By Emma Forrest
At 16 she was writing her own column for the Sunday Times. She was contributing to the Guardian by the age of 21. And Vogue, and Vanity Fair, and the Independent. At 22 she published her first book. It was very well received. Two more followed. Those were acclaimed too.
By the way, Emma Forrest was also named one of Variety’s Top Ten Screenwriters to Watch in 2009. And way back in 2000, she sold a Jeff Buckley biopic screenplay to Brad Pitt’s company. More screenplays have been bought and the film rights to her memoir, Your Voice In My Head, have already been acquired. That happened well before publication.
Um, she’s only 33.
I’m telling you – Zadie Smith, Sadie Jones, Diana Evans – what is with these young British writer bitches!?!? But while the mental health of the aforementioned authors is not clear, Emma Forrest’s struggle with it is now well documented. She is bipolar. A therapist called Dr R treated her after she tried to kill herself in New York. He died suddenly of cancer just as she was recovering. Your Voice In My Head is a tribute to him, an account of her darkest days, and an attempt to remember his guidance as she navigates “those cold, deep patches of the sea where people lose their lives”; it’s as much about self-preservation without him as it is about honouring his great work, ultimately by her wellness.
I have worked in social services, and have close friends who’ve struggled with depression, but I am fortunate to have never experienced it myself. I try to sympathise but the truth is, and I think those who have battled depression would agree, that it’s impossible to fully relate unless your mind has been there before. And if I’m honest, as an impatient and oftentimes insensitive person, it’s especially hard for me to truly appreciate the terrifying loneliness and helplessness of it all as presented in recent literary form. The knock on the “misery memoir”, as they call it, is that to callous assholes like me, they can seem overwrought and self-indulgent, which is a f-cking dicky description, to be sure, and Forrest herself would call me on it, as she made very clear her aversion to the “misery memoir” classification on her blog, arguing that it “denigrate(s) women's stories in general”.
But the fact is, she hasn’t written a “misery memoir”. Her personal account of depression is irreverent and funny, not so much matter of fact than it is un-maudlin, un-Oprah. What emerges then is a poignant and powerful portrait of a woman with a devastating curse and an extraordinary gift, while paying homage to the angel who helped her reconcile the two. And in writing her story the way she did, there is a thread of recognition in her pain, whether or not you’ve been enveloped by it before yourself, which is what makes Your Voice In My Head SO special. That even buried under the debilitating weight of something that not everyone can understand, she manages to show you that we all connect somewhere, despite the fact that our way out of those places can take very different turns.
I envied women with signature hair-dos, signature perfumes, signature sign-offs. Novelists who tell Vogue Magazine: “I can’t live without my Smythson notebook, Pomegranate Noir cologne by Jo Malone and Frette sheets”. In the grip of madness, materialism begins to look like an admirable belief system.
I am always halfway through a book when I remember I don’t have a highlighter to pull out amazing passages. I was halfway through Your Voice In My Head a second time when I remembered I didn’t have a highlighter to pull out amazing passages. And that sucks during a great book like this one because there are so many. Note then that many of these following examples are taken only from the first third of Forrest’s memoir. It’s page after page of word and sentence porn, of remarkably simple turns of phrases bursting with recogniton, sentences so beautifully written, ideas so simply conveyed, imbued with so much humour, without pretention or Try. I laughed out loud several times. Like the part where she tells Dr R that when a man comes inside her she feels like a “sin eater”. Or this:
I did have a boyfriend – the Bad Boyfriend – and he was a huge part of the loneliness. In hindsight, I have 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 (“I’m not really into parents”). Also on his list of dislikes:
“In hindsight, I have no idea why he was ever with me.” Maybe it’s just me, but she’s so clever you almost miss it. Even now, in assessing some of the sh-ttiest periods of her life, looking back on a very obvious douchebag, the girl standing in front of you is still the one who wonders why HE didn’t want HER.
‘You’re like Marilyn Monroe,’ Ken (a friend) tells me, which I take as a compliment and say a nervous “Thank You”. Interrupting, he adds, ‘You’re all velvet and Velcro. Men want you because you’re sexy and broken and when it gets too rough they can say “Hey! This toy is broken!” and toss you aside without feeling bad.’
