Athens, Georgia, United States
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In his June 2, 2014 New Yorker article Inheritance,1 Ian Parker explores the connection between British novelist Edward St. Aubyn’s early traumatic life and his fiction. When we think of healing through writing, we usually think first of memoir and then perhaps of lyric poetry. Yet fiction offers advantages that should not be overlooked, such as the ability to create distance through the choice of point-of-view narrator, the capacity to abandon the often re-traumatizing facts of history, and the possibility of discovering a new, more beautiful story. Most importantly, fiction can be a means of forging a more authentic self with which to meet the world.
Edward St. Aubyn is the author of the Melrose series of novels, based loosely on the events of his life. These novels have been popular, despite exploring traumatic material such as sexual abuse and addiction—all potentially alienating themes. The novels, however, are told with such take-no-prisoners humor that readers can not get enough. One Goodreads reviewer says this about the books: “The most fun I’ve ever had reading about incest, heroin addiction, narcissism, cruelty, and dementia.”
Although the first novel in the series was published in 1992 when St. Aubyn was thirty-two, it was not until six years later that he was interviewed about the facts of his own life. St. Aubyn was brutally raped by his father from the time he was three and a half until he was eight. In his teens and young adulthood he was a heroin addict, attempting suicide several times. “I thought about suicide constantly during those years,” he said. “It was like a heartbeat, from adolescence through to my late twenties: ‘I want to live, I want to die, I want to live, I want to die.’”
“the irony in the title of St. Aubyn’s third Melrose novel, Some Hope, published in 1994, points both to a career-long interest in the idea of psychological deliverance and to a desire not to be mistaken for an artless writer. But the awkward fact is that writing saved St. Aubyn’s life. Years of psychoanalysis, and the controlled fiction that followed, deferred the threat of suicide.”
Why is the fact that “writing saved St. Aubyn’s life” awkward? Virginia Wolf, Sylvia Plath, Earnest Hemingway, and David Foster Wallace all wrote masterpieces while wrestling with mental illness. Each created protagonists who shared to various degrees their own personalities and histories. St. Aubyn’s protagonist, Patrick, also hews very close to the unsavory facts of St. Aubyn’s own life—incest, addiction, suicidal ideation. Yet despite the chaos at the center of Patrick’s experience, the novels are told in a highly controlled fashion.
Still, we might ask how returning to the themes of incest, addiction, and suicide in fiction might have psychologically “delivered” St. Aubyn. Trauma has been called “the story that can’t be told but must be told,” that is, the facts of traumatic events have in them the potential to traumatize again. Yet at the same time, there is a compulsion to tell the story, to make oneself real through the telling. Elissa Marder, in her essay “Trauma and Literary Studies: Some Enabling Questions,” examines this paradox:
“A traumatic event is, therefore, a strange sort of an event because once it is understood as a belated consequence of a ‘missed encounter,’ . . . This absence at the heart of the traumatic event lends it its constitutive ghostly quality. And because of this absence, people who have suffered traumatic experiences can become so ‘possessed’ by them that they frequently describe themselves as living ‘ghosts.’” 2
Indeed, it was this sort of “ghostliness” that impelled St. Aubyn towards the writing of his novels, locating his protagonist Patrick in specific places and times.
“I was completely sure that later that day, or the next day, I would try (suicide) again and I would succeed,” St. Aubyn said. “I thought, Or I could tell someone the truth. Nobody knew the most important facts about my life. So really my self was a false self, it was a working self for dealing with the world, and behind that wall was total chaos, just this sort of swirling blackness, and I just found it totally unbearable, second by second, being me. So I thought, I have to stop it or get some help.”3
Here again Marder quotes Caruth on the means out of such isolation:
“a means of passing out of the isolation imposed by the event . . . can only take place through the listening of another.” 4
One might point out that in writing the novels, St. Aubyn was not experiencing, in the way that he experienced in analysis, the receptive listening that can be healing. Perhaps the first witness for St. Aubyn was himself. By creating a character that was both him and not him, he could begin to view his life as a story, and reflect on the forces that were brought to bear on him.
