Poems, broken glass lay the ghost of pain
While his daughter went through the suicidal hell of disordered eating, Philip Gross made jottings that were to become poems
Monday 28 December 1998
It had seemed natural to write them at the time - not poems, but jottings in a private notebook, small splinters of anger and pain. I'm a writer; writing is the way I trust myself to think best. As she pulled out of that first crisis I read through the notes and saw they could be poems. Maybe that way it would make sense. We'd sat in waiting rooms with other families in the same confusion, and tried to talk about the weather. Put an adolescent's problem in a family and everyone starts asking who to blame. Parents look at themselves - and each other - and the question is there. I couldn't speak for other families, but maybe putting it in print, one father's view, would help others speak out in their way.
I checked the poems with my daughter, Yes, she said, go ahead: that's an accurate record, disturbing but true. When I've read them in public, there has always been someone who comes up afterwards. Often it's not anorexia that has touched their family, but some other problem or addiction. What they recognise is the moment when you look into the eyes of the child you thought you knew better than anyone else in the world, and something else looks out. I think of the siege scenario: the hostage appears at a window, mouthing words that don't sound like their own, in a flat voice, and you have to guess there's someone just behind them with a gun. You can call in the marksmen, you can argue, rage or cry, and the child might suffer, but the illness, the obsession or addiction, will look back at you with no feeling in its eyes.
So there she was: Amber, for her own protection. It was her life and people had questions to ask, quite rightly: what I was doing with it? I couldn't speak for her. Did she want to speak for herself? Yes, cautiously, she did. She had a new life now, as a student in another city. Could we do it without having her face or name exposed? In one photograph she appeared with back to camera, at a window.
How had we got here? As a poet, you expect to be answerable to a handful of people committed to reading slowly, more than once, weighing each word for what's in it. Then I had a phone call saying that my book, The Wasting Game, had been shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize, and there were people from the press and the radio asking for interviews.
It was the anorexia poems that they wanted to talk about. The book contains other things, four years of a life with a first visit to my father's birthplace, Estonia, and the delicate negotiations of a love affair. I wanted the book to be judged on all of it - evidence that poetry isn't just a word game, that it can help us live our lives, that it's some use. But the title sequence was the part, I knew, that might be news.
Later, reading our words in print and hearing ourselves on the radio was like looking into a mirror. Yes, that's us, but ... We had been sensitively handled. It wasn't a distorting mirror - not like the mirrors which menace an anorexic's life, showing her something horrible and bloated. (Never, never think that it's to do with vanity.) Nor was it the equally distorted mirror of the advert and the TV screen which tells girls what they should look like. No, it was us, but even an accurate reflection is something slightly other. Thankfully.
So she became Amber. Like a good novel, we could be true but not utterly factual. Because there's no such girl as Amber, I can confess a small crime that says something for our family, something not in the book. Years on, we were driving on the motorway and we glimpsed the tower of the hospital where she spent some dreadful time. One day, she said, I should go back. We looked at each other. Why not now?
At the gate was barbed wire; inside a demolition site. We trespassed into empty wards where every weekend visit had been news of someone's running away or suicide attempt or self-harm. It all came back: the awful unyieldingness of it. I had never known that something could be terrifying, and yet tedious at the same time.
Faced with those devious, stubborn and deadly obsessions, day in, day out, the system and the staff had to become as dogged as the illness itself. We had to try to imagine that our daughter's free spirit still existed and was not quite crushed. It did, but it was hard to trust it then.
The poems in the book hardly touch this. For one thing, we had to be grateful to the system that medically saved our daughter's life. But standing in that gutted ward she and I looked at each other and realised that each of us wanted to shout, to scream. We did. There was the therapy room where our family had been diagnosed from behind the two-way mirror, and there was a leap in my heart when I saw what someone had already done. The mirror, thick plate glass, was cracked from side to side.
It makes little difference that we broke two more panes. It was an exorcism, not as precise as a poem, maybe, but ... What stopped my breath was when my daughter took a felt pen and signed her piece of damage, with her own name. Not "Amber", though that's the one we'll use, for this:
`I'm fat, look fat...'
Yes and the moon's made of cheese, that chunk she won't touch in the fridge
dried, creviced, sweating in its cold like someone with a killing fever.
Half a scrape-of-Marmite sandwich, last night's pushed-aside
potatoes greying like a tramp's teeth, crusts, crumbs are a danger to her,
so much orbiting space junk that's weightless for only so long.
Burn it up on re-rentry, burn it, burn it. So she trains
with weights, she jogs, she runs as if the sky were falling.
The Wasting Game by Philip Gross. Bloodaxe Books, pounds 6.95.
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