Tag Archives: failure

The boy who stole my life

This morning, The Guardian published this extraordinary letter. After I read it, I sat down and cried. It is beautifully written, for a start and, as was noted by literary folk on twitter, the account read like a short story.  Also, I wish I could invite this person over for tea right now and give them a huge hug. This is a deeply painful and confusing set of circumstances and one, I would think, in which it would be hard to find clarity or any form of comfort or redress. I want to say to its writer, though, that reading it, while it upset me, made me feel less alone with my own peculiar circumstances.

I want to say thank you and that I am sorry for what has happened. And yes – do you know that you write beautifully?

By the time I was an adult, I’d lost both parents, all grandparents, my oldest friend and the only person  in the world with whom I felt safe, my godmother. I had a sibling, much older than me. I loved him passionately, but was also scared of him and struggled to articulate why. Three years after my mother died, my sibling disappeared. Refused all communication with me and did not explain why. This carried on for many years and I experienced it as shame and bewilderment; in the end, it was easier to tell myself that I was an only child. I felt sick when I thought of it all; still do. I would hear, third hand or so, that my sibling wanted nothing to do with me because of what a terrible person I was, because of how badly I had treated our parents (I had done my best to nurse them, I hoped, abrupting my childhood, bisecting my adolescence or university career, where I felt separate and strange).

Later, I felt the story shift a little within the family. I suppose it was because it was easier for people to understand, or more palatable. There had been issues between us; an argument. Yes; that was what had happened. It’s the revisionist version of family history. I had tried, before, to raise with my extended family, the matter of events and their impact and, also, of the dark and distressing things which had happened within the family home. The things which led, in part – I am careful to qualify that – to multiple episodes of anxiety and depression. To this day, I still have nightmares about my experienced; some of these nightmares are about my sibling. And when I raised these things, emboldened by finally finding the right therapeutic support for me, I was told, “If ANY of this had happened, I would have known.” As I said, revisionist. But I did not revisit discussion because I didn’t want to cause upset. I could cope and it could have been worse, I reasoned.

When I was about to get married, I tried again to get contact with my sibling again: I wanted him at my wedding, I thought. Wanted him to know; thought he might want to. This time, I had a reply and it left me on the floor – it was all curses and how I was selfish and hadn’t given enough notice (three months, but maybe not enough: I’m not sure!) and no way would he be attending, you selfish little bitch this is typical of you. While I lay on the floor, I thought…well I thought that I would not survive it. I believed – and right here was further endorsement – that I was this terrible person. I had always been told I was, for as long as I could remember. I didn’t know otherwise and could not really understand why this really lovely man downstairs actually wanted to marry me. Still, the revisionism came into play: he’s upset because you didn’t ask him to give you away. That is the accepted version of events, which ignores a decade of refused contact prior to this. Perhaps I did the wrong thing and I cannot ever have been blameless, but it hurts to have a truth told which is not my life; which is a lie. When you’ve worked out it is a lie, mind you. It can be terribly hard to see clearly.

I had three children. Sent pictures. Nothing. Well, one little thing, once, out of the blue with the first child: “Thank you for your photograph. I will put it in an album. Regards.” Nothing subsequent; the first baby is now nearly sixteen. But I kept the note. I’m not really sure why.

And then. Three years ago. He was getting married and suddenly got in touch with all the extended family. With a couple of exceptions, everyone acted as if nothing had happened. His wife to be showered everyone with gifts and wrote to me – all about how much his nephews meant to him and he loved them from a distance; about how I was a special sister to both of them now and would “the boys” like to come and stay with their auntie and uncle? Again, the extended family saw it differently: why don’t you let them? Don’t the boys deserve to know him? Deserve to know their uncle? I really struggled with that, a recasting of a story – as if I had somehow witheld them. He’d never met them. Moreover, if you read the letter which follows below, you might have some notion of the inappropriateness of such a visit. An unsupervised visit. I have seen and felt things which I wish I could unsee and unfeel. Besides which, all the letters were from her.

