In Gavin McCrea’s memoir are many cells, both real and imagined. There’s the mental institution in which his father takes his own life. The family house that imprisons his “mad” brother – a place that keeps the family captive too. The figurative closet that the young McCrea hides in for self-protection. “These are the cells that … form the canvas on which I am writing the body of this book,” he says.
Cells is an incautiously intimate stocktake of the places and people that have mired McCrea’s life in pain and grief. In early 2020, he returns from abroad to join his 80-year-old mother in Dublin for Covid-19 quarantine. McCrea finds that again being in intense domestic quarters with her triggers a lifetime of unresolved hurt and sorrow.
Many queer men know the complex and fraught role mothers play in their lives as sources of intense emotional bonding and sometimes also the enforcers of strict social norms. As a teenager, McCrea is mercilessly abused and bullied by the local boys for being gay, an experience his mother knowingly ignores. She leaves her former “prince” companion to face a homophobic adolescence alone. This act continues to cut deep even decades later as he makes her morning tea.
Interspersed throughout is psychological and Freudian analysis to cushion these blows, affording McCrea a kind of bittersweet comfort for his mother’s transgressions. For example, he experiences a recurring dream in quarantine of his mother holding him as a baby boy in a red dress. This dream allows him to fantasise a spoken exchange that finally answers questions that have been marked by silences for many years.
Elsewhere, readers are told how some cells can be unavoidable – such as the entrapment of the family home – while others are necessary detours in our lives. His father’s time in a mental facility proves both a sanctuary and a death sentence: “We did not have the wherewithal to turn ourselves into a regenerative cell [for him].” But these spaces – whether imprisonments or refuges – permit grief to be processed and self-understanding discovered, as McCrea finds in quarantine.
In its ungarnished prose and loud inner voice, Cells stitches raw memories with new meanings to craft a brilliant composite of a son’s unexamined relationship with his mother. The memoir pairs McCrea’s unspoken shame with his private sanctums to show how it’s these cells – physical or fantastical – where we sometimes finally find the words to speak.
Scribe, 336pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 1, 2022 as "Cells: Memories for My Mother, Gavin McCrea ".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription