Self-Unhelp

Lidija Haas

  • What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness by Candia McWilliam
    Cape, 482 pp, £18.99, August 2010, ISBN 978 0 224 08898 5

Candia McWilliam is six feet tall and used to being stared at. She always looked ‘a bit thick’, she says, ‘where thick overlaps with apparently sexy’: a mixed blessing for anyone. Indeed, the looks could be a liability: on her first honeymoon, she was briefly kidnapped in Oaxaca by a gang who’d mistaken her for Jimmy Connors’s new wife, Playboy’s 1977 Playmate of the Year. Decades later, over 50 and much fatter, she found that people were still staring. She was experiencing a second, greater freakishness:

The bottom of my face works and strains and munches and contorts … Quite often I dribble. I swear … I was never before a swearer. The features of my face have thickened, the skin over them coarsened as I pull at my mask … There are surprising batches of wrinkle and hard elbowy flesh … a couple of twitches and a tremor that is worse in company or sunlight. My eyebrows are a tangle of argufying bristles, like moustaches. Along the crevices of my muzzle, where I grimace in the reach for settled sight, the skin is irritated, red, flaking and psoriatically itching. I bare my teeth such that strangers comment, and babies, after whose company I hanker, hide their faces from this witch. Those teeth clench and grind and gurn away, trying to find settlement for the reaching eyeballs lying above them.

McWilliam’s condition is rare, and its causes are mysterious. It’s called blepharospasm (blepharon: ‘eyelid’), and it seems almost like a fairytale punishment for vanity – for looking and being looked at too much. Her eyes were healthy, but the lids had sealed themselves shut. In the street she moved slowly, using her hands to ‘hold my eyes up in their itching sockets’, making involuntary sounds and ‘pre-emptive twitches and sallies’ with her head. Acquaintances flinched, strangers jeered – and she was trapped inside her skull, unable to look back at them.

Twenty years ago, McWilliam was the starriest kind of writer. She won prizes, posed in glossies and in 1993 was one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. Kubrick called to ask if she’d consider writing the script for Eyes Wide Shut. But by the late 1990s she had gone quiet – she lost several years to alcohol and rehab. Then, in 2006, while she was on the Booker Prize panel, the trouble with her eyes began. What to Look for in Winter is half story of her life, half sprawling account of the attempt to regain her sight. By the end, she can see again: the illness isn’t cured exactly, but two operations have at last allowed her to open her eyes. Curiously, she has chosen to imagine the first half of the book as representing a pair of glasses, with sections headed ‘Earpiece’, ‘Lens I’, ‘Lens II’, ‘Earpiece II’ – and a bridging piece called ‘Bridge’. The sections were written or dictated at different times, in different stages of blindness or recovery, and it’s sometimes hard to know where she is and in what year. McWilliam hoards and clutches at her memories, digresses, circles, repeats herself: it must be partly because she wasn’t able to reread what she’d written. The book is unusual among memoirs of addiction and illness in resisting the impulse to neaten or comfort. Instead it gives a horribly convincing account of what it’s like to undergo ‘catastrophic change’. McWilliam’s life is a cautionary tale – a ‘minatory melodrama’, she calls it.

She was born in 1955 in an Edinburgh so dark with coal and paraffin that it looked exactly as it does in black and white photographs. Her father worked for the National Trust for Scotland, rescuing buildings. Her parents worried about money, fought a great deal and hit each other. An anxious and somewhat theatrical only child, McWilliam asked constantly if they were all right and at five or six dreamed that she’d redeemed them both by being crucified on the wall bars of her school gym. At that age she was ‘much taken by suicide’, especially when the victim was one of those women who chose to wear make-up, ‘their prettiest underwear, their nicest negligee’, even though it would be ‘all undone’ by death: ‘the mouth falls open, the stomach rebels, the bowels let go, the worm or the fire do their work.’ She read all she could about Marilyn Monroe’s death, and recalls Life magazine saying with what seemed like a smirk that she must have done it because ‘breasts, belly, bottom, soon all must sag.’ Then, in October 1964 – she’s not sure of the date – her own mother killed herself. She was 36, like Marilyn. McWilliam gets confused about the year, the month, whom she was sent to stay with, whether suicide was legal by then, but she remembers the way her mother tucked her into her own bed beforehand; the transparent turquoise pills called Oblivon with which she did it; the way she looked lying dead on Candia’s bed in her knitted green dress; her father saying, ‘Candia, you will never see your mother again’; going to the funeral in her school uniform.

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