Intergenerational transmission of trauma is a well-documented phenomenon. Urgent work done with families of Holocaust survivors, mostly in Israel and Germany, shows that traumatic and other experiences can apparently be psychologically inherited, often in the form of quasi-memories:
The children of survivors show symptoms which would be expected in they actually lived through the Holocaust They share and anguished collective memory of recurrent memories to their parents traumatic experiences. These children wake up at night with terrifying nightmares of Nazi persecution The children come to feel that the Holocaust is the single most critical event that has affected their lives although it occurred before they were born (Barocas and Barocas, 1979, p. 331)
The specificity of the transmitted material in the case of Holocaust material barbed wire, gas chambers, firing squads (ibid.) make the parent-child connection explicit: the content of the material is somehow being shared between the generation, as well as the emotional atmosphere.
The mechanisms by which this all happens are not fully understood. James Herzog describes the parental protective envelope that should shield the developing child from the potentially over stimulating or frightening elements of the parental world both intra psychic and external, and which apparently fails as a result of a history of unintegratable trauma in the case of Holocaust survivors. He also notes, however, that while unconscious material between progenitors and offspring seems to be transmitted in an uncanny and unspecified fashion. The explanatory power of the model seems most apparent in situations of gross abuse, either sexual or physical, or of major impediments to the marital relationship... (Herzog 1990: 104). In these situations, a child is presumably obliged to contain intolerable parental projections which eventually take on a memory-like quality, in the reverse of the more benign processing of the child's terrified projections by the mother (Bion, 1962).
Although Herzog thinks that 'To assess [the models] applicability to average expectable environments with less extreme provocations or actions is a more difficult task, it is argued that while a Holocaust background is a paradigm for the study of universal phenomena related to [intergenerational] trauma the mechanisms found [in survivors families] are also found in traumatic parent-child relationships without a Holocaust background(Bergmann, 1990, p.288). If this is so, it would seem logical to think that in more ordinarily, and even perhaps normally, traumatic families, the effect might persist, eventually fading, perhaps to something as modest as family style or preoccupation. Some neuropsychobiologists are interested to try to tease out such links at the more ordinary end of the spectrum (Schore, 2001). Beatrice Beebe, for example, performs microanalysis of filmed interactions of mothers and infants to trace the beginnings of relational trauma (Beebe, 2000). This line of enquiry from pathology to everyday manifestations a well-trodden path in the development of psychoanalytic theory, which, from transference issues to questions of projection and projective identification, has frequently been first elaborated in relation to florid pathology, and only later been understood to be significant in more ordinary and indeed often healthy aspects of selfhood as well.
In this essay, I look at two best-selling British memoirs published in 2000, Lorna Sages Bad Blood and Martin Amiss Experience, to trace the working out of some of these issues. My contention is that the memoirs show examples of this intergenerational transmission of unconscious material in environments which, while they could scarcely be said to be average expectable ones, are not at any rate unmeetably horrific, nor perhaps even very unusually difficult. Lorna Sage and Martin Amiss memoirs describe family situations that are bizarre enough in the way memoirs often are, but generally more carnivalesque than sickening. The memoirs themselves are written as classic dark comedies; the authors are ambitious, highly successful and sophisticated middle-aged professionals, with what appears to be a good deal of psychological insight and defended autobiographical styles. Nevertheless, the memoirs reveal the intrusion of the unmastered past of parental and grandparental material into their worlds. In both cases, the result includes an effect on self-image and bodily symptoms, and an apparent refusal to represent or even really to register, their own childhood distress. Moreover, each writer seems to reach for imagery of death and entombment to describe the effect of this parental material of the child's life. In each case it is naturalized rather than analysed: Sage continually returns to her grandfathers work near and for the cemetery, Amis to an appalling and notorious murder in his family. I suggest, however, that this is rationalising rather than rational, and that in both cases the preoccupation with entombment is a metaphor for the entrapping qualities of the intergenerational material, as well as allowing the author to deal with unspoken grief for the dead. Both writers are to different degrees also preoccupied with oral assault and deprivation: teeth, dental work, problems with food and body shape bulk large in each memoir, perhaps as a way of representing the intrusion of painful and poisonous parental material.
