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.

Nine-year-old Candia spent the ‘furious winter’ that followed drawing sunsets with the 50-odd lipsticks her mother had left behind; by April her father was marrying someone else. The new stepmother was young, neat and Dutch, and set about rearranging things. Candia’s waist-length hair was chopped off, her mother’s cats destroyed, her doll collection – ranked according to ‘length of tenure’, with ‘names, characteristics and academic records’ kept in a ledger – banished to a box called ‘the coffin’. Soon there were two half-siblings, and the sullen, awkward McWilliam had become a giant cuckoo in her own nest.

In her early teens she got herself a scholarship to Sherborne School in Dorset and left her father’s house for good. Her first memories of England involve ‘enclosure, the sense of being tinned’. At Sherborne they had to write letters to their parents on Sundays, and she quickly began to write to other people’s instead, becoming a ‘succubus’ on one family after another. She fell in love with a schoolfriend’s whole clan and spent the holidays on their island in the Hebrides. Great clouds of adjective and anecdote accumulate around anyone and everyone McWilliam mentions, however slight their connection to her, whether or not they will appear again, and the descriptions lurch unnervingly back and forth through time – the Michies ‘were Communists and had a nanny and had married one another twice and were to die together in a car crash in 2007’. A statistically surprising number of these people die violently; a lot of them are vaguely famous.

About one schoolfriend, Rosa Beddington, we learn the following in a couple of breathless pages: that she was ‘on her mother’s side a Wingfield-Digby’; that she later became ‘one of the very few female fellows of the Royal Society, shortly before she died aged 45, of cancer that had eaten every bit of her except her daily-fumigated lungs’; that ‘her beautiful mother had been an Olympic equestrian and killed herself when Rosa was very young’; that her father was a ‘competent painter’ and a distant relative of ‘Ada Leverson, Oscar Wilde’s Sphinx’ and published several books, ‘including a tribute to his labrador, Pindar: A Dog to Remember’; that Rosa’s husband, Robin, had already lost one wife to cancer; that a different man had once sent Rosa ‘an entire antique ruby parure after only one meeting’ and, years later, shot himself on Valentine’s Day; that the only person who could help Rosa while she was dying was their other schoolfriend Emma, ‘who has inherited from her own mother the gift of healing hands’; that Emma’s mother wears lipstick called Un-shy Violet and ‘is named Kiloran after a bay on the island of Colonsay’; that the ‘laird who gets the girl in the Powell and Pressburger film I Know Where I’m Going is also Kiloran’; that Emma’s mother ‘never married again since the children’s father shot himself’ and that her godmother was Kipling’s daughter Elsie Bainbridge.

McWilliam describes her mother like this too, constantly jostling the weird with the mundane: Margaret put her hair up with paintbrushes; her grandmother and great-grandmother had been male impersonators with tremendous legs; Margaret had a temper, long hands, lovely shoulders, ‘cheekbones like a Russian’ and a cat called Nancy Mitford, who ‘fell two stone storeys’ from her bedroom window on Margaret’s 30th birthday; her bag held tranquillisers, cigarettes, sunglasses with a ‘pussycat slant’. Her first longed-for copy of Elle arrived from France the week after she killed herself. How else to write about a mother who died before you were ten, who is vividly remembered but hardly known? But when every acquaintance, and all their acquaintances in turn, receive the same treatment – all sketched in, no one left out – the thread is difficult to find, as if McWilliam were trying to write an unfunny Tristram Shandy.

Magazines were banned at Sherborne, but someone – someone called Marie-Thérèse de Zulueta who happened to be Daphne du Maurier’s granddaughter – smuggled in a copy of Vogue. McWilliam was shortlisted for their talent contest in 1970 and skived off for the lunch in London, where she sat between Marina Warner (in yellow satin hotpants and a heart-shaped bib) and Lord Snowdon. She won and managed not to get expelled, but was in trouble with the family for turning her wicked stepmother into a ‘beautiful milkmaid’ in her winning essay.

‘You went to fucking public school, didn’t you?’ another girl said to her when she arrived at Girton College, Cambridge. ‘I only went to fucking public school because my mother was dead,’ she says now. There’s no triumphalism, not much redemption, few valuable lessons learned, no wouldn’t-have-it-any-other-way: she parades her regrets, even the most absurd ones, keen to avoid the usual pitfalls of the ‘misery memoir’. ‘Would it all have happened if I had stayed at home?’ She thinks that she could have had a simpler and better life, that ‘time and events’ have ‘somehow’ conspired to make her look like ‘an Englishwoman of some privilege’ when she’s actually nothing of the kind. She may not be English, but when you’ve been to certain schools and universities, mixed and holidayed with and married certain people, lived and worked (or not worked) in certain places, it’s not clear what advantages you can be said to have missed out on. Still, none of these things seems to have affected McWilliam’s sense of her own waifishness, her conviction that she could just as easily have settled down with ‘a nice Scots boy’ and avoided everything that came later.

