How does one write gorgeous, lyrical, haunting prose about topics that reach to the very depths of human sadness?
About the deep grinding poverty of mid-20th century Ireland, land of no birth control and females as baby-producing machines.
About loss and longing, the physical and emotional battering of children, the abuse and oppression of women, the ache of adult loneliness, the vacancy of wanton sex, the invisibility wrought by old age.
About the alcohol and drugs to which so many victims of the above desperately flee.
And about the lifelong search for love, identity and self-acceptance that proves so elusive in the wake of so much tragedy.
You do it how Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain did it in her surprise bestseller, “Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman.” With wrenching, sometimes brutal honesty that takes acute measure of all things human and leaves nothing outside the purview of an astounding, frequently painful sensitivity.
Which is, of course, also the source of her artistry, and her joy.
That artistry underpins virtually every page of this compulsively readable, unforgettable work.
“Are You Somebody?” was O’Faolain’s first book, published when she was 56 years old in 1996. It came after a mostly cobbled together career of print journalism, teaching, television production and radio, and was intended only as a brief lead-in to a collection of newspaper columns someone had suggested she turn into book form.
The “brief lead-in” instead became a long labor as she discovered wave upon wave of life-surveying and storytelling churning within her.
The book hit like a concussion bomb upon publication in her native Ireland, where it vaulted up and then perched in the No. 1 position for 20 consecutive weeks while also becoming an improbable international best-seller.
In an afterword written for the second edition, O’Faolain shows why, describing the literally hundreds of mostly women, though many men, too, who wrote her impassioned letters, who stopped and chased after her in the street, and tried fumblingly at book signings to convey to her, often tearfully, “You told my story.”
And then they would go on to tell her theirs, chilling accounts of similarly beleaguered, abused mothers, distant or absent fathers, children, so many children, left to raise themselves or each other.
Nuala’s own wounds and her brother’s wounds, dooming them in a certain sense never to feel quite at home in their own skins, always in search of some deep and complete but forever elusive self-acceptance, give us a glimmer at the larger hole still at the center of the human project.
Nuala was the second of nine (surviving) children, her mother having been subjected to 13 pregnancies. Her father was a prominent Irish journalist who wrote a popular column for the “Dublin Evening Press.” He was literate, dapper, distant, and prone to occasional rages that saw his children, especially the boys, flee as they could while their mother endured the beatings that were coming or, in her husband’s less physically aggressive moods, a barrage of shame and ridicule.
Her mother adapted as best she could in a repressive Catholic culture and an economy in which leaving was a pipe dream: she drank herself into a lifelong stupor. To hear O’Faolain tell it in some of the most powerful passages I’ve ever read about the dark wages of drinking, she had plenty of company.
O’Faolain was unquestionably gifted, having learned to read at age 3 when she suddenly grasped the meaning of one word in front of her and then,
“…it hopped across—like the ping-pong ball hopping along the line in a sing-along—to join the meaning of the next word I understood, until there were enough words to make sense of the sentence. I was overcome with delight.”
But being a gifted woman in a heavily patriarchal culture with a troubled history was no highway to success. The question in her book’s title reflected her struggle not merely to insert herself deservedly into the intellectual life of Ireland and the United Kingdom, where she spent a number of years working for the BBC, but also to come to terms with herself as a whole human being after an often hellish and bereft childhood that seemed to leave a permanent hole of want in her relational life.
As she comes of age, she tries to fill this want with a succession of relationships, some longer than others, some mere overnighters fueled by drink and then subject to self-loathing, some as a mistress, some as the committed partner being cheated on.
None of them able to quench the need of that forever hungry young being who had never been truly and deeply held close to a parent’s bosom and revered as the singular child of God that is, or should be, every person’s birthright.
Eventually, she acquires a dog and cat—Molly and Hodge. Pets, companions, of the kind that would have been utterly unthinkable for her parents. Gazing at them on a Christmas Day when they are all she has for company, she reflects:
“’Get that cat out of here,’ is all my mother or father would have said. I took it for granted that they had little tenderness for us. They made me accept that, for myself and my brothers and sisters. But I can stop being passive when I think, they would have had no tenderness for Molly! They would have said, ‘You’re not expecting me to mind that dog, are you?’…And I think for the first time—I let myself feel it—how did my mother and father not care more for the children around them? How did they not pick them up, not comfort them? How did my father strap his defenseless sons with his army belt?…These animals give me my first measure of what is owed to helpless beings.”
She plans that Christmas Day in some great detail, a long hike on the Irish coast with her dog in the offing, along with food and drink with logistics helped along by friends. She bathes in a mixture of delight, resignation and mourning through it all, vacillating between self-pity and awareness that her mere survival is a triumph and stroke of fortune.
“My beautiful goddaughter died when she was eight…Her suffering, her pointless bravery—all for nothing. What she went through, and what was lost when she died—that’s what tragedy is. Or my brother, who was sent to me to mind in London so long ago (there’s no getting through Christmas Day without going over your family in your mind). He’s a grown man now, with a life of his own. But I see a suffering child in him. He ended a letter to me about the pain of his childhood: ‘I don’t blame anyone or hate anybody. Just me.’ Just himself. That’s tragedy.”