My sibling rang me and said he would be calling at our house. This was one of the most difficult experiences of my life. He told me what I was to do and was explicit that the only reason for visiting was so his wife to be knew who I was. I rang an aunt and said that I did not want this, that it was not real, but was told not to behave badly and I had to do what my mother would have wanted. They stayed an hour. We lined the boys up for them. He barely spoke to me, talked about his work in a sort of boasting way – he is very wealthy from what I can gather – and they left.  Thereafter, I had further “precious nephews” letters from my sister-in-law and “treats from auntie and uncle”. Tenners on a birthday. Then they dropped the “auntie and uncle”, then the treats; then the birthday cards. I think it took a year for them to get bored.

We had a raft of family bereavements. They were there, leading the funeral procession. He pushed past me, looked through me, refused to speak. There was one occasion, for a beloved relative, where she was the first person I saw. “Thank you for making the journey for our beloved…” she said. I could have said, “Whom you knew for little over a year and who dandled me and loved when I was a tiny child forty years ago…” but I didn’t. It felt like a fantasy; as if nothing made sense. In addition to being transparent – he was looking right through me – to my own sibling, I felt like my life was being stolen, my narrative rewritten. On hearing gushing compliments about the two of them, on this occasion and others, what I felt was anger and shame. I am still getting over it, but I have to accept that they have propelled themselves into the heart of a family, and that is that. There is nothing I can say.

Without the support of my husband, and the one little enclave within my extended family…well thank you. I talk to my friends, too, about bubbles that come up – at children’s parties; in the school holidays – family stuff. I can feel like a social leper. But sensible friends now know to jolt me out of this. It is what it is. Also, I have my husband and my boys in front of me. It serves me well to have someone remind me not to be ungrateful or self-indulgent. And I do believe that family is a flexible construct and can be built; that our friends and our community are part of it. And that’s me, the chubby toddler with a bucket. For years I could not look at pictures of myself for loathing. I’m getting better, because there I am.

When I wrote my first book, a semi autobiographical novel called Killing Hapless Ally, I drew, in the section that follows, on homework I had to do in therapeutic support. I had a crisis – breakdown if you like – five and a half years ago and received extended support CAT under the NHS with people who saved my life. My sibling reappeared just at the end of this support – so I was able to talk it over a little, but not enough, perhaps. In CAT – cognitive analytic (or analytical) therapy – I was asked to write some letters, and the one that follows was to my sibling, here in its original form, before being slightly edited for my book.

But to return to the letter in The Guardian today, just know, if you are its writer or feel upset in reading it or because something that makes you terribly sad has happened in your family, that your story belongs to you. No-one can steal your life. You were there and you can heal or, more realistically, learn to live alongside bereavement or loss of such a painful, contorted sort. Yes, you were there. Tell your own story, make your own revisions, if you like, for your own sake; for that of your future happiness – but also so that you do not admit impediment to the love you give to others.

So here’s the letter, as I gave it to the NHS and pretty much as it went into the book. I should explain that there are references to real people in the letter and yes: I really did have Albert Camus as my imaginary friend! Dixie Delicious (sorry darling) is my husband.

‘To my brother.

Here goes. When I was a child I idolised you. You were like a more fun version of a dad and I would sit on your lap and watch telly or just chat. You spoiled me with sweeties, long walks, playing badminton. I don’t remember having a sense of discomfort about my relationship with you as a child. You would joke with my friends and always come to help entertain my friends at birthday parties, but I do have a memory of being scared of something and I don’t know or cannot articulate of what exactly. It came from the corner of your yellow eye. I know that when I was about ten, something changed – or maybe it was always there but I didn’t see it until I became more, shall we say, sentient, my newly knowing state coinciding with the time you first went off me? I remember what I thought -or rather willed myself to think- were happy visits; day trips. But they were punctuated by anger, weren’t they? You said I was the apple of your eye and that I would always be your precious “little sis.” But there would be the sudden wild anger; exuberance then angry tears, and I didn’t understand. Were you so sad, too? One day, you made the peculiar statement I didn’t know whether to admire or run from. You stopped in the street and said, “I enjoy being a bit of a bastard and kicking people when they are down” and you were all swagger and brilliance. You said, ‘People are all shit. It is the nature of the beast. You can’t trust anyone and no-one will care for you’ and you smiled knowingly as you said it.