By creating the character of Patrick, St. Aubyn also created an authentic self. He was, essentially, creating a self or recovering a self that had, at last, agency. One reviewer describes the phenomenon of creating a self this way: “both writer and character were writhing their way out of narcissistic bleakness.”5
The Melrose novels can be looked on as a project of forging a ‘self’ that had been fragmented by trauma. “I think trauma, during the period of our lives we can remember, doesn’t lead to repression,” St. Aubyn is quoted as saying in the Parker article. “I never understood that theory. It leads to splitting and fragmentation. I never had any trouble remembering what were the most outstandingly violent and life-threatening events in my childhood. Why would you?”
Indeed, that fragmentation is represented in the novel, Bad News, when Patrick breaks down, as Adam Mars Jones writes in The Guardian:
“his own voice is usurped by a series of characters – the Fat Man, Mrs Mop, Dr Death – haranguing and chastising him. It is an echo of the fragmentation of personality that St Aubyn himself experienced for a long period in his late teens and early 20s. Assailed, as he puts it, by ‘compulsory impersonations,’ he would ‘talk in almost any voice except my own, out loud in private and sometimes in the street, this continual commentary taking the form of a kind of theatre. It was oppressive because I didn’t have any choice in the matter.’”6
St. Aubyn’s recall of his early adult life is replete with frightening addictions and compulsions. In The Guardian interview, he addresses the idea of choice: “The most primitive definition of freedom is being able to place your attention where you choose, and Patrick is someone who is drastically unable to do that. His attention is usurped by memories, by addictions, by obsessions.”
It was this lack of agency that drove St. Aubyn to write fiction. “It was ‘Either I write a novel which I finish and get published, and is authentic, or I’ll kill myself,’” he said. Agency first came through representation of trauma, not perhaps faithful to the facts of history but faithful to the subjective experience. Fiction also allowed him to represent the “swirling darkness” of incest and addiction, in all its horrors, without re-traumatizing himself, because what he depicted happened to Patrick, not to Edward. He could write about suicide, for example, with irony: “Suicide wore the mask of self-rejection; but in reality nobody took their personality more seriously than the person who was planning to kill himself on its instructions.”7
In the New Yorker article, Parker states that
“Even if St. Aubyn’s memories of his earlier life, shaped by trauma, are not perfectly accurate, he seems to take care to transmit his memories accurately. But he was drawn to fiction, not memoir. He told me,
‘This whole journey is toward the truth, or toward authenticity, agency, and freedom. How could it possibly help to plant a lie in the middle of it? On the other hand, by telling the truth, I’ve distorted the message.’ And a process of ‘turning something horrible into something that, I hope, is well made and beautiful’ might be put into reverse. ‘The truth for me is the truth in the books,’ he said. ‘And the truth in the facts is a derelict ruin.’”
By leaving the truth of facts for the truths of fiction, the writer has the freedom to make new discoveries. Writers often surprise themselves by what occurs in their fiction; hence, the adage, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” We think we know the facts of our life’s story, but sometimes those facts support a damning story, a story that only reinforces feelings of hopelessness. But by creating fiction, St. Aubyn was allowing for the possibility of a different ending. St. Aubyn writes of Patrick:
“‘As the compassion expanded he saw himself on equal terms with his supposed persecutors, saw his parents who appeared to be the cause of his suffering, as unhappy children with parents who appeared to be the cause of their suffering: there was no one to blame and everyone to help, and those who appeared to deserve the most blame needed the most help. . . .’ I remember crying while I was writing it,’ St Aubyn says. ‘Not in a hysterical fashion, but with relief. Because I was discovering what I had to say as I said it. I really hadn’t envisaged that at all.”8
- Parker, Ian, “Inheritance,” The New Yorker, June 2, 2014
- Marder, Elissa “Trauma and Literary Studies, Some Enabling Questions,” Trauma and Literary Studies, 1.1 2006
- Parker, “Inheritance”
- Marder, “Trauma and Literary Studies”
- Mars-Jones, Adam, “At Last by Edward St. Aubyn: A Review,” The Guardian, Friday 13 April 2012
- Brown, Mick, “How writing helped Edward St Aubyn Exorcise His Demons,” The Telegraph, 02 May 2014
- Balmail, P. Matthijs and Veltkamp, Martijn, “How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation, “ DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0055341, January 30, 2013