But she didn’t. Instead, she arrived in London in 1976, with a job at Vogue waiting for her. Amschel Rothschild let her live with him for free; Loyd Grossman (then called Jet Bronx, in a New Wave band and getting his doctorate on the side) taught her to eat and dress better. She ghost-wrote books and modelled for Levi’s, and in 1981 she married ‘a toff’ called Quentin Wallop. She gave birth to a son that year, and named him Oliver, after Cromwell, because ‘one of the Wallops was a regicide.’ He was born during the shooting season, ‘so Quentin would be busy in the day and then slide in his Land Rover back to me in the hospital’. They had a daughter, too, but the marriage didn’t last long, and they thought it was best if she left both children with him.

She married Fram Dinshaw, an Oxford don she’d known for years, in 1986, and had another son with him. It was during this marriage that she published A Case of Knives, A Little Stranger and Debatable Land. The queasy physicality of the images in these novels remains striking in her memoir – the unconscious, for instance, is ‘bulging, sticky’. The earlier books share some of the same preoccupations as What to Look for in Winter – people at the mercy of their delusions or compulsions; their cruelty to one another; the makeshift families they create for themselves – but their styles and structures are very different. The three novels are much shorter and more consistent in tone. It seems that during her long silence, she misplaced the impulse to select, to leave things out. Having lost so much, she stubbornly hangs on to what’s left, and invites us to edit for her – ‘if you don’t like cats, skip this paragraph.’

She had been drinking too much since her twenties, but while married to Dinshaw she got worse; he would write down ‘the awful things I said’ and read them to her the next day. She pitied him especially for ‘the boringness, the repetition’ of living with an alcoholic. In 1996 she ran off with someone else, who ‘might have been anyone’, and for the next five years ‘drank whatever I could get … household cleaners, disinfectant, a substance called Easy-Iron’.

By the time her patchwork family of former husbands and children got her into a clinic, she could barely walk and saw things ‘scuttling, swarming, inbreeding’ everywhere. When they took her blood five days after her last drink, she was still well over the driving limit. There was enforced diary-keeping in rehab, and she was soon told off for writing other people’s diaries for them, and for covering scores of sheets a day. She still has drinking dreams and feels intense relief each time she wakes to find no bottles nearby, ‘not a trail of sick, and no blood in the bed’. Despite all this, McWilliam often tells us that she hates to talk about herself. She lives ‘by suppression’, she says, ‘rather than by spillage’, and this may go some way towards explaining the digressions about Rosa Beddington’s father’s dog, but it’s nevertheless confusing, given these 500 pages of reminiscence.

The least digressive aspect of the book – the most pointed – is its description of the experience of ‘functional’ blindness, and how different that is from simply not being able to see. There’s a tendency among sighted people to romanticise blindness, to imagine a sort of purity in it. But blindness, like poverty, is among many other things boring, difficult, messy, time-consuming; and as McWilliam points out, it’s not as if the other senses suddenly jump in and compensate, especially for someone who loses sight well into adulthood. If anything, there are more distractions than before. She’s not in total blackness: there are colours and flickerings behind her lids. Moreover, the blepharospasm means that her face is in constant battle with itself, the muscles around her eyes clamping them shut while others strain in the opposite direction.

As well as lonely, tedious days in which basic tasks – like brushing her teeth with toothpaste and not foot cream – take up a great deal of time and energy, McWilliam describes a series of accidents minor and major. Bloody knees, bruised hips, falling face first downstairs, setting fire to her house (one of the firemen, whose unit was being examined with a view to shutting it down when her emergency call came in, says: ‘You won’t mind my saying that it’s extra good you’re blind’). And there are embarrassments: she walks all the way home only to realise in the street outside her house that her skirt has fallen around her ankles, and she must use her stick to drag it back up. At least, she says, ‘I didn’t see if anyone saw.’

Her relationship with her own face is transformed: no reassuring glances in the mirror, no non-verbal communication, no reading of others’ expressions or conveying her own feelings that way. At one point she says she hasn’t looked into someone’s eyes for years. No more negative capability: social interactions are ‘wearyingly unimplicit’; nothing can be ‘unstated and understood’. Except during the very worst phase, McWilliam is able to force her eyes open for short periods of time, reading a few words by using a ‘stiff pincering’ motion to ‘hold my eyeballs bare’ while opening her mouth ‘very wide, as though I’m screaming’. To write some sections of the book, she tells us, she hoisted her forehead up with one hand, and when that no longer worked, pulled the lids upwards with thumb and little finger. Doing this, her eyes get dry and hot, ‘their white goes to leather’ and they ‘fight back and weep to be shut down and left in peace’. It’s strange to read a book that so continually makes you aware of the author’s physical struggle to write it.

