Anne Enright’s quote on the front of this book is ‘Do not read this book in public: it will make you cry.’ Sage advice. I am not usually a big fan of the essay, but if ever there was a book that changed my mind, this was it.
Notes to Self
There are six essays in total. Each between twenty to forty pages long. The author is an Associate Professor of Modern Drama at University College Dublin, and my oh my can she write.
The first essay is entitled ‘Notes on Intemperance.’ It deals with her father’s alcoholism and how she cared for him when he was admitted to hospital in Corfu (where he was living at the time.)
I nearly stopped reading after the first few pages, as the descriptions are so graphic and so grim. Thank goodness I kept going. The writing is raw, full of emotion and such truth. I had to re-read several sentences, as I couldn’t believe Emilie Pine had the courage to put them down on the page.
The Second essay is entitled ‘From the Baby Years.’ Well if the first one was tough, this one nearly finished me off altogether! In this essay Ms Pine talks about her struggle to conceive, and her doubts about whether she actually wanted to conceive in the first place. There was so much of this essay with which I could identify, and it took me back to some incredibly painful times. My favourite part though is the end of the essay where she writes:
“Though we do not have the joy of biological children, there are many ways to have a childful life. And, it turns out, there are many ways to enjoy a childfree life, a recent, and important, shift of emphasis for me. I am done marking myself through absence. I am done using the word ‘failure’ about my body. I am done living and writing that story. This is the moment that we get to look around, find our own balance, and enjoy the view from where we are.”
Beautifully expressed and oh so true.
The next essay entitled ‘Speaking/Not Speaking,’ deals with her parents’ divorce and is again revealing, illuminating and opens up painful truths to the writer herself.
In the fourth essay entitled ‘Notes on Bleeding and Other Crimes,’ Emilie Pine deals with the taboo subject of periods, bleeding, and all other aspects of women’s bodies that we have been asked to keep quiet about for fear of upsetting those who can’t handle it. Well, the author is saying, I am keeping quiet no longer. Women bleed, get over it!
She brilliantly compares how unashamed of our bodies we are when children as compared to adults:
“As I think about the confluence of bodies and silence, I remember back to when pain was something to talk about, when our bodies were the subject of a show-and-tell. Aged seven I would roll up my trouser leg and narrate the scars – from the dog bite, or the jumping off the shed roof, or from the rusty nail scratch that got infected.”
My favourite essay is the penultimate essay entitled ‘Something About Me.’ In this essay the author talks about her extremely troubled youth. How she developed an eating disorder and how she struggled to cope with everything about her life, despite showing a brave and undaunted persona to the outside world. This essay is heart-breaking because no-one stepped in to help, because no-one took enough time or trouble to notice. Not a teacher, not a parent and not a friend. This is how young girls so easily get lost in the system. The author is clearly a deeply sensitive and (at the time) extremely troubled soul, and so she gave away her love and her body without a second thought, so desperate was her need to be noticed. Her own mother was struggling financially and did not have the energy herself to care for a wayward daughter, although she tried on occasion.
Although it is a miracle she survives unscathed, it is not the all of her life. It covers a period of eight years from which she recovers and learns. She is unflinchingly honest, and it is such a raw and insightful piece of writing. The author recounts how difficult it was to put it on the page:
“These pages cover a period of about eight years. They contain many events and emotions that I have never told to anyone before, or even admitted to myself. The experience of writing them out has been very painful. That I cannot, or have not, avoided this pain by choosing not to write the story is due to one simple reason: the urge to write this feels not only dangerous and fearful and shameful, but necessary. I write this now to reclaim those parts of me that for so long I thoroughly denied.”
This could be the message of the whole book of essays, and we are the lucky recipients, for in her courage and honesty, we can see ourselves reflected and our experiences mirrored.
Emilie Pine ends the book with an essay entitled ‘This is not on the Exam.’ It is a beautiful piece about a woman’s belief that she must do it all, have it all and be it all. After putting herself through a punishing regime at work that pushed her right to the edge of a breakdown, she examines the cultural aspects of being a woman in academia, and what is both expected of you and the assumption that you will do your job, be quiet and be good. I found it staggering that the misogynistic, antiquated, sexist views and attitudes still exist, but apparently, they are alive and well which is not good enough. Fortunately, the author concludes that the work will never be done. It is never enough, and it is up to her to put a value on herself and look after her own mental health.
In spite of the fear she is doing it anyway and you can’t ask for more than that.
A superb book of essays. Buy a box of tissues and enjoy!