"What won't go away": Waterland and Traditional Psychotherapy

Jakob Winnberg. M. A., University of Göteberg, Sweden [jawi0004@student.gu.se]

In traditional psychoanalytic therapy, the patient tries to remember as clearly as possible his or her History, with the purpose of making sense of and lessening the effect of traumatic memories or a present traumatic situation. The importance of this process and the consequences of repression and suppression are illustrated throughout Graham Swift's novel Waterland. As the narrator, Tom Crick, notes when he relates the story about his mother's death, "though, indeed, it only happened once, it's gone on happening, the way unique and momentous things do, for ever and ever, as long as there's a memory for them to happen in..." (275). The memories that are most pervasive are those of traumatic experiences; when Crick's mother dies he is only nine years old and very attached to her, which of course worsens the trauma. Hence, what Crick says about the Grand Narrative of Big Events is also true of individual histories: "History begins only at the point where things go wrong; history is born only with trouble, with perplexity, with regret" (106), while "happy men don't ask questions" (232). When things go wrong, human beings have a need of "receptacles for their stock of fairytales, of listening ears on which to unload those most unbelievable yet haunting of fairy-tales, their own lives" (7). This is a basic notion in psychoanalytic therapy, which relies on a situation of transference between analysand and analyst. The psychoanalytic situation of transference

sets up 'an intermediate realm between illness and real life through which the transition from the one to the other is made'. This intermediate realm consists to a very large extent of narrative activity: the analysands tell of their past, of their present life outside the analysis, of their life within the analysis. (Connerton 26)

In Waterland, Crick first creates a situation of transference in the classroom, where his pupils serve as a mostly passive audience. Later, Crick "repeats the stories he's told in class" (331), speaking "to an audience he is forced to imagine" (63). Indeed, he tells of his past, of his present life outside the analysis and of his life within the analysis; now and then he reflects upon the narrative itself or, as we just saw, upon the circumstances under which his analysis takes place.

In fact, the whole of Crick's narrative is structured as if it belonged to a psychoanalytic therapy session. As Paul Connerton explains,

the psychoanalytic dialogue seeks to uncover the analysand's efforts to maintain in existence a particular kind of narrative discontinuity. The point of this narrative discontinuity is to block out parts of a personal past ... (26)

Indeed, Crick admits that he is "[a]voiding in these memory-jogging journeys ... many no-go areas and emergency zones (you see, when it comes to it, your history teacher is afraid to tread the minefield of the past)" (330). However, Crick's discontinuous plot gradually forms a comprehensible story by returning to and giving explicit accounts of events that are originally related in a more or less vague and summary fashion. This is precisely the method used in psychoanalysis:

In order to discard this radical discontinuity, psycho- analysis works in a temporal circle: analyst and analysand work backwards from what is told about the autobiographical present in order to reconstruct a coherent account of the past; while, at the same time, they work forwards from various tellings about the autobiographical past in order to reconstitute that account of the present which it is sought to understand and explain ... [T]he analyst [directs] attention to the past when the analysand insists upon the present, and [looks] for present material when the analysand dwells on the past. One set of narratives is deployed to generate questions about another set of narratives. (Connerton 26)

This bears a startling resemblance to the narrative structure of the novel. As Janik notes, "as a whole the novel conforms to Tom's characterization of history: 'It goes in two directions at once. It goes backwards as it goes forwards. It loops. It takes detours' ... [(135)]" (83). Still, as Janik also observes, "[t]he structure is not chaotic" (83). On the contrary, it is the structure of a narrative process with the goal of reconciling seemingly disparate events:

To remember, then, is precisely not to recall events as isolated; it is to become capable of forming meaningful narrative sequences ... [A]n attempt is being made to integrate isolated or alien phenomena into a singel unified process. This is the sense in which psychoanalysis sets itself the task of reconstituting individual life histories. (Connerton 26)

As Crick implies, dreams are also adaptations of history, used in psychoanalysis to complement the potentially censored stories analysands tell:

Shall I tell you my dream? It's how it's supposed to happen: telling your dreams. They're trying it on Mary, right now ... First you tell your dreams. First you speak all your innermost fears. Then all the rest follows the whole story. Even back to when you were a little. (155)

