A.K.Benjamin (2019) Let Me Not Be Mad: A Story of Unravelling Minds, published by Bodley Head, London.

Stephen Fry, who had his own much publicised breakdown, writes on the back fly-leaf:

‘A perfectly extraordinary, not to mention an extraordinarily perfect – tense Hitchcockian psychodrama. I have rarely read a more haunting and enthralling account of descent into madness.’

A.K. Benjamin is a therapist working in London. His patients are given nom-de-plums and anonymised,  ‘JB,’ ‘Lucy’, ‘Michael,’ ‘Jane,’ ‘Dr Samuels,’ ‘Brad76,’ ‘Murray,’ ‘You again,’ ‘Me’. Their narrative is Benjamin’s story. In Robert Pirsig’s classic zeitgeist book of the 1970s, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, just as the narrator’s kids, shout out from the backseat of their dad’s car and tell him whether he should turn the steering wheel left or right to take a turn, or go straight ahead, Benjamin relies on his patients—his mad patients—to keep him on the straight and narrow, because, whisper it, he too might be mad. Only an unhinged person wouldn’t think they were mad and is sure they know which way they or we are going.  #MeToo I say.

When the distance between therapist and patient as Valeria Ugazio suggests at ‘the maximum level of empathy’, ‘the two points of view would become fused’.

Benjamin is patient with his patients because he, too, is a patient. ‘You,’ for example,

‘Look at you, you are no accident. For once my dinosaur colleague is right: you really are ‘charming’. We have spent the whole morning together. That’s more time , with more tender, dedicated attention, than either of us would share with our children or partners in any given week.’

There is an erotic tone. Therapists don’t usually write love letters to their patients. We all know about transference. The jingo of therapy speak. But this is a love letter to what is lost.

‘I see your future unspool. Forgetfulness first, losing your children’s friend’s names, what you’d come into the living room for, [shit, I do that] what time you put the roast on, asking the cleaner if you’d fed the cat, asking again five minutes later. The beginning of ‘dyspraxia’: a moment when you forget how the remote for the television works, which way the key turns in the lock, how the buttons on your blouse fasten. (‘Dizzy’) The onset of ‘anomia’ following the rule of frequency: losing the name for Caerphilly, then Cheddar, then cheese, then children, your children. A steady upsurge of confusion: why the weekend started on a Tuesday. Where the living room is (Don’t we live in all our rooms?)

My mum had dementia. This was her future. Perhaps mine too. This was my past. She’s dead and I said I was glad. Our personality, our person and their reality is tied in with memory. Different people inhabited the same body. We all do that. But she forgot the way back and we couldn’t help her, abandoned her in Boquanran Old Folk’s Home.

‘Lucy’.

‘Could you hold your left hand up?’

‘My left hand?’

She had Alzheimer’s or vascular dementia or corticobasal degeneration or nothing. She had the same name as my mother, was close to her in age, wore the same that mum might wear.

She was not doing well and she knew it. The lines on her tired, aging face gathered like a storm map…She had earlier mistaken her neighbour’s house for her own…She had flooded the kitchen answering a cold call while washing up, or the washing machine wasn’t working properly. It took her 15 minutes to find her way back from the Ladies.

Names would stick on her tongue like peanut butter.’

Writers are told to show not tell. This is fantastic writing. We can see ‘Lucy’, just as a few weeks ago I spotted my neighbour Hugh. I was going out on my bike and he was standing in the lane. I shouted ‘Hallo,’ but stopped. He was in his seventies, but still had a full head of hair and a moustache. He liked to nip down to the bookies, along the canal and back to put a wee bet on. He turned his head, squinted at me: ‘Can you tell me where I live?’ he asked. He was standing at his back gate and gable end of his house.

There are thirty-three variants of dementia, perhaps more. Hugh couldn’t count them. He’s in ‘freefall’. And there’s nobody to catch him. That’s the sad part. I hear his wife shouting and swearing at him. I’m not sure if she’s got dementia too.

Benjamin tells of his own madness, or mental-health difficulty. ‘A summer evening in 1999.’ Tottenham Court Road.

‘I escort myself up the escalator and out of the station, and frogmarch myself all the way home, so taken was I with the idea that I would jump’.

… the doctor was friendly enough: he seemed to believe me.  

… a follow-up appointment with my GP, I was told I met the criteria for a major psychiatric disorder…The psychiatrist prescribed a cocktail of drugs I was to take indefinitely. I never took the prescription to the chemist.’

‘L’ confused me. I thought I had a handle on who A.K.Benjamin was, a male therapist around my age (late fifties). But here he is out on a second ‘date’ with ‘L’ at a Greek in Marble Road, he’s used to and is known in. (‘In truth the Greek was a Cypriot raised in Penge. In truth there had been far too many awkward, depressing nights in the years since I’d moved out of Helen’s house’).

‘L’ was a social worker, specialising in neurology (Benjamin’s field of medicine).

‘He was a few years older than me, a six-former to my third-year…I might as well have been a teenage girl drawing his picture in biro on my maths folder.’

…he brought unusual interest and therefore depth to each case, he was able to think about the meaning of injury, imagine for himself the lived experience of the person, their family, how it would translate into their forever changed lives.’

L is therefore the type of man you’d want to care for you or yours. He is loveable. But it flipped me because I believed from what I’d read so far that A.K.Benjamin was a man, a heterosexual man. But here I was re-imagining him as a her, as gay, as bisexual. Which made ‘L’ also one or more of these fluid gender categories. But later he or she described ‘L’ as ‘fatherly’.  What had thrown me was the word ‘date’. Date to me means sex. It is not erotic love (or perhaps it is) but agape, the unconditional love of another

Benjamin wanted ‘L’ to be his hero.