That night I discovered the huge porn collection under your bed and couldn’t take my eyes off what I saw. Above your bed was a huge photo of a naked woman, breasts on show, all shiny tabloid and emerging from the sea, her lips parted expectantly. I stayed in that room with you, sleeping at the end of the bed with the giant tits looking on and the porn humming under the bed, easily within reach. I clung to The Wind in the Willows, incongruous in your bedroom. Tits. Being a bastard is fun. Readers’ wives. It is the nature of the beast. No-one will care for you. All people are bastards. Bestial. It is the nature of the beast. None of this cares for you. Oh my precious, precious sister. Raaarrrrrr!

For some time in my teens you stayed away. When you visited I remember you on edge; aggressive; I was nervous around you; you used strange language around me and shaming memories erupt: you would lean closer to me and say, “How are your periods?” or “Have you got a fat fanny?” or ‘Look at your breasts. Your silly little breasts.’ That might have been funny from kin close in age, but when I was thirteen, you were twenty nine and you shuddered in disgust when you saw me and it mortified me and made me ashamed of my changing body all through my adolescence and I would look at myself and be sick and so it was really only my adventures with Albert Camus and jaunt with Denis the Lusty Blacksmith that made me consider the possibility that I wasn’t some kind of, I don’t know, physical outcast: dirty girl: my sex repelling all those around me: Albert and Denis thought I was hot, hot, hot. Of course, the boys in school thought I was persona non grata: eccentricity, oddity and trying too hard tend to have that effect on people. It had to be me, didn’t it? I would have shrivelled up without the hot blacksmith and my imaginary existentialist. Vive La France. And the nightmares I have had for years about you doing the most terrible things to me? I do not know whether they were true, but I know it took me twenty-five years to be able to name the sexual parts of the body because there laid fear and loathing. For me, it’s hard, because my waking and dreaming and my real and imagined encounters are historically a little blurred, but I definitely do not cry to dream again when I dream of you; instead, I wake and cry not to and I’m a lucky girl now because I reach for the hand of Dixie Delicious and what can you do to me now?

Once, Wales, home in our bisected lives, we went for a walk on the beach. Took a young cousin. He was a lippy sod, but very little and his cheek was funny. But to tell him off, you threw this fully clothed little boy into the freshwater stream running down from shingle to sea. Hard compacted sand. Kid too startled to cry. “That’s what you get” you said. How. Why.

I remember your drinking and crazy dancing and wild unexpected swearing and the sense that our parents gave me, expressed quite calmly and not in the white heat of anger, that they preferred you. Oh yeah: I got kind of used to being under sufferance and with a muddled sense that I was shit and you were shinola. I never felt cross; I just felt sad and dug my nails into the palms of my hands. It was things such as this, I think, that made a place for the self harming to start. I felt a kind of rage and frustration – and also, as I grew, disgust at my own body: emerging breasts and all. I recall being thirteen and accidentally bumping a drawer on the wall of a bedroom in your house: it made a mark. You were incandescent with rage: you and mum called me a selfish little bitch, I ran out into the street, somewhere, anywhere. In darkness I came back to stern silent looks. When we left you said, “Next time don’t bring her – that – with you.” I hadn’t meant to cause harm or damage. “You marked his wall. You marked it. It was you, you, you. And you are marked, too!” Mum and dad just told me again how selfish I was and, well, everyone knew that. I felt kind of desperate and just wanted to know if anyone thought differently: it sounds so pathetic! I said, “But his next door neighbours said I was lovely” and mum barked out a laugh and spat, “That’s because they don’t really know you.” I cried silently for two hundred miles home. Santa Maria threw a carton of orange juice, a ‘Club’ biscuit and a bag of crisps into the back seat at some point. Like a bone to the nasty little dog. They did not turn round.

I feel that there’s a kind of spitefulness in you as there was in my mother. And what, as a child I must have, inchoately, begun to think of as true and eternal simply wasn’t. What you said – about us always being together; about you and me having adventures together; taking on the world – well I thought it was possible. I thought that with your thoughts and words you could make a star dance or melt its heart; really your words were hollow – beating on a raggedy old drum. I just didn’t know it yet or I tried not to know it. And what you seemed to be was just a layer covering up resentments, wounds and imagined slights; misogyny, pornography, the self-denial of a functioning alcoholic; a repressed and angry son. Look at me: I have morphed into a cod psychologist: isn’t that just typical of bucket-baby Annie – ha ha ha? I can’t not be your sister, but if you’re Brother who May as Well be Dead, I hardly expect to look on you again -and I will survive: with my most excellent unshamed bazookas, much beloved of my husband. They’re a double D! I just had them measured up. And say I do see you, expert on pulling the wool, on subterfuge, on being the out in the cold injured one, turning up to caress a hearse or wear a mourning suit with gravitas, well I won’t see you. You don’t exist anymore in my head even while you continue to take from me and snarl at me. I wish you only happiness, no harm. So Brother who Might as Well have been Dead, Mummy/Santa Maria and Daddy Daddy, I’m through, oh I’m through.”

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On Failure. For J.

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

That’s Samuel Beckett. From his 1983 prose work, Worstward Ho. It’s funny. Recently, I’m wondering if it’s the new ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, in which case we could have a ‘Fail Better’ gallery – mugs, doormats, handcuffs, you name it. What would Beckett have thought? Probably that it was tomfoolery, but hopefully he would have laughed.

I digress. Why do I begin with this quotation? My late grandmother once said something along the lines of how you had to fail with style and in an interesting way before you could call yourself a grown up. I remembered that. She also said that you have to get quickly off your arse when the devil vomits into your kettle, which was a terrifying jumble of stuff, right there. Could have been Beckett, with a bit of polishing, and less scary Welsh grandma. Anyway, I think that she didn’t take the bit about failure far enough: I think you keep doing it. I’m not saying you actually aim for it, but that you accept it, more, as the natural state of things, just with economies of scale.

Now, I have failed aplenty. I like to recast it so that I failed majestically, heroically, as if I were looking at me from the wings, going, “See what you did there?” (actually, I sort of did that: read my autobiographical novel, Killing Hapless Ally for a load of that) and clapping, like a pissed cheerleader. True, there have been some comical moments of failure: falling off a desk in front of a GCSE class and tearing down an entire wall display of their work, trying to steady myself, in the process; attending meetings with my dress in my knickers; in one accidentally saying ‘sex’ when I meant ‘notes’; talking a bit too excitedly to mums on the school run and seeing them begin to sidle away; very recently saying to a class teacher, ‘Has my son been a bit of a twat?’ when I meant ‘twit’; falling asleep on my first date with my husband and falling over in a perfectly flat field on my second. That sort of thing. I relate these sorts of things to others sometimes, should we be discussing delicious things like, I don’t know, embarrassment, and it might happen that they go, “Noooo…how awful” – and I think, “Do you not do that sort of thing regularly too?” Then I think maybe it’s just me; like a dervish at a particularly stifled funeral. But I’m not so sure. It’s not that others will have done the same things, but, truly, everyday embarrassments and failures: aren’t they normal? Human.

These were not important failures. Just untidy life.

There are bigger things too. Hearts I broke, people I disappointed. The fact that my mother thought I sucked. Some of these things I thought to be my fault, but time and reflection may tell a different story.  Ah what else? Career blips; no career; the PhD I didn’t complete (I won’t tell you the whole story here), the fact that people weren’t very nice to me on my wedding day (again reflection might not point to me here) – oooh loads of stuff. Parenting mistakes; financial ones; soured relationships. Oh get out of here. This isn’t very interesting. It’s more that I want to tell you you’re not alone. But, most of the time, I, you, we did our best, yes? Then there you go.

You can get big bold places, high on failure and not seem to know it. Donald Trump is, in my opinion, a colossal failure as a president. His world view is egregiously limited, his ego needs to be regularly stroked because it must be upheld, like gossamer. Do you think he goes to bed worrying about his failure or reflecting on it? Well, I’ve not been with Donald at bedtime, praise the Lord, but I rather doubt it. And therein lies the crux of the matter. To acknowledge that you misjudge, misprise and misrule; to be compassionate and self-aware enough to know that you failed and to attempt, where you can, to make amends – that is the key thing. When it’s missing, what might that make you? Appetitive; governed by your own wants and a desire to be, err, stroked and told that you are right. Ugh. That makes me want to barf on my shoes. And oh, it makes me cross. I realise I am simplifying about Trump, and that he probably has some latent virtues, but he seemed a decent enough exemplar.

