Writing a dramatic monologue in verse about life with my disabled son, Don’t Wake Me: The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong, was like reattaching the umbilical cord to my son’s life that was ripped apart when he died, although I didn’t realise it at the time. When somebody you love dies, you feel that the least you can do for them is to remember them: to forget would be the ultimate betrayal. Guarding against the amnesia of time is a service.
Yet that is also the paradox of the grieving process — time heals because it allows you to forget. But your entire being cries out against forgetting especially in the early days of loss, when you enter an induced state of hyperreality, wanting with your words – and in my case, the artifice of rhyme and line length – to place reality in a corset while nurturing the illusion of naturalism.
To paraphrase Terry Pratchett, amnesia steals you from yourself. Is memoir a bulwark against that theft? As detail leaches out of your memory, your past loses colour and texture — like seeing life through the deadening haze of cataracts. Writing about it fixes that experience; it closes a door.
I know it will all still be there as and when I choose to enter, to open the book, even if I am plagued by the thought so perfectly expressed by T.S. Eliot: ‘But to what purpose/Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves/I do not know.’ However, if that memoir ends up on stage, as opposed to in books and films, which appear to be the traditional vehicles of memoirs, the door to the past keeps opening.
There is something about live stage performance which induces in the writer, like an unanswered telephone or a boiling kettle, a compulsive desire to respond. The knowledge that my life is being enacted elsewhere, and that I am absent from it, brings back the rush of guilt I felt when my son was alive that I hadn’t done enough for him. I have been ‘disturbing the dust’ each time I’ve attended the 60-odd outings that Ballad has had across three continents. The actor and the audience with their interpretations and responses skew your memories and add further unexpected layers of meaning. I wanted to unpick that reflexivity, the loop between writer, director, performer, audience and the work itself.
When you think you are writing about a dead person, you discover that you are actually writing about yourself — a self that may also vanish because it existed only in relationship to the person who is gone. Both in the stories that I chose to tell and to withhold I constructed a self which contains both fiction and fact — although which of the two serves the truth better is open to debate. Much of what I describe in Ballad is true, it happened, even if that part of my life seems so exceptional that in some ways it feels like fiction.
When I was living it, some friends would tell me that I was heroic, or that they themselves would have been unable to cope, might even have had a nervous breakdown. As it was my day-to-day reality, it felt unexceptional. There was, of course, a relentlessness to being constantly available to another human being who could not carry out the tasks of basic living without you — could not eat, or drink, even. Now I have become an outsider to my own life – the past is a foreign country – yet I must write about it as if I were a native. So along with the audience, I share, in retrospect, an inflated sense of my own bravery — which I didn’t feel at the time. Now audiences tell me that I have been brave to share my story and that I continue to be brave in sitting through its telling and retelling. But I don’t recognise that description either, because I inhabit the present in a way that I don’t inhabit the past.
Some members of the audience who knew me felt that if I had courage enough to ‘share’ my story, it was incumbent on them to be brave enough to sit through it, although they dreaded the emotional impact it might have on them. When the play travelled to India, country of my childhood, and was seen by school and university friends who knew almost nothing of my life in England, and certainly nothing of the seventeen years in which I looked after my disabled son, I was presenting them with a reality that could only appear to them as a piece of fiction.
I conducted a straw poll. Interestingly none of them thought it was ‘unreal’ although I didn’t get the chance to unpack this further. Did ‘real’ mean factual, or authentic? One person thought that it was the actor’s true story written by me; another said that it wouldn’t have occurred to her to try and separate fact from fiction — it was the emotional authenticity of it that interested her. Embarrassing though it is to repeat her fulsome praise, it so elegantly analyses the question I am posing that I feel compelled to quote it: ‘It’s an account of a relationship which is so well crafted that I believe it could have been created purely from your imagination, and the achievement is, in my view that it was in fact an act of translation — and that is the genius of the thing. In other words, we might be deluded into thinking we are moved because it was based on a “true story”, but in reality the play moves us because you have been able to universalise love and grief beyond the particularity of your own story.’
Whether the self is discovered, made visible in autobiography, or invented, is beyond our knowing — partly because, as Paul John Eakin writes in How our Lives Become Stories: making selves (1999), ‘knowledge of the self is inseparable from the practice of language’. I am the protagonist, narrator and author on the printed page; as if that wasn’t enough baggage to dump on one ‘I’, that ‘I’ is also, in a stage production, the receptacle of the actor’s subjectivity and interpretation, which brings a whole other dimension to my story. The brilliance with which the actor, Jaye Griffiths, inhabits the role, reducing herself and the audience to tears, left no space for me between the words and the saying of them. In the process, I disappeared.
Yet I also found that with every viewing, my own tears dried up. I found my attention being distracted by the changes in how this or that line was delivered. It was no longer my story but an artistic product to be assessed through an aesthetic lens. Authenticity had travelled from me to her on a flood of tears. The actor was the ‘real’ mother who cared and wept for her child. I felt the same guilt in delegating responsibility for my son, yet again.
Despite the fact that many consumers of memoir are sophisticated enough to acknowledge that ‘I’ can be an illusion, they still demand that it is rooted in fact. A university lecturer in English Literature, a friend who didn’t know me at that point in my life, was disturbed when I listed the things that weren’t true. She had, she said, a ‘big investment in everything being absolutely “true”’. Some of the changes were driven by the need to protect the sensitivities of other people featured in the play. Others, by the use of verse which widened, even more than prose, the gap between thought and its expression. So, for example, as I am driven to hospital for the fateful delivery, I say: ‘By five the midwife called me in./Drove past where I was born,/Neat circle that broke through my pain/But made your father yawn.’ Does it really matter if the father yawned or not at that moment, if ‘yawn’ provides the missing rhyme to ‘born’, as long as it truthfully portrays a partially detached father? At the same time, verse helps to mine the moment and encourages you to leave ‘no thought unturned’.
I was also accountable to the play’s director Guy Slater. Guy was a bloodhound, sniffing out the unnecessary repetitions and meanderings that damaged the dramatic potential of the story. If a reflective stanza slackened the pace of the storytelling, it had to go. Was ‘I’ in danger of coming across as being engaged in action but without a thoughtful hinterland? No, because Guy retained those moments of reflection which heightened the drama. Like the one that undercut audience expectation of maternal devotion. When ‘I’ am confronted with the fact that Nihal will have to wear two braces to bed, I write, ‘The thought, wish it wasn’t so, crept/Into my head, unasked./Grief was betrayal of the Cause./Pressure to be cheerful masked/All truths. Disability glowed,/Glorious light in which it basked.’ In the Ballad, it was one small moment of despair, which did nothing to knock me off my heroic perch; it humanised me. In real life, there were many such moments. If all of those had been recorded, ‘I’ would have lost audience sympathy as a ‘moaning minnie’.
There are many fictional whirlpools in which autobiographies can capsize. I hope mine kept the memoir afloat.
You might also like:
Laura Hird speaks with Geoff Hattersley about her beginnings as a writer of bleak and gritty short stories, the real reason her first novel was written in four different voices, and how she gave her mother a literary afterlife in ‘Dear Laura’.