Mac’s Problem by Enrique Vila-Matas

★★☆☆☆ (2/5)

A selection of my favorite passages from the book

First Lines

  • I’m fascinated by the current vogue for posthumous books, and I’m thinking of writing a fake one that could appear to be “posthumous” and “unfinished” when it would, in fact, be perfectly complete. Were I to die during the writing process, the book really would be my “final, interrupted work,” and that would, among other things, ruin my great dream of becoming a falsifier. Then again, a beginner must be prepared for anything, and I am just that, a debutant. My name is Mac. Perhaps because I am only a beginner, the best and most sensible thing would be to wait a while before attempting anything as challenging as a fake “posthumous” book.

Essence of the Story

  • It’s as if what she really meant is: “The Mercury-Sun conjunction for Aries indicates that only the book matters, but that, ultimately, the book is there only to lead you on in your search for the book.”
  • All of which leads me to suspect that what’s going on with me is this: before the time comes for me to set about rewriting my neighbor’s novel, my reading of the book is obliging me to actually live out certain scenes first.
  • I’ve always been fascinated by that German quality. More than that, I’d like to spend one day of my life, or at least part of a day, just being a German writer of deeply tedious prose, the most incredibly boring German writer ever, a German who would take real delight in the pleasure it would give him to write those boring, knotty sentences, in which one’s memory, without any help at all, would, for five whole minutes, follow the lesson being taught, until, finally, at the end of that protracted Teutonic sentence, the meaning behind what is being said would appear like a lightning flash and the puzzle would be solved. The motto of many German writers was always this: may heaven grant the reader patience.

On Literary Creativity and Otherwise

  • and I want to say this now with no more beating about the bush — in order to write one must cease to be a writer.
  • I love short stories. I don’t, on the other hand, have much sympathy for novels, because they are, as Barthes said, a form of death, transforming life into Fate. If I were to write a novel, I’d like to lose it the way you might mislay an apple after buying a whole bagful from the local Pakistani convenience store. I’d like to lose it just to prove that I don’t care one bit about novels and prefer other literary forms.
  • I realize now that I behaved as if I didn’t know that — ultimately — perfect paragraphs don’t stand the test of time, because they are mere language, and can be destroyed by a sloppy typesetter, by changes in fashions and usage, in short, by life itself.
  • Creative people are punished for aspiring to find happiness in the public exercise of the imagination and the written word.
  • The anonymous narrator, who employs what Hemingway called the Iceberg Theory, pours all his skill into the hermetic telling of that other secret story — two revelers in love with a young woman they never mention — and so skilled is he at the art of ellipsis that the reader becomes aware of that other, absent story of which the girl in question would be the protagonist.
  • I found the parakeet’s squawks rather inspiring, but I couldn’t say this to her, because it would only have made matters worse. The squawking was helping me to write, especially when the bird communicated — through the open window — with its brothers and sisters, the family of parakeets that appeared to be waiting for it outside. I sat writing in the middle of the imaginary flight path of those desperate cries, which traveled up from the depths and out onto the street, where they were greeted by the squawks of other parakeets who, from the tops of the trees, seemed to be asking my accidental pet where its anguished cries were coming from. And perhaps the worst thing was not being able to say any of this to my wife, because it would only prove to her that I was even crazier than she already thought I was.
  • I imagine Sánchez in the building next door, he, too, safe in his apartment, bedding down for a night of replenishing sleep, but then, quite suddenly, jumping to his feet, as if the slightest of noises, coming from underground, had alerted him to the as-yet-undefined danger that I, his neighbor, represent to him; I, who, unbeknown to him — or anybody — have spent weeks thinking constantly about all the modifications I’ll make to Walter’s memoirs. And I haven’t even finished reading them yet.
  • I entitled “Diary of a Washed-Up Contractor.”“Why a contractor?” she asked. “I see, so the word ‘contractor’ alarms you, but never mind that I consider myself washed up.”
  • There’s no point in denying that I adore the enormous, mad, limitless extravagance of Foster Wallace’s obsessive footnotes. I see in them a kind of troubling, irrepressible impulse to keep on writing, to write until you’ve written everything, and to transform the world into one great perpetual commentary, with no final page.
  • If I were to rewrite “Something in Mind,” that narrator would be a double of me — but it would never be me myself, because I consider that impossible: as far as I know, the person speaking (in a story) is not the person writing (in real life), and the person writing is not the person he is — he would be a duplicate
  • No, I wouldn’t stand in her way, I said, meanwhile quietly cursing her absurd determination to reassert herself as a woman of science and not of literature, as if, in order to reaffirm her personality, she had to be the polar opposite of me.

On Repetition

  • My vocation is as a modifier of things. And as a repeater of things, too. But that vocation is more commonplace. Essentially we are all repeaters. Repetition, that most human of gestures
  • “The fear of repeating yourself is offset by the joy of knowing that you’re making your way forward in the company of stories from the past.”
  • We come into this world in order to repeat what those who came before us also repeated. There have been supposedly significant technical advances, but as regards our human nature, we remain unchanged, with exactly the same defects and problems. We unwittingly imitate what those who preceded us tried to do. These add up to mere attempts with very few successes, which, when they do occur, are always second-rate. Every ten or fifteen years, people speak of new generations, but when you analyze those generations, which, on the face of it, do appear to be different, you see instead that they merely repeated, like a mantra, how urgent and vital it is to overturn the previous generation and, just to be safe, the one before the previous one, which, in its time, tried to erase the one before that. Oddly, though, no generation wants to position itself on the margins of that Great Path, but, rather, on the firm ground occupied by the previous generation. They must think there’s nothing else beyond that firm ground, and this belief ultimately leads them to imitate and follow in the footsteps of those they started out despising. And so it goes on, not a single generation has placed itself on the margins or has said, almost as one voice: we don’t like this, you can keep it. The young arrive, only to slink away the next day, no longer young, but old. In fleeing from the world, they’re destroyed; and their memories are destroyed and they die, or they themselves die, so destroying their memories, which were born dead. This rule knows no exception.
  • I felt there was no escape, that I was stranded in the circular geography of Coyote, and, at the same time, at the end of the world, knowing that, even if I traveled to the ends of the earth, I would always return to Calle Londres. The truth is that noting down all these incidents or simple details was doing me good, perhaps because I was immersed in the kind of banal activities described in all my favorite diaries. That’s why, for some time, while I walked, I devoted myself to seeking out the irrelevant.
  • Every ventriloquist knows that if there’s one thing that characterizes a voice, any voice — including the first voice — it’s the knowledge that the voice will not last; it emerges, shines brightly only to fade again, consumed by its own brilliance. A voice has something in common with a falling star with none to see it. There is no voice that doesn’t eventually burn out. You can recapture it, but you never truly find it again; to think otherwise is as naive as thinking that a time machine could carry us back to the beginning of everything. You can imitate a voice, or repeat what a voice has said, and in that way prevent it from disappearing altogether, but it will no longer be the voice, nor will it say exactly what that voice said. Repetitions, versions, perversions, interpretations of what the extinguished voice said will inevitably produce distortions. Voices are the building blocks of literature, which, for me, is a way of keeping alive the flame of tales told around the fire since the dawn of time: a way of turning around the impossibility of accessing something that is lost by at least reconstructing it, even when we know that it doesn’t exist and that the best we can hope for is an imitation.

Thought-Provoking Instances

  • That’s how I began yesterday, with the intention of maintaining a readiness to learn slowly and steadily and perhaps, one day, achieve a depth of knowledge that might allow me to take on far greater challenges.
  • Women seem better able to quash all those absurd concerns that haunt and devastate us poor men; we are always more foolish and tormented than our female counterparts, who seem to have a sixth sense that allows them to simplify problems intelligently
  • It happened to me, and I know it’s happened to others: the first time I went to Lisbon, I had the feeling that I’d lived there before; I didn’t know when, and it made no sense, but I felt that I’d been in that city before ever having been there.
  • These are pictures that emerge from the beauty of this gray day, serenely advancing along the streets of Coyote, and which emerge, too, from my own debutant artist’s world: those mental sketches, always so close to what is actually happening, that are rather charming and, fortunately, rather naive mental engravings; naive, in my case, because the person producing them is still in the initial phase of everything and has no aspirations to go much beyond that, satisfied with the calm state of being the beginner, satisfied with the happy state of the beginner, able to travel from his place at the window, never losing sight of the fact that he is content with the comfortable grayness of his modest knowledge. In short: let others advance.
  • If you ask me, reality doesn’t need anyone to organize it into a plot; it is itself a fascinating, ceaseless creative center. But there are days when reality turns its back on the aimless drifting center that is life and tries to give events a novelish turn.
  • It was a matter of blocking out everything that had the power to upset me and that might seriously hinder the diary’s legitimate function: to make me happy. I was loving these carefree days, where even my strongest-held beliefs were dissolving into easy indifference.
  • I spent the whole morning telling myself that there wasn’t a moment to waste. By the afternoon, nothing much had changed. Once again, I obsessed over not wasting a minute while wasting them all.
  • Sometimes, strange though it may seem, all it takes for us to discover the unknown is the faintest curl of the lip, a tiny random gesture, the briefest flash of insight, and we discover it — as Rimbaud said —“not in some far-off terra incognita, but in the very heart of the present moment.”
  • I thought about the fragility of the strange and ultimately improbable air surrounding us and which we never think of as being made for us, and also about our intuitive sense of exile, of rootlessness, all those things that make us long to go home, as if that were still possible.
  • But I’ve always had my doubts about suicide, because, whenever I think of it, I can’t help remembering that the man who kicks away the chair he is standing on takes the leap into the void only to feel that the rope around his neck binds him ever closer to the very existence he wanted to leave.

Quotes

  • As Nathalie Sarraute once said — writing really is an attempt to find out what we would write if we wrote
  • Kierkegaard was referring to this attractive aspect of repetition when he said that repetition and recollection were the same movement, only in opposite directions, since “what is recollected is repeated backward, whereas repetition properly so-called is recollected forward. Therefore repetition, if it is possible, makes a man happy, whereas recollection makes him unhappy. . . .”
  • “The man who thinks he can live without others is mistaken; the one who thinks others can’t live without him is even more deluded.”
  • A quote from Bernard Malamud: “What’s next isn’t the point.”
  • “I do not evolve: I travel,” wrote Pessoa. In a way, this reminds me sometimes that one can know a man better by what he despises than by what he admires,
  •  “I can forgive you for murdering your wife and your mother, for burning our beloved Rome, for befouling our fair country with the stench of your crimes. But one thing I cannot forgive is the boredom of having to listen to your verses, your second-rate songs, your mediocre performances. Adhere to your special gifts, Nero — murder and arson, betrayal and terror. Mutilate your subjects if you must; but with my last breath I beg you — do not mutilate the arts. Farewell, but compose no more music. Brutalize the people, but do not bore them, as you have bored to death your friend, the late Gaius Petronius, so much so that I’ve chosen to kill myself rather than have to continue listening to your ridiculous attempts at poetry.”
  • “What we all dread most is a maze with no center. That is why atheism is only a nightmare.”
  • Pessoa said that some men rule the world and others are the world.
  • Roland Barthes once said that the only possible success a personal diary can hope for is to have survived the battle, even if that means distancing oneself from the world.
  •  “When you learn of my death that will be my moment of triumph! You will never have loved me so much, and I will never have occupied so much space in your life.”

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • Life seen as a single afternoon, as an elemental, anodyne afternoon; very occasionally glorious, but never without a grayish undertone.
  • I drank too much in the house of the literatureless; that is, at Julia and her husband’s place. By the end of my visit, I verged on the ridiculous, although, luckily, I didn’t make a complete fool of myself and was able to bite my tongue and not tell Julia — in somewhat rambling terms, which I hope to be able to reproduce here now — that I saw her as a great river, and that this new condition of hers — as a powerful rushing stream and not as a sister — was transforming her, in my eyes, into the most fitting and precise image of the course of my own life. It was as if she and her waters encapsulated both my past and my destiny, so closely were both these impressions linked to our favorite childhood holidays
  • I’ve noticed lately that the things that happen to me seem far more narratable than before I started writing this diary, when I was merely submerged in the eternal monotony of the real and, more specifically, in the tedious maelstrom of the construction world, in the day-to-day of business, always glumly marooned on the gray plains of the quotidian.
  • Everything I studied, saw, and learned were illuminated by a kind of potent light I can’t identify, perhaps because it’s merely the subtle glow given off by everything that I am starting to learn.
  • She then started saying how I do less and less each day — as if, once again, she were making a concerted effort to ignore the existence of my diary, and as if my having witnessed a possible murder were proof of my idleness — and she asked what I’d done that morning, wanting to know — as she put it — if I’d spent it sitting on my hands. I considered how fickle a thing falling in love can be and how it can flare up or die down in a moment. My hands were kept pretty busy, I told her. And if plates didn’t fly, that’s only because they happened to be out of Carmen’s reach.
  • It was followed by another contradiction, for Claramunt told me that he greatly admired the sudden sound, which, in Antiquity, must have broken the silence of the original chaos of the universe; and he added rather emphatically that he also admired the grandeur and portentousness of humanity’s first sages, who invented — wherever it was they did invent it — the most extraordinary of all works of art: grammar. They must have been real marvels, he said, those gentlemen who created the different parts of the sentence.

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk MD

★★★★★ (5/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Facing Trauma

  • Even years later traumatized people often have enormous difficulty telling other people what has happened to them. Their bodies reexperience terror, rage, and helplessness, as well as the impulse to fight or flee, but these feelings are almost impossible to articulate. Trauma by nature drives us to the edge of comprehension, cutting us off from language based on common experience or an imaginable past.
  • When something reminds traumatized people of the past, their right brain reacts as if the traumatic event were happening in the present. But because their left brain is not working very well, they may not be aware that they are reexperiencing and reenacting the past—they are just furious, terrified, enraged, ashamed, or frozen. After the emotional storm passes, they may look for something or somebody to blame for it. They behaved the way they did way because you were ten minutes late, or because you burned the potatoes, or because you “never listen to me.” Of course, most of us have done this from time to time, but when we cool down, we hopefully can admit our mistake. Trauma interferes with this kind of awareness,
  • In other words: If an organism is stuck in survival mode, its energies are focused on fighting off unseen enemies, which leaves no room for nurture, care, and love. For us humans, it means that as long as the mind is defending itself against invisible assaults, our closest bonds are threatened, along with our ability to imagine, plan, play, learn, and pay attention to other people’s needs.
  • Once you recognize that posttraumatic reactions started off as efforts to save your life, you may gather the courage to face your inner music (or cacophony), but you will need help to do so. You have to find someone you can trust enough to accompany you, someone who can safely hold your feelings and help you listen to the painful messages from your emotional brain. You need a guide who is not afraid of your terror and who can contain your darkest rage, someone who can safeguard the wholeness of you while you explore the fragmented experiences that you had to keep secret from yourself for so long.
  • Many behaviors that are classified as psychiatric problems, including some obsessions, compulsions, and panic attacks, as well as most self-destructive behaviors, started out as strategies for self-protection. These adaptations to trauma can so interfere with the capacity to function that health-care providers and patients themselves often believe that full recovery is beyond reach.
  • Twenty years after working with Mary, I met Richard Schwartz, the developer of internal family systems therapy (IFS). It was through his work that Minsky’s “family” metaphor truly came to life for me and offered a systematic way to work with the split-off parts that result from trauma. At the core of IFS is the notion that the mind of each of us is like a family in which the members have different levels of maturity, excitability, wisdom, and pain. The parts form a network or system in which change in any one part will affect all the others. The IFS model helped me realize that dissociation occurs on a continuum. In trauma the self-system breaks down, and parts of the self become polarized and go to war with one another. Self-loathing coexists (and fights) with grandiosity; loving care with hatred; numbing and passivity with rage and aggression. These extreme parts bear the burden of the trauma.
  • As Joan’s treatment progressed, we identified many different parts that were in charge at different times: an aggressive childlike part that threw tantrums, a promiscuous adolescent part, a suicidal part, an obsessive manager, a prissy moralist, and so on. As usual, we met the managers first. Their job was to prevent humiliation and abandonment and to keep her organized and safe. Some managers may be aggressive, like Joan’s critic, while others are perfectionistic or reserved, careful not to draw too much attention to themselves. They may tell us to turn a blind eye to what is going on and keep us passive to avoid risk. Internal managers also control how much access we have to emotions, so that the self-system doesn’t get overwhelmed.

Traces of Trauma

  • Traumatic experiences do leave traces, whether on a large scale (on our histories and cultures) or close to home, on our families, with dark secrets being imperceptibly passed down through generations. They also leave traces on our minds and emotions, on our capacity for joy and intimacy, and even on our biology and immune systems.
  • While we all want to move beyond trauma, the part of our brain that is devoted to ensuring our survival (deep below our rational brain) is not very good at denial. Long after a traumatic experience is over, it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amounts of stress hormones. This precipitates unpleasant emotions intense physical sensations, and impulsive and aggressive actions. These posttraumatic reactions feel incomprehensible and overwhelming. Feeling out of control, survivors of trauma often begin to fear that they are damaged to the core and beyond redemption.
  • Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.
  • Some people simply go into denial: Their bodies register the threat, but their conscious minds go on as if nothing has happened. However, even though the mind may learn to ignore the messages from the emotional brain, the alarm signals don’t stop. The emotional brain keeps working, and stress hormones keep sending signals to the muscles to tense for action or immobilize in collapse. The physical effects on the organs go on unabated until they demand notice when they are expressed as illness. Medications, drugs, and alcohol can also temporarily dull or obliterate unbearable sensations and feelings. But the body continues to keep the score.
  • If elements of the trauma are replayed again and again, the accompanying stress hormones engrave those memories ever more deeply in the mind. Ordinary, day-to-day events become less and less compelling. Not being able to deeply take in what is going on around them makes it impossible to feel fully alive. It becomes harder to feel the joys and aggravations of ordinary life, harder to concentrate on the tasks at hand. Not being fully alive in the present keeps them more firmly imprisoned in the past.
  • Alexithymics substitute the language of action for that of emotion. When asked, “How would you feel if you saw a truck coming at you at eighty miles per hour?” most people would say, “I’d be terrified” or “I’d be frozen with fear.” An alexithymic might reply, “How would I feel? I don’t know. . . . I’d get out of the way.” They tend to register emotions as physical problems rather than as signals that something deserves their attention. Instead of feeling angry or sad, they experience muscle pain, bowel irregularities, or other symptoms for which no cause can be found.
  • The price of this loyalty is unbearable feelings of loneliness, despair, and the inevitable rage of helplessness. Rage that has nowhere to go is redirected against the self, in the form of depression, self-hatred, and self-destructive actions. One of my patients told me, “It is like hating your home, your kitchen and pots and pans, your bed, your chairs, your table, your rugs.” Nothing feels safe—least of all your own body.
  • The mind works according to schemes or maps, and incidents that fall outside the established pattern are most likely to capture our attention. If we get a raise or a friend tells us some exciting news, we will retain the details of the moment, at least for a while. We remember insults and injuries best: The adrenaline that we secrete to defend against potential threats helps to engrave those incidents into our minds. Even if the content of the remark fades, our dislike for the person who made it usually persists.
  • “Hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences,” they proclaim, and go on to note that these memories are not subject to the “wearing away process” of normal memories but “persist for a long time with astonishing freshness.” Nor can traumatized people control when they will emerge: “We must . . . mention another remarkable fact . . . namely, that these memories, unlike other memories of their past lives, are not at the patients’ disposal. On the contrary, these experiences are completely absent from the patients’ memory when they are in a normal psychical state, or are only present in a highly summary form.”
  • The internal system of an abuse victim differs from the non-abuse system with regard to the consistent absence of effective leadership, the extreme rules under which the parts function, and the absence of any consistent balance or harmony. Typically, the parts operate around outdated assumptions and beliefs derived from the childhood abuse
  • Trauma and abandonment disconnect people from their body as a source of pleasure and comfort, or even as a part of themselves that needs care and nurturance. When we cannot rely on our body to signal safety or warning and instead feel chronically overwhelmed by physical stirrings, we lose the capacity to feel at home in our own skin and, by extension, in the world. As long as their map of the world is based on trauma, abuse, and neglect, people are likely to seek shortcuts to oblivion. Anticipating rejection, ridicule, and deprivation, they are reluctant to try out new options, certain that these will lead to failure. This lack of experimentation traps people in a matrix of fear, isolation, and scarcity where it is impossible to welcome the very experiences that might change their basic worldview.

