She left school aged 15, and went to work in the mill, just like everyone else did. She was unhappy there, nervous, uncomfortable, and her mother took up the habit of walking her there, and being there in the evening to walk her home. Then she did not want to go, and eventually stayed at home. When I met her, she was in her mid fifties, still living with her mother. She had been getting benefits as unfit to work, but the system had stopped them, so I had to prove she was entitled. She was like her mother- both the same height, around 5′, medium build in proportion, but as if the flower, never fertilised, had wilted and dried rather than become a seed pod. She was still an adolescent, looked after by her mother.
We established that she was entitled to benefit, and after the tribunal hearing I caught the eye of the presenting officer for the DSS, one of those who acted as if it were her own money that would be paid to the claimant- but the woman had touched her heart. I said to her, “You’re glad that she got the benefit too, aren’t you?” and she nodded.
(I will add- “Not trusting herself to speak”. She said nothing. It is an assumption, pushing my observation into the realms of imagination, but one the fiction writer feels justified in, telling this story which is part fact. It rings true to me. Did the steely presenting officer’s eye gleam slightly, was it moist, or is that a trick of memory in the service of my fiction? Heightened reality, just slightly heightened-
We spend ourselves, says the stern moralist in me. The claimant had not, but guarded herself in her bower, and therefore stopped growing. It was an existence, just stopping at home. She was unrealised, possibly because the society was such poor soil, with mill work the only work.
Every day I feel the lack of my testicles, and resent it, for what it bars to me, that way of relating to another, and I am alone. The fat person might know he cannot run for a bus, his joints will be damaged by his weight, it would be better in some ways if he were lighter, and he is doing all he can to be in the world. Losing weight is another’s priority, however rational-seeming, and not his. My testicles were the price I paid for self-acceptance at the time, and keeping them would have been harder. I had them removed, and my depression lifted.
I hide myself in my bower, except when I go to London, or the Labour party. Or these daily cries for help to the ether. We spend ourselves out in the world, joints ruined by weight, testicles sacrificed to Womanhood, and even hidden away the days tick by and I have had more than half of mine. I spent as I had to, to achieve what I needed. Society was such poor soil for me. My writing may have value, an easy grace sweated over, generous, expansive and an invitation to question.
The best writers change how we think and see, and Siri Hustvedt’s essays in “A woman looking at men looking at women” challenge me. She dances around the truth, making connections and seeing from different angles, as scientist and artist for she is both. She has an exercise for the patients in the locked ward- write “I remember” then keep writing; what you write may surprise you.
Hustvedt: writing blocks are symptoms. Why have I shut out the truth?
Inactivity is a symptom. Why have I shut out the truth?
Can writing help?
Out in the world I suffered and spent myself, and now at home, in my bower, I suffer and spend myself. The consolations may not be enough. I am glad that I see things, glad that I write and speak the truth. Though I have just remembered the presenting officer’s eye glinted or gleamed, or not, in another case: that of a woman of limited intelligence, who could not calculate how many bank notes to hand over for her shopping, so trusted the checkout woman to tell her, yet who lived independently, married and brought up a daughter, who had not realised she had ceased being entitled to carer’s allowance for that daughter and might have had to repay an overpayment: a woman I admired, for achieving so much despite her difficulties, and possibly the presenting officer did too. I had sympathy for all of the claimants, but the presenting officers’ sympathy was rare.