‘They say you can’t change the past,’ Alison said.
‘Who does?’ smiled Adam.
‘They do, agony aunts, cod philosphers, various songs, but we know it changes all the time, don’t we?’
Stranger Than Kindness, Mark A. Radcliffe.
I’ve just finished reading Radcliffe’s novel. It carefully exposes the troubled world of mental health professionals, as gently as a thumb testing flesh for a wound. This isn’t a review of course, but it is wonderful book and I recommend it. This is where the book has brought me. I grew up close to madness, and if that sounds as though it were a place, that’s because that was how it seemed. Like a crumbling, smelly old house that you never wanted to visit, somewhere you could avoid, that you could chose not to enter. Madness – in its various forms, runs through our family; a germ coiled in the blood. Though in our family it wasn’t acknowledged as a genuine condition, only that someone was ‘attention seeking’. No one ever made the point that it was pretty extreme way to get noticed.
I’ve been in an asylum or psychiatric unit as they’re called now, several times. The first was when I was a little girl, visiting my grandmother. She sat in a plastic covered armchair along with all the other patients, placed uniformly around the edges of a large square room. My memory is sketchy, but I know that I didn’t recognise this woman who only looked like my nanna, her face blank, not laughing at my silly jokes and that I crawled slowly out into the centre of the room, the blue nylon carpet burning my knees, aware that I was alone in being able to leave the safety of the walls. My next encounter with mental health facilities was in a Hospital for the Criminally Insane, I taught there briefly, and my main recollections are being told not to worry that they didn’t have a personal alarm for me, because if I was attacked I’d be dead before they managed to help me anyway, making the alarm redundant and that the staff seemed more crazy than the patients. My final visit to a psychiatric ward was when I was admitted myself, knowing as surely as day follows night, that I was a horse or least that I had no words and only legs and that I would have to run. Or so I remember, having returned from that place a long time ago. I wonder though, if even putting that episode into words has sanitised it, made it something it wasn’t – which was understandable or knowable. The point is that it was beyond words, beyond narrative and telling. It was a radical uncertainty.
Radcliffe is right, the past does change, no matter what people say. It’s shifting and undoing the fragile selves we think we’ve secured for ourselves right now. So I am certain of nothing, except this moment.