Thought Provoking

  • Imagination is absolutely critical to the quality of our lives. Our imagination enables us to leave our routine everyday existence by fantasizing about travel, food, sex, falling in love, or having the last word—all the things that make life interesting. Imagination gives us the opportunity to envision new possibilities—it is an essential launchpad for making our hopes come true. It fires our creativity, relieves our boredom, alleviates our pain, enhances our pleasure, and enriches our most intimate relationships.
  • For real change to take place, the body needs to learn that the danger has passed and to live in the reality of the present.
  • The brain-disease model overlooks four fundamental truths: (1) our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being; (2) language gives us the power to change ourselves and others by communicating our experiences, helping us to define what we know, and finding a common sense of meaning; (3) we have the ability to regulate our own physiology, including some of the so-called involuntary functions of the body and brain, through such basic activities as breathing, moving, and touching; and (4) we can change social conditions to create environments in which children and adults can feel safe and where they can thrive.
  • After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system. The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their lives. These attempts to maintain control over unbearable physiological reactions can result in a whole range of physical symptoms, including fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and other autoimmune diseases. This explains why it is critical for trauma treatment to engage the entire organism, body, mind, and brain.
  • Very few psychological problems are the result of defects in understanding; most originate in pressures from deeper regions in the brain that drive our perception and attention. When the alarm bell of the emotional brain keeps signaling that you are in danger, no amount of insight will silence it. I am reminded of the comedy in which a seven-time recidivist in an anger-management program extols the virtue of the techniques he’s learned: “They are great and work terrific—as long as you are not really angry.”
  • When our emotional and rational brains are in conflict (as when we’re enraged with someone we love, frightened by someone we depend on, or lust after someone who is off limits), a tug-of-war ensues. This war is largely played out in the theater of visceral experience—your gut, your heart, your lungs—and will lead to both physical discomfort and psychological misery.
  • In a statement released in June 2011, the British Psychological Society complained to the APA that the sources of psychological suffering in the DSM-5 were identified “as located within individuals” and overlooked the “undeniable social causation of many such problems.” This was in addition to a flood of protest from American professionals, including leaders of the American Psychological Association and the American Counseling Association. Why are relationships or social conditions left out? If you pay attention only to faulty biology and defective genes as the cause of mental problems and ignore abandonment, abuse, and deprivation, you are likely to run into as many dead ends as previous generations did blaming it all on terrible mothers.
  • Since then neuroscience research has shown that we possess two distinct forms of self-awareness: one that keeps track of the self across time and one that registers the self in the present moment. The first, our autobiographical self, creates connections among experiences and assembles them into a coherent story. This system is rooted in language. Our narratives change with the telling, as our perspective changes and as we incorporate new input. The other system, moment-to-moment self-awareness, is based primarily in physical sensations, but if we feel safe are not rushed, we can find words to communicate that experience as well. These two ways of knowing are localized in different parts of the brain that are largely disconnected from each other.
  • Like several of my other traumatized patients, Kathy was able to become completely absorbed in her studies: When she read a book or wrote a research paper, she could block out everything else about her life. This enabled her to be a competent student, even when she had no idea how to establish a loving relationship with herself.

Interesting Facts

  • We can now develop methods and experiences that utilize the brain’s own natural neuroplasticity to help survivors feel fully alive in the present and move on with their lives. There are fundamentally three avenues: 1) top down, by talking, (re-) connecting with others, and allowing ourselves to know and understand what is going on with us, while processing the memories of the trauma; 2) by taking medicines that shut down inappropriate alarm reactions, or by utilizing other technologies that change the way the brain organizes information, and 3) bottom up: by allowing the body to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage, or collapse that result from trauma.
  • For every soldier who serves in a war zone abroad, there are ten children who are endangered in their own homes.
  • The way medicine approaches human suffering has always been determined by the technology available at any given time. Before the Enlightenment aberrations in behavior were ascribed to God, sin, magic, witches, and evil spirits. It was only in the nineteenth century that scientists in France and Germany began to investigate behavior as an adaptation to the complexities of the world. Now a new paradigm was emerging: Anger, lust, pride, greed, avarice, and sloth—as well as all the other problems we humans have always struggled to manage—were recast as “disorders” that could be fixed by the administration of appropriate chemicals.
  • The drug revolution that started out with so much promise may in the end have done as much harm as good. The theory that mental illness is caused primarily by chemical imbalances in the brain that can be corrected by specific drugs has become broadly accepted, by the media and the public as well as by the medical profession.
  • The most important job of the brain is to ensure our survival, even under the most miserable conditions. Everything else is secondary. In order to do that, brains need to: (1) generate internal signals that register what our bodies need, such as food, rest, protection, sex, and shelter; (2) create a map of the world to point us where to go to satisfy those needs; (3) generate the necessary energy and actions to get us there; (4) warn us of dangers and opportunities along the way; and (5) adjust our actions based on the requirements of the moment.
  • Neurons that “fire together, wire together.” When a circuit fires repeatedly, it can become a default setting—the response most likely to occur. If you feel safe and loved, your brain becomes specialized in exploration, play, and cooperation; if you are frightened and unwanted, it specializes in managing feelings of fear and abandonment.
  • Economists have calculated that every dollar invested in high-quality home visitation, day care, and preschool programs results in seven dollars of savings on welfare payments, health-care costs, substance-abuse treatment, and incarceration, plus higher tax revenues due to better-paying jobs.
  • Increasing our time in REM sleep reduces depression, while the less REM sleep we get, the more likely we are to become depressed.

Childhood and Trauma

  • Children have no choice who their parents are, nor can they understand that parents may simply be too depressed, enraged, or spaced out to be there for them or that their parents’ behavior may have little to do with them. Children have no choice but to organize themselves to survive within the families they have. Unlike adults, they have no other authorities to turn to for help—their parents are the authorities. They cannot rent an apartment or move in with someone else: Their very survival hinges on their caregivers.
  • Winnicott thought that the vast majority of mothers did just fine in their attunement to their infants—it does not require extraordinary talent to be what he called a “good enough mother.”But things can go seriously wrong when mothers are unable to tune in to their baby’s physical reality. If a mother cannot meet her baby’s impulses and needs, “the baby learns to become the mother’s idea of what the baby is.” Having to discount its inner sensations, and trying to adjust to its caregiver’s needs, means the child perceives that “something is wrong” with the way it is. Children who lack physical attunement are vulnerable to shutting down the direct feedback from their bodies, the seat of pleasure, purpose, and direction.
  • Bowlby noticed that when children must disown powerful experiences they have had, this creates serious problems, including “chronic distrust of other people, inhibition of curiosity, distrust of their own senses, and the tendency to find everything unreal.”

The Unbearable Heaviness of Remembering

  • The traumatic enactment serves no function. In contrast, ordinary memory is adaptive; our stories are flexible and can be modified to fit the circumstances. Ordinary memory is essentially social; it’s a story that we tell for a purpose
  • Memories that are retrieved tend to return to the memory bank with modifications. As long as a memory is inaccessible, the mind is unable to change it. But as soon as a story starts being told, particularly if it is told repeatedly, it changes—the act of telling itself changes the tale. The mind cannot help but make meaning out of what it knows, and the meaning we make of our lives changes how and what we remember.
  • There were two major differences between how people talked about memories of positive versus traumatic experiences: (1) how the memories were organized, and (2) their physical reactions to them. Weddings, births, and graduations were recalled as events from the past, stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Nobody said that there were periods when they’d completely forgotten any of these events. In contrast, the traumatic memories were disorganized. Our subjects remembered some details all too clearly (the smell of the rapist, the gash in the forehead of a dead child) but could not recall the sequence of events or other vital details (the first person who arrived to help, whether an ambulance or a police car took them to the hospital).