Like filmed interactions of mothers and infants, autobiography provides a stable text for the consideration of how relational histories can intrude into lives. Autobiographies offer space for the powerful mixing of historical data, sometimes in terms of the inclusion of an original textual voice of a dead relation, sometimes of a more neutral sort, and the conscious reflections and unconscious promptings of the grown child. This mixture can sometimes give a picture of intergenerational transmission of trauma with startling clarity, as a dead relatives experience sounds through, or below, those of the writer. One of the valuable things about life writing, however, is that the author does not need to unpick these distinctions. The original entanglement of the geographical, sexual, and psychological modalities of the child's origins can be explored. In particular, life writing allows for the exploration of one special element of this area of experience which is harder to put into words, and has to do with where the child was held in the parents mind, before its birth and after. The banal way of asking this question is to wonder whether the baby was a wanted child, as family planners ask. A more unsettling way of putting it is to ask what the baby was wanted for, and what that fact meant to her or him. Sage and Amis both explore the idea that (as is often said of the children born to Holocaust survivors) that they were wanted to repair aspects of their families worlds: Sage as therapy for her grandfather, Amis as therapy for his father. It is this therapeutic purpose of their infantile existence which seems to entrap them in the intergenerational nightmare.
To begin with Lorna Sages Bad Blood. Sage, who died from emphysema in 2001 at the age of fifty-seven, had a very successful career as an academic literary critic, spending thirty-five years at the University of East Anglia, where she had a personal chair, as did her first husband Vic Sage, whom she married and bore a daughter to at the age of seventeen. And thereby, indeed, hangs a tale, which the memoir unfolds with panache. Sages story is self-consciously structured as a classic female bildungsroman, essentially a quest story, with some twists involving sexuality and gender prejudice in the female form: dissatisfaction with her life must catapult the heroine into a series of painful clashes with her society of origin, until maturity is reached and a satisfactory resolution with society is achieved (Hirsch,1979). Sage had published on the female bildungsroman, and she gives her autobiography every fascinating angle such a tale can have. The choice of this form means that no description of her adult career is given. The story is designed to come to an end with the protagonists triumphant entrance into society, in this case, Lorna's academic success at university and the reclaiming of the child she had left with her mother while she was an undergraduate. Echoes of major nineteenth-century novels, Dickens, Hardy and the various Brontes, ripple through the work in her description of her childhood world which seemed to reach back to the Dickensian past, war, poverty, adultery, blighted sexuality, rural neglect.
The book, however, is no innocent narrative: it was written in the shadow of Sages serious and ultimately fatal respiratory illness, and foreshadows her death in a way which flags the intergenerational aspects of the authors psychic and embodied life. The memoir begins with satirically cheerful images of death: Sage declared herself particularly pleased with its first sentence:(1)
Grandfathers skirts would flap in the wind along the churchyard path, and I would hang on He was good at funerals, being gaunt and lined, marked with mortality He and I would slam out of the house and go off between the graves
One day we stopped to watch the gravedigger, who unearthed a skull it was an old churchyard, on its second or third time around and grandfather dusted off the soil and declaimed: Alas poor Yorick, I knew him well I thought he was making it up as he went along. I was like a baby goose imprinted on the first mother-figure it sees he was my black marker (Sage, 2000, pp.3-4)
The women of the family have given the little girl to the Old Devil they hate, Grandma because of her tribulations in the matters of defloration and childbirth, which Lorna (2) believes to have been extreme; mother because of Grandpas predatory sexual affairs, one of which was with her best school friend. Lorna duly becomes imprinted on her Grandpa, having been named by him after the heroine of a favourite romantic novel as, she believes, his angry association to her mothers Lorna Doone-like marriage to a peasant (ibid,.p.166). She lives her appointed role as Grandpas hobble, supposedly to impede his tendency to womanising and boozing, but in reality, the memoir posits, imbibing all his bad ways. In his despair at being the custodian of a bored pre-schooler, Grandpa teaches her to read, making her thoroughly his creature. The small Lorna, bred for books, masculinity and cynicism, distrusts the smothering, spongy womb of her grandmothers world.
