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Storytelling and tragedies

This week's issue of the Times Literary Supplement includes a review by Terri Apter, of two memoirs - the first being One Hundred Names for Love by Diane Ackerman, and Strange Relation by Rachel Hadas. The books seem very moving. Ackerman's book is sub-titled 'A Stroke, A Marriage, and the Language of Healing', which seems to sum up the story. Ackerman's husband, Paul West, is a Professor of literature and writer. He suffered a stroke that seriously curtailed not just what he could say, but how he could conceive of words and their meaning, as well as symbols, such as arrows. It seems unfathomable. It is doubly cruel, then, that two types of stroke induced aphasia (Wernicke's and Broca's) should hit this 'born phrase maker'. It is because of Ackerman's devotion that West recovered his abilities to the point that he is now able to speak and write again. She 'devised her own exercises for him, tailored to his lifelong strength - words and creativity'. It is, Apter acknowledges, a 'driving emotional story...(about) ... the retrieval of the exciting intimacy of language'.

Hadas's memoir, subtitled 'A Marriage of Memoir, Dementia and Poetry', is about the early onset dementia of her husband, George Edwards, a composer and Professor of Music at Columbia'. Hadas is the poet of the title, and it is she who uses her skills as writer and poet in order to 'capture the meaning of her husband's walled-in silence'. She calls this confined space the Kingdom of Illness, and recognises a need for 'new similes and metaphors to comprehend what her husband has become'. Hadas finds that 'new metaphors provide gifts to the imagination that are far more effective than any prescription a doctor could write'. She seeks identification in literature, in the stories of marriages that have become traps and prisons, and these identifications - including from the novels of Wharton and James - serve to reassure Hadas. These stories serve to connect, and clarify her own feelings. What both these memoirs do, then, is to provide testaments to the power of narratives - story-telling - the often particular, specific meanings that bestow comfort and connections between people. As I write this news has emerged of the death of singer songwriter Amy Winehouse. She was twenty-seven. Already the twitter-verse is alive with the tweets of the ominous #27club. It is a shorthand into a narrative that is occupied only by legends; troubled geniuses like Kurt Cobain and Janis Joplin, who, yes, also died at twenty-seven. It is truly tragic, yet often inevitable, that Winehouse did not 'get' recovery in any of her well publicised trips to rehab. If she had, she would have had to deal with the narrative of her past that for many addicts provides the keys to their addiction, for the drugs and the drink or the gambling are but symptoms of far greater issues - personal and societal. It is through the sharing of one's own personal narrative(s) - the healing power of sharing our own stories - that binds us with others and which can provide healing. Addicts, more than most, need to find their voice, and fellowships such as AA and NA facilitate and enable this process. It is ironic, then, that Winehouse, Cobain, Joplin et al were famed for their voices - but they never had the chance to find the one intimate and powerful voice that would deliver them out of their daily torment with the symptoms of their dis-eases. Twitter yields some amazing 140-character mini-stories. One that caught my attention amidst the atrocity of the Oslo massacre reports and lamentations, and the demise of Winehouse, was how a once homeless man, Mark Horvath, another addict, reached out to others without a fixed abode. Horvath found a way out and went on to share his own story after losing his job as the recession hit. Recognising that the sharing of stories was vital, he hit the road in 2008 and began to record the stories of homeless people. He live-tweeted these stories as they were shared with him, which is reminiscent of the way in which nineteenth century journalist, Henry Mayhew, gave a voice to the poor, which many comfortable newspaper readers were shocked and moved by. Horvarth also set up a site where he posted videos of the stories of homeless people. He was spurred, not only by his own recession-fuelled hopelessness in going out on the road, he says, but also in 'giving homeless people a voice they wouldn't normally have... Its genesis was catharsis'. Whilst I am not a fan of religion, one of the benefits of many religions is this catharsis, which in Catholicism comes from Confession. I gave my first confession, in a dark little curtained off cupboard in a neo-gothic chilly church at the age of just six. Ever since I have had the need for this catharsis, which often drives itself, but the difference now is the lack of shame which accompanies these 'confessions'.


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