And then worse, because truly, there is always worse:
“I’d just a few weeks before Christmas come back from Manila, where I’d been writing about sex tourism and children used for sex. I was still full of all that.”
Earlier in the book, she is beholding the opera Fidelio with a professor friend and she is transfixed by a quartet of performers who each sing their individual pieces to the audience, yet manage to intermingle in perfect harmony.
“When the curtain came down on the act. I wiped the tears from my eyes and asked Arnold, ‘Why is ensemble singing so beautiful? What makes it move us so much?’ And he said, ‘People would be like that all the time, if they could.’”
“If they could.” If we could, we would do many things that we don’t currently do. We would find the sex trade in Manila and hunger in Appalachia and the uninsured in Philadelphia and the slave labor in China and the millions of street people in India (and the U.S.) unconscionable and unacceptable.
It’s not for want of the wanting to fix these things that we haven’t quite managed it. We do not lack desire to both improve ourselves and end exploitation wherever we see it. But desire is just the beginning.
The road to resolution is paved with all manner of desire rolled into complexity, inertia, misdirection, and yes—resistance. We are decidedly mixed and contradictory beings.
In truth, Nuala’s own wounds and her brother’s wounds, dooming them in a certain sense never to feel quite at home in their own skins, always in search of some deep and complete but forever elusive self-acceptance, give us a glimmer at the larger hole still at the center of the human project.
We would all sing together, beautifully in harmony, if we were further along than we are in the quest for wholeness and justice, the relinquishment of fear, the cherishing of children and of every person’s freedom to live full, uniquely expressive lives.
O’Faolain achieved a great measure of fame and financial security with the success of “Are You Somebody?” The title question answered itself when the book flew off shelves, gaining her “somebodiness” and a suddenly generous bank account. But it wasn’t only readers with similar and even worse stories of their own that kept pulling her back to the same self she had struggled her entire life to rest into.
Despite the gushing, heartfelt response to her book, she was still literally alone, as she had been much of her life, always in want, in her words, of “the right companion to marvel at the world with.”
Indeed, our social need and function are so strong, with such an evolutionarily endowed and well-developed muscle, that we all long to say, in the end, not “Oh my!” to ourselves, but “Look, Look!” to an other. But the reality is that many if not most of us don’t—or do so only briefly or episodically, in the sparkle of new relationship before things go bad or stale, or until death or dementia take the marveling other away from us.
One day, she plans a train trip that includes visiting an open air museum.
“Suddenly, the most fine rain was borne across the place, on a satiny breeze. I want to be with someone! I cried out inside myself. It is ridiculous to go around open-air museums on your own! I feel chock-full of experience that it is now too late to share.”
As it turned out, at least some redemption in relationship did come for O’Faolain. Her fortune from the memoir allowed her to purchase an apartment in New York, where she met an attorney in 2002 with whom, by all accounts, she spent satisfying and committed years as domestic partners, though she always carefully retained her own residence.
Tragedy never lurking far, however, doctors discovered inoperable brain cancer early in 2008. In typical Nuala fashion, she consented to a radio interview just weeks later, at which she declared:
“Even if I gained time through the chemotherapy, it isn’t time I want. Because as soon as I knew I was going to die soon, the goodness went out of life.”
She died within three months at age 68, having declined any further treatment regimens after initial radiation therapy.
It is a testament to the resilience and love lying like a coiled spring at the base of each human life that so many millions survive harsh and horrid circumstances. The “normal” neuroses that every imperfect parent visits upon his or her progeny is as nothing compared to the neglect at best and terror at worst levied upon innocents throughout the world, throughout history.
The appalling toll is evident in the continuing wars, slaughters, and exploitation that persist on this very day, virtually everywhere on this earth.
But this is also a day in which sunshine suffuses my front patio on a leaf-lined street in the fecundity of summer, as maybe it does yours. A day when my tomatoes are ripening in the heat, plums are going plop on the ground, and in which a small gaggle of neighborhood children has gathered kitty corner to me, riding scooters and tiny cars on Sunday morning, clattering and chattering loudly along the sidewalks under the eyes of gentle, well-intentioned parents.
These parents hold the precious young souls of their children close at hand, close to their hearts, unaware of how they stand on this morning as answer and counterpoint to Nuala’s parents, who were no doubt victimized by far harsher circumstances in their own day. In this way, each generation pushes on from the currents bequeathed by the last, more often than not offering corrective if still imperfect strokes where needed, in the continuing expression of hope and practice for the better days that beckon us ceaselessly forward, whatever the rapids and boulders that always loom along the way.
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Deep appreciation to the photographers!
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Feathery/wispy photo by Holly Lay, Muncie, Indiana, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/hollylay/
Pupa photo by Danny Chapman, Oxford, England, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/people/11152520@N03/
O’Faolain award photo by Laurent Rebours, Associated Press file photo.