How do you feel sorry for yourself ON TOP of feeling sorry for yourself without sounding like you’re feeling sorry for yourself? Somehow Forrest does it. In language that is modern, cool, smart but always, always honest, balancing the bleak…
Mania flows like a river approaching a waterfall. Depression is a stagnant lake. There are dead thngs floating and the water has the same blue-black tinge as your lips. You stay completely still because you’re so afraid of what is brushing your leg (even though it could be nothing because your mind is already gone). That’s why you lie in your bed … I hold my hands over my breasts in my days and weeks and months (there), as if someone might steal them.
With the self-deprecating…
I often go to Century 21, the discount clothes store located at the World Trade Center, because it opens at 7am and I have too many hours to kill. I float from room to room and engage opinion from women in the communal changing room. I buy things, partly because I just want a reason to talk and partly because, even in terrible depression, I am unable to say no to wholesale prices.
And she doesn’t give into the need to get lyrical about the sh-t that needs no embellishment…
Bulimia is the wicked twin of orgasm. The penetration, obviously, the loss of control. It is la petite mort.
But is capable of descriptive flair at just the right moments.
(Dr R’s) forehead was round, as if his brains were trying to leap right out and lay themselves between us, a gallant cloak to help me over my psychiatric cesspool.
Isn’t that a great sentence? Your Voice In My Head is full of those kinds of sentences, without feeling TOO full of those kinds of sentences that end up stalling a narrative instead of moving it forward. Because beyond the specifics of Forrest’s fascinating recollections, there is awesome skill at work here, and, as they say, the mark of something brilliantly crafted is that it doesn’t seem like there was any craft involved at all.
I wondered if I’d be able to write about Your Voice In My Head without addressing the Colin Farrell. The Colin Farrell is what most people are fixating on; what, with all due respect to Forrest, garnered so much attention for the book in the first place. She won’t confirm that it’s him. But it’s totally him. And there’s a lot of him here. Their first date, their intimacy, how he charmed her family, the intensity of his love for her, the immediacy of his leaving her, and his detachment when he’s ultimately done with her. He is, as promised, as spectacularly f-cked up as you expect him to be. And… sadly… as ordinary in his f-ckedupness as your garden variety non-celebrity guy who pulls the same zero to a hundred and back to zero love sh-t over and over again just to see if he’s actually capable of feeling something. Though it’s beside the point, yeah, totally, your gossip junkie will be more than satisfied.
But there’s a lot more to worry about where Emma is concerned than who is breaking her heart. Your Voice In My Head makes no promises. You wouldn’t believe them anyway even if she did try to convince you. And ultimately, though her will was excruciatingly tested after the loss of her all-consuming romance with Colin Farrell (she calls him GH for Gypsy Husband) just as she lost her saviour Dr R, she will need Dr R, and his Voice In Her Head, even more when she loses her parents. This, she says, is what he was really preparing her for.
As such, this book is also as much a love story about her family as it as an ode to the man who saved her. At least to me. With or without depression, here’s where Emma is everyone. At least for those of us who have mothers who have never been anything but the best part of our lives. I am approaching this reality now: one day, hopefully not soon, but given that her body continues to fail her, maybe soon, my mother won’t be here anymore. I’m actually not sure if I can or will make it without her. But unlike Emma, even when it’s the roughest it gets, I don’t need medication to hold it together. When Emma acknowledges that this is what she’s training for though, what we all might be training for, no matter what your experience with mental health, her fear becomes universal, her breakthrough moment no different from what we’ll all need to survive it. I feel corny as sh-t saying it, but I have read those two pages 4 or 5 times now and every time I feel like weeping. She’s good. Really, really good.
Here’s a short interview with Emma below.
And a final thought – I really hate how they’re marketing it like oh this girl was a cutter and starved herself and now she’s better. Cutting is almost always the first verb in every promotional message that’s been released about Your Voice In My Head which, frankly, appeals to the sensationalist “how kids are messed up these days!” storylines on the news that has absolutely nothing to do with what her story is actually about.