Paul Williams, The Fifth Principle, London, Karnac, 2010; Scum, London, Karnac, 2013.
What happens within the mind of a child not only rejected by both parents but also the object of their abuse and denigration? How does a child muster the necessary resources to survive, to hold a part of themselves intact enough to question the world his parents have created for him – or her? A clinician working with someone who has had such a desperate struggle with parents past, whose derision has become the voice of truth; the voice that says how could you even think or believe you are worthy/can do/ will do/ will create/will live….? must listen to – and feel – such battering. This is part of that child’s normal, even as it seems unintelligible, even as we seek for that elusive sliver of sanity, or moments of anger that harbour hope – so quickly wiped out in a veneer where nonchalant cynicism rules. How easy it is for clinicians, and others, to become engulfed with this, paralysed, entangled with the other, capitulating to the seductions of a false self, the performer whose smiles cover darkness… where, truth be known, dying, actually dying, promises something better than this liminal inferno… Apparently.
Paul William’s The Fifth Principle and Scum are the first two books of a trilogy, an account of such a struggle. The books take as their subject aspects of the author’s life, Williams explains in his preface to The Fifth Principle. The first covers the years between birth and the age of eight years of age. The second addresses adolescence. The third will be about adulthood. Williams, the author, is also a psychoanalyst, a former editor of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, and now, the back cover of The Fifth Principle tells me, dividing his professional time between private practice and the National Health in the UK. How he reconciles his subject – drawn from himself – with his current position – adult, clinician and, no doubt, survivor, is a significant undercurrent.
It is misleading to consider the book ‘autobiography’ Williams says. The author, ‘and the individual written about, are not the same person… It is a piece of literature that furnishes an account of the methods of the mind in its efforts to prevail in oppressive circumstances. The author has undertaken, on behalf of the subject, to provide a faithful, intelligible rendering of unintelligible events’.
Of whom do we write when we write autobiography – or history? One’s self narrative evolves over time, even as one might fashion a particular story or myth about one’s formation from pivotal remembered moments. Even so, as Elisabeth, another member of the blog world writes in a reflection on self narrative, and indeed about Williams’s works, our inner lives are far more complex – ineffable. Memory, such as it is, is but one source in the re-membering of one’s self – a moment by moment process of reading and re-reading the past as it is woven into one’s self representation.
Is the psychoanalytic situation a place where we tell ourselves our story in the presence of another? Or is ‘psychoanalysis’ a joint construction, the creation of a third position born of the respective subjectivities of the patient/self and analyst? Or, perhaps, as well as, is the psychoanalytic situation a place where myth, the story told about oneself from childhood onwards, the story learned at the parental knee, is broken down into something rather more essential where, as Winnicott shows, the self’s origins, patterned from the earliest maternal-infant relationship onwards, are revealed afresh?
Right from the start Williams takes the reader into experiencing:
How do you know which of your memories is the first? Mine seem to fluctuate, so I am never quite sure which, if any, is the earliest. Sometimes I can recall looking up at clouds, transfixed and alarmed by the vast, random movements. At other times, I remember feeling cold and still. I think I am lying in a pram, staring at what must be the sun, at dusk, slipping out of a darkening sky. “Just wait. If you wait, you will be carried into the gold”, a comforting voice says. At other times, I can feel detached, drifting silently in space with no awareness of my body, and with a mind that seems to have seized, perhaps out of fear, although I don’t feel this. I am numb. “There is nothing to do, nowhere to go”, is the refrain. I can’t say if this memory was an event, whether it came later, or who, if anyone, said it or anything like it.(TFP:11)
Williams the writer is the adult voice explaining to the child that once was – he was- …the mother/analyst mediating, detoxifying, transforming internal experiencing…
The discovery and knowledge of your terror – that all you have striven for may lead to abandonment and death- can, surprisingly, bring consolation and relief. Your fear is that all you hold dear can, if ignored even for a moment, draw you into annihilation. Ignorance of the lasting influence of this fear is by far the greatest obstacle to freedom.Once unmasked as a fantasy of disaster designed to remind us of, not free us from, the past, contemplation of the disaster becomes possible.(TFP:14)
The experiencing of the child ‘subject’ is given words, then meaning. We see that the Boy Williams has a refuge, ‘The Woods’ where he feels safe and secure. It is a memory, maybe, of something good and holding, where he recaptures some sense of his infant experience -Winnicott’s maternal-infant reverie, perhaps. At home though the child is caught in the crossfire between mother and father. Of his Father he writes..
...anything I said, especially if it contained enthusiasm, was the meaningless boast of a puffed up exhibitionist, a conceited mummy’s boy full of hot air…I took this judgement to heart, but did not properly understand until much later in adulthood when it occurred to me that this was precisely his view of my mother’s behaviour…. His accusation of falseness towards things I said had a confusing undermining effect on the way I came to view myself and on the way I thought about thinking. I believed that whatever idea came into my mind it was defacto, bogus -without meaning.(TFP:22).
