What is seen and heard

‘What are these blinks of an eyelid, against which
the only defence is an eternal an inhuman wakefulness?
Might not they be the cracks and chinks through which
another voice, other voices, speak in our lives?
By what right do we close our ears to them?’
– JM Coetzee, Foe (1986)


NEARLY TEN YEARS after my mother’s death I can still remember her telephone number. I thought of it recently while walking my dog in the park. Or, rather, it thought of me, leaping unexpectedly in to my mind. I don’t have a particularly good memory and hadn’t thought of the number since she died, but those digits have a life of their own. Science would probably explain it with pictures showing a part of my brain lighting up. But no scientist would be able to tell me why the number entered my mind at that moment. More than three centuries after the Enlightenment inaugurated the Age of Reason, memory, and the past it is meant to represent, remains a puzzle.

When it comes to memory – which is to say, what identifies us – we are, like the teenager in the 1970s pop song, ‘working on mysteries without many clues’. Science and its technologies, which I thank God for when I go to the dentist, is not much use when it comes to what I might be, beyond an organism. This is because I am not identical with my physiology. The memories that make my story mine alone – that set me apart – reside in countless nuances that science has no method of measuring or monitoring. Yet, if these nuances are ignored, I am set adrift. I am, in that sense, a stranger to myself: linked to, but not the same as, the observable processes that keep me alive. Why does my memory rescue some scenes from oblivion, while others that I try to forget hang on?

I used to think that memory could be explained by social structures, that what stayed in my mind was what my working-class family, with its need to keep its place and its silence, left unsaid. But this isn’t right. What my family kept hidden is not explained by what it lacked materially. My mother had little interest in objects and did not crave entrée to higher levels of society. Raised in Broken Hill, she was a new arrival to Melbourne and like many outsiders readily gave her past away in favour of the future. The future she wanted, but could never speak of, was one without certain memories. They were not class-bound reminiscences. My mother was proud that her mother took in ironing to pay the bills and her brothers went on the swag during the Depression. The past that my mother wanted to leave behind involved a childhood that began with her father’s death and built up to a camouflaged feeling of unfairness in love. My mother would remind me how easy I had it compared to her. She was talking about loss and her exile from a desired, adoring gaze. Hers was a personal rather than a class conflict, one that had more in common with Freud than Marx.

But it was many years before I understood this. Like my mother, my inclination as a young man was to flee – to move away. For many years I worked as a foreign correspondent. The stories in the newspapers I wrote for seemed to account for what went on in the world. I was happy to see the events that I wrote about as facts, even though some facts – a medical discovery, for instance – needed an expert to interpret them. Then, in 1993, I encountered a series of events that were not just beyond what I knew, but beyond any facts that purported to explain them. Sitting in an English courtroom I heard how two ten-year-old boys had taken a two-year-old toddler, James Bulger, to a Liverpool canal, where they tortured and murdered him. In court the only question that mattered, why, remained oblique because of the assertion that the ten-year-olds were ‘bad seeds’. There was no evidence of psychosis – just biological blame.

The same assertions were aired during the trial of Rosemary West who, with her husband, Fred, sexually abused and disposed of at least ten young women, including her own daughter. Dubbed the House of Horrors murderer, West sat a few metres from me in Winchester Crown Court looking, in her pressed blouse and cardigan, like my Auntie Glad. West’s guilt, like the boys’, was undisputed. What was in question was motive, an explanation for behaviour that seemed unthinkable. The answer, for the media and for the court, was to blame’s West’s crimes on genetics. This reversion to the mad-or-bad formula was similar to nineteenth-century psychiatry’s classification of lunacy as an inherited condition. Defaulting to biomedicine shut the question down, and that may have been the intention. To see such excess as anything other than an organic, banal evil would have created more anxiety. It left me wondering whether the science that claims to understand us is actually used to seal the lid on uncomfortable human truths.


THERE ARE INNUMERABLE ways of recounting a life, both to ourselves and to others. They all toy with memory and describe childhood as a fraught love affair. I wanted to know what those family romances consisted of – how we are made and unmade by what we remember and forget. I didn’t anticipate objectivity. Objectivity, along with uniformity, is what science looks for, but it is not to be found in human subjects, whose minds and memories are already saturated with judgement. What would, I wondered, an account of a life be like if it was not foreclosed or forced to fit within supposedly rational parameters?

