–i.e. anything you want it to be, so as not to offend anyone, believer or unbeliever).
I must have looked interrogatively at her. She said, ‘Well, I was praying to get X (another writer who is anonymous, who must remain anonymous); but I did say if X wasnae around, Candia McWilliam would do. I was just wondering, would you have time to have a wee look at these pages I’ve got on me?’ She went on to tell me a story of recent and unremitting tragedy. But she hadn’t had a drink.
In the underworld, or is it a labyrinth, of those of us who are unwell in whatever way we are unwell, there is a generous custom of passing on threads of hope. So it is that this afternoon, in a hotel room, dressed in what he has requested be ‘loose clothing’, I am to meet a total stranger who will touch me in ways I have never been touched before. For this I am to pay him in cash. I am innocent and ignorant of what the encounter will entail. The hook is trust, if not faith. The clincher was what I really loved. After I had explained the intricacies of my own name, he confided his own,
‘Arthur Jaffe,’ he said.
‘I like Arthur,’ I said.
‘But Art is good,’ he said
‘In life,’ I said.