What she misses most is the stuff around the edges: the unbidden thoughts that occur as you read, peripheral vision, ‘the absorptive wash that soaks all-gathering sight’. She doesn’t want to salvage only the essentials from the wreckage. The book’s tangled structure may be to some extent a function of the way it was composed, but it also reflects her desire to pack in as much as possible – ‘the world … is forcing itself upon my attention and to pay attention is everything.’ A benefit of this scattershot approach is that some things – some episodes – are less attended to than they might be in a more conventional memoir. A couple of times, McWilliam alludes to sexual assault in her childhood – what feels like ‘a large eyeball with a thick lid forcing itself past my uvula’ – but she never links it to any of the other bad things that have happened to her. She’s fond of patterns but clearly doesn’t want to give these incidents special significance; they’re not all that upsetting, and definitely not formative.

This lightness of touch isn’t always in evidence. Several times she makes a case for ambiguity and complexity in storytelling, but there’s a lot more ambiguity in her fiction than there is here, where she tends to ponder (‘I think that the gift is rarely given us to see ourselves as others see us, that we do not see others as they see themselves, or if we do they might have preferred that we had not, and I am sure that the whole event is but half-glimpsed, if that’). There’s a strange collision of styles: sometimes overwrought (bohemian Edinburgh ‘flowered orchidaceously’, McWilliam was ‘reluctantly adolescing’ – this tendency was there in the novels); sometimes hackneyed (‘he fell head over heels in love with a magnificent girl’, the firemen cleaned up her house ‘just like magic’). It’s as if we’re reading her thoughts unedited, which makes the many rhythmic, arresting passages all the more impressive. McWilliam doesn’t hold back: she makes us feel how frightening it is inside her head. There’s no sickly heroism. Resentful, muddled, undignified, unmoored, she is captivating in a way that isn’t at all synonymous with charm.

It appears she has a similar effect off the page. Everyone, even or especially the wives or lovers of her exes, must help and nurse and include and house her, and jolly her along, and reassure her about her own burdensomeness. They seem to love her for the most part uncomplainingly; rehabilitating her is a team effort – Dinshaw’s current girlfriend, Claudia, even writes her a letter suggesting they all try living together. But this isn’t enough. After more than a decade she still regrets leaving Dinshaw, and frequently grows maudlin on the subject. ‘He is my home. I am homeless … To this day I take very few breaths that are independent of thought of Fram.’ Sometimes she imagines herself an ‘undisposed-of Rebecca’, at others she observes that in a Compton-Burnett novel, ‘I’d be the governess, or dead.’ But that’s disingenuous: she’s always the protagonist. When Fram and Claudia argue, McWilliam’s first thought is that they must be doing it to make her feel better. ‘I blinded myself,’ she claims, ‘when I left Fram.’ Explaining the ten-year time-lag between these two events, she insists the blepharospasm was the ‘reification of a metaphor I had inhabited for a long time’. This sort of remark makes some of her doctors angry, and you can see why.

Eventually, when nothing – not the unpronounceable drugs, neurologists, ophthalmologists, neuropsychiatrists, cranial osteopaths – has helped, she decides to have a radical surgical procedure known as the Crawford Brow Suspension. It involves two operations, which must happen six months apart in case of ‘vascular crisis’. In the first one, the muscles around the eyes are ‘cut and stripped out’, which thickens and toughens the eyelids. But the eyes still don’t stay open, because the brain recruits other, extraneous muscles ‘to effect its strange censoring’. The second operation takes tendons from behind the knees, inserting them ‘umbrella-frame-wise’ beneath the forehead and eyelids. Face strapped up like a mummy, she worries that people will think she’s had a facelift, or rather that she’s had one for the usual reasons.

Some people who’ve had this surgery can’t close their eyes properly; they need an eyemask, or someone to shut their eyes at the end of the day. For McWilliam, the operation is a success: she begins to see ‘in steady planes and charges of colour’, instead of the ‘juddery reception’ she could occasionally get before from forcing her eyes open. Still no peripheral vision, though: ‘to an irksomely upbeat degree,’ she says, ‘I can only look forward.’ To look around her, she must swivel her head, which always aches because of the spasm still lurking inside. If she wants to keep seeing, she’ll have to keep having Botox injections – four round each eye – every three months for the rest of her life. She stores her supply in Fram and Claudia’s freezer.

McWilliam isn’t sure why she’s writing the book. At times she seems to want it to be a kind of public service, but if it’s meant to help or warn others, it’s not clear what the warning would be. Not to drink too much? Not to leave your husband? Not to be miserable till you’ve got a really good reason, because you never know when one might come along? And yet it is a kind of warning, an antidote to the self-help that urges you to ‘crack right on, kick over the traces, step out of victimhood, let go, move on, and all that’ – it’s a story of ‘self-unhelp’, without the debased form of catharsis that misery porn generally offers.