Doris and Me

Jenny Diski

I don’t remember the exact date when I went to live in Doris Lessing’s house in Charrington Street, north of King’s Cross. I think of it as being just a few weeks after Sylvia Plath killed herself in early February 1963. The suicide was still very raw and much discussed by Doris’s friends. So at the earliest towards the end of February. In any case it was before Easter, which fell in April that year, because at long last, released from my father’s prohibitions, I went on the Aldermaston March. (‘Ignorant, unwashed mob. You can’t go, you’ll be raped, and that’s that.’ Which was curiously whatever is the opposite of prescient; I’d actually been raped the previous Easter when he’d refused to let me go.) I was quite heavily chaperoned by the responsible, 25-year-old son of Doris’s best friend, Joan Rodker. He kept a watchful eye on me against the CND hordes, and more particularly against one of his womanising friends who, not long after the march, became the first boyfriend to test out the virginal, patiently waiting Dutch cap.

Doris hadn’t liked Sylvia very much; after some friends who had been rerunning the details of her life and death had gone home one evening, she told me she thought Sylvia too ‘pushy’ (‘networking’ we’d call it now) and hadn’t liked what she said were Sylvia’s excessive overtures of friendship. She refused to join in the soul-searching and excited chatter about why the tragedy of Sylvia and her two children had come about. For the first time I heard that moral qualifier Doris used almost automatically and almost always for a man: ‘Poor Ted.’ Over the years the name changed, ‘Poor Roger’ (my first husband), ‘Poor Peter’ (her son), ‘Poor Martin’ (or any other man who she thought had been treated badly by a woman). But as far as I was concerned the death of Sylvia was before my time, if only by weeks, in the same way that the end of the Second World War was before my time at my birth in 1947. The two events marked seminal moments in my life, but, for all that I was surrounded by people intimately involved in both affairs, Sylvia’s suicide and the Second World War felt less real to me than historical events that had taken place centuries earlier. I think it’s a way of avoiding the intolerable fact that the world and the people in it got on, well or otherwise, in the years and days without my presence, as indeed it and they will in my next and final absence.

It was a famously cold winter. I’d come from a snowbound Hove, where I’d spent hours sitting and brooding, wrapped up but shivering on the frozen pebbled beach staring out at an icy sea, writing poetry about seagulls and loneliness (no longer extant, thank heavens, though that’s not to say that I wouldn’t write about seagulls and loneliness like a lightning strike if I once let my guard down). London was cold, too. But Charrington Street was warm. Doris was particularly proud that she had had central heating installed in her new house, which had been bought, I imagine, with the proceeds of The Golden Notebook, published the year before. In the first week or two, friends came and sat around the kitchen table for lunch and supper, for me to meet and for them to meet me, Doris said. We went to movies, first to see Brando in Mutiny on the Bounty with Joan, who had been a staunch friend and fellow Communist Party member, and in whose house Doris had lived, and been looked after, for several years when she got to England with her small son, Peter. Writers, poets and theatre people came to supper, Alan Sillitoe and his wife, the poet Ruth Fainlight, Arnold Wesker and his wife Dusty. Naomi Mitchison. Ted Hughes, Christopher Logue (whose recording of poetry and jazz, Red Bird, I’d bought with my pocket money at St Christopher’s), Lindsay Anderson, Fenella Fielding. A Portuguese couple, described to me as ‘a poet in exile and his glamorous wife’, would remain friends of Doris, about the only ones who did, until her death. R.D. Laing was a guest a couple of times. I watched amazed as his wife (the first, I think) actually closed her eyes and dropped into sleep every time he started to speak.