The Science of the Brain

  • The birth of three new branches of science has led to an explosion of knowledge about the effects of psychological trauma, abuse, and neglect. Those new disciplines are neuroscience, the study of how the brain supports mental processes; developmental psychopathology, the study of the impact of adverse experiences on the development of mind and brain; and interpersonal neurobiology, the study of how our behavior influences the emotions, biology, and mind-sets of those around us.
  • We now know that the two halves of the brain do speak different languages. The right is intuitive, emotional, visual, spatial, and tactual, and the left is linguistic, sequential, and analytical. While the left half of the brain does all the talking, the right half of the brain carries the music of experience. It communicates through facial expressions and body language and by making the sounds of love and sorrow: by singing, swearing, crying, dancing, or mimicking.
  • The left and right sides of the brain also process the imprints of the past in dramatically different ways. The left brain remembers facts, statistics, and the vocabulary of events. We call on it to explain our experiences and put them in order. The right brain stores memories of sound, touch, smell, and the emotions they evoke. It reacts automatically to voices, facial features, and gestures and places experienced in the past. What it recalls feels like intuitive truth—the way things are. Even as we enumerate a loved one’s virtues to a friend, our feelings may be more deeply stirred by how her face recalls the aunt we loved at age four.
  • Deactivation of the left hemisphere has a direct impact on the capacity to organize experience into logical sequences and to translate our shifting feelings and perceptions into words. (Broca’s area, which blacks out during flashbacks, is on the left side.) Without sequencing we can’t identify cause and effect, grasp the long-term effects of our actions, or create coherent plans for the future.
  • While the smoke detector is usually pretty good at picking up danger clues, trauma increases the risk of misinterpreting whether a particular situation is dangerous or safe. You can get along with other people only if you can accurately gauge whether their intentions are benign or dangerous. Even a slight misreading can lead to painful misunderstandings in relationships at home and at work. Functioning effectively in a complex work environment or a household filled with rambunctious kids requires the ability to quickly assess how people are feeling and continuously adjusting your behavior accordingly. Faulty alarm systems lead to blowups or shutdowns in response to innocuous comments or facial expressions.
  • The amygdala doesn’t make such judgments; it just gets you ready to fight back or escape, even before the frontal lobes get a chance to weigh in with their assessment. As long as you are not too upset, your frontal lobes can restore your balance by helping you realize that you are responding to a false alarm and abort the stress response.
  • Breakdown of the thalamus explains why trauma is primarily remembered not as a story, a narrative with a beginning middle and end, but as isolated sensory imprints: images, sounds, and physical sensations that are accompanied by intense emotions, usually terror and helplessness.
  • The autonomic nervous system regulates three fundamental physiological states. The level of safety determines which one of these is activated at any particular time. Whenever we feel threatened, we instinctively turn to the first level, social engagement. We call out for help, support, and comfort from the people around us. But if no one comes to our aid, or we’re in immediate danger, the organism reverts to a more primitive way to survive: fight or flight. We fight off our attacker, or we run to a safe place. However, if this fails—we can’t get away, we’re held down or trapped—the organism tries to preserve itself by shutting down and expending as little energy as possible. We are then in a state of freeze or collapse.
  • Firefighters will do anything to make emotional pain go away. Aside from sharing the task of keeping the exiles locked up, they are the opposite of managers: Managers are all about staying in control, while firefighters will destroy the house in order to extinguish the fire. The struggle between uptight managers and out-of-control firefighters will continue until the exiles, which carry the burden of the trauma, are allowed to come home and be cared for.
  • Exiles are the toxic waste dump of the system. Because they hold the memories, sensations, beliefs, and emotions associated with trauma, it is hazardous to release them. They contain the “Oh, my God, I’m done for” experience—the essence of inescapable shock—and with it, terror, collapse, and accommodation. Exiles may reveal themselves in the form of crushing physical sensations or extreme numbing, and they offend both the reasonableness of the managers and the bravado of the firefighters.

The Road to Recovery

  • The challenge is not so much learning to accept the terrible things that have happened but learning how to gain mastery over one’s internal sensations and emotions. Sensing, naming, and identifying what is going on inside is the first step to recovery.
  • interoception, our awareness of our subtle sensory, body-based feelings: the greater that awareness, the greater our potential to control our lives. Knowing what we feel is the first step to knowing why we feel that way. If we are aware of the constant changes in our inner and outer environment, we can mobilize to manage them. But we can’t do this unless our watchtower, the MPFC, learns to observe what is going on inside us. This is why mindfulness practice, which strengthens the MPFC, is a cornerstone of recovery from trauma.
  • We also worked on mindfulness: Learning to keep her mind alive while allowing her body to feel the feelings that she had come to dread slowly enabled Marilyn to stand back and observe her experience, rather than being immediately hijacked by her feelings.
  • This combination of core strengthening—psychological, social, and physical—created a sense of personal safety and mastery, relegating my memories to the distant past, allowing the present and future to emerge.
  • In order to change you need to open yourself to your inner experience. The first step is to allow your mind to focus on your sensations and notice how, in contrast to the timeless, ever-present experience of trauma, physical sensations are transient and respond to slight shifts in body position, changes in breathing, and shifts in thinking. Once you pay attention to your physical sensations, the next step is to label them, as in “When I feel anxious, I feel a crushing sensation in my chest.” I may then say to a patient: “Focus on that sensation and see how it changes when you take a deep breath out, or when you tap your chest just below your collarbone, or when you allow yourself to cry.” Practicing mindfulness calms down the sympathetic nervous system, so that you are less likely to be thrown into fight-or-flight. Learning to observe and tolerate your physical reactions is a prerequisite for safely revisiting the past. If you cannot tolerate what you are feeling right now, opening up the past will only compound the misery and retraumatize you further.
  • Study after study shows that having a good support network constitutes the single most powerful protection against becoming traumatized. Safety and terror are incompatible. When we are terrified, nothing calms us down like the reassuring voice or the firm embrace of someone we trust. Frightened adults respond to the same comforts as terrified children: gentle holding and rocking and the assurance that somebody bigger and stronger is taking care of things, so you can safely go to sleep. In order to recover, mind, body, and brain need to be convinced that it is safe to let go. That happens only when you feel safe at a visceral level and allow yourself to connect that sense of safety with memories of past helplessness.
  • Some patients discover their own islands of safety—they begin to “get” that they can create body sensations to counterbalance feeling out of control. This sets the stage for trauma resolution: pendulating between states of exploration and safety, between language and body, between remembering the past and feeling alive in the present.
  • IFS recognizes that the cultivation of mindful self-leadership is the foundation for healing from trauma. Mindfulness not only makes it possible to survey our internal landscape with compassion and curiosity but can also actively steer us in the right direction for self-care.
  • The task of the therapist is to help patients separate this confusing blend into separate entities, so that they are able to say: “This part of me is like a little child, and that part of me is more mature but feels like a victim.” They might not like many of these parts, but identifying them makes them less intimidating or overwhelming. The next step is to encourage patients to simply ask each protective part as it emerges to “stand back” temporarily so that we can see what it is protecting. When this is done again and again, the parts begin to unblend from the Self and make space for mindful self-observation. Patients learn to put their fear, rage, or disgust on hold and open up into states of curiosity and self-reflection. From the stable perspective of Self they can begin constructive inner dialogues with their parts.
  • This meant focusing on her many inner resources and reminding myself that I could not provide her with the love and caring she had missed as a child. If, as a therapist, teacher, or mentor, you try to fill the holes of early deprivation, you come up against the fact that you are the wrong person, at the wrong time, in the wrong place. The therapy would focus on Joan’s relationship with her parts rather than with me.
  • Projecting your inner world into the three-dimensional space of a structure enables you to see what’s happening in the theater of your mind and gives you a much clearer perspective on your reactions to people and events in the past. As you position placeholders for the important people in your life, you may be surprised by the unexpected memories, thoughts, and emotions that come up. You then can experiment with moving the pieces around on the external chessboard that you’ve created and see what effect it has on you.
  • Structures do not erase bad memories, or even neutralize them the way EMDR does. Instead, a structure offers fresh options—an alternative memory in which your basic human needs are met and your longings for love and protection are fulfilled.
  • Structures promote one of the essential conditions for deep therapeutic change: a trancelike state in which multiple realities can live side by side—past and present,
  • Our sense of agency, how much we feel in control, is defined by our relationship with our bodies and its rhythms: Our waking and sleeping and how we eat, sit, and walk define the contours of our days. In order to find our voice, we have to be in our bodies—able to breathe fully and able to access our inner sensations. This is the opposite of dissociation, of being “out of body” and making yourself disappear. It’s also the opposite of depression, lying slumped in front of a screen that provides passive entertainment. Acting is an experience of using your body to take your place in life.

Quotations

  • Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. . . . Live the questions now. Perhaps you will gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
  • I doubt that the poet e. e. cummings could have written his joyous lines “i like my body when it is with your body. . . . muscles better and nerves more” if his earliest experiences had been frozen faces and hostile glances. Our relationship maps are implicit, etched into the emotional brain and not reversible simply by understanding how they were created.
  • As the poet W. H. Auden wrote: Truth, like love and sleep, resents Approaches that are too intense.
  • “Major changes to our bodies can be made not just by chemicals and toxins, but also in the way the social world talks to the hard-wired world.”
  • “Who can find a proper grave for such damaged mosaics of the mind, where they may rest in pieces? Life goes on, but in two temporal directions at once, the future unable to escape the grip of a memory laden with grief.”
  • “There is a strangeness, bizarreness to this dual existence. I tire of it. Yet I cannot give up on life, and I cannot delude myself into believing that if I ignore the beast it will go away.
  • “When the fear subsides I realize I can handle it, but a part of me doubts that I can. The pull to the past is strong; it is the dark side of my life; and I must dwell there from time to time. The struggle may also be a way to know that I survive—a re-playing of the fight to survive—which apparently I won, but cannot own.”
  • I don’t go to therapy to find out if I’m a freak I go and I find the one and only answer every week And when I talk about therapy, I know what people think That it only makes you selfish and in love with your shrink But, oh how I loved everybody else When I finally got to talk so much about myself—Dar Williams, What Do You Hear in These Sounds
  • In Seven Pillars of Wisdom T. E. Lawrence wrote of his war experiences: “We learned that there were pangs too sharp, griefs too deep, ecstasies too high for our finite selves to register. When emotion reached this pitch the mind choked; and memory went white till the circumstances were humdrum once more.”
  • There can be no growth without curiosity and no adaptability without being able to explore, through trial and error, who you are and what matters to you.
  • “The greatest sources of our suffering are the lies we tell ourselves.”
  • The greater the doubt, the greater the awakening; the smaller the doubt, the smaller the awakening. No doubt, no awakening.—C.-C. Chang, The Practice of Zen

Beautifully Crafted Sentences

  • Being a patient, rather than a participant in one’s healing process, separates suffering people from their community and alienates them from an inner sense of self.
  • Emotion is not opposed to reason; our emotions assign value to experiences and thus are the foundation of reason. Our self-experience is the product of the balance between our rational and our emotional brains. When these two systems are in balance, we “feel like ourselves.” However, when our survival is at stake, these systems can function relatively independently.
  •  “Grounded” means that you can feel your butt in your chair, see the light coming through the window, feel the tension in your calves, and hear the wind stirring the tree outside. Being anchored in the present while revisiting the trauma opens the possibility of deeply knowing that the terrible events belong to the past. For that to happen, the brain’s watchtower, cook, and timekeeper need to be online. Therapy won’t work as long as people keep being pulled back into the past.
  • Of course we experience our most devastating emotions as gut-wrenching feelings and heartbreak. As long as we register emotions primarily in our heads, we can remain pretty much in control, but feeling as if our chest is caving in or we’ve been punched in the gut is unbearable. We’ll do anything to make these awful visceral sensations go away.
  • Our culture teaches us to focus on personal uniqueness, but at a deeper level we barely exist as individual organisms. Our brains are built to help us function as members of a tribe. We are part of that tribe even when we are by ourselves, whether listening to music (that other people created), watching a basketball game on television (our own muscles tensing as the players run and jump), or preparing a spreadsheet for a sales meeting (anticipating the boss’s reactions). Most of our energy is devoted to connecting with others.
  • How well we get along with ourselves depends largely on our internal leadership skills—how well we listen to our different parts, make sure they feel taken care of, and keep them from sabotaging one another. Parts often come across as absolutes when in fact they represent only one element in a complex constellation of thoughts, emotions, and sensations.
  • in order to become self-confident and capable adults, it helps enormously to have grown up with steady and predictable parents; parents who delighted in you, in your discoveries and explorations; parents who helped you organize your comings and goings; and who served as role models for self-care and getting along with other people.

