Emma Forrest's memoir Your Voice in My Head finds clarity in the murk of madness
The events Emma Forrest reveals in her new memoir, Your Voice in My Head, are messy—from toxic sexual relationships to self-cutting to suicide attempts—but what’s most striking is the crystalline clarity with which she writes about them.
“The thought of suicide is masculine energy, with manicured nails, like a mafioso,” she says in the book. As for mania, it “flows like a river approaching a waterfall. Depression is a stagnant lake.” And then there’s bulimia: “the wicked twin of orgasm. The penetration, obviously, the loss of control. It is la petite mort.”
What’s most remarkable about the way she articulates these feelings is that she was still working her way through the murk of mental illness when she started her book.
“It’s trying to name the unnameable,” explains the composed 33-year-old writer, sitting in a Vancouver hotel restaurant and choosing her words as thoughtfully as she does in her prose.
“I started as a music writer, and the thing about music is it’s really hard to describe how music sounds,” she continues, referring to the career she began at 15 for the Guardian. “And the same is true of madness, the same is true of depression. I’d be very happy if I have articulated how these things feel—if I have pinpointed things and brought clarity.
“I don’t think my story is special, I don’t think my story is any worse than anyone else’s—or in fact as bad as most people’s stories,” she’s quick to add. “But what I have done is named these things.”¦Even if I can’t offer a solution or an answer, even if I can’t tell people, ”˜This is what to do to be better,’ just hearing a feeling named makes them feel better. It made me feel better.”
Your Voice in My Head (Random House) chronicles Forrest’s journey from her London home, at 22, to Manhattan, where she would be writing for the Guardian. She’s lonely in NYC, and starts to spiral into those “cold deep patches of the sea”—purging, secretly cutting her arms, legs, and stomach with razors, and eventually attempting suicide. Her long, slow road to recovery is characterized by an unassuming, optimistic psychiatrist she calls Dr. R, and then a heady relationship with an eccentric unnamed Hollywood actor she dubs GH, for “gypsy husband” (and whom a simple Google search will reveal as Colin Farrell). But her new stability is tested when she loses both men around the same time—Dr. R to lung cancer, and GH to a crippling breakup.
Forrest, who has written the novels Namedropper, Thin Skin, and Cherries in the Snow, says the book started out as a tribute to Dr. R, but ended up an entirely different beast. “I’ve certainly found with the memoirs that I love and that mean the most to me, you get the sense that the author is as much surprised by what’s being written as you are as a reader,” she says, mentioning Judith Moore’s Fat Girl: A True Story and Nuala O’Faolain’s Are You Somebody? as two of her recent favourites. “I didn’t expect there to be so much of me in it. I guess waters that look shallow tend to be a lot deeper than you expected.”
Asked if it was difficult deciding which private moments to reveal, she says, “I don’t have any choice; it ends up on the page and you’re like, ”˜Shit, I guess that’s staying.’?” She adds that it was harder for her parents, the loving figures often referred to in her book, to handle the revelations of some of her more painful secrets.
It should be stressed that not everything in Forrest’s book is dark; it’s full of humour, too, and in many ways the world that surrounds her—the celebrity-filled streets of New York and L.A.—sometimes has an absurd, semi-delusional quality to it. She’s as likely to wonder why she constantly sees Coldplay’s Chris Martin running around in a jester’s hat as she is to talk politics when she runs into Susan Sarandon riding a scooter.
“I feel like I can conjure people just by thinking about them, and they appear,” she says smiling. “I also feel like I have cat senses, so I can notice people that other people might not.”
What’s most puzzling to Forrest, who can’t stop herself from reading the reviews of her book, is that some critics are taking her to task for her focus on herself. As the Guardian bitingly wrote, “Maybe it’s precisely this self-obsession that lies at the heart of her illness, but it is hard to read on without a bad taste in the mouth.”
“I’m like, ”˜Well, it is a memoir!’?” Forrest exclaims. “I don’t know how to tell the story not through the lens of my own feelings and emotions. I didn’t know there were memoirs that did that.
“There’s been really wonderful reviews and really terrible reviews, and I’ve been fine with that because I figure this is one of those really salty foods that you either love or hate.”
More irritating to Forrest is the focus on her relationship with GH, a guy obsessed with poetry, Pez, and babies, although not necessarily in that order. On this day she is especially galled at a Maclean’s magazine article on her book that not only had Farrell’s name in the headline, but also featured a photograph with him in it.
“I just feel endlessly disappointed when it’s the headline. That’s the last third of the book, and it’s there for a reason: it was this heartbreak that I had to deal with without my doctor. So it’s very frustrating that is what sells in the article. I’ve been getting letters from people who say, ”˜I don’t care who he [GH] is; I’ve felt exactly the same thing.’?”
However, Forrest isn’t going to let some of the press she’s getting lead to another downward spiral. Dr. R left her with the tools to cope, she says. Life, for the most part, is good. Named one of Variety’s top 10 screenwriters to watch in 2009, she’s been contracted to work on a screenplay for Your Voice in My Head, with a few changes: it will focus more on Dr. R’s life, and the lead female will no longer be a writer. Forrest is also thrilled to be writing a biography of legendary Blondie vocalist Debbie Harry.
As for her personal life, she’s settled into a new, stable relationship. “I did meet him the week I handed in the book, which is such a great example of how the universe works; you just don’t know what is around the corner. And that’s what’s hard to remember when you are in the midst of heartbreak.” Your Voice in My Head has, however, caused its issues: “You’re in the position where you’re saying, ”˜I have this book coming out that you’re going to have to read,’” she says, smiling, “and that’s definitely challenging on a relationship, with me having an extensive romantic relationship that I’ve documented.”
Still, compared to past love affairs, this is minor stuff. These days, Forrest feels a sense of closure about that severely difficult part of her life—closure she’s not sure she would have had if she hadn’t “named the unnameable” in her brutally honest book.
“It’s nice to literally hold it in my hand and say ”˜Put to bed, done, finished, and dusted over,’” she says, lifting Your Voice in My Head up off the table. “And that is the wonderful thing about it, actually—publishing it and having a closed book does feel good.”