I was thrilled to meet people whose work I’d read or heard of. I’d read all of Sillitoe and taken part in play-readings of Wesker’s work at school. At Doris’s I read Laing’s The Divided Self and The Self and Others, and found a good deal in them that chimed with my experience of a mad nuclear-family life. I was aware of being on show, and was very cautious. I took the opportunity my novelty gave me to find out how to behave among these strangers. Doris made stews, boeuf Stroganoff, salads, trifles, and we drank wine, Algerian red and Portuguese rosé. I sat, watched and listened. On one occasion, Doris took me to lunch with the Sillitoes, around whose table were some visiting Russian literary types, and Robert Graves. I was even more silent than usual, having a marked taste for older, old men actually, and being quite overwhelmed by Graves’s grey curls and the beauty of his pronounced Roman nose, as well as his grave pronouncements about art and life, none of which I remember. I was mortified that he failed to address a single word to me, although I would have stuttered into sawdust if he had. The following day, Alan told Doris that Graves had asked who that attractive young Russian girl was, and what a pity it was that she spoke no English.

For weeks I listened intently to the table-talk, not daring to join the conversation, not having anything to say, and wondering where and how one acquired opinions, so many and that seemed to come so easily. We left cinemas and theatres, Doris and her friends and me tagging along, and before we were out in the street, they were sharing their judgments of what they’d seen. It was a matter of whether things ‘worked’, how exactly they had failed or succeeded. Nothing was expected to be perfect, so the conversation was about the way in which things worked and didn’t and a judgment was made on the balance. Details of mise-en-scène and dialogue were picked out and weighed. On the other hand, Brando was preposterous as Fletcher Christian and wrecked whatever chance there was of it being a good film. How did they know such things? How did they make so many different angles relevant to their final analysis? And how were they so expert and so sure? We went several times in those early weeks to the beloved Academy Cinema on Oxford Street. Memorably, I saw Les Enfants du Paradis for the first of many viewings. Doris and her friends had already seen it, but rhapsodised for my benefit, picking out telling scenes or shots (Vous êtes toute seule, madame?), laughing at the way they’d been made to cry by such sentimental froth. But Les Enfants was too marvellous to be seriously criticised. It was certainly marvellous to me, and I listened to the talk after the viewing trying to find out why, along with The Seventh Seal, Le Mépris, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, it was considered a marvel, and why Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones, charming though it was, failed because it was self-indulgent. Self-indulgence was very often the reason for a film or play to fail in the eyes of Doris and her friends. It seemed to be a trap waiting for every maker of every art, and I couldn’t understand how they didn’t manage to avoid such an obvious pitfall, when it was so clear to the viewers. Although I relied heavily on others for instances of brilliance or ruination, surely the makers and artists knew what was good and what wasn’t? Everything was talked about, judged, argued over. None of Doris’s friends just went to the movies or the theatre for fun, however much they enjoyed it. Enjoyment wasn’t enough. You needed to know how what you were seeing and hearing ‘worked’ or didn’t, which sometimes was quite separate from how enjoyable it was. A film or a play was an event that only began with the experience of it. They were the basis for opinions, for conversations and for arguments that went on sometimes late into the night, over red wine, or occasionally a joint of the marijuana that, as an experiment, Doris had grown from seed in the garden the previous summer and which she dried in the airing cupboard with the towels.

Freud, Marx, Foucault, Canetti, Martin D’Arcy, Derrida, the anti-psychiatrists, even the behaviourism of Desmond Morris and Konrad Lorenz were to different extents the background to the chat for some, while others, Doris among them, relied on a belief in their own grasp of the effects of heart and mind on individual or crowd behaviour. But at that time, of all the ways of seeing in the world, understanding unconscious psychological motivation was everything, told you everything, i.e. the truth, while surfaces, behaviour, the overt story were so much gaudy wrapping – false reasoning, self-deceit.