Once upon a time in South Wales I had had to spend a night in a feather bed, sandwiched between [Great-Aunt] Katie and Grandma, and that ambiguous sensation of sinking back and back, down and down in a deep nest of feathers and furbelows and flesh, came to stand for Infinite regress (ibid,.p. 43)
Grandpa, on the other hand, a man of many failed talents loves the dead, declaring them more amusing than his wife had set off through the churchyard with his lamp for a private wake. He smokes as a pseudo-occupation, anything combustible (Sage, 2000, p.80). Sage provides a whole page on excerpts from grandpas diaries about his pipe whittlings and ruminations: After I had dinner, I turned my Peterson pipe into a cigarette holder as this is the more satisfactory way of smoking for me. The full weight of a pipe is too much for my teeth, am still on with the cigarettes but must go back to the pipe I think and so on interminably. Dying, he contrived to surround himself with a cloud of smoke (ibid,.p. 88).
Lorna's female relatives object to the mark of the grandfather:
my mothers worst insult was to say You re just like your grandfather. This was in my adolescence, and what she mainly meant (but couldn't bear to spell out) was that I was promiscuous, sex-obsessed. I took it as a great compliment. This of course confirmed her in her opinion, for Grandpas pride in his own awfulness was his distinguishing trait. Otherwise when you think about it, why write these diaries? Who is he writing for? (Sage, 2000, p. 77)
The enslaved granddaughter gets the Old Devils words into print at last jointly with her own, in her most successful book, thus rescuing her mentor and first love from the squalor of insignificance which is (I'm sure he believed) much worse than wickedness. Moreover, she triumphantly reincarnates the Old Devil in her career. When she considers her first University tutor, Nicholas Brooke, she puzzles,
I couldn't understand why I hadn't recognised him in the first place the brilliance, the theatricality, the edge of bitterness , the cradled cigarette, the flapping black gown this was [Grandpa] my first mentor as Id never known him, in his prime. (Sage, 2000, p.276)
The point is that Sage identifies Grandpa with books, writing, cunning, leanness, sexuality and death, all of which she embraces; and Grandma with fat, greed, spite, stupidity, primitive anti-libidinal torpor, and decaying survival into a useless and persecuting old age, all of which she rejects. The photograph on the cover of the second edition of the memoir and after Sages death is startling. It depicts a lean, handsome, saturnine Sage, sexy in a scary androgynous fashion, her cigarette burning stylishly between her relaxed fingers, as if celebrating the link between intellect, smoking, sexuality and, I think, death. In the memoirs last pages, Sage makes explicit the intellect-sex-smoke link between the wicked Grandpa and the ironical tutor. She learns, she says to drink and smoke (Sage, 2000, p. 276) in academic limbo, at the Whitchurch Old Boys Club, after being accepted at Durham, but before term had started.
This brilliant girls life seems, as she gives it to us here, shaped by other, earlier lives. Her family need her to be what Holocaust scholars call a memorial candle, named by her grandpa, living his life as it should have been, getting out of the back blocks, getting herself (and him) into print. More obscurely, she also rescues her unloved Grandmas hopes: stopping at only one baby as Grandma had longed to do, refusing housework for a life of the imagination (though hers is better-fed than poor Grandmas), and refusing sex with the husband just as Grandma did, though in Lorna's case, it was apparently an amiable arrangement, in contrast to Grandmas palsied loathing of the physical presence of the Old Devil. Her parents Laurentian marriage (middle-class girl, gifted working-class boy), their love and life destroyed in a modest way by the war, also get another chance through Lorna's transgressive sexuality the way she tells it, in any case. In conceiving in the ancient manner by sexual contact without full penetration, threshing at the barn door as it used to be called, Lorna made my mother pregnant, as she says, comically enough: her sexuality forces all sorts of issues back into family consciousness, quite therapeutically, within limited parameters.
