Title: Your Voice In My Head (Autobiography)
Author: Emma Forrest
Publisher: Bloomsbury (Kindle Edition)
Date of Publication: 2011
Number of Pages: 214
Your Voice in My Head was the first book by Emma Forrest that I’d read but I enjoyed the way she writes and finished it in one sitting. This took me a little by surprise given the reviews I’d read when it first came out last year, which luke-warm at best.
I eventually bought it while searching out writing about madness, trying to find something I could relate to. And I found it in this memoir. Forrest’s narrative of the struggle of her ‘better angels’ against the turmoil and self destructiveness of her mania and depression felt very honest and recognisable.
The book is ostensibly about the author’s relationship with her psychiatrist. She describes how he teaches her to heal herself, and the loss she feels when he dies suddenly of a cancer none of his patients ever knew he had. It is also about her family, her illness and her grief she experiences over the ending of her relationship with a man she describes as her Gypsy Husband; the love of her life.
I’ve seen this book described as self obsessed. And perhaps it is. But Forrest’s self obsession is more of the kind that seems impossible to avoid when you’re fighting a battle for your life inside your own head, than that borne of shallow vanity.
On the first reading of the book Forrest’s tendency to name drop without naming names – she describes meeting on an aeroplane ‘the greatest playwright of our generation’, whose ‘talent looms over anyone our age who wants to be a writer’ – did seem self-congratulatory. However, the second time through these passages seemed to jar in a different way.
Having said of Bad Boyfriend she has, ‘no idea why he was ever with me. He thought highly of my breasts. And…that’s it, I think. They were high. He didn’t want to meet my parents.’ She goes on to describe being disappointed that Dr R is concerned, rather than impressed, when she begins ‘seeing a writer who is almost as famous for his tumultuous private life as he is for his award-winning work.’
It’s paints a picture of a woman who measures her self-worth through the eyes of other people, and particularly her partner. He’s very impressive, she seems to be saying, so I must be impressive too, right? Or else he wouldn’t want me. It’s more saddening than annoying.
Then there are the passages at the end of each chapter which are given over to tributes to Dr R by those who knew him or whose loved ones were saved by him. These don’t always work in the context of the narrative that has proceeded them, but they are all touching and positive glimpses into the life of the good doctor. It seemed like a generous gesture from someone who is supposedly her own sole obsession.
For all that this book has melancholy themes, it is not a depressing read. Forrest’s memoir has as much warmth and humour as it does misery.
She begins by introducing us to her parents, who she paints as adorable people throughout.
Her mother will not read the novels of Colm Tóibín because she isn’t prepared to say his name to other people once Forrest has told her it’s pronounced toe-bean.
And her father, ‘once got a credit card saying ‘Sir Jeffrey Forrest’ because American Express was dumb enough to send him an application form with the statement ‘Print your name as you would wish it to appear.”
Where she does show us misery Forrest is insightful and detached. When telling us of her thoughts of suicide, building up to her attempt to take her own life, she manages to frame the experience in a way that might speak to those who have known this kind of pain;
“Do you remember the scene in Goodfellas where Robert De Niro keeps telling Lorraine Bracco ‘There’s a dress for you in that warehouse room. That one. Go on. Just go in there.’? And she knows she’s about to be killed, so she doesn’t go in there? The thought of suicide tricks you in there with sweet talk and even though you know you’re being sweet-talked, and you know what lies in store for you, it’s a room you want to go to anyway.”
Ultimately though, she experiences recovery. There’s no quick, clean, fantastical fix, she walks a long, messy road to find it, and she stumbles along the way. But neither the death of Dr R, nor Gypsy Husband’s sudden departure cause her another suicide attempt, she teeters on the brink but she carries on. ‘Time heals all wounds’, as she says, ‘And if it doesn’t you name them something other than wounds and agree to let them stay.’
I would recommend this book to anybody who is trying to care for someone has a mental illness but is struggling to understand what they are going through. Forrest provides a vivid illustration of the descent in to madness, and particularly of the mind of someone who self harms.
I would recommend this book to someone is mentally unwell and would like reassurance that they’re not alone. As that’s what I found here.
And I would recommend this book to somebody who just wants to read an autobiography that is very well written. Forrest is a talented, funny and engaging writer.
Alternately you could just wait to until the film, for which Forrest has also written the screenplay, comes out next year. It is to have Emma Watson starring as the author and Stanley Tucci as Dr R. I couldn’t find any mention who they’ve lined up to play Colin Farrell, who is, apparently, the movie star, GH. Although I did read of rumours that they’ve tried to persuade him to play himself.