I listened furiously, trying to take all this in and find out how it was done. To start with, I couldn’t understand how it was so easy for them to have a point of view, to know how and why things ‘worked’. ‘Working’, the pivotal valuation, was never defined. There seemed to be too much to learn. I picked up quickly that having opinions wasn’t enough and that it was necessary to have a basis – from reading, from study, from hard conscious thought – from which the opinions were formed. But more important than all the theory, behind and beyond it, there was some ineffable taste or intuitive understanding implicitly agreed on by these talking, always talking, people. I couldn’t imagine ever acquiring the all-important taste. Did you have it or not, from birth? Could you acquire it with diligent study? Many people were dismissed as stupid, especially academics, who apparently lacked good judgment, yet who seemed at least as learned as Doris and her friends. How could they be stupid? At 15, I felt it was already too late. I hadn’t read enough, seen enough, been to enough places, talked to enough people. I felt that nothing of interest had happened to me, not understanding that every life is ordinary to its owner, that looking for interesting events was to search in the wrong direction for something that isn’t absent because it isn’t the point. I felt that I was burdened with a lifetime’s weight of unfinished homework. I would never catch up. Never read enough. See all the movies and plays. Never learn how to think. These people all seemed so finished, so confident. And they wrote and were read, and by doing so they were deities to me, the hopeless unfledged writer whose sentences were never buoyed with confidence.

I stayed shtum. I listened. But I’d always been verbal. When I was researching for my book Skating to Antarctica, I visited an old couple who had lived in the flat next door to ours when I was a child. ‘You never let anyone get the better of you,’ she said. ‘They were all older than you. You were only three but you kept up and answered back.’ Already, when I was three. Protected. Armoured. Using words to get the better of bigger, older children. I learned soon enough around Doris’s table the rudiments of conversation, even if I hadn’t the faintest underlying faith in what I was saying. I knew I couldn’t stay silent for too long, that silence wouldn’t earn me a place round the table at which I was the only one who wasn’t there thanks to their entertainment value, what they did, or how they thought. I gradually stepped into the conversation, like the three-year-old keeping up with the bigger children. First with questions and queries, occasionally with comments and interventions. I set myself to learn, and asking questions didn’t seem to annoy people. Listening carefully, I showed myself, offered myself to them as a young person who was eager and quick to learn. They were happy to teach me. So I learned to speak, rather than sing, for my supper. But I never, at any time, had any confidence in what I said or thought. Like a Calvinist, always already one of the elect or doomed, I couldn’t think of myself as having that elusive and essential taste or understanding.

*

I recall two versions of me as I look back over the first few months of living with Doris. One conforms to a description in Doris’s 1974 novel, Memoirs of a Survivor, of how 12-year-old Emily Cartwright settled in with the unnamed female narrator she’d been left with. The child is handed over and makes the narrator (in the film she was called ‘D’) extremely uneasy. The narrator interrogates her own feelings about this imposition: ‘[Emily] was watching me, carefully, closely: the thought came into my mind that this was the expert assessment of possibilities by a prisoner observing a new jailer.’ Emily is described as having ‘a bright impervious voice and smile’, of being ‘an enamelled presence’. The narrator looks for something in Emily that she might be able to like, but Emily always responds like ‘a self-presenting little madam’. Mostly Emily keeps to herself, huddled in her bedroom with her creature, Hugo, a dog-like cat, or a cat-like dog. When she comes out she is immoderately polite, excessively grateful. The narrator recognises Emily’s manner as an act, yet ‘while I was really quite soft and ridiculous with pity for her, I was in a frenzy of irritation, because of my inability ever, even for a moment to get behind the guard she had set up.’ Emily is indolent, unlike the industrious narrator, sitting for hours in a chair looking out of the window, while ‘she entertained me with comment: this was a deliberate and measured offering; she had been known, it was clear, for her “amusing comments”.’ Emily spears passers-by and neighbours with her acid insights and cruel stories. The narrator sees ‘a sour little smile, as if she was thinking: I’ve got you, you can’t escape me!’ She almost enjoys listening to Emily’s too-accurate comments, ‘but I was reluctant too, watching the knife being slipped in so neatly, so precisely, and again and again.’ This narrator, who has other things to do, has been presented, for no obvious reason, with a damaged child, too clever by half, whom she accepts as her obligation, but struggles to like.

Memoirs of a Survivor was published in 1974, 11 years after I began to live with Doris. She gave me a copy of the novel, as she did every one she wrote. It was inscribed ‘To Jenny love Doris 25/11/74’. It made familiar and disturbing reading. I could see Emily in me, just as I could see my elderly neighbour’s description of me aged three. It is as accurate a reading of me as Emily’s harsh commentary on others. It is true, but it is, of course, a doubly edited version, a view of me from the narrator’s point of view, which itself has been taken and worked for fiction’s purpose from Doris’s point of view. If there is pity in the narrator’s response to Emily, it is strained for. I discovered after a while that Doris had a habit of describing people in fiction and in life as, for example, ‘heartbreaking’ in her most distant, coolest tone, as if to mitigate her dislike of them. She saw it as being fair, I think.

The other me I recall at that time is the me of my own feelings and behaviour, which seemed always at odds or out of true with Doris’s analysis. The recollection of how I felt and behaved can’t be taken as ‘truer’ than Doris’s fictionalised me, even if I recognised what was missing in Doris’s version of Emily. As she was described, Emily only got to express herself through the narrator’s insights into her psyche. It was as if Doris didn’t want to know, or it wasn’t useful to her story to give Emily a voice or fears of her own. The narrator watches and analyses Emily’s every move and thought, and while I recognised myself in those descriptions, I also remembered being quite opaque to her, simply because my recollection is of an interiority of my own. I put the two views together, fictionalised Emily, remembered Jenny, but they never fitted. Possibly that’s because the bits of me have never fitted together as one is supposed to think they do.

*

In spite of my self-tutoring and edging towards joining in the conversation around Doris’s table, for most of the time, we were on our own. A month or so after my arrival, I grew increasingly silent as I went about my life in the house. It wasn’t just that early shyness that people assumed I felt or, as I thought of it, my watchfulness as I tried to gain a foothold where I’d landed. At first I was feeling guilt at being an arbitrary recipient of good fortune and at having left my friends behind in the hospital in Hove. Though it was to some extent adolescent dramatising, even sentimentality, I can’t imagine how I could have got myself to think differently about it. But over time, a month or so, this gave way to something else.

I became increasingly silent in a way that was familiar and alarming. My mood plummeted as another thought came to me: a thought that hit me as if it was entirely new but which was perfectly formed as it dropped into place, as if, without my awareness, I had been thinking about it for decades. It was a realisation, and at the same time, a fact that I had resisted being conscious of until it made itself known to me, three months into my stay with Doris, with pinpoint clarity. It was a worry and a fear of such urgency and potential danger that it sealed my lips. I think it must have risen into my consciousness from a kernel of understanding that the strangeness of having been brought to live with a stranger was not just my situation and difficulty, but, if I stopped and thought about it, Doris’s too. Somehow, it broke through my almost overwhelming teenage narcissism, and I did stop and think about it, and what it implied, until the anxiety became obsessive, and over those weeks I thought about it so much that everything else faded away in its shadow. And in that time it took on the form of a question that only I could ask and only Doris could answer.

As a small child I had regular episodes, which my parents called moods, and doctors would now diagnose as depression, in which I became locked away from the world outside my boundaries. I became mute and still. Not eating, not talking, submerged, incarcerated, unable to account for any of this to my baffled and cross parents. The barrier between me and the world, me and my parents shouting down at me, grew thicker and more impenetrable. I fell, was falling, deep in some pit, in darkness and alone, reaching a point of no return, when it would become impossible to claw my way back to normality. I sat in the middle of a catastrophe. I wanted to speak, though I don’t know what it was I wanted to say, probably nothing specific, just anything that would break the tangle I’d tied myself and my parents up in. But I couldn’t get the words out. Nor could I cry, so that he or she would understand at least that I was unhappy rather than wilfully stubborn and disobedient. Each demand to know what the matter was with me sent me falling deeper into the black. Each minute of silence, of ‘refusing’ to answer, made it more impossible to break through the caul I was wrapped in, and increased the fury of my parents. Sometimes the mood started from an event, some anger, theirs with me or with each other, or some resentment of mine. But often enough it wasn’t triggered by anything that I could recall. Which was why I couldn’t answer the questions. I didn’t know. The only words I ever spoke were a mumbled ‘Don’t know’ or ‘Nothing’, which fanned the impatience of my parents. These moods could go on for hours, even days. I can’t recall how they stopped each time or why I couldn’t make them stop at will, knowing that they’d stopped before. My childhood moodiness was no different in form or feeling from the depression I’ve experienced since my teenage years. I still become impenetrable for periods of time. When people ask ‘What’s the matter?’ the best I can say is ‘Nothing.’

