Reckoning with the Past at the Byron Writers Festival

> 08.09.2017

I look forward to the Byron Writers Festival every year—a feast of ideas, books and food in an idyllic place. This year’s Festival was as fantastic as ever.

I went with a group of family and friends and, on the eve of the Festival, we pored through the program discussing and selecting the sessions we wanted to attend—either individually or collectively. And I announced I wouldn’t be buying any books this year. I planned to exercise restraint, to let my book purchasing impulses settle so I could distill my list of ‘must haves’ and buy them later.

My resolve stuck until the second session of the second day when I went to Caroline Baum in conversation with Ailsa Piper. Caroline’s memoir ‘Only: A Singular Memoir’ explodes the secrets of her shiny, beautiful yet lonely childhood then takes us up to the present, through the years of her father’s illness and death and, now, caring for her mother with no siblings for support.

As a family therapist, I’m familiar with the trials of triangulation in families, but how can it be escaped in a family of three? Caroline goes straight to the heart of triangles in her story, of being a fulcrum between her damaged parents, whose childhoods were rent by trauma and tragedy and,  yet, still managed to build adult lives in a new country with great material and cultural success. 

Caroline describes what her family felt like, as an only child in an era when it was less common than now.  She writes:

Three barely felt like a family. It felt like it did not count. Like we were unfinished. Incomplete. There was always a gap at the table, room to set places for others. Visitors were few and far between. Mostly, there was only me.

Caroline describes herself as a lonely child, surrounded with glittering trappings, living beneath the shimmering surface of a fragile façade. She captures the essence of her loneliness in her writing, saying she’d ‘sit listening to the water system gurgling like it was a friend’.

How often do you find it’s the themes in the stories of others which capture you? On the surface our lives may be worlds apart yet there are the universal narratives, the essence of our lived experiences, which can resonate so compellingly.

We may draw lines of difference between ourselves and others; I was not an only child, I grew up without wealth, we lived in different countries, and my parents’ lives were nothing like those of Caroline’s. Yet, what pulled me in were the invisible elements, the parts we never know about another unless they have the capacity or courage to interrogate their pasts and tell their stories.

I knew loneliness as a child and lived in a home where my parents’ childhood wounds were secrets enunciated only in the silences or the explosive storms in the patterns of pursuit and distance in their marital dance. As a child of an ‘only’, my father, I’d watched him balancing responsibility between his own family and his parents and, as his own children grew independent, the dependency of his parents grew.

And, when Caroline spoke of her mother never really processing the anger she felt about being abandoned at the age of five, and never getting over believing she will be abandoned again and again, I thought, ‘This is the narrative of my mother’s life, too.’ I connected with the hidden trauma Caroline described, the pull of secrets so powerful they must never be talked about.

I knew I had to read ‘Only’. My resolve melted and I raced to the bookshop after the session and, yes, I went to the signing tent to meet Caroline afterwards.

Then the floodgates opened—my professed ability to refrain from the retail tent exposed to be as empty as a New Year’s resolution—and I returned home with many new books.