The strangeness of Lorna's life as memorial candle is easy to see when the photos she obligingly includes are compared to the accounts of her body. Over and over, Lorna describes herself as deformed and repulsive: part of a lumpen lot: sullen, unresponsive, cowed, shy or giggly A bunch of nose-pickers and nail-biters with scabbed knees, warts, chapped skin and unbrushed teeth (Sage, 2000, p.21), herself especially as a timid, clumsy, speechless child (ibid,.p. 29); and later as a very passable village idiot (ibid,.p. 105), a sort of homeless tramp, muddy, snotty, disheveled; and later still as bizarrely un-coordinated (ibid,.p. 131), a natural malingerer (ibid,.p. 150), small grubby, uncouth, a swot, and no good at sports, with extravagant orthodontic braces, a mouthful of complicated shiny wires then thought to be grotesque an outlandish deformity (ibid,.p. 154); and when a teenager, as white trash, with disfiguring, rubbery amber-coloured blisters and elephantine ankles, legs which were stocky, too short, mottled pink (ibid,.p.:209), a body wildly allergic to every stimulus, my period [coming] every three weeks in a heavy iron-smelling flood, along with backaches, headaches and cramps (ibid,.p. 197). This apocalyptic picture of the monstrous body contrasts markedly with the photos, all of which show a Grace Kelly-like creature: an exquisitely pretty toddler and child, and then a dazzlingly beautiful young blonde with a tiny waist and perfect regular features. The filth, disease, lumpishness which are evident in the wartime photos of Sages family, and actually took a visible toll on her ancestral embodiment, are experienced in the daughter and granddaughters psychological life. Grandmas elephantine ankles, mothers hypochondria, Grandpas grubbiness, are all experienced as her own.
There is also a great deal of attention given to the truly vile food and dismal housekeeping produced by Lorna's mother and grandmother. Grandma is said to refuse to undertake any housekeeping at all, and lives on chocolates and toast. Mother despairingly moves dirt around but never removes it, and produces ghastly concoctions of shreds of grey, nameless meat and lumps of carrots and turnips floating in salty water, with a surface shimmer of yellow fat (Sage 2000:120). On one occasion she melts a plastic eggcup (intended to support the pastry lid) into a pie, and nobody notices until they have finished their servings. Lorna refuses to cook or clean at all. Nobody eats much except for Vic, who is indiscriminately hungry, (ibid,.p. 246). In the simple sense, this situation is perhaps a variation on the English intelligentsia's suspicion in the mid-twentieth century, seen very clearly in Iris Murdoch and John Bailey's disgusting housekeeping (Bailey, 1999; see also Martin Amiss review of Richard Eyres fim Iris and discussion of Bayleys elegy, 2001), that contempt for domestic comfort is a sign of intellectual superiority. It also seems, however, that, beginning with Grandmas sweets and Grandpas tobacco, nobody has cared to provide adequate oral comfort or nutrition for the children. Oral contact is humiliating, contemptuous, and unnourishing. Moreover, the family is orally stigmatised: Lorna and Vic have both inherited the wrong teeth from some ancestor whod had quite a differently shaped jaw (Sage, 2000, p.55): Vic has only a few second teeth (ibid,.p. 230), and Lornas are too many and too big. Lornas mother had associated her smashed front teeth and unsatisfactory crowns with Grandpas vileness with her friend Marj (ibid,.p.157). At the most primitive level, nobody in Lornas family can give or receive comfort: the grandparents oral perversions reappear in the descendents, physically and emotionally.
Sages memoir thus exhibits some of the features of the sharing of unconscious material between progenitors and offspring (Herzog, 1990, p.104) which is so strikingly demonstrated in survivor families. The work done by the theorists and clinicians who work with Holocaust trauma can explain something of why this beautiful, gifted girl experienced herself as dirty, ugly and mentally deficient; perhaps also why she produces another baby girl herself to be handed over to her ostensibly contemptuous and neglectful mother to name and raise, exactly as she herself had been handed over to Grandpa. In her living, redoing and undoing these experiences, Sage depicts the re-enactment and the mastering of relatively mundane but nevertheless painful parental and grandparental catastrophes. Neither Lorna nor Vic Sage ever had another child, and they stuck with their passionless marriage for a long time, by Lornas account: in true bildungsroman style, the relationship and the production of the child both resolves and frees them from their family history. As Lornas sympathetic teacher had said, seventeen was the ideal age to have a healthy baby and get on with your life (Sage, 2000, p. 255) .