This act of remembrance is very important if the analysand is to avoid various psychological and psychosomatic diseases such as anxiety, psychoses, tics and the repetitive behaviour called 'acting out'. These consequences of repression and suppression will be discussed below, as I proceed now to show how Crick and various characters in his narrative illustrate the therapeutic function of life histories. To begin with, let me note that in Waterland Crick does indeed find himself in a potentially agonizing situation that calls for narrative therapy. Telling his stories he "sits alone because his wife of over thirty years who no longer knows him, nor he her, has been taken away, and because his schoolchildren, his children, who once - ever reminding him of the future -- came to his history lessons, are no longer there" (63). Having lost his substitute children, his pupils, he is also forced to face the fact that he is probably the end of the family line, and hence the end of History as far as the Cricks are concerned. His and Mary's child was aborted, and the abortion rendered Mary incapable, "short of a miracle" (122), of having another child. Because of this, it is understandable that Price's remark that "[t]he only important thing about history ... is that it's got to the point where it's probably about to end" (7) is what triggers Crick's therapeutic story-telling sessions. As Crick says, "your astounded and forsaken history teacher, prompted as he was by the challenging remarks of a student called Price, ceased to teach history and started to offer you, instead, these ... Tales of the Fens" (41-42).

As we see, Crick insists on the ficticious nature of his accounts of the past by calling them 'tales'. His therapy session is a postmodern one; in the end, "although he's trying to explain he's really only telling a- [story]" (109). This is, however, not a problem that is new to psychoanalysis:

[P]sychotherapists who otherwise disagree claim that worrying about the objective truth of memories serves no useful purpose, since it is only the patient's sub- jective belief in the truth of often error-prone and partially fabricated memories that needs to be heeded. (Ross vii-viii)

Indeed, the therapeutic effect of narrative remembrance proves unquestionable in Waterland, as we will see.

The importance of narrative remembrance is something Crick has learnt from his parents: "For my father ... had a knack for telling stories ... It was a knack which ran in his family. But it was a knack which my mother had too and perhaps he really acquired it from her. Because when I was very small it was my mother who first told me stories" (2). As Crick notes, his mother, Helen Atkinson, "had cause of her own to be no stranger to fairy-tales" (62). She had an incestuous relationship with her father, and their child, who was supposed to be the Saviour of the World, turned out to be mentally retarded. Her father committed suicide when she left him for Henry Crick. Henry, in his turn, had traumatic memories of the war he served in. He illustrates the dangers of suppression, as he shows symptoms of psychosomatic disease when he tries to forget:

Henry Crick forgets. He says: I remember nothing. But that's just a trick of the brain. (222) Because it doesn't take much or long ... and [he is] crying out again for treatment ... [He] comes home from a long walk one October afternoon, a mass of twitches, trembles, shakes and jitters, unable to speak a sensible word. (223)

Thus, he becomes Helen Atkinson's patient. She is the one to cure him, as she explains the therapeutic effect of life histories to him:

[S]he believes in stories. She believes that they're a way of bearing what won't go away, a way of making sense of madness ... Don't erase it. You can't erase it. But make it into a story ... So Henry Crick ... learns, also, to tell those stories of old Flanders which he will tell again ... and which will lead on to other stories, till the pain, save for sporadic twinges in the knee, is almost gone. (225)

He does, however, forget this redemption; in the months following the trauma that is Helen's death, he behaves "[a]s if he were constantly brooding on some story yet to be told" (2), but he does not speak out. He also suppresses the knowledge that Dick is not his son, and, later, the knowledge of Dick's crime. Consequently, when faced with Dick's suicide attempt,

Dad undergoes a series of scarcely detectable yet agonizing spasms. Faced with this ... he can stand no more. The stretched tissue of silence and concealment gives way. He breaks down ... All but dropping to his knees ... he splutters: 'And he killed Freddie Parr ... Murdered him. And he's not my son. I mean, he is my son. I mean. O God! O Jesus Christ God help me!' (351)

However, after Dick's suicide he falls silent again: "He didn't want to tell stories any more. Didn't trust in them" (342). On his death-bed, though, he feels the need to tell "that magic tale that must be told at last, that strug- gles for utterance in [his] breathless throat. Be- cause, yes, it's true, when you drown you see it all pass before you. And now's the time, the only time, to tell the whole" (343). As we can see, Henry Crick illustrates not only the consequences of suppression, but also just how inclined human beings are to suppress knowledge and memories that are unpleasant.

The main example in Waterland of the dangers of suppression or repression is, however, Mary. Her trauma is of course the abortion, which leads to her being "taken to hospital" and which becomes a "local scandal" (316). It also leads her, for three and a half years, to "withdraw from the world and devote herself to a life of solitude, atonement and ... celibacy. Not even she has ever said how far God came into this lonely vigil" (41). Her reason for doing so, it seems, is that she is already trapped in the grand narrative of Catholicism, having been sent by her father "[w]ith a view to her becoming a cultivated and elegant lady ... to the St Gunnhilda Convent School in Gildsey" (46). Thus, Mary is her "inevitable name", her father wishing her to turn "into a little madonna" (46). Her inability to live up to her father's dreams is of course made evident by the abortion. This inability, the fact that she has let her father down, is part of the trauma as well. Indeed, when she ends up in a mental hospital thirtyfive years later, the only possession she deliberately brings with her is a box "containing a silver crucifix on a chain" and carrying "an inscription in the scrupulous hand of Harold Metcalf: 'Upon your Confirmation, With All My Love to My Darling Mary, May 10th, 1941...'" (329).

