The mother of all misery

OUT OF ME: The Story of a Post-Natal Breakdown by Fiona Shaw, Viking pounds 16
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The Independent Culture
LOOK in any newsagent, at the gleaming ranks of magazines dedicated to motherhood and babies. Each cover sports a perfect, grinning, dimpled infant and a perfect, serene and joyful mother; from Hello to Vogue, a cute baby is brandished as the ultimate accessory, parenthood advertised as the ultimate joy.

It is a preposterous distortion of normality. Why should we - necessarily - feel happy when we have babies? Babies torpedo our freedom and our sleep, our identity, libido and earning power, our adult relationships and our last hope of keeping the bathroom tidy. You might like this state of things, but you are not abnormal if you don't.

More severely, having a baby can cause a woman's sense of herself to collapse altogether. Fiona Shaw's account of her post-natal psychosis is painstakingly recontructed from the black, self-lacerating oblivion into which she sank after the birth of Jesse, her second little girl, and it is courageous, timely and necessary. As she retreated deeper into an agony of despair, crawling into corners in raw terror, starving herself, drawing her own blood with her nails and teeth, she was hospitalised (with her baby) and treated with (mostly useless) drugs and (always appalling) ECT. There was little on offer in the way of psychotherapy.

Gradually, over two slow, dreadful years, Fiona Shaw discovered her own medicine, and this is it: her book. Within its pages she feels her way across her past life, the secrets and the unspoken, unresolved pain in her own family. It does not take long to realise that - baby or no baby - Shaw was a ticking time-bomb. Perpetually shuttled between parents who divorced when she was tiny, she never felt a true part of either new family, or properly loved by her adored, devious, unreliable father. Her delayed grief at his death eight years before seems as much a cause of her breakdown as sibling resentments reawakened by Jesse's birth.

At school, Fiona was outwardly popular and sporty, inwardly a maelstrom. Always self-punishing, she learnt the delights of bulimia. And she confesses to an episode so bizarre it almost defies belief - and comes disturbingly close to putting a question-mark over some of the revelations here. In her early teens she endured severe back pain, often unable to move, even blacking out, until puzzled doctors resorted to several operations on her spine. Now, she admits that she made it all up. There was no pain. There was just an overwhelming need for - what? - attention, yes, and withdrawal from the world, and much else besides.

Later, in student days, and after the loss of her earthly father, fundamentalist Christianity took over where other obsessions had failed. When she met her unlikely husband, a gay lecturer a dozen years her senior, there were several years of happiness. But the demons - we are tempted to think these included a real life with work, spouse and infant, as well as past wounds - caught up with her.

Throughout her illness, Fiona never lost sight of her love for both little girls, but all other semblance of normal life was gone. Visits were painful, outings ended miserably; particularly, there was the terrible, utter blankness. And this blankness takes its toll on the book. She says: "Before I began to write, discovering the joints between my recent misery and my [past] life seemed to involve more artifice than art. But writing uncovers connections the writer was never aware of." Therapeutic as it was for her, for us this archaeology of the feelings makes for a distant approach to what we'd like hotter and more urgent. Sadly, Shaw has had to research her own agony, using other people's memories, leaning on literary accounts and often giving us her experience in cooled-down retrospect. Even after such confessions, we feel we hardly know her. Perhaps that's how she likes it.

Nevertheless, her brave book is hugely valuable. Its charm and power are undiminished by some structural flaws and bumpy prose. As it goes on, it has less to do with birth and post-natal trauma, more to do with the losses and griefs of childhood and family, with secrets and searching, things that are eternal and important and true.