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

★★★★☆ (4/5)
A selection of my favourite passages from the book

• Climb up time’s threads into the past and make sure no one survives this battle to muddle the futures her Agency’s arranged—the futures in which her Agency rules, in which Red herself is possible. She’s come to knot this strand of history and sear it until it melts.

• Not every battle’s grand, not every weapon erce. Even we who ght wars through time forget the value of a word in the right moment, a rattle in the right car engine, a nail in the right horseshoe . . . It’s so easy to crush a planet that you may overlook the value of a whisper to a snowbank.

• Who’s infecting whom? We know from our hoarse Trojans, in my time. Will you respond, establishing complicity, continuing our self-destructive paper trail, just to get in the last word? Will you cut o , leaving my note to spin its fractal math inside you? I wonder which I’d rather.

• Red curses into the silence. Remembering the era, she invokes local fertility deities, frames inventive methods for their copulation. She exhausts her invective arsenal and growls, wordless, and spits into the abyss. After all that, as prophesied, she laughs. Thwarted, bitter, but still, there’s humor in it.

• Will you go still or turn sharply when you know that I’m watching you? Will you see me? Imagine me waving, in case you don’t; I’ll be too far o for you to see my mouth.

• Icicles drip and snap as the great trees fall, and felled, the trees leave gaps in green that bare the cold white sky. Warriors like those at clouds better than the forest’s gloom, but not so much as they loved the blue of home.

• Tell me something true, or tell me nothing at all.

• The usual nonsense. I imagine you have something of the same: The Agency squats far downthread, issues agents up; then Commandant doubts the agents who return. Yes, we diverge in our travels; yes, we acquire shades; we round; we behave asocially. Adaption is the price of victory. You might think they would realize that.

• There’s a kind of time travel in letters, isn’t there? I imagine you laughing at my small joke; I imagine you groaning; I imagine you throwing my words away. Do I have you still? Do I address empty air and the ies that will eat this carcass? You could leave me for ve years, you could return never—and I have to write the rest of this not knowing. I prefer read-receipts, all things considered—the instant handshake of slow telepathy through our wires.

• Have you ever had a hunger that whetted itself on what you fed it, sharpened so keen and bright that it might split you open, break a new thing out?

• London Next—the same day, month, year, but one strand over—is the kind of London other Londons dream: sepia tinted, skies strung with dirigibles, the viciousness of empire acknowledged only as a rosy backdrop glow redolent of spice and petalled sugar. Mannered as a novel, lthy only where story requires it, all meat pies and monarchy—this is a place Blue loves, and hates herself for loving.

• Adventure works in any strand—it calls to those who care more for living than for their lives.

• You ask if I’ve been lonely. I hardly know how to answer. I have observed friendship as one observes high holy days: breathtakingly short, whirlwinds of intimate endeavour, frenzied carousing, the sharing of food, of wine, of honey. Compressed, always, and gone as soon as they come. It is often my duty to fall in love convincingly, and certainly I’ve received no complaints. But that is work, and there are better things of which to write.

• We treat the past as trellis, coax our vineyard through and around, and harvest is not a word for swiftness; the future harvests us, stomps us into wine, pours us back into the root system in loving libation, and we grow stronger and more potent together.

• but I look at you, Red, and see much of myself: a desire to be apart, sometimes, to understand who I am without the rest. And what I return to, the me-ness that I know as pure, inescapable self . . . is hunger. Desire. Longing, this longing to possess, to become, to break like a wave on a rock and reform, and break again, and wash away

• It is difficult—it is very difficult, to befriend where you wish to consume, to nd those who, when they ask Do I have you still, when they end a letter with Yours, mean it in any substantive way.

• So I go. I travel farther and faster and harder than most, and I read, and I write, and I love cities. To be alone in a crowd, apart and belonging, to have distance between what I see and what I am.

• but Red’s letters she keeps in her own body, curled beneath her tongue like coins, printed in her ngers’ tips, between the lines of her palms.

• So in this letter I am yours. Not Garden’s, not your mission’s, but yours, alone. I am yours in other ways as well: yours as I watch the world for your signs, apophenic as a haruspex; yours as I debate methods, motives, chances of delivery; yours as I review your words by their sequence, their sound, smell, taste, taking care no one memory of them becomes too worn

• In fourteenth-century Axum, Islamicized and strong in Strand 3329, Red, in shadows, stabs a man who’s about to stab another man who’s wandering home buzzed on espresso, sugar, and math. The man Red stabs dies. The mathematician wakes up the next day and invents a form of thought that, in another strand, much later, will be called hyperbolic geometry. Red’s already gone.

• Red wrote too much too fast. Her pen had a heart inside, and the nib was a wound in a vein. She stained the page with herself. She sometimes forgets what she wrote, save that it was true, and the writing hurt

• To paraphrase a prophet: Letters are structures, not events. Yours give me a place to live inside.

• I like you to know, with my words in your mouth, the places and ways in which I think of you. It feels good to be reciprocal; eat this part of me while I drive reeds into the depth of you, spill out something sweet. I wish sometimes I could be less erce with you. No—I feel sometimes like I ought to want to be less erce with you. That this—whatever this is —would be better served by tenderness, by gentle kindness. Instead I write of spilling out your sap-guts with reeds. I hope you can forgive this. To be soft, for me, is so often pretense, and pretense does not come easily while writing to you.

• You wrote of being in a village upthread together, living as friends and neighbours do, and I could have swallowed this valley whole and still not have sated my hunger for the thought. Instead I wick the longing into thread, pass it through your needle eye, and sew it into hiding somewhere beneath my skin, embroider my next letter to you one stitch at a time.

• When Garden embeds an agent—as I’m sure your Commandant has noticed—they are near impossible to approach, indistinguishable from their surroundings, so thoroughly enmeshed in the fabric of strands that to cut us out would tear unsightly holes through which Chaos pours, Chaos no one downthread wants, not even your Oracle, who lives and breathes the stu . Too unpredictable, too dicult to manage, the cost/benet all askew—so you catch us on the move, in between, while we’re dancing the braid as well, touching lives only lightly. Even Garden has diculty reaching us with the more nuanced branches of their consciousness; to be an agent out of time and approach someone embedded you’d need to practically wear their skin before the braid would allow you within fty years or a thousand miles of their position.

• I make metaphors to approach the enormous fact of you on slant

• I’ve never felt it before this —I’ve had joy in sex; I’ve had fast friendships. Neither feels right for this, and this feels bigger than both. So let me say what I mean, as well as I can. I sought loneliness when I was young. You’ve seen me there: on my promontory, patient and unaware. But when I think of you, I want to be alone together. I want to strive against and for. I want to live in contact. I want to be a context for you, and you for me.

• You’ll never see, but you will know. I’ll be all the poets, I’ll kill them all and take each one’s place in turn, and every time love’s written in all the strands it will be to you.

• The twist of you in me. The writhe. You’re a whip uncoiling in my veins, and I write between the rearing and the snap. Of course I write to you. Of course I ate your words.

• Suppose we reached across the burn of threads and tangles, cut through the braid’s knots—suppose that we defected, not to each other’s sides, but to each other? We’re the best there is at what we do. Shall we do something we’ve never done? Shall we prick and twist and play the braid until it yields us a place downthread, bend the fork of our Shifts into a double helix around our base pair?

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

★★★★☆ (4/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

On Friction Within Friendship

• Bobbi and I discussed at length what Bobbi would wear to the dinner, under the guise of talking about what we should both wear.

• I was lying. Except in the sense of enriching my life, Bobbi didn’t help me write the poetry. As far as I knew she had never written creatively at all. She liked to perform dramatic monologues and sing anti-war ballads. Onstage she was the superior performer and I often glanced at her anxiously to remind myself what to do.

• I didn’t have the courage to really dislike her, but I knew I wanted to.

• This phrase, ‘if I can’, made it clear that Bobbi was trying to tell me something serious, something that couldn’t be communicated in words but instead through a shift in the way we related to each other. Not only was it nonsense for Bobbi to say ‘if I can’ at the end of her sentence, because she came from a wealthy family, read diligently and had good grades, but it didn’t make sense in the context of our relationship either. Bobbi didn’t relate to me in the ‘if I can’ sense. She related to me as a person, maybe the only person, who understood her ferocious and frightening power over circumstances and people. What she wanted, she could have, I knew that.

On Seeing Inwardly

• My ego had always been an issue. I knew that intellectual attainment was morally neutral at best, but when bad things happened to me I made myself feel better by thinking about how smart I was. When I couldn’t make friends as a child, I fantasised that I was smarter than all my teachers, smarter than any other student who had been in the school before, a genius hidden among normal people. It made me feel like a spy.

