Wednesday, 20 July 2011

If I Should Die Before I Wake

In 2007, I worked with Eileen Munro, a former student on my Open University creative writing course, after she approached me for help in writing her autobiography.  The year or more we spent on it had deep lows as she relived the upsets of her childhood (and as we read her Social Work and medical case notes together) yet it had much in the way of emotional highs and gusty laughter, too. In working together, we tried to create something that adhered as closely as possible to the truth, while crafting a story which would provide an engaging, honest and thought-provoking read. 
After it was published in 2008, I told Eileen I wouldn’t be able to spend the same amount of time co-writing her second volume, given that I had projects of my own which I wanted to explore (and, as I subsequently found out, because my health was in freefall). I was pleased when I heard she was immersed in writing the follow-up. Now it’s available, here’s my review of it.

Eileen Munro’s If I Should Die Before I Wake was published in July 2011 by Mainstream Publishing, three years after her first book, As I Lay Me Down To Sleep. The second volume of memoir follows Eileen from the birth of her first child in difficult circumstances, through a continued exploration of the search for family life and a yearned after sense of belonging.
                Eileen’s life story is a painful one because she was one of the generation of babies given up for adoption in the early 1960s when illegitimacy was universally stigmatised. In those days before abortion was legalised, young mothers-to-be were secreted away in institutions or with family members in distant parts of the country, to complete their pregnancies and dispose of their ‘mistakes’ through adoption before returning home to resume a ‘normal’ life. The theory was that the children born to these single mothers would enjoy a better life because they were adopted by a married couple who would be able to provide love and security.
                As I Lay Me Down To Sleep told the story of the very different consequences for one such child. Adopted just after birth, Eileen might indeed have enjoyed a sweet life except that her adoptive parents became alcoholics who left her vulnerable to abuse. Her father was violent and her mother died in a drunken stupor when Eileen was twelve, after which Eileen and her sister were taken into care. A troubled teenager, Eileen herself became a single mother at the age of sixteen but passionately vowed she would keep her child and cherish him so he wouldn’t suffer physically and emotionally as she had.

This is the point at which If I Should Die before I Wake opens. We meet Eileen, still vulnerable, innocent of the adult world as any sixteen year old is, but steely with bravado. Unlike most sixteen year olds, Eileen had no home or family support. No mother to turn to for help in raising her baby and no one to help her keep tabs on rent and electricity bills. No one other than a social worker on the end of the phone, or the manager of whatever hostel she happened to find herself in.
This should evoke a feeling of empathy in the reader or perhaps a sense of outrage at her circumstances. That doesn’t quite happen in this book and I think it’s because Eileen does herself no favours by presenting every authority figure as loathsome. Universally wicked and evil, associated in her descriptions with stern morality and girdles, the women running the homes she lived in are cardboard cut-outs and this is one thing in this otherwise moving account of her life which irritated me as a reader.
                Take Mrs Woods of Hove House, a woman whose very clothes were imbued with powers to humiliate and repress the young Eileen. ‘Staunch and heavily-girdled in Marks & Spencer’s good churchgoing clothing’, her ‘brown-patent square-toed and -heeled shoes remained unmoved, demanding my answer’. Mrs Linn, the health worker, is also presented as one-sided, biased against Eileen (‘seemed to take my fears as a personal attack on her authority, and she was determined that I would not undermine her’). Even Mac-Mac, a worker shown with a rare soft side, turns deceitful.
                Eileen proclaims herself the injured party throughout, innocent even though she admits assuming the lead in breaking into another occupant’s room. And when she recounts the gruesome brutality she suffered from a partner who arrived in the middle of the night to find her with another man, the reader’s fellow-feeling shrinks a little in disbelief at her unconvincing explanation of why that man was there. There’s sparse evidence of the mature Eileen weighing this up in the memoir: not much in the way of taking stock of how her actions could have been misinterpreted. 
            Memory is, of course, subjective: two people witnessing the same event will write about it from different perspectives and with different attitudes and agendas. Who is to say which is the real truth? Eileen is entitled to write her truth as she sees it and to sculpt a narrative out of it. 
It is the total intimacy with the memoir writer which readers enjoy: a sometimes prurient interest in sharing a wounded person’s hurts then, with the wounded person, learning to rise above them. There is a hunger for this kind of confessional memoir and writers, and commercial publishers, have a right to feed it. Perhaps as readers we're too worldly wise to hope for a 'happy ever after' but at least this chapter of Eileen's story ends, satisfactorily, on a note of lightness and optimism.