I knew that the stories my family and I told, no matter how truthful they tried to be, depended on reconstructions from the vantage point of the present. This didn’t make them inauthentic, but it did make the way we all construct memory and identity more complex than either the facts that I found in journalism or the science that says we are our biology. Science has never found the biological substrata of human suffering, just as the eyewitnesses I quoted in journalism never offered more than facts fashioned out of necessarily partial memory – memory that, I now realise, was full of holes hollowed out by the infinitesimal small wounds that prompt us to lie to ourselves. I wanted to find another space from which memory might come, a space full of words, ongoing beginnings, yet with an end in sight. Both of these, beginnings and endings, are frontiers arising from language and the way that it serves as our boundary, and the possibility of beginning anew.

These questions led me to psychoanalysis and to ten years’ training to become a psychoanalyst – someone whose function it is to be surprised by words. Psychoanalysis is not like organic psychiatry or psychology. It doesn’t erase the mind and memory from mental treatment by separating off the disturbed individual from the disturbance. Rather, psychoanalysis is curious about the complex motives and intentions that surround distress, and how they are inscribed and deciphered in language. Analysts listen to the eruption of that underworld of emotion as it arises in speech, usually from dreams, slips of the tongue and symptoms. Sometimes it can be alarmingly literal, with words we have heard and then turned into weapons to scar our bodies with. Or, more commonly, it is the fortresses we erect in our minds as we try to flee memories that, though they might not be historically true, are true for us. This is the complexity that science does not address: the way we act not only in response to what we see, but also what we fear and, because we are afraid, deny. It seeps out in symptoms like anxiety, and in unexpected words – words like those that spoke my memories and sheltered my secrets.

Secrets like my mother’s body being the first female body I looked at – not just axiomatically at birth but later, entering puberty, when I peeked through the cracks in the wall of the bathroom my stepfather had built at the rear of our house. My mother’s body shaped what female bodies were for me, and what I would later seek out. I don’t remember thinking of her body as beautiful, possibly because she didn’t.

My mother’s only way of liking the body she kept sheathed through summer, never going to the beach so as not to reveal her varicose veins, was to see it in the past. She found ways to continually stumble across an old, torn photograph of herself at seventeen, kicking her leg high in a chorus line of theatrical amateurs. It was a long line of girls and her question to me was always the same: ‘Which girl am I?’ It bought delight to her – like the punch line of a joke. It opened up possibilities. In the photograph she could be other than she was: an unrecognisable figure from a past that she was now free to invent. The question made me uneasy, not just because I might pick the wrong girl but because I had to search for my mother when she was the sexually active age I was then.

I am still drawn to black-and-white postwar photographs: Sidney Nolan’s sparse Parkville studio, Jack Kerouac’s monochrome New York. Ian McEwan suggests in his novel On Chesil Beach (2007) that we are all fascinated by the era when our parents courted. This might be true, but I’m also drawn to photographs of that era because of how spaces are different, how they lack gadgets and a sense of ‘lifestyle’. They depict people not accustomed to being watched; whatever performance exists is outside the urgency of camera range, in landscapes where little is expected. Faces, posture and possibility inhabit the setting on equal terms. The space devoid of objects is an invitation to create, to see the options that emptiness provides. My mother feared emptiness, as this is where memory digs in. So she filled herself with select images like the dancing girl, and with photographs that made new memories. When I was the same age as Bulger she dressed me up in unfamiliar finery and had a photographer snap shots that made me look like someone else. These were the memories she wanted to keep, rather than the reality of our lives.


MY STORY, THOUGH individual, is incidental to the media culture I once inhabited. And yet its account of hiding secrets and running from the implications of unconscious desire has an unwelcome, universal quality. We drag our past, with its undigested emotional baggage, along with us, and in retelling it we can’t help but evoke the narrative form Freud stumbled across in his case studies. These narratives allow the speaker to inject the present into the past, so that memory can influence contemporary time. They are always concerned with love, in the sense of the longing felt for a place and a person that won’t ever let you down. This is a dream from which it is hard to recover. Freud discovered it accidentally, by listening intently to what people said but did not themselves hear. He thought his case studies would be science, but when he reread the accounts he named them novellas.

