Community reporter and S&C reviewer Paul Valentine attended the book launch for Clare Best’s new memoir The Missing List and finds a masterfully written and powerful reflection on abuse.
I’ve read a lot of memoirs on the subject of abuse; in recent years it’s become its own genre. Although there are exceptions, many tend to be ghost written, written with a heavy editorial pen or, I’m afraid, not very well written at all. Most deal with the events, rarely with impact.
However, The Missing List is none of these. Instead, it is both masterfully written, and deals almost exclusively with the impact of abuse.
Part of the book’s power is in its enticing and powerful structure: the decline and death of an abuser father takes place in the present and is superimposed upon the rise of the abused child, recalled in memories. Interspersed with her memories are images taken by her father – a cinematic photographer hobbyist – capturing moments of Best’s life as shot by her abuser’s eye.
Perhaps this sounds almost voyeuristic, yet it is anything but.
The truth of these images is set against her abuser’s pathetic reasoning: ‘It must have been me…It was me. I thought it was normal, I thought it was what fathers do.’ He blames his wife for not stopping him.
The impact of these images on the author speak for themselves, a sense of a life stolen, a life lost.
‘I watched the child I was from the first disk and cried. I cried for the lively little girl who always wants to hop and jump about without her clothes, constantly on the move, gesturing and communicating non-stop with herself and everyone around her. An extrovert playing to the camera. I’ve lost her. I’ve lost who I might have been. There’s a parallel life somewhere, a life she had that I didn’t. I’ve been cheated.
‘Later in the second disk, there’s a quieter introverted child. The camera is on her less. She doesn’t deserve it, doesn’t want it. When she is framed, she sits apart from the others with her head in a book, turns away from the camera or covers her face with her hand.
‘Which film is true? Which child is me?’
Much of what follows is Best’s effort to dissect her relationship with her father: told through memories that intersect with his dying.
She relates a memory of her habit of hiding a cherry inside her lemon mousse dessert as a child: carefully submerging the cherry and eating away the mousse until only the cherry is left.
‘This is what you do each time. A ritual….he waits…until the prize is visible…and then he nudges you, points with his left hand to something high up…And as you look up, his right hand comes quickly…and scoops out the cherry…
‘I wonder now at the endless repetition. The normality of it. I wonder at the contract that must have existed between us: my hiding the cherry, his stealing it. My trust, his power. The need for me to be gullible. His need to take from me. My obligation to accept what he did.’
On one level, this account of her memory is an analogy; a metaphor of her father’s abuse. But the memoir also documents Best’s growing self-awareness, which increases as her father’s health declines.
‘…So often in this process of his dying, I’m asking myself why I need to hammer out this part of the story, my part. Isn’t it all past, long past, and gone? Secrets are secrets, isn’t that right? But untold, they swell and infiltrate everything. I feel completely filled up with secrets. I know that secrets must be let out. I know I’m the only one who can do this but each time I think about telling, I stall and stall, while fear and anxiety spread like blood in water. Sometimes I hear inside me the ghostly voice of the child he stole, the child I may never find, and I have to listen. I want her to talk until she has nothing left to say. I want to wake up one day and find the voice exhausted and then I’ll know the grandest, longest silence. And I’ll choose what to put into that silence… …I want to pull together the small child and the one who grew from what happened to her. They’re separate, I know that, and I want them to become one. I want this more than anything. I have to be able to remember before I can begin to forget.’
What struck me repeatedly in reading Best’s memoir is her clarity and her precision of thought, even and despite the emotional horror of her story: what a startlingly accurate metaphor of anxiety spreading like ‘blood in water’.
In places her writing reminds me of the sharpness of George Eliot, like here:
‘Some things don’t change. Like KitKat and Coca-Cola and song of blackbirds, or the way you feel when the heat of the new spring sun warms your back. But it’s an illusion, a trick. The lettering on the wrapper and the red of the can have been subtly altered and so have the recipes. The blackbirds and the skin have died and been replaced.’
Throughout the book, Best peppers her abusive father’s philosophies in capital letters: ‘THE WORLD ACCORDING TO MY FATHER’. One of these proclamations gives the book its title, ’11. LISTS – A Missing List must be found’.
But Best adds an important list of her own: a list detailing the impact of her father’s abuse appears midway through the memoir. Writing with remarkable insight, these elements have become Clare’s own ‘missing list’ and represent the key to recovery. I was also glad that Clare included the wonderfully emotional balance of the ‘Afterword’, which shouts truth to power – and is something all survivors should be encouraged to do, and do with regularity.
I think this book deserves to be read by all survivors, by mental health professionals and by anyone seeking to read the very best in life writing.
Perhaps it’s more accurate to say everyone should read this book, to witness and understand the sheer damage done by sexual abuse, and the amazing courage of those who make it through. So many don’t.
Maybe if more people did read this book, we could finally consign to the black hole of history that pathetic phrase, ‘Just pull yourself together’.
In the meantime, I cannot recommend Clare Best’s memoir enough, and I eagerly await the next book from this superlatively fine writer.