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Your Voice in My Head

August 14, 2012

Book Cover: Your Voice in My HeadEmma Forrest, Your Voice in My Head, Bloomsbury, 2011

A memoir tells the story of near fatal mental illness and hard-won recovery. Is it okay to lampoon the writer for her self-obsession?

Screenwriter Emma Forrest has bipolar disorder. Swinging between mania and depression, she becomes bulimic, cuts herself (“a graffiti artist, coming back in the dead of night to a favourite wall”), and attempts suicide. “Mania flows like a river approaching a waterfall,” she writes. “Depression is a stagnant lake. There are dead things floating and the water has the same blue-black tinge as your lips.”

With the help of a psychiatrist, her parents, music, friends and even, despite not believing in God, a Rabbi’s sermon about self-transformation, she eventually regains control of her life and learns how to keep herself afloat.

In what follows, I reveal part of the storyline. I don’t see this as a spoiler as it’s the quality of the writing and the depth of insight that keeps us reading, not suspense. But if you have an anti-spoiler obsession, avert your eyes.

The psychiatrist, Dr R, is the main trigger for her recovery. There’s no trick to his therapy; rather he is a man of integrity who inspires trust. “Dr R was good at helping people get their lives together, because his own life was together, and he believed that life was good and worth living and that it could get better.” In reflecting back to her or summing up a situation, he uses language that makes her actions less frightening. Sometimes this seems an almost banal use of euphemism (“event” for “suicide attempt”) but it works. He keeps her alive long enough for her to take over the task.

As she improves, their sessions become infrequent.  She enters an intense, loving relationship with an actor and decides to tell Dr R that he made her “well enough to be somebody’s light.” Instead, she finds out that he has died unexpectedly at the age of fifty-three. She is grief-stricken, but coping, until the actor suddenly and inexplicably leaves her. Now she needs Dr R more than she ever has, but instead, “I have to get through this break-up myself, like normal people do.” Except, with her and her ex-partner’s fame, there’s nothing normal about your break-up being played out over the web and in the celebrity gossip mags.

She cannot understand how two men she loved could be lost so suddenly. As she lies in the bath with the pills in her hand, she hears a voice. “‘Just wait,’ says Dr R in the form of [her cat], his orange paws up on the side of the tub, pulling his head over the edge, peering at me like a meerkat. ‘Just wait.’”

Photo of Emma Forrest

Emma Forrest (Wikimedia Commons)

She works through her grief, imagining Dr R’s voice in her head: “Right now you’re depressed about one thing. Before you were depressed about everything. These are good times for you, Emma.” Eventually she understands that she does not need to understand: “the shock at the finish holds no wisdom. The revelation is not that I lost them but that I had them.”

Writing the book is a way of honouring Dr R and of retaining his voice in her head. It is also a love letter to her delightful parents, and an appreciation of her time with the actor. (I have respected her wish not to name him, although his identity can be found in two seconds on google.)

Several reviewers have attacked Forrest for her “self-obsession” in the memoir, with two such attacks in the Guardian, one by Julie Myerson, who loses patience with the time it takes Forrest to work through her feelings about the death of Dr R, and the other by John Crace, who parodies the book and awards her the Oscar for the most self-obsessed writer.

A question for these and others who have ridiculed Forrest: how do you write about mental illness and recovery without writing about yourself? Do they think people with mental health issues should just shut up?

Those of us who haven’t experienced severe mental illness have no idea what that pain, far worse than physical pain, is like. We should feel privileged to have someone as articulate as Forrest to take us with her to the stagnant lake, or into the river rushing toward the waterfall.

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