• At this point I felt a weird lack of self-recognition, and I realised that I couldn’t visualise my own face or body at all. It was like someone had lifted the end of an invisible pencil and just gently erased my entire appearance. This was curious and actually not unpleasant, though I was also aware that I was cold and might have been shivering.

• Was I kind to others? It was hard to nail down an answer. I worried that if I did turn out to have a personality, it would be one of the unkind ones. Did I only worry about this question because as a woman I felt required to put the needs of others before my own? Was ‘kindness’ just another term for submission in the face of conflict?

• I panicked, I wanted to tell her. I started thinking about the heat death of the universe again. I called Nick and then hung up on him. But these were all things I did because I thought something was happening to me which turned out not to happen. The idea of the baby, with all its huge emotional gravity and its potential for lasting grief, had disappeared into nothing. I had never been pregnant. It was impossible, maybe even offensive, to grieve a pregnancy that had never happened, even though the emotions I’d felt had still been real at the time that I felt them. In the past Bobbi had been receptive to my analyses of my own misery, but this time I couldn’t trust myself to deliver the argument without weeping into the phone.

• People were always wanting me to show some weakness so they could reassure me. It made them feel worthy, I knew all about that.

On Seeing Inwards from the Outside

• These were long and intense conversations, and felt so momentous to me that I secretly transcribed parts of them from memory in the evenings. When Bobbi talked about me it felt like seeing myself in a mirror for the first time. I also looked in actual mirrors more often. I started taking a close interest in my face and body, which I’d never done before.

• I enjoyed playing this kind of character, the smiling girl who remembered things. Bobbi told me she thought I didn’t have a ‘real personality’, but she said she meant it as a compliment. Mostly I agreed with her assessment. At any time I felt I could do or say anything at all, and only afterwards think: oh, so that’s the kind of person I am.

• I didn’t know what caused this process, but I was glad the poems were only ever performed and never published. They floated away ethereally to the sound of applause. Real writers, and also painters, had to keep on looking at the ugly things they had done for good. I hated that everything I did was so ugly, but also that I lacked the courage to confront how ugly it was.

• They took her radical politics as a kind of bourgeois self-deprecation, nothing very serious, and talked to her about restaurants or where to stay in Rome. I felt out of place in these situations, ignorant and bitter, but also fearful of being discovered as a moderately poor person and a communist.

• Nick said nothing, and neither did I. His silence was significant and mine was not because his opinion on whether things would be fine, unlike mine, was important.

• I thought of myself as an independent person, so independent that the opinions of others were irrelevant to me. Now I was afraid that Nick was right: I isolated myself from criticism so I could behave badly without losing my sense of righteousness.

On Cruelty

• As a woman I have no county, I said. It felt good to belittle Nick’s friends, although they seemed harmless.

• He had screwed me up in his hand like paper and tossed me away.

• His voice wandered up and down the tonal scale when he spoke. His drunkenness made me feel unclean. I wanted to shower or eat a fresh piece of fruit.

• Bobbi herself was the only person who found it amusing, but that didn’t seem to bother her; she looked like it had played out just as she intended. I realised, stupidly late, that she had almost certainly put my name into the bowl in the first place. I was reminded of her wildness, her tendency to get inside things and break them open, and I felt fearful of her, not for the first time. She wanted to expose something private about how I felt, to turn it from a secret into something else, a joke or a game.

• I couldn’t tell whether she was being affectionate or vitriolic; she had a way of making them seem like the same thing.

• That I had managed to leave any lasting impact on Valerie filled me with a sense of spiteful triumph. Although she had ignored me at dinner, I was now the interesting thing she wanted to unravel. In this triumphantly recriminatory mood, I sent her the new story, without even looking it over again for typos. The world was like a crumpled ball of newspaper to me, something to kick around.

• I thought of the story I had sent to Valerie that morning, a story which I now remembered was explicitly about Bobbi, a story which characterised Bobbi as a mystery so total I couldn’t endure her, a force I couldn’t subjugate with my will, and the love of my life.

• In short if you’re sleeping with my husband because you secretly believe that one day he will be your husband, then you’re making a serious mistake. He’s not going to divorce me & if he did he would never marry you. Equally if you’re sleeping with him because you believe his affection proves you to be a good person, or even a smart or attractive person, you should know that Nick is not primarily attracted to good-looking or morally worthy people. He likes partners who take complete responsibility for all his decisions, that’s all. You will not be able to draw a sustainable sense of self-respect from this relationship you’re in. I’m sure you find his total acquiescence charming now, but over the course of a marriage it actually becomes exhausting. Fighting with him is impossible because he’s pathologically submissive, & you can’t scream at him without hating yourself.

• And I mean, you took such enjoyment in destroying it. Suddenly I’m looking around my own fucking house, thinking: is this sofa ugly? Is it kitsch to drink wine? And things I felt good about before started to make me feel pathetic. Having a husband instead of just fucking someone else’s husband. Having a book deal instead of writing nasty short stories about people I know and selling them to prestigious magazines. I mean, you came into my house with your fucking nose piercing like: oh, I’ll really enjoy eviscerating this whole set-up. She’s so establishment.

On Nuances of Love

• It was at this point I saw Nick enter from the door at the back. He looked slightly breathless, like he had taken the stairs too quickly. Instantly I looked away and pretended I hadn’t noticed him. I could see that he was trying to catch my eye and that if I returned his gaze he would give me a kind of apologetic expression. I found this idea too intense to think about, like the glare of a bare lightbulb.

• He drew away from me after a few seconds and wiped his mouth, but tenderly, as if he was trying to make sure it was still there. Neither of us gestured or waved, we just looked at one another, as if we were already having a private conversation that couldn’t be overheard.

• The inside of my body was hot like oil. I was possessed by an overwhelming and intense energy which seemed to threaten me. Please, I was saying. Please, please.

• The moment he touched me I felt hot and passive as if I were asleep. Any strength I had seemed to leave me completely and when I tried to speak I stammered.

• At times I thought this was the worst misery I had experienced in my life, but it was also a very shallow misery, which at any time could have been relieved completely by a word from him and transformed into idiotic happiness.

• Frances, I want you so badly, he said. I closed my eyes. The words seemed to go past my mind, like they went straight into my body and stayed there. When I spoke, my voice sounded low and sultry. Will you die if you can’t have me? I said. And he said: yes.

• But what happens if I do tell her? he said. I mean, what would you want to happen? I don’t get the impression that you want me to move in with you. I laughed and so did he. Although we were laughing about the impossibility of our relationship, it still felt nice.

• The problem isn’t that you’re married, I said. The problem is that I love you and you obviously don’t love me. He took a deep breath in and said: you’re being unbelievably dramatic, Frances. Fuck you, I said.

• Even though I had known Nick didn’t love me, I had continued to let him have sex with me whenever he wanted, out of desperation and a naive hope that he didn’t understand what he was inflicting on me. Now even that hope was gone. He knew that I loved him, that he was exploiting my tender feelings for him, and he didn’t care. There was nothing to be done.

• I read his email again and again while I tried to decide. On one reading it might give an impression of devotion and acquiescence, and on another it appeared indecisive or ambivalent. I didn’t know what I wanted from him.

• Things like this can be undone. But I knew that he would never come back again, not really. He wasn’t only mine any more, that part was over. Melissa knew things that I didn’t know. After everything that had happened between them they still desired one another.

• If two people make each other happy then it’s working. You could smile at a stranger on the street and make them happy, he said. We’re talking about something more complicated.

Thought Provoking Instances

• I was appropriating my fear of total disappearance as a spiritual practice. I was inhabiting disappearance as something that could reveal and inform, rather than totalise and annihilate.

• “There’s something beautiful about the way you think and feel, or the way that you experience the world is beautiful in some way.” This remark returned to me repeatedly for days after the email arrived. I smiled involuntarily when I thought of it, like I was remembering a private joke.

• You can love more than one person, she said.

• Bobbi: if you look at love as something other than an interpersonal phenomenon Bobbi: and try to understand it as a social value system Bobbi: it’s both antithetical to capitalism, in that it challenges the axiom of selfishness Bobbi: which dictates the whole logic of inequality Bobbi: and yet also it’s subservient and facilitatory Bobbi: i.e. mothers selflessly raising children without any profit motive Bobbi: which seems to contradict the demands of the market at one level Bobbi: and yet actually just functions to provide workers for free

• I wanted to hurt myself again, in order to feel returned to the safety of my own physical body.

• Maybe niceness is the wrong metric, I said. Of course it’s really about power, Bobbi agreed. But it’s harder to work out who has the power, so instead we rely on ‘niceness’ as a kind of stand-in.

• My relationship with you is also produced by your relationship with Melissa, and with Nick, and with your childhood self, etc., etc. I wanted things for myself because I thought I existed. You’re going to write back and explain what Lacan really meant.

Beautifully Crafted Sentences

• Although I couldn’t specify why exactly, I felt certain that Melissa was less interested in our writing process now that she knew I wrote the material alone. I knew the subtlety of this change would be enough for Bobbi to deny it later, which irritated me as if it had already happened. I was starting to feel adrift from the whole set-up, like the dynamic that had eventually revealed itself didn’t interest me, or even involve me. I could have tried harder to engage myself, but I probably resented having to make an effort to be noticed.

• How’s your mother holding up? Oh, it’s migraine season again. We’re all tiptoeing around like fucking Trappist monks.

• Her hands were large and sallow, not at all like mine. They were full of the practicality I lacked, and my hand fit into them like something that needed fixing.

• I couldn’t stop the tears so I just laughed self-effacingly instead, to show that I wasn’t invested in the crying.

• I looked out at the garden, at the bird-feeder hanging off the birch tree. My mother favoured some species of birds over others; the feeder was for the benefit of small and appealingly vulnerable ones. Crows were completely out of favour. She chased them away when she spotted them. They’re all just birds, I pointed out. She said yes, but some birds can fend for themselves.

• The non-existent baby entered a new category of non-existence, that is, things which had not stopped existing but in fact had never existed.

• I loved them both so much in this moment that I wanted to appear in front of them like a benevolent ghost and sprinkle blessings into their lives. Thank you, I wanted to say. Thank you both. You are my family now.