Most of all, however, it would seem that Lorna Sage, writing in the face of her terminal emphysema, is comforted by being able to represent the inherited material in her life, unpleasant and disturbing as it mostly is. Looked at in one way, its all a memento mori: Grandpa resisting her mothers marriage, visually in a wonderful photograph of Lornas mother pulling him bodily into church to give her away (Sage 2000, p.167), his loathing the muck hole of Hanmer in which he fetched up, his flamboyant smoking, his declaiming over the skull, all has been reformed into a triumphant new pattern, ending with the authors own death, but imaginatively on her terms. In particular, she got out, unlike the rest of her family, who remained stuck in Hanmer, trapped in Grandpa and Grandmas case, hating each other for eternity in a single grave. Near the end of the book, Sage describes a flood in the last of the familys houses, which must have brought frogspawn with it before it receded, because one day the cellar floor was swarming with tiny albino frogs who couldnt get out, whod been eating each other down there in the dark (ibid ,.p. 254). It is a chilling image of Lornas feelings about her familys situation, trapped castaways consuming each other in the dark. The book ends by noting, rather enigmatically, that it is essential to settle for a few loose ends even if everything in your life is connected to everything else; but she hasnt shown many in her memoir. The autobiographer has seen the family material in her life, objected to it, thought about it, made use of it, and got on with her own dying, rendered less fearful by the tracing of her identification of death with her first mother, Grandpa, always good at funerals.
There is much more to be said about this complex and self-conscious work, but I would like to go on to compare it to Martin Amiss equally complex and self-conscious memoir Experience. Where Sage describes a girl raised in an isolated, repressed and somewhat deprived family, Amis’s memoir (explicitly opposing his parents and grandparents innocence to his experience; and sometimes vice versa, Amis describes a boy raised in a highly sexualised, literary, privileged (not that Martin, who has mixed with the children of the aristocratic stratosphere, thinks so) and sophisticated family. In one sense, of course, Sages family with its womanising Grandpa and Lawrentian parental marriage is just as sexualised; but Amiss affectless description of repeatedly talking to Kingsley Amis while his father was actually engaged in sexual intercourse with his second wife (Amis 2000, p.87) is in another register altogether. Both memoirs arguably describe experiences of childhood neglect, and families in which there seems to be a relative failure of empathy when the suffering of the next generation is imagined. The space of dirtiness and suppression which preoccupies Sage is replaced in Amiss memoir with accounts of irresponsible permissiveness which leads to catastrophe. Where the cover of the first edition of Bad Blood shows a portrait of the author as meditative toddler, and the second edition a portrait of her in mid-life as the sexy and powerful re-embodiment of her Grandpa, both of them eminently seductive images, the cover of Amiss book shows an unforgettable image of a tiny ten year-old smoker scowling knowingly at the camera. Whose is the gaze that constructs this image, and how has it been read? How do we read it? The shadow of the photographer has been almost entirely cropped, but presumably that person thought it was cute.
