Hilary Mantel. Every writer has a ‘How I became a writer’ story. The Guardian. 6 September 2008


Every writer has a How I became a writer story

 Hilary Mantel

[The Guardian

Saturday 6 September 2008]

Every writer has a How I became a writer’ story. Its what interviewers and audiences always ask for, and quite understandably; some explanation is needed for embarking on a course of conduct so egotistic, impoverishing and bizarre. Some authors reply sweetly: I was born a writer. Most of us struggle to separate how from why. 

The initial impetus is lost in a murky swamp of happenstance. I sometimes say that I wrote my first book because it didnt exist, and I wanted to read it. That's true as far as it goes, but if I am asked about influences I find it hard to give a slick answer. Some of us need a little push, before we recognise we have the right to pick up a pen. In my case it came from a book by the psychiatrists RD Laing and Aaron Esterson, Sanity, Madness and the Family. 

Laing was the better-known partner in this collaboration. In the 1960s and 70s, he was fashionable and famous. His cultural influence has lasted, though some wish otherwise; his work reinforced the scepticism many feel about the biological basis of mental and emotional distress. But he died in 1989, and if you mention him nowadays you are likely to be met with stories of his disorderly private life, or with a distorted version of his work. He didnt, as some claimed, accuse parents of making their children schizophrenic; he interrogated the whole idea of schizophrenia as a clinical entity. He was exceptionally alive to language and gesture, to the layers of meaning in every utterance; alive, also, to power play, to conscious and unconscious manipulations. He had seen the pain, terror and desolation of madness. He did not glamorise it or claim it didnt exist. He and his co-workers suggested that the way some families worked could generate psychotic behaviour in one member, who was selected, more or less unconsciously, to bear the brunt of family dysfunction.

I picked up his book one afternoon in 1973 and read it in one sitting. The people in it seemed close enough to touch. I had already read Laings more famous work, The Divided Self, and I wasnt sure I entirely grasped it; its case histories made my heart sink, but I struggled with its abstractions. But Sanity, Madness and the Family is vivid, direct, gripping. It is a series of interviews with families, who each include one member who has spent time in psychiatric hospitals. Each interview is a novel or play in miniature. The material was gathered between 1958 and 1963, so the families described still live in the shadow of the second world war. They are very different, on the surface, from families today, but I wonder if the dynamics have changed so much. The ploys, the shifts of sense, the secrets and the ambivalence still seem familiar.

In the hospitals where Laing had trained, it was axiomatic that doctors and nurses didntalk to psychosis. The patient was sick and generating nonsense, and you should not encourage it. Laing thought that, if you listened, the patient would tell you how her world worked; the language might be metaphorical, even surreal, but that was logical in a context where plain speech had been penalised and where children had been taught, as they grew, to distrust their own perception and memory, and give way to the memories and perceptions of others. In Laings families, there is always a version behind the version. There are truths one member is allowed to air, that another member is forbidden to utter. The weakest finds him or herself in a lose-lose situation, unable to please, locked in a circuit of invalidation. Madness may, in some circumstances, seem a strategy for survival.

All this is played out in the pages of interviews, in trite little words that I cannot quote without the space to set the scene for each. So many of these family conversations seemed familiar to me: their swerves and evasions, their doubleness. All the patients profiled in the book are young women. I know their names are pseudonyms, but over the years Ive wondered desperately what happened to them, and if theres anyone alive who knows, and whether any of them ever cut free from the choking knotweed of miscommunication and flourished on ground of their own: Ruth, who was thought odd because she wore coloured stockings; Jean, who wanted a baby though her whole family told her she didnt; and Sarah, whose breakdown, according to her family, was caused by too much thinking. In the course of the recorded conversations, their families trip and contradict them. The interviewer records their signals – winks, smirks, nods and how, when the mad member protests, they say: What, me? I didn't do anything. Barefaced lies are countenanced, as being for the patients own good. Left is right, up is down, and, often enough, your mothers your sister, and your fathers not your father.

Laing asked his reader: Is it what you already knew, expected, suspected? Do these things go on in all sorts of families? Possibly. I looked at my own home and drew some conclusions; after all, it is class and context that select some families, and not others, for interventions. You didnt find social workers and mad-doctors knocking on suburban doors, and if my own friends were in trouble they just stopped eating, bearing smiling and skeletal witness to long-running family tensions.

There is a right time to read every book, and 1973 was the time for me to read this one. I was a law student, and a placement with the probation service had put me on the alert for what is coldly described as multiple family dysfunction. On Manchester high-rise estates I had seen the sour human comedy enacted: dad pickled in alcohol, mum a nervy chain-smoking wreck, son a young offender caught up in a spiral of petty crime, pregnant daughter banging on the doors of the nearest psychiatric unit. Ah, the 70s: what a golden age! I was struck by how the men acted and the women reacted, how sons fought and thieved but daughters fell ill. I needed to see my instincts systematised, and when I read Laing, the dynamics were suddenly clear. For most of my life I had been told that I didnt know how the world worked. That afternoon I decided I did know, after all. In the course of my 21 years I'd noticed quite a lot. If I wanted to be a writer, I didnt have to worry about inventing material, I'd already got it. The next stage was just to find some words.

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