• We were silent for a few seconds. I felt blissfully tired, like each cell in my body was winding down into a deep private sleep of its own.

• You know I went up to my room and waited for you, right? I mean for hours. And at first I really thought you would come. It was probably the most wretched I ever felt in my life, this kind of ecstatic wretchedness that in a way I was practically enjoying. Because even if you did come upstairs, what then? The house was full of people, it’s not like anything was going to happen. But every time I thought of going back down again I would imagine hearing you on the stairs, and I couldn’t leave, I mean I physically couldn’t. Anyway, how I felt then, knowing that you were close by and feeling completely paralysed by it, this phone call is very similar. If I told you where my car is right now, I don’t think I’d be able to leave, I think I would have to stay here just in case you changed your mind about everything. You know, I still have that impulse to be available to you.

• I closed my eyes. Things and people moved around me, taking positions in obscure hierarchies, participating in systems I didn’t know about and never would. A complex network of objects and concepts. You live through certain things before you understand them. You can’t always take the analytical position. Come and get me, I said.

Educated by Tara Westover

★★★★★ (5/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Opening Lines

  • I’m standing on the red railway car that sits abandoned next to the barn. The wind soars, whipping my hair across my face and pushing a chill down the open neck of my shirt. The gales are strong this close to the mountain, as if the peak itself is exhaling. Down below, the valley is peaceful, undisturbed. Meanwhile our farm dances: the heavy conifer trees sway slowly, while the sagebrush and thistles quiver, bowing before every puff and pocket of air. Behind me a gentle hill slopes upward and stitches itself to the mountain base. If I look up, I can see the dark form of the Indian Princess. The hill is paved with wild wheat. If the conifers and sagebrush are soloists, the wheat field is a corps de ballet, each stem following all the rest in bursts of movement, a million ballerinas bending, one after the other, as great gales dent their golden heads. The shape of that dent lasts only a moment, and is as close as anyone gets to seeing wind.

Setting the Stage

  • Dad worries that the Government will force us to go but it can’t, because it doesn’t know about us. Four of my parents’ seven children don’t have birth certificates. We have no medical records because we were born at home and have never seen a doctor or nurse. We have no school records because we’ve never set foot in a classroom. When I am nine, I will be issued a Delayed Certificate of Birth, but at this moment, according to the state of Idaho and the federal government, I do not exist.
  • Mother didn’t want to be a midwife. Midwifery had been Dad’s idea, one of his schemes for self-reliance. There was nothing he hated more than our being dependent on the Government. Dad said one day we would be completely off the grid.
  • Of all the strange statements from the past half hour, for some reason this was the one that shocked me. The mere fact of them had never shocked me before. Everything they did had always made sense to me, adhering to a logic I understood. Perhaps it was the backdrop: Buck’s Peak was theirs and it camouflaged them, so that when I saw them there, surrounded by the loud, sharp relics of my childhood, the setting seemed to absorb them. At least it absorbed the noise. But here, so near the university, they seemed so unreal as to be almost mythic.

On Familial Dynamics

  • The other possibility is that Mother didn’t ask Dad. Perhaps she just decided, on her own, and he accepted her decision. Perhaps even he—charismatic gale of a man that he was—was temporarily swept aside by the force of her.
  • Mother fell into silence. I studied her as she drove. Her face was illuminated by the lights in the dashboard, and it appeared ghostly white set against the utter blackness of country roads. Fear was etched into her features, in the bunching of her forehead and the tightening of her lips. Alone with just me, she put aside the persona she displayed for others. She was her old self again, fragile, breathy.
  • in his younger years, Grandpa-down-the-hill had been violent, with a hair-trigger temper. Mother’s use of the words “had been” always struck me as funny. We all knew better than to cross Grandpa. He had a short fuse, that was just fact and anybody in the valley could have told you as much. He was weatherworn inside and out, as taut and rugged as the horses he ran wild on the mountain.
  • That’s when Mother announced we were going to Arizona. She said Dad was like a sunflower—he’d die in the snow—and that come February he needed to be taken away and planted in the sun.
  • It happens sometimes in families: one child who doesn’t fit, whose rhythm is off, whose meter is set to the wrong tune. In our family, that was Tyler. He was waltzing while the rest of us hopped a jig; he was deaf to the raucous music of our lives, and we were deaf to the serene polyphony of his.
  • Grandma was even worse, Dad said. She was frivolous. I didn’t know what that word meant, but he said it so often that I’d come to associate it with her—with her creamy carpet and soft petal wallpaper.
  • There was something in the hard line of my father’s face, in the quiet sigh of supplication he made every morning before he began family prayer, that made me think my curiosity was an obscenity, an affront to all he’d sacrificed to raise me.
  • The play opened a week later. Dad was in the front row. When the performance ended, he marched right to the box office and bought tickets for the next night. It was all he talked about that Sunday in church. Not doctors, or the Illuminati, or Y2K. Just the play over in town, where his youngest daughter was singing the lead.
  • That was how Dad and Shawn became comrades, even if they only agreed on one thing: that my brush with education had made me uppity, and that what I needed was to be dragged through time. Fixed, anchored to a former version of myself.
  • There was a pause, then more words appeared—words I hadn’t known I needed to hear, but once I saw them, I realized I’d been searching my whole life for them. You were my child. I should have protected you. I lived a lifetime in the moment I read those lines, a life that was not the one I had actually lived. I became a different person, who remembered a different childhood. I didn’t understand the magic of those words then, and I don’t understand it now. I know only this: that when my mother told me she had not been the mother to me that she wished she’d been, she became that mother for the first time.

On Fractured Relations

  • We understood that the dissolution of Mother’s family was the inauguration of ours. The two could not exist together. Only one could have her.
  • The embalmers hadn’t gotten her lips right—the gracious smile she’d worn like an iron mask had been stripped away. It was the first time I’d seen her without it and that’s when it finally occurred to me: that Grandma was the only person who might have understood what was happening to me. How the paranoia and fundamentalism were carving up my life, how they were taking from me the people I cared about and leaving only degrees and certificates—an air of respectability—in their place. What was happening now had happened before. This was the second severing of mother and daughter. The tape was playing in a loop.
  • That person was Shawn, and I was looking at him but I wasn’t seeing him. I don’t know what I saw—what creature I conjured from that violent, compassionate act—but I think it was my father, or perhaps my father as I wished he were, some longed-for defender, some fanciful champion, one who wouldn’t fling me into a storm, and who, if I was hurt, would make me whole.
  • I hung up, not sure what I’d just heard. I knew it wouldn’t last, that the next time we spoke everything would be different, the tenderness of this moment forgotten, the endless struggle between us again in the foreground. But tonight he wanted to help. And that was something.
  • I could tolerate any form of cruelty better than kindness. Praise was a poison to me; I choked on it.
  • What was needed was a revolution, a reversal of the ancient, brittle roles we’d been playing out since my childhood. What was needed—what Emily needed—was a woman emancipated from pretense, a woman who could show herself to be a man. Voice an opinion. Take action in scorn of deference. A father.
  • As I listened, I felt a strange sensation of distance that bordered on disinterestedness, as if my future with Tyler, this brother I had known and loved all my life, was a film I had already seen and knew the ending of. I knew the shape of this drama because I had lived it already, with my sister.
  • Our parents are held down by chains of abuse, manipulation, and control….They see change as dangerous and will exile anyone who asks for it. This is a perverted idea of family loyalty….They claim faith, but this is not what the gospel teaches. Keep safe. We love you.
  • But what has come between me and my father is more than time or distance. It is a change in the self. I am not the child my father raised, but he is the father who raised her.

On Memory and Truth

  • My strongest memory is not a memory. It’s something I imagined, then came to remember as if it had happened.
  • At first I merely believed this, until one day it became the truth. Then I was able to tell myself, without lying, that it didn’t affect me, that he didn’t affect me, because nothing affected me. I didn’t understand how morbidly right I was. How I had hollowed myself out. For all my obsessing over the consequences of that night, I had misunderstood the vital truth: that its not affecting me, that was its effect.
  • My loyalty to my father had increased in proportion to the miles between us. On the mountain, I could rebel. But here, in this loud, bright place, surrounded by gentiles disguised as saints, I clung to every truth, every doctrine he had given me.
  • Curiosity is a luxury reserved for the financially secure: my mind was absorbed with more immediate concerns, such as the exact balance of my bank account, who I owed how much, and whether there was anything in my room I could sell for ten or twenty dollars.
  • If I was insane, everything could be made to make sense. If I was sane, nothing could. This logic seemed damning. It was also a relief. I was not evil; I was clinical. I began to defer, always, to the judgment of others.
  • My journals were a problem. I knew that my memories were not memories only, that I had recorded them, that they existed in black and white. This meant that more than my memory was in error. The delusion was deeper, in the core of my mind, which invented in the very moment of occurrence, then recorded the fiction. In the month that followed, I lived the life of a lunatic. Seeing sunshine, I suspected rain. I felt a relentless desire to ask people to verify whether they were seeing what I was seeing. Is this book blue? I wanted to ask. Is that man tall?
  • I had come to reclaim that life, to save it. But there was nothing here to save, nothing to grasp. There was only shifting sand, shifting loyalties, shifting histories.

On Guilt and Fear

  • We thought it was a great joke, once the black rings had been around for a few weeks, long enough for us to get used to them and make them the subject of jokes. We had no idea it was a medical term. Raccoon eyes. A sign of serious brain injury. Tyler’s guilt was all-consuming. He blamed himself for the accident, then kept on blaming himself for every decision that was made thereafter, every repercussion, every reverberation that clanged down through the years. He laid claim to that moment and all its consequences, as if time itself had commenced the instant our station wagon left the road, and there was no history, no context, no agency of any kind until he began it, at the age of seventeen, by falling asleep at the wheel.
  • Dad lived in fear of time. He felt it stalking him. I could see it in the worried glances he gave the sun as it moved across the sky, in the anxious way he appraised every length of pipe or cut of steel.
  • I walked out of the room. Dad was still shouting when I reached the kitchen. As I moved down the hall I looked back. Mother had taken my place, crouching over the VCR, groping for the wires, as Dad towered over her.
  • The instinct passed through me in the form of a word, a bold lyric, strong, declarative. The word was not new. It had been with me for a while now, hushed, motionless, as if asleep, in some remote corner of memory. By touching me Charles had awakened it, and it throbbed with life. I shoved my hands under my knees and leaned into the window. I couldn’t let him near me—not that night, and not any night for months—without shuddering as that word, my word, ripped its way into remembrance. Whore.
  • While they plotted how to reconvert me, I plotted how to let them. I was ready to yield, even if it meant an exorcism. A miracle would be useful: if I could stage a convincing rebirth, I could dissociate from everything I’d said and done in the last year. I could take it all back—blame Lucifer and be given a clean slate. I imagined how esteemed I would be, as a newly cleansed vessel. How loved. All I had to do was swap my memories for theirs, and I could have my family.
  • I did not study. I tried to read but the sentences meant nothing. I needed them to mean nothing. I couldn’t bear to string sentences into strands of thought, or to weave those strands into ideas. Ideas were too similar to reflection, and my reflections were always of the expression on my father’s stretched face the moment before he’d fled from me.
  • I’ve apologized to Tyler more times than I can count for what I’ve cost him, but the words are awkwardly placed and I stumble over them. What is the proper arrangement of words? How do you craft an apology for weakening someone’s ties to his father, to his family? Perhaps there aren’t words for that. How do you thank a brother who refused to let you go, who seized your hand and wrenched you upward, just as you had decided to stop kicking and sink? There aren’t words for that, either.

On Education

  • Learning in our family was entirely self-directed: you could learn anything you could teach yourself, after your work was done. Some of us were more disciplined than others. I was one of the least disciplined, so by the time I was ten, the only subject I had studied systematically was Morse code, because Dad insisted that I learn it. “If the lines are cut, we’ll be the only people in the valley who can communicate,” he said, though I was never quite sure, if we were the only people learning it, who we’d be communicating with.
  • In retrospect, I see that this was my education, the one that would matter: the hours I spent sitting at a borrowed desk, struggling to parse narrow strands of Mormon doctrine in mimicry of a brother who’d deserted me. The skill I was learning was a crucial one, the patience to read things I could not yet understand.
  • The misery began when I moved beyond the Pythagorean theorem to sine, cosine and tangent. I couldn’t grasp such abstractions. I could feel the logic in them, could sense their power to bestow order and symmetry, but I couldn’t unlock it. They kept their secrets, becoming a kind of gateway beyond which I believed there was a world of law and reason. But I could not pass through the gate.
  • I wanted to tell Charles about the Illuminati, but the words belonged to my father, and even in my mind they sounded awkward, rehearsed. I was ashamed at my inability to take possession of them. I believed then—and part of me will always believe—that my father’s words ought to be my own.
  • I had discerned the ways in which we had been sculpted by a tradition given to us by others, a tradition of which we were either willfully or accidentally ignorant. I had begun to understand that we had lent our voices to a discourse whose sole purpose was to dehumanize and brutalize others—because nurturing that discourse was easier, because retaining power always feels like the way forward.

On Journey of the Self

  • I became erratic, demanding, hostile. I devised a bizarre and ever-evolving rubric by which I measured his love for me, and when he failed to meet it, I became paranoid. I surrendered to rages, venting all my savage anger, every fearful resentment I’d ever felt toward Dad or Shawn, at him, this bewildered bystander who’d only ever helped me.
  • To see one would be to ask for help, and I believed myself invincible. It was an elegant deception, a mental pirouette. The toe was not broken because it was not breakable. Only an X-ray could prove otherwise. Thus, the X-ray would break my toe.
  • I have so many bills I can’t imagine how I’m going to pay them. But God will provide either trials for growth or the means to succeed. The tone of that entry seems lofty, high-minded, but in it I detect a whiff of fatalism.
  • When other students asked where I was from, I said, “I’m from Idaho,” a phrase that, as many times as I’ve had to repeat it over the years, has never felt comfortable in my mouth. When you are part of a place, growing that moment in its soil, there’s never a need to say you’re from there. I never uttered the words “I’m from Idaho” until I’d left it.
  • “You must stop yourself from thinking like that,” Dr. Kerry said, his voice raised. “You are not fool’s gold, shining only under a particular light. Whomever you become, whatever you make yourself into, that is who you always were. It was always in you. Not in Cambridge. In you. You are gold. And returning to BYU, or even to that mountain you came from, will not change who you are. It may change how others see you, it may even change how you see yourself—even gold appears dull in some lighting—but that is the illusion. And it always was.”
  • I knew my yearning was unnatural. This knowledge, like so much of my self-knowledge, had come to me in the voice of people I knew, people I loved. All through the years that voice had been with me, whispering, wondering, worrying. That I was not right. That my dreams were perversions. That voice had many timbres, many tones. Sometimes it was my father’s voice; more often it was my own.
  • My father and I looked at the temple. He saw God; I saw granite. We looked at each other. He saw a woman damned; I saw an unhinged old man, literally disfigured by his beliefs. And yet, triumphant. I remembered the words of Sancho Panza: An adventuring knight is someone who’s beaten and then finds himself emperor.
  • As I walked home carrying the heavy manuscript, I remembered attending one of Dr. Kerry’s lectures, which he had begun by writing, “Who writes history?” on the blackboard. I remembered how strange the question had seemed to me then. My idea of a historian was not human; it was of someone like my father, more prophet than man, whose visions of the past, like those of the future, could not be questioned, or even augmented. Now, as I passed through King’s College, in the shadow of the enormous chapel, my old diffidence seemed almost funny. Who writes history? I thought. I do.
  • That peace did not come easily. I spent two years enumerating my father’s flaws, constantly updating the tally, as if reciting every resentment, every real and imagined act of cruelty, of neglect, would justify my decision to cut him from my life. Once justified, I thought the strangling guilt would release me and I could catch my breath. But vindication has no power over guilt. No amount of anger or rage directed at others can subdue it, because guilt is never about them. Guilt is the fear of one’s own wretchedness. It has nothing to do with other people. I shed my guilt when I accepted my decision on its own terms, without endlessly prosecuting old grievances, without weighing his sins against mine. Without thinking of my father at all. I learned to accept my decision for my own sake, because of me, not because of him. Because I needed it, not because he deserved it.

Thought-Provoking Aphorisms

  • The past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, & thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.—Virginia Woolf
  • I believe finally, that education must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience; that the process and the goal of education are one and the same thing.—John Dewey
  • “When the hour of need arises,” Dad said, “the time of preparation has passed.”
  • “Negative liberty,” he said, “is the freedom from external obstacles or constraints. An individual is free in this sense if they are not physically prevented from taking action.” “Positive liberty,” another student said, “is freedom from internal constraints.”
  • But sometimes I think we choose our illnesses, because they benefit us in some way.
  • The distance—physical and mental—that had been traversed in the last decade nearly stopped my breath, and I wondered if perhaps I had changed too much. All my studying, reading, thinking, traveling, had it transformed me into someone who no longer belonged anywhere?

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • I had been educated in the rhythms of the mountain, rhythms in which change was never fundamental, only cyclical. The same sun appeared each morning, swept over the valley and dropped behind the peak. The snows that fell in winter always melted in the spring. Our lives were a cycle—the cycle of the day, the cycle of the seasons—circles of perpetual change that, when complete, meant nothing had changed at all. I believed my family was a part of this immortal pattern, that we were, in some sense, eternal. But eternity belonged only to the mountain.
  • There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain, a perception of privacy and isolation, even of dominion. In that vast space you can sail unaccompanied for hours, afloat on pine and brush and rock. It’s a tranquillity born of sheer immensity; it calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence. Gene was formed by this alpine hypnosis, this hushing of human drama.
  • 12:10. I waited for the screen to flicker and die. I was trying to take it all in, this last, luxurious moment—of sharp yellow light, of warm air flowing from the heater. I was experiencing nostalgia for the life I’d had before, which I would lose at any second, when the world turned and began to devour itself. The longer I sat motionless, breathing deeply, trying to inhale the last scent of the fallen world, the more I resented its continuing solidity. Nostalgia turned to fatigue.
  • There was a date beneath the image: 1955. I realized that Mother had been four years old in 1955, and with that realization, the distance between me and Emmett Till collapsed. My proximity to this murdered boy could be measured in the lives of people I knew. The calculation was not made with reference to vast historical or geological shifts—the fall of civilizations, the erosion of mountains. It was measured in the wrinkling of human flesh. In the lines on my mother’s face.
  • “I am called of God to testify that disaster lies ahead of you,” Dad said. “It is coming soon, very soon, and it will break you, break you utterly. It will knock you down into the depths of humility. And when you are there, when you are lying broken, you will call on the Divine Father for mercy.” Dad’s voice, which had risen to fever pitch, now fell to a murmur. “And He will not hear you.” I met his gaze. He was burning with conviction; I could almost feel the heat rolling off him. He leaned forward so that his face was nearly touching mine and said, “But I will.” The silence settled, undisturbed, oppressive.
  • The Princess had been haunting me. From across the ocean I’d heard her beckoning, as if I were a troublesome calf who’d wandered from her herd. Her voice had been gentle at first, coaxing, but when I didn’t answer, when I stayed away, it had turned to fury. I had betrayed her. I imagined her face contorted with rage, her stance heavy and threatening. She had been living in my mind like this for years, a deity of contempt. But seeing her now, standing watch over her fields and pastures, I realized that I had misunderstood her. She was not angry with me for leaving, because leaving was a part of her cycle. Her role was not to corral the buffalo, not to gather and confine them by force. It was to celebrate their return.

Last Lines

  • That night I called on her and she didn’t answer. She left me. She stayed in the mirror. The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones she would have made. They were the choices of a changed person, a new self. You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.