Now, as Crick tells us, after "she emerged from these self-imposed cloisters", Mary "never spoke again, at least not for many years, of that temporary communing with On High" (41). It seems that she "won't ever tell about the time when-" (341). Notably, it is Mary who says "Don't speak... don't try to speak" (342) when Henry Crick tries to open his mouth to tell the whole story on his death-bed. She even sets out to "prove that she could live without children" (127) by working with old people.

However, as Crick notes, "it must have been always there, lurking, latent, ripening like some dormant, forgotten seed" (41). Indeed, it is "during the onset of a late and troubled menopause" (124) that Mary decides to leave work and eventually becomes psychotic. Crick's diagnosis is that she is in "a condition called schizophrenia" (148), which seems perfectly true since she first believes that she will have a baby "[b]ecause God's said I will" (130), and then that God himself commands her to kidnap the baby: "He said, Go on, I command you. Take. It's yours..." (311). Hearing voices and being controlled by them is a typical symptom of schizophrenia.

No longer able to repress her trauma without symptoms, Mary also seems to do what psychoanalysts call 'acting out'. As Connerton explains, there are "two contrasting ways of bringing the past into the present: acting out and remembering" (25). When an individual refuses or is unable to remember, the "compulsion to repeat [replaces] the capacity to remember" (25). As a result of this compulsion, individuals "deliberately place themselves in distressing situations: in this way repeating an old experience" (25). According to Ernest Schactel, Freud "characterizes it [repetition compulsion] by its conservative nature and considers it to be the expression of an inertia principle, of a drive to return to an earlier state, and, in the final analysis, of the death instinct" (Schactel 259 qtd. in Ross 79). Mary, who at least seems to refuse to remember in a situation of transference, seemingly acts out as she becomes again the Mother of God her father wanted her to identify with and whom she cried out for, or identified herself with, during the abortion: "HolyMaryMotherofGodHolyMaryMotherofGod ..." (308). She also places herself in a distressing situation when she kidnaps the baby, since she only repeats the experience of losing her child; part of her probably knows that she will not be allowed to keep what she has stolen. The repetitive nature of Mary's behaviour, the fact that she is reexperiencing the past, is noted by Crick: "She's wearing the looks of a mother who's never been a mother before. Her face has shed a succession of masks (menopausal wife, ex-age-care officer, history teacher's life-long, long-suffering mate); she's all innocence and maidenhood. A Madonna and child ... Maybe this is where history dissolves, chronology goes backwards" (265).

Now, it is interesting to note that not only does Crick's narrative end with Mary having become a child again, it also specifically ends with Crick himself stuck in the time 'when he was a little-'. Thus, the novel clearly illustrates the persistence and the power of the past. Waterland ends with Dick's suicide, surely a most vivid trauma for Crick. Dick's fate is certainly worth discussing briefly in an essay that deals with the importance of remembrance. It might seem like a paradox that what is presented as a remedy elsewhere in the novel seemingly leads to Dick's lethal act of diving. It is when Dick somehow understands that he is his grandfather's son, a child that should not have been, that he takes his life. However, to me this simply illustrates that while Crick acknowledges the importance of not suppressing or repressing what one knows or has experienced, he is not as sure of the necessity of discovering what one does not know. Indeed, he seems to blame himself for telling Dick the truth: "I'm the one who had to ask questions, who had to dig up the truth ... [Henry] would have kept you, happily, in the dark" (324). Having observed this self-accusation, it is important to note that it is actually Dick himself who makes Tom tell him, as he says, "We go up now and open it. D-Dick want know" (319). Hence, rather than rendering the novel paradoxical, Dick's fate points to the complexity of the world and underlines Crick's belief that there are no "cure-alls" (108).

As we have seen, Waterland illustrates the importance of life histories as therapy, both through its narrative structure and its actual story. Crick even goes so far as to define homo sapiens in terms of narrative remembrance, when he says,

man -- let me offer you a definition -- is the story-telling animal. Wherever he goes he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting marker-buoys and trail-signs of stories. He has to go on telling stories, he has to keep on making them up. As long as there's a story, it's all right. (62-63)


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