To be human is to err. To err splendiferously. In teaching – and I don’t know why anyone would pretend otherwise – you will misunderstand some of those you are teaching and fail to see their ability, their wants, even, sometimes, the terrible pain they might be in. You will get a lot right, but a lot wrong. In your life, you will accidentally upset friends; say things that reverberate in others’ ears for a very long time. But you did your best and that’s all that can be asked of you. If it’s a failure where you know you have hurt someone and done what you can to fix it and make amends; if you’ve felt guilt and reflected and looked at yourself sternly – painful but necessary – then take that and move forward and not just for yourself. Learn. If it’s a comical failure – like, say, trying (I actually had a conversation about this recently which reduced me to helpless, snorty laughter and tears – and no I am not naming its provenance) a new sexual position, striking the bedside lamp in flagrante and singeing the side of the duvet, please LAUGH. You know what’s not hot? Being joyless and mirthless. You know what’s not sexy? Perfection. Also, it’s bollocks and doesn’t exist.

I had a friend once (note past tense) who said, with passionate confidence, “I don’t know what failure is. I have never failed at anything.” I was in awe of her; I had chronically low self-esteem, was battling depression: I thought she was someone to look up to. How wrong was I? It’s humility and humour; kindness. That’s where it’s at. That’s success. Arrogance is not a success. That is definitely a failure, in my book. Anyway, I don’t see this person anymore. Don’t wish ill, there. This person may be deliriously happy, for all I know. Sharp suited and driven, but maybe not having messy sex in the back of a pick up…or feeding a sad-looking pony an apple…or maybe even comforting another person whose life has unravelled at the seams. What do you think? Am I over-simplifying?

Parenting’s an eye opener for this success/failure malarkey. I have seen other parents chortle at how their child is top of the pecking order or say, without apology, that their child will go a long way and, in the meantime, tends only to be friends with other high achievers. It is bang on to be proud of your child (I have three myself), but a) your child is not an extension through which (she says cattily) you get to swat drippy under-achieving fellow parents (like me) and b) can you HEAR YOURSELF? Pipe down.

Now, I do think that failure is normal. A lot of dreams and career aspirations tank. Of course they do. Marriages or your final sense of acquiring a sense of identity may feel incomplete. In some work – the creative industries – I’d argue that failure is hardwired into your job. Having your work rejected or not even acknowledged. But hey there, frownie, suck it up. It’s normal: fail again, fail better. Carry on.

I do think – and I speak as someone who has had many years of battling mental health problems – that we place too much emphasis on achievement. And not, I might say, always that achievement which is in line with our core values; with what we truly believe and value. If you are driven, then go drive, but maybe know that when you get to the place called THERE, you might well discover that there’s no THERE, THERE (if you follow my meaning). I am not suggesting that we don’t aim for things we would like to do or be, just that it might be healthier and make us happier if we were honest about those things. And – I speak from hard-won experience here – I don’t think it helps to be led by comparison with others. In fact I’d say, “compare and despair”. I know when I do that, the comparison thing, I incline to come off worse and likely to feel awful, physically and mentally. I did kind of tell you at the beginning there that I was an epic failure!

There has been a great deal of study of this of late, but the role of social media and what we absorb and ingest therein can be a problem. I talk to the teenagers I teach about it. Some of them struggle, but find they can’t stay away, frightened to miss out. But that feeling is not unique to those in this demographic and, in fact, I’d argue that younger people are often way more sensible than older people and not just because they are digital natives. Yet I think we all need to be mindful of the fact that what we see is a version of reality; a curated narrative. I love social media for the friends I’ve made and things I’ve been able to learn; the writing project I am currently pursuing came to me through twitter. A picture, a conversation: serendipitous, exciting and joyful. But the braggy, showy stuff can go hang.

Is all this depressing? I’d say no. Stuff up. Let go. Go and rehearse the facts of life in a sober manner and I wonder if you might actually start to giggle. Because the failure provides a much better anecdote and releases you from much stress. Achieve, according to your own lights, but when I go, I just want to be remembered (if you do remember me) as the funny lady who tried every day to be kind. Fell on her arse constantly. Loved Jesus but enjoyed cursing. Embraced paradox and irreverence. And pie. And kittens. And gave a sad-looking pony an apple. You know.

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

On you go, then.

Love, Anna x