“What I was looking for at all times was an escape hatch, a way out of the present moment, to tunnel out of my totally unremarkable and pathetic self. To break the cycle of being a terminal disappointment: a disappointment as a daughter, a mother, a woman, failing at that implied contract of womanhood – of being nice and attractive and contained.”
Corpsing, by Sophie White, is taglined My Body and Other Horror Shows – appropriate given its focus on how one’s body cannot always be relied upon. It is a collection of essays that serve as memoir. The raw honesty of the subjects explored is both refreshing and horrifying, laying bare the sheer effort required to exist in a world where quietly keeping up appearances is the expected norm. Issues examined include the impact on self of: drug taking, grief, mental breakdown, motherhood, self harm, alcoholism. The author has both a caring mother and husband, along with three dependant children, but brings to the fore how living in the world must ultimately be coped with – or not – alone.
Divided into five sections, the first contains a series of essays that deal with the death of White’s father – a drawn out decline that finally ended shortly after the birth of her second child. The violence of birth is compared to the shrunken existence of a human body as it fades towards its inevitable end, when those left behind are cast adrift.
“Birth is explosive and volatile; the final moment of life takes this same explosion and detonates it deep inside us.”
The author struggled to cope with her sense of loss. She went through the motions of each day by keeping busy – looking after her children and starting a new job. And by turning to alcohol. Wine helped numb the sharp edges that threatened to cut her to pieces. What she needed was to be seen to be coping, not making a fuss.
From the outside, White’s childhood was not difficult. She was brought up by loving parents in material comfort. Peel back the veneer and there are all too common incidents that she knew needed to be swept under the carpet: older boys acting inappropriately with her four year old body, a friend’s mother’s who suggested a nine year old White eat fewer puddings to fit into a princess dress, being told she was ugly by laughing boys when a teenager. Absorbing, internalising these unremarkable events, as expected by those around her, leaves lasting scars.
Like many young people, the author in her teens experimented with alcohol and drugs.
“a place of refuge where I could take a break from being myself”
Aged twenty-two she took an ecstasy tablet while camping at a festival. The bad reaction suffered changed her forever. She describes it in detail, the start of her ‘madness’. There followed a breakdown, psychiatric help, the slow clawing back from thoughts of suicide. Years of travel, working as a chef or living meagerly off grid, provided ‘a strategy for restoring sanity’. The essays describing this period are terrifying to consider – the risks taken by young people that so many get away with – yet prove evocative and hopeful.
Returning to Ireland and getting married brought into sharp relief the relationship women have with their bodies and appetites.
“If you were born in the latter half of the twentieth century, then you will know that fat is the very worst thing. The worst thing to eat. The worst thing to be.”
This series of essays is wonderful in highlighting the many ridiculous habits so many absorb, and how women police not just their own bodies but those of others – family, friends, even strangers.
Later essays explore further the author’s descent into alcoholism, and how drunk girls are dehumanised.
“She teeters and topples, knees scuffed. She deserves nothing. No justice if she is victimised by an opportunistic predator. Opportunistic – it’s a word that practically commends this tenacious, moment-seizing, go-getting rapist.”
Another disturbing incident at a festival is detailed, but it is the drinking at home that many stressed out mothers may relate most to. The thoughts on motherhood are as honest as anything I have read on the subject – the pain and fatigue but, more than that, the judgement.
“When a man leaves work to attend to his child, it is commended; when a woman leaves work to attend to her child, it is noted.”
And, of course, the harshest judge of all is the mother herself – her inability to be perfect at all times leading to feelings of failure.
In amongst these excellent essays are topics that may be a little more esoteric: vampirism, adult thumb sucking, knitting. As the author approaches the end of the book: she gives birth to a third child, the COVID-19 lockdown is imposed, she suffers another breakdown and is taken into psychiatric care. It is a reminder that mental illness is managed rather than cured.
White has a writing style that is vehement in its desire for unadorned realism yet contains much humour. The macabre is balanced by recognition of how so many choose to live unaware, to turn away from the unpleasant. The conspiracy of silence that mostly surrounds the unpalatable truths of giving birth and mothering are discarded by the author witheringly.
As well as being eminently engaging, somehow this is an enjoyable read despite the blood, gore and madness. It is an eye-opening account of the strength required to hold a life together – a reminder to show compassion however ingrained judgement of others’ outward behaviour has become in an age of picture perfect social media.
Corpsing is published by Tramp Press. My copy was provided gratis by Turnaround UK.