An astounding fact: some who witnessed firsthand the infamous killing fields of Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia went blind afterwards. Their eyes could still “see” in a physical sense – their optic nerve remained undamaged. They just couldn’t admit the horrors they had seen.
The idea that madness might manifest itself in terms of metaphor rather than clinical categories says something about the fluidity of mental illness over time. No sooner have we captured its essence than it shifts, along with our responses to it. A devout woman in pre-modern Europe who hears voices or has visions might be revered as a mouthpiece of God. Her present-day equivalent would likely be medicated or placed in care.
Anna Spargo-Ryan’s memoir is interested in our evolving vocabularies for mental illness, those conceptual nets we use to catch human disorder and distress. And hers is not an idle curiosity – it is the desperate search for flotsam of a woman drowning at sea. The author admits that her first encounter with anxiety occurred when she was just three years old, a tiny girl on a sofa anchoring herself to the cushions in case she flew off into space.
But the radical incongruity between Spargo-Ryan’s life experiences and those belonging to the world of the “sane” turns out to have many beginnings: “It is a timeless, limitless genesis,” she writes: “A Möbius strip. Beginning and ending both.”
It starts with the family history of suicide and mental illness that haunts her DNA. Or with the psychotic break that blindsides her as a teenager living in a Melbourne share house. Post-partum depression descends on the author following the birth of her daughter when she is just shy of 20, while later in adulthood there are compulsive disorders, panic attacks, even dissociative experiences that leave Spargo-Ryan pointing ambulance officers towards a body that has done a runner on her.
All of which makes A Kind of Magic read, at times, like a volume of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders enacted as a one-woman play. It’s a performance in which a dull series of abstract diagnoses is registered – with electrifying immediacy – as shameful, terrifying or exhausting autobiographical ordeals.
This can lead to moments where readers feel like they’ve been dumped off a bridge in a sackful of frantic cats. Spargo-Ryan’s talents as a creative writer – she is the author of two emotionally taut and beautifully realised novels – are such that we suffer her hurt and bafflement in claustrophobic proximity.
What saves the telling of her life story from the manifest darkness looming over it is threefold. Her sense of humour, for one, is deftly deployed and always brutally honest. She remains capable of reflecting on the absurdity of her situation, even under the most extreme psychological duress.
Then there is the distancing effect of her research into various emerging categories of, or theories about, mental illness. The hard science dealing with the brain’s soft machinery is scattered through loosely chronological chapters, taking the author from earliest childhood to today. Together it furnishes the layperson with an elegant precis of how our understanding of mental illness has expanded in range and subtlety of degree over time.
What finally saves A Kind of Magic from the cul-de-sac of solipsism is Spargo-Ryan’s loving and fretful descriptions of those family members, partners and friends who have kept her afloat. Her cherished Nana, for example, whose home is a regular haven during the worst bouts of illness in her youth and who was a fellow OCD sufferer long before the disorder was well known. Or Gaz, Spargo-Ryan’s long-term partner, a man whose gentleness and infinite patience she relies on in ways large and small throughout difficult years spent re-establishing a career and raising two children from an early marriage. Gaz, she says, has the empathetic attentiveness to her moods of an emotional support animal and the grounding competence of a man who works with his hands.
For her long-suffering parents, Spargo-Ryan has only clear-eyed love and gratitude. She does not soft-pedal for one moment the sheer hell she put them through when she was going through her own. Indeed, when her younger child reaches his teens and admits to periods of depression and suicidal thoughts, Spargo-Ryan is confronted by a generational mirror offering a cruel reflection. The saddest moments of the narrative confront the possibility that, in giving new life, Spargo-Ryan has perpetuated a form of misery that she considered uniquely hers. Overlaying all this is the quality of her prose. From chattily demotic to clinically rigorous, from anguished Modernist stream of consciousness to controlled retrospection, Spargo-Ryan is capable of modulating her style without ever breaking faith with a voice that is inimitably her own. It’s this consistency that, more than anything else, imposes coherence over a life that often lacks it. A Kind of Magic is not the account of a passage from illness to health; it doesn’t have that soothing progress. Rather it describes the move from experiences that are inexplicable, disorienting and lonely towards a richer, more schematically sophisticated appreciation of mental illness. A monster named and described loses some of its power to terrify, after all.
Spargo-Ryan quotes literary critic Paul de Man at one point: “the autobiographical project may itself produce and determine the life”. By making a literary artefact out of lifelong mental disorder, A Kind of Magic turns clinical diagnosis back into metaphor. She makes something shapely and true from a lifetime of pain.
Readers will feel keenly how hard it has been for Spargo-Ryan – they will finish the book praying for her to “get well”. But they may also feel, as Freud apocryphally said after welcoming a distraught Gustav Mahler to his legendary sofa and sight-reading the composer’s latest symphony: “Please don’t let me cure you of this.”
Ultimo Press, 256pp, $36.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 8, 2022 as "A Kind of Magic: A memoir about anxiety, our minds, and optimism in spite of it all, Anna Spargo-Ryan".
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