Amiss memoir is very much an exploration of the inheritance from his father, written in the shadow of his death. Amazingly, he notes, they both won the same literary prize for a first novel. They both left their families. They both have plenty of phobias. They both have terrible teeth, and consequently terrible, close-lipped smiles. Martin thinks he does a better job than Kingsley, with his racist and sexist views (see his horrible poem Women and queers and children, (Amis, 2000, p.334), stuffy monarchism, and helpless angry-young-man alcoholism. But both are shameless fame-hounds, both vain, exploitative. Martin Amis knows and explores all this, but even so the memoir takes on the fathers past at a different level. The work is less explicitly about inherited memories than Lorna Sages. The troubles of Amiss parents are not explored in the way that Lorna Sage explores her grandparents: parents are closer to their offspring, and Kingsley Amis was a cannier writer, more skilled in disguise and re-imagining than Lornas poor Grandpa. But it is clear that Kingsley Amis is a tortured soul who tears his life apart and wrecks his body for no obvious reason, that Hillary Amis is loving but neglectful, unable to defend herself or her children, unable to survive by herself. Because Martin Amis cannot or will not work on the specificities of his parents experiences, much of the representation of psychic inheritance is metamorphosed into accounts of dental experience that blend the literal and the associative to a dizzying extent. He allows the dental trauma, which takes up a large amount of the memoir, to stand as the equivalent of his parents psychic material, the x in the algebraic problem:
My father and mother had been tooth-sufferers all their lives and it was already clear that I was booked in for more of the same. Take him home, our Welsh dentist told my mother (wiping his hands after a heavy session), when I was ten. Hes a wreck. And my teeth were now undergoing a deterioration that a later dentist would describe as dramatic. They didnt fit, didnt fit; when I clenched my teeth they didnt fit. The mouth is uniquely vulnerable to obsession. If theres anything going on in there, then thats where you live: in your mouth. (Amis, 2000, pp.48-9)
The entrapped rhythms of this passage emphasize the nascent craziness of feeling here: didnt fit, didnt fit; when I clenched my teeth they didnt fit. Anger or aggressive assertion dont work with this set of unstable inheritances. Lorna Sage also felt her teeth didnt fit, but did not so closely associate it with her immediate family, and her dislike of it all is much simpler, more a matter of aesthetics and inconvenience. It isnt unusual for the middle-aged baby boomer to obsess about the physical and economic agonies of problem teeth, but Amis is, as he says, very nearly a dental monomaniac (ibid,.p. 49), one who filters everything through a graspable symbol of the problems inherited from his parents, his teeth.
Even more than Sages, Amiss memoir is organized around imagery of oral assault and neglect, especially of children, as the jacket photograph suggests: accounts of two year-old Jaime, Martins half-brother and younger by twenty years, getting drunk, of the young Martin in a stew of drugs and inertia, neglected by his depressed mother, until knocked into shape by his stepmother. The memoir is dense throughout with imagery of oral assault: imagery of toothlessness, death and dental suffering in many individuals. Martins mother remarks that with her teeth out, she knows how she will look when shes dead ( ibid,.p. 85). Kingsley Amis, in old age impotent and grown vastly fat, stuffing his face with sweets so that he cant speak, notes that it seems to calm him down. Much of the narrative is preoccupied with truly horrible accounts of Martin as a suffering adult dental patient, all his teeth being extracted with four hands in his mouth at once. Whole chapters are devoted to what the teeth mean to Martin: potency, status, literariness, embodiment, selfhood, life. When the final extraction is being described, Martin farewells his teeth with lyrical stream-of-consciousness inclusiveness:
Goodbye. Goodbye. This is goodbye. You hated me. I hated you. I loved you. Be gone. Stay! Goodbye. I love you. I hate you, I love you, I hate you. Goodbye
. And it is gonethe gory remnant whisked from my sight like some terrible misadventure in the Delivery Room. (Amis, 2000, p.84)
The teeth represent intense relatedness, to self and family. Losing them is like losing a baby, or some aborted internal self. When he can make it to a mirror, he sees, not Dorothy Wordsworth or Albert Steptoe, as he had feared, ugly, sexless old people, but just himself deprived of meaning, looking stupid, gormlessly lantern-jawed (ibid,.p. 85). His teeth, inherited with all their faults and beauties from his parents, are ambivalently associated with love, intelligence, life.
The chapters in which his teeth are most thoroughly explored, dazzling displays of essayist tours-de-force, disappear into masses of lengthy footnotes, as if analysis and synthesis, body and mind, have split asunder under the stress. Oral invasion, like the small episodes of sexual assault (Amis, 2000, pp.135-141) Amis reports from his childhood, split him from self, and yet constitute the basis of his identity. But the most important instance of oral invasion, the flip side as it were of the dental suffering, is extensively implied in the dotty chapter about great writers and teeth (Transcending the Purely Dental, ibid., 180): Kingsley Amiss words have invaded his son. The father as writer is embedded within him, and Martin Amiss novels and essays appear like memories of a sort. The memoir is suffused with the contemplation and analysis of Kingsley Amiss poems, novels, essays.(3) The most valued and the most hated aspects of oral invasion and the inheritance from the family are closely linked.
Amiss own children are emphatically not shown as re-enacting family nightmares in this way. He may wish to contemplate the extent to which his fathers life shapes his, but he does not wish to think of the process continuing. The photos of Amiss five children, his illegitimate daughter, Delilah, whom he did not know about until she was grown up, his two beautiful sons by his first wife, and two cute funny little daughters by his second are by contrast all shown in poses of absolute childhood safety: the boys in studio portraits that emphasise their shiny hair, clean white shirts, trusting eyes and extraordinary loveliness; the lost Delilah looking calmly happy and prettily dressed, first as toddler and then as young woman; the youngest girls as madcap kids, grinning, squeezing each other, playing peacefully with tatty toys. All of this is reassuring in ways appropriate to the childrens different circumstances. By contrast, the older generation of Amis children are shown looking peculiar: oddly ill-kempt, spotty, rescuing each other from childish mishaps. As Amis notes, when he horrifies himself by experimentally trying to think of his sons suffering as their murdered cousin Lucy did (Amis, 2000, p.66), its excruciating to think of ones own children as part of a family pattern of suffering; (4) Lorna Sage, too, likes to think that her own daughter broke the family pattern (Sage, 2000, p.280).
To summarize, this material is horrifically condensed in the memoirs other preoccupation, the fate of Martins first cousin, Lucy Partington, the daughter of his mothers sister, who was discovered twenty-one years after her disappearance at the age of twenty-one to have been one of Fred Wests victims. Parental incompetence and thoughtlessness, which Amis clearly sees in his father and his fathers poetry, have deformed his own and his sons lives. This behaviour is unthinkably, psychotically, amplified in Fred West, rapist and murderer of his own and other peoples daughters; but in Lucy Partingtons terrible end, Amis is also confronted with what parents are neither to blame for nor can save their children from. Though in one sense Amis is exquisitely aware of the extent to which he follows in his fathers traumatic path, in another he is helpless and unconscious, as Lucy was in the Wests house. Lucys mother objected to her daughter being used in Amiss memoir, and one understands why; but it seems to me that there is an absolute need for Amis to use it as he does. The mind takes its metaphors in whatever way it needs to. Like Hamlet (whom he quotes), Amis can get an ambivalent grip on the meaning of the death of fathers, but he just cant do the same with Lucy. The problem of evil and suffering remains. Maybe Lucy was tortured for days, maybe not. No one will ever know. With the memoirs other lost and suffering girls (Amiss unknown daughter, Delilah; the dead daughter of a tutor; even Fred Wests hideously abused daughters, who are referred to with sympathy), Lucy represents the unspeakable end-point of childhood pain. To my mind, the mature Martin Amis retains some of the obnoxious characteristics he discerns in his smart-mouth teenage self, whose embarrassing letters to family are included in the memoir, but beyond all the name-dropping there is an absolute conviction and complexity to the imagery of entombment, teeth and death that structure the memoir. It comes from a deeper stratum of self, where the still young(ish) writer has to prepare himself for the working-out of the family history in his own life, the image of oneself entombed within the detritus of family tragedy.
Although the experiences described by Sage and Amis seem in many ways dissimilar, both memoirs show the effects of intergenerational trauma on the family via disturbances of body-image, neglected children, metaphors of burial, dirt and entombment, and the affectless representation of their own and their childrens childhood distress. They are more diffuse, perhaps, than the very precise inherited memories of the children of Holocaust survivors, but they have the quality of transmitted unconscious material nonetheless. The family histories make sense of the authors associations in a literal way.
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. Past imperfect. The Guardian, 12.01.2001.
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1. I am still pleased with the book’s first words, though I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. My bitter, theatrical vicar-grandfather was my reference point, my black flag on the map of the past, my arrow pointing - “You were here”, this is where you begin (Sage, 2001).
2. I refer to the character in the memoir by the name used in the memoir, to the author and historical figure by surname. Its a tricky distinction, but one forced on us by life-writing.
3. Loyally, the son makes him out (I argue) to be a greater writer than he was. Kingsley Amis did not feel the same interest in his sons work, and apparently didnt persevere with the novels he wasnt taken with.
4. Amiss fathers friend, the childless poet Philip Larkin, could do it in his poem This be the Verse
Man hands on misery to man,
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And dont have any kids yourself. Source