Maybe this is what the science of the psyche is? There is no guarantee that any science of today won’t be the alchemy of tomorrow. And when it comes to the particular science that purports to account for memory and mind, what we find is less explanatory and has less predictive power than fiction. This is especially so with organic psychiatry and psychology, disciplines that struggle to meet science’s holy trinity of blind, controlled and randomised trials. Rather than proof, psychiatry and psychology have what in the US is called ‘proofiness’, accounts that only seem rigorous. They rely on drugs that are unspecific in their effect and, in the case of antidepressants, no more effective than a placebo; and on questionnaire-based behavioural modifications, whose effects are short-lived.

But mostly, in their eagerness to be scientific, psychiatry and psychology attempt to stitch up the subjectivity of the individual: that is, they want to foreclose the ambivalence of being. They don’t want to hear the ebb and flow of memory, the structure of dreams and stories that people tell to explain themselves to others. Nor are the disciplines comfortable with how the unconscious doesn’t distinguish between past and present, an intermingling that makes memory unreliable. Yet this is precisely how the mind functions. It can be seen in the way young people locate themselves in both the past and present tenses at the same time: ‘I hadn’t seen him for ages, and I am, like, “What do you mean?”’ This irrational speech, devoid of self-consciousness, reveals the sliding between now and before that occurs in memoir.

The mental health industry has largely given up on the inner world for an inferential world that portrays emotional states as little more than a chemical imbalance. The appeal is the supposed precision of organic medicine, and the confidence (and funding) this elicits from government. But science is at its most persuasive when it is deductive, proven from universal laws. The biomedical model in psychiatry can’t claim this basis. Instead, it is inductive, often naively so, in that it infers universal laws from a number of observed cases. And even in these observed cases – say, a depressed person being treated with medication – it is not certain what is being seen. While some symptoms appear to abate with antidepressants, no one knows why. The notion that these drugs, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors like Prozac, function by influencing the concentration of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, in the brain, is a theory riddled with contradictions. Not only is there no causal, scientific evidence linking depression and serotonin levels: some drugs can alleviate depression yet have little to do with the regulation of serotonin.

Psychiatrists, as the Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann explains, are trained to identify suffering without being able to do much more than hand over a biomedical lollipop. This is the price the dominant discourse in mental health pays for seeing – allegedly scientifically – a category of illness, rather than a person: a patient is the category indicated by their symptoms. But psychiatric symptoms, which are descriptions of behaviour, are not from science, if that term is still true to its Latin root of scientia, knowledge. Psychiatric symptoms come from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV, whose categories are prey to – even the outcome of – haggling between interest groups. Rather than describing mental disorders, the manual creates them, often because drugs are available to allegedly treat, and so define, them.


IN THE ARENA of psychiatry, science and rationality are said to be central. I prefer the landscape in which language surprises, opening up secrets that are the real software of our life. Secrets, I came to realise, derive from fantasy, from rivalry, hatred and desire. Whether we like it or not, they are unconsciously passed on from one generation to another.

My mother fashioned me out of a desire she did not understand and never explored. It wasn’t just the biological urge to reproduce. My psychic existence, the thousands of tiny messages that I absorbed into something I called memory, reflected what I heard and saw. This is the family romance referred to earlier, and it roars inside us. It meant that I was my mother’s way of erasing the disappointment of my father, and repudiating him.

My mother lost my father well before he died, when she woke up to the fact he was a damaged alcoholic. It left her full of rage, but it was not for the outside world any more than she could take into account the childhood neglect that explained my father’s failures. Her anger was directed at what she saw as personal betrayals, slights that began with wearing hand-me-downs, her younger and prettier sister’s preferential treatment, and her father’s early death. My mother could not, as Virginia Woolf and Jeanette Winterson did, recast herself through words on a page; nor did she understand the danger of succumbing to the slickness of your own narrative. She stuck to her story and, in so doing, preserved memories that slowly ate her away.

Science erred in its predictions about acid rain, but there is no mistaking the corrosive effect of toxic memory. Unspoken memories destroy us, as the families of soldiers understand. But it is not enough to just open your mouth. As I found when a journalist, and Freud found in the case history of Dora, the first story you are told is never true. Narrative truth is more a means of exchange than an indication of what happened.

This is what we do when we try to understand puzzles like memory: we exchange fragments of what occurred and what we wished for, invariably with attention directed at those we imagine we are addressing – and this is seldom the person standing in front of us. Deciphering memory means going beyond the familiar story we call our history to unravel how and why we repeat what we don’t remember. Telephone digits that linger on, I now believe, are like the flaws in love that require us to think more about our intentionality than we do about our pain.

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