Books

Nicola Redhouse
Unlike the Heart

A woman has a baby and she can’t stop crying. She cries not just on the third day after giving birth with the “baby blues”, but as she feeds him, as she takes congratulatory cards from the letterbox, as she watches television and opens a tin of tomatoes and tries to explain her confusion to a GP. The percussion of new motherhood hits hard, though she finds, to her surprise, that she’s good at the practicalities, and she has no difficulty in loving her child. She panics whenever the baby cries, envisions catastrophe as she strolls with the pram. There are nightmares prowling in her snatches of sleep: her dog drowning, fires, a twilight with two moons and planetary apocalypse impending. The ordinary assault to normality of parenting a first child is bad enough but, she wonders, “was this all that this was? Me acclimatising to reality? I doubted it. I had a history of reality turning irretrievably bad.”

Memoirist Nicola Redhouse uses her crisis of “perinatal depression” (scare quotes here, because categorisation is questioned in this book) to scan the Western body of experience not just of motherhood and its liabilities but far further: psychology, neurophysiology, melancholy, genetics and legacy. What begins as a motherhood memoir with a woman describing the soft body blows of pregnancy and labour soon turns, with the hyper-attentive, super-scholarly urgency of the educated bourgeois in trouble, to a useful wider survey of what makes a mind, or a brain, or trauma.

Could the issue be psychological? A delayed reaction to the separation of her parents in her own infancy? Our small children, therapeutically and dangerously, spirit up our own child selves at the moment we are most undone – this can make for epiphany or necromancy, depending on how repressed a parent has had to be, how easily spooked now. Redhouse duly catalogues the emotional injuries to her younger incarnation, the intricacies (more fascinating, perhaps, to a paid therapist than a reader) of her attitudes. Homosexual father, Aaron (himself a psychodynamic analyst) and abandoned Maxine are both loving parents, but Redhouse has, by the time of her cataclysm, already spent years on the couch of a Dr Parkes and versed herself thoroughly in the theories of Winnicott, Freud, Bion and Klein. Their venerable names are also her inheritance from her parents whose private libraries were totemic.

Projects like this, similar to Jenny Valentish’s Woman of Substances (addiction) and Alice Williams’s Bad Yogi (eating disorders and yoga), might be called “investigatory memoirs”, where personal problems broaden into the presentation of research. Redhouse’s instinct for a psychological explanation of her tears begets an explanation of psychology and its history. Between bulletins on the birth of her second child and second bout of anxiety, she outlines in fascinating but heavyweight chapters the development of psychoanalysis, its disputes, fallacies and aspirations. From the late 19th century, interest in associating damage to parts of the brain with particular mental effects, through Freud’s evocation of the unconscious and the establishment of counselling as a response to war trauma, saw psychoanalysis make its way to the centre of accepted therapeutical systems. Its vast body of thought is a comforting bulwark for Redhouse. But, diligent, she takes her faith to her sister, a scientist, who solemnly reminds her there is no scientific basis for the treatment of mental illness by analysis.

If not bedded in the labyrinth of the unconscious mind, then perhaps her crisis is physical? The five editions of the diagnostic “bible” of the DSM trace the replacement of mental states, in recent decades, by neurophysiological elucidation: soft tissue damage, hormonal effects, hemispheric miscommunication, sodium levels, toxoplasmosis. If you want a deft account of neuroscience in relation to depression, Redhouse provides it, fluently blending in her own perplexity. “Was there a part of the organ of my brain,” she asks, “that had been affected at a cellular level by the bodily experience of motherhood? […] Was it simply a failing of my body?” She can’t quite believe it, and bestows a convincing review of the latest research questioning the confident marketing of medicine for the mind.

But she can’t deny that her prescribed antidepressants have allowed her to function in a way that psychoanalysis hasn’t. The metaphysical implications of this apparent privilege of brain over mind are shadows dappling water – she begins to remember further back, to her mother’s own mother, who herself in the grip of likely postnatal depression unwisely put her faith in strong medication.

Redhouse is nearing, now, to abyssal implications: legacy and intergenerational trauma. Is depression endogenous, inheritable? What of epigenetic conditioning, passing down the likelihood for triggered susceptibilities? Or is there, after all, the sad, gentler, less reducible burden of woman’s lonely sorrow and disquiet in motherhood tumbling helplessly in turn into each next generation’s psyche? “I had to wonder,” Redhouse writes touchingly, “what the thin thread that passed from my baby to me to my mother and to her mother, and to all the other branches between and from us, might carry to explain why I was crying so much.”

Devoted to classical analysis, Redhouse’s Dr Parkes insists that explicit attention to the relationship between client and therapist will answer many questions about her other attitudes. So there is, too, something about the way this book has been written that is telling. Composed, confident writing; elegantly synthesised research; an attractive portmanteau of motherhood memoir, account of mental illness, family secrets and an alert, yet vulnerable persona; candour and intimacy that many other mothers will respond to: and yet it rattles somehow. Redhouse wants to be utterly candid, but one senses ellipse, even from herself. The book gives us much, and is a gift to those interested in how we conceive and treat the distress seeping through our society like acetone; like all therapies, theories and consciousness itself, it cannot be perfect.  

Kate Holden

UQP, 296pp, $29.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 16, 2019 as "Nicola Redhouse, Unlike the Heart". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Kate Holden