Now, at Doris’s, with the weight of a terrible new question filling my mind, I fell into one of those black holes, and more or less stopped speaking. I managed polite thank you’s or ‘yes’ and ‘no’, but I found it harder and harder to converse or explain. I felt I could hardly breathe for fear of what I was thinking. I was also terrified that my badness was revealing itself, actually creating the danger I was so anxious about.

There was a difference, though, in the origins of this mood. This time it wasn’t because I was stuck with nothing to say: it was because I had just one thing I needed to say, the question I needed to have an answer to, and it couldn’t be spoken. It threatened chaos. Better to keep it to myself. Yet kept to myself it rendered me morose and silent and eaten alive. It was just a simple series of words but when the last word had been said, I feared it would explode and bring the house down around my and Doris’s ears. It became all I could think about. Only one answer would make the situation safe. Any other would be catastrophic. But I’d realised that to speak the question, to ask for an answer, would open a door that was keeping my new world safely shut off from my old world. If I stayed silent, I was safe from the possibility of bringing the old world here. Then I realised that if I asked, and the door opened, I might not be able to trust the answer even if I was given the right one. It might be a lie and I would never know what the truth actually was. The black hole was the place that sucked me in, away from a world of double binds keeping me in the dark and completely alone. It was terrible, but safe. To ask the question was to pull the trigger.

I stayed mostly in my room and went downstairs only if I had to. I replied to anything Doris said in monosyllables, trying to be polite but failing. It went on like this for several weeks. Eventually, one evening, a Saturday, I think, after another silent supper which I hardly ate, when we were upstairs sitting on cushions on the carpet in Peter’s room where the TV was, Doris told me to turn the sound down and asked me again what the matter was, why was I so silent, what was wrong? Her tone was kind and a bit desperate, and I wanted very much to relieve myself of the burden of my question. I wanted more than anything to dare to say what was on my mind, and to discover that it was all right: that there was nothing terrible about it and the danger was all in my mind. But to say it was to risk hell breaking loose. Hell had broken loose with some frequency in the threesome of my family. This time I was on my own. In a house with a woman who, in an act of charity, had taken me in without even meeting me. Finally, I spoke, and as I did so, I remember the relief I felt, how sure I was that once I’d finished asking the question, Doris’s answer would render the chaos I feared a thing of the past, make my terror a delusion. She would make the question innocuous with a simple answer. It should have been a single sentence, but my memory now, as I try for an accurate recollection, is of excruciating hesitation, bursts of speech, as if the half-sentences layered over each other, a tower of Babel tottering as I tried to get to the right words and failed. Did I look at her as I spoke or did I look down? I don’t know. These words. Something like this.

The thing is you hadn’t met me when you wrote to me. It was incredibly kind of you … I’m really grateful … But now I’m here and you’ve known me … I mean – what if you don’t like me? Now I’m here? What can you do, if … what if you don’t want me now I’m here? Where could I go? You know my parents don’t … I can’t go to either of them … And I came from the hospital. I’m worried that you’re lumbered with me. If you don’t really like me, there’s nowhere you could send me back to, is there?

I got it out in the end, after the rush and babble. The question finally spoke itself into the silence waiting for it.