Williams is unflinching, describing his father’s ‘reasonableness’, his undermining of his wife, Williams’s mother and his attacks on his son. There were his mother’s rages, her ‘nuclear explosions’ which seemed to follow moments of peace and calm. At the centre there were two small children, himself and his surviving sister, unseen and known by both parents, with nowhere to hide – or run. He and his sister were pests,Williams writes. He felt, ultimately, responsible for his mother’s behaviour and deeply ashamed at being a failure as a son. From this he developed his first principle: “Everything I said and did was wrong” and from this the second, third and fourth principles… measures to overcome what appears impossible to overcome. (p.24). This was a child who, at the age of four, felt death could be better than this. Carried through life, beyond the parental relationship, these principles developed to counter overwhelming experiences of anger and privation, resulted in the emergence of a person whose capacity to relate to self and to others was deeply disrupted. By the age of eight the child had ‘made a permanent break from almost everything human’. ( TFP: 76) Williams writes:
No idiom for living develops, and the infant comes to rely upon imitation, abandoning its own personality in favor of a performance that may last a lifetime, polished and honed as circumstances dictate (TFP:74.
The process of losing yourself to self deception takes a long time. What starts out as a struggle to survive overwhelming events by hollowing out the mind in search of a bearable reality, culminates in a dread of truth and allegiance to subterfuge as the mind is filled with illusions and lies. (TFP:77)
One only knows this when the lens has been cleared and the necessity for a false self begins to be relinquished, providing room for the emergence of the Fifth Principle – ‘Fuck ’em’!
Williams writes the second book in the trilogy Scum not just with in the voice of the subject, but that of the subject’s mind in his Adolescence, from the age of about twelve to twenty. This is an adolescent ‘without a mind’, he says. “Thinking founders, language does not stick, emotion becomes an arch-enemy’. He asks, ‘How do you write about such things when language – words, talking, writing – has failed’? ( S: Preface). In his solution, a flow of consciousness, we, the readers, are taken into the form of experience… a young person holding on, barely able if at all able to link words with events and feelings. We are taken into – inside – the child’s mind, behind his eyes, feeling disconnected, bewildered with him. Fears of breakdown loom, we watch in horror as the the boy’s mind darts back and forth in terror even as there is some hope.
What Bollas describes as the ‘Oriental mind’ or Joyce’s portrayal of Stephen Daedalus in his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man may guide our stance. It is the form of experience, not, as in the previous work, its narrative, that is being realised, even if there is another, voice, the writer’s voice, guiding its direction. It works. Listen:
Why these words? How did they know when to stop talking know what to say next? Silence desk lids open – how? All this day every day no hope of work exhausted by noon fending off thousand orienting disorienting events once twice caught sight of why they were there a shaft of dust sunlight painted a stripe across the room everyone settled at desks ready to begin he a part of them convulsed ribsknifed pressed out stone still awake out cold stabbed dying flesh pounded dust dust to dust crushing machinery oblivious to the fact the job long since complete donkey work rampant parasite contraption evaded by dissolving melting if this fails become an alien. (S:14).
Somehow the Boy Williams is able to hold on. There is a ‘romance’ with a teacher, a moment of hope for something different and desparate uncomprehending disappointment when that teacher betrays him. And there is the French teacher, a quiet unassuming man, who enables the Boy Williams to allow a new language to enter his mind. He somehow able to respond to the French teacher’s attempt to help him, accepting an offer to go to France to teach English to schoolboys. Here he begins to glimpse his selfhood. His goodness – and life. It is this teacher’s gift, the ability to see into the real soul of another, that enables the Boy Williams recognition that there is another way of being. Life saving.
In both books Williams reaches into that space to touch and describe a young person’s fearful tethering with life – so fragile, even as he acts living. It is the therapist’s lot to know /experience this inner world well enough, fearlessly enough, to meet it, to form the capacity to reach an other who appears unreachable, who masks themselves with performance. Theirs is a false self designed to protect from cataclysm.
And the clinician who writes these books? And readers? There is the matter of defensiveness as Elisabeth points out in her blog cited earlier in this piece. Why does it matter whether these books and writings are autobiography; that a clinician says out loud for everyone to hear: I know about this through living it? Or that a reader sees her own story? Or is it that Williams ‘recognises’, if that is the word, that autobiography is ultimately fiction – an account of self but also a creation? Or is it an amalgam of self and many others – others known as their world resonates with that of the writer? Internal reality is complicated. The past (self) has its own subjectivity that cannot be revisited as it was, only as it is remembered. Even so, memory – and the truth of it – is notoriously unreliable, fraught with subjectivity, ultimately unknowable.
These quandaries face us all as we attempt to relate to and understand an other – whether through literature, clinical work, or in our encounter with the mystery of another person. In both these superbly written books, Williams provides much to mull over.
DW Winnicott, Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment
Christopher Bollas, China on the Mind, 2012.
James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/4217
Paul Williams’ book is stunning, Christine, and it’s great to read your review here. Your opening paragraph is also stunning. All those rhetorical questions that set is thinking.
I’m about to go off and order the second book of the trilogy. And thanks for the nod to my post on the subject. Have a lovely Christmas/New Year break.
Thankyou Elisabeth… Doing justice to the subtlety of William’s work is important here… so I am pleased I am going in the right direction. “Scum” is magnificent, I think – deeply evocative and intelligently written. All the best for the season.