And the silence remained. It continued for several moments. Long enough to start to frighten me. Then, still without saying a word, her face set and immobile as it had been while I spoke, Doris stood up from the cushion on the floor and walked out of the room. I heard her going downstairs and then after another moment the front door banged shut as she left the house. I stayed where I was for a little while. I had no idea what had happened. And yet in her departure and the uncaring slamming of the door, as I was regularly told not to do, I felt the ripples begin around my solar plexus of something familiar. It seemed impossible here in this place, and her so completely different from what I knew, to find the slightest similarity with anything I’d known before. In any case, I had no idea what had happened. Either familiar or incomprehensible, or both, I was terrified. Had she gone to the pub on the corner to get cigarettes? But she always had packets in the kitchen cupboard. It was dark, around nine o’clock. There were any number of reasons why she might have left the house. And none at all. Nothing that made sense of her silent exit into the night. Only catastrophe. The thing I had feared once I’d said what was worrying me. I turned the TV off, and went down to the kitchen. Her bag had gone. I wandered about for a bit in case she had just gone to get cigarettes and then I went to bed. I heard her return much later.

*

The next morning I woke and heard the typewriter clacking. I got up and went downstairs, past Doris’s ‘working do not disturb’ closed door, to the kitchen. There was a sheet of paper on the table. A flimsy, like she used under carbon paper to make copies while she typed. It was a typewritten letter, not folded, the sentences more or less fitting the length of the foolscap sheet. At the top was my name, no ‘Dear’, just Jenny scrawled in Doris’s almost indecipherable handwriting, and at the bottom another scribble, Doris. I read it standing up. It began by describing what had happened the previous evening. After weeks of sulking silence during which she had been increasingly worried and angry, I had finally deigned to speak. What I said had made her so angry she had to leave. She knew, she said, that I was used to living with melodrama and the psychological games my parents played. That wasn’t my fault. I couldn’t choose my parents, but if I was going to manage to become a grown-up rather than remain a manipulative infant, I had to learn not to behave as if I were still living in the psychologically poisoned atmosphere of my childhood. If we were to get on together in a reasonable way, like adults, so that I could stay in the house and go back to school to take my exams and make something of myself, I had to stop behaving as if everyone was like my hysterical parents. What I had done last night was unforgivable. She couldn’t remember an instance of anyone trying to blackmail her emotionally as I had done. I was demanding and threatening, using the poor-little-girl-with-nowhere-to-go character to try to control her, Doris, as doubtless my mother had tried to control my father and me. She had never been so angry. She had been shaking with anger and had to get out of the house in order to calm down. She wanted me to think very carefully about last night and what kind of person I wanted to be. She was sorry if I was upset but it was very important to get things straight.

I learned later that she had gone to some friends and exploded with rage about my ‘emotional blackmail’. The phrase wasn’t one I’d heard before, but it was easy enough to work out what she meant. I had no idea that I had been blackmailing her. But Doris knew. I struggled with the gulf between my sense of my innocence and her knowledge of the world. I couldn’t understand how I could have asked the question differently. Or why a question that was so urgent to me should not have been spoken, was wrong and manipulative. I thought that I’d needed an answer to my question. I wanted to know if she liked me, and what on earth could be done if she didn’t. Now I saw clearly that it wasn’t a question she could answer if her answer wasn’t the one I wanted. The situation for both of us if she didn’t like me was frightening, unlike any situation I had ever been in. My parents didn’t like me, but that didn’t matter, they hadn’t chosen me. I should have realised that Doris was in a difficult position if she didn’t like me. There, I supposed, the blackmail lay, in the speaking of the question that couldn’t be answered if the answer was the wrong one. And yet it was still a problem to me; where could I go if she didn’t want me after all? It seemed I was forcing her to say she liked me. But I didn’t feel that was the truth of what had happened. I wondered now whether a positive answer could have satisfied me. Underlying the need to ask the question was my suspicion that she didn’t like me much, and what I had done wrong was to be unable simply to live in silence with that reality.

I read and reread the letter. It was written with the icy calm of someone teaching an unruly pupil, seeming to give me one last chance. I was terrified. Perhaps it had been emotional blackmail. I didn’t know. What I did know was that she hadn’t answered my question. And, though I didn’t care to think about it in the midst of this crisis, what I also knew, and would know for the remaining fifty years during which I knew Doris, was that she had answered it.

You can read the next instalment of Jenny Diski's memoir here (and the first one here).