‘I wanted Lewis to look his disease dead in the eye, stare it down.  I wanted him to tell the truth, however frightening…I realized I couldn’t bear his denial – couldn’t bear it because it disrupted my own; couldn’t bear it because it brought to mind my father in different ways…’

Benjamin wanted ‘L’ to be superhuman, but, like the rest of us, was all too frail and human. A geriatric patient at fifty.

Let Me Not Be Mad tells painful truths. You can read it like you’d read a collection of short stories with a common overarching theme. As character studies it’s hard to beat and should be on the syllabus of any creative writing class. This is not a hymn to Lear’s madness but uncommon human decency, which is perhaps the same thing.

I Know Who You Are, BBC 4, BBC iPlayer, written by Ivan Mercade and directed by Pau Frexias

 

I know who you are.jpg

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b08yrc78/i-know-who-you-are-series-1-episode-1

I must admit to overdosing on Cardinal recently and watching a whole series into the early hours. The premise of this Spanish drama is pretty simple but very complicated, because it involves memory and not remembering. Juan Elias Castro (Francis Garrido) may or may not have killed his niece, the beautiful Ana Saura (Susana Abaitua). Ana sent a phone message to her brother/mum/dad. You know the kind, plenty of screaming, car tyre and please, please help me and whimpering noise. The Saura family are powerless to do anything, but they demand justice and want Juan locked up immediately. The evidence is overwhelming, Juan’s car has been found, his niece’s blood in the backseat and he admits she was with him. The police are looking for a body. We’re up to day 2, no body as yet, and Juan still in the dock. But his wife, Alicia Castro (Blanca Portillo) is a high-flying judge with plenty of powerful connections in the judiciary and Juan is also a lawyer with his own firm, rich and powerful in his own right and he claims he had amnesia and can’t remember what happened. One of the few things he can remember, is he had an affair eight years previously with one of his law students, the gamine Eva Duran (Aida Folch) and even with memory loss she is pretty and pretty hard to forget. But there’s a bit of power play going on between the victim’s family and possible perpetrator. Alicia’s sister is married to  Ramon Saura (Nancho Novo) who is a professor at the university and he knows what his brother-in-law says doesn’t add up. And Eva Duran, who happens to be working as prosecutor, but she’s part of a low-grade firm that doesn’t get much prestigious work and this job could make or break their firm. That’s leverage and Ramon is using it to hire her indirectly by hiring her boss David Vila (Carles Francino) to work on the case and make sure Juan gets his just deserts, which doesn’t include to her chagrin Eva Duran, but every other striking looking female in sight, including the prosecutor, but hey, a bit of love lost and found does no harm for drama. David Vila is the brain-dead totty, which is the opposite, but the same as dizzy blonde.

Who are you? Interesting question. Umbero Eco tackles it in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loma. It starts with Eliot’s The Cruellest Month and a polymath bookseller, very much like echoing the Eco, and narrator of the novel trying to piece together his life broken up into silos by a stroke. He pieces together his life by the books he read as a youngster and the girls he loved and the music he didn’t dance to. Memory is a trick.

Christina Ricci, who also happens to be very pretty turned up in some small English village onscreen last night too in a film called The Gathering. This was classified as a horror. I’ve been more scared by a golf trolley I’ve bumped into in the dark. But Cristina’s character is hit by a car and although the driver thinks she’s killed her,  the girl is fine and, of course, you never leave anything you hit lying on the road for foxes, so she takes Christina home to babysit and act as nanny to her two children. There a number of different kinds of memory and Christina probably wanted to forget the one where she has lived for 2000 years with the memory of gawping at the crucifixion of Christ and didn’t do anything, not even throw her five-foot, five stone body at the might of the Roman empire and cause them severe brain damage. The bastards that crucified Christ. So God decides to punish all the drive-by gawpers by making them live through all the low points in history. The Gathering is like the worst top ten hits played over and over in your ear. Not be missed. Worse even then, fill in your own memory here…

‘And what’s your name?’

‘Wait, it’s on the tip of my tongue.’

That’s how Eco’s book begins. Remembering is something we do. Reaching for something we’ve placed on a shelf. Sometimes it’s out of reach. There are different kinds of memory and if I’m repeating myself there’s a very good reason for that, which I can’t remember. Memory doesn’t work in conventional ways. Short-term or working memory is the one you use when you’re making coffee and tea and put coffee and tea into one cup and nothing in the other. Or one of my favourites putting the softner in the washing machine but putting it in your tea instead. That tea does taste funny. Dementia. That’s the worry. But you might disguise it by reaching for stuff from the top shelf. When I write about Clydebank in the early nineteen-seventies it is all top shelf stuff. Dinners were basic. Anything without a potato wasn’t dinner and everything else was foreign muck. But we’ve got time machines. They can’t take us back to the death of Christ, but you can see the Osmond brothers on Top of the Pops in blue spangly suits and a group called The Jackson Five in checked shirts and flares and big enough afros to disguise wee Michael’s disbelief that he’s black. That’s not really what interests me. Those pretty girls in shot, who dance on the sidelines as if they’re trying to put a bicycle in the centre, but grab its handlebars and wheel it left and then change their  mind and wheel it right. They’re doing their seventies thing.

The zeitgeist book of the seventies was, of course, Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. A classic book not about bikes but about the narrator trying to discover who he is and what Quality means. It doesn’t help that the narrator’s brain has been zapped by a few thousand volts to cure him of his sickness of thinking too much. (Don’t plug in at home).    Quality does that to you. An ill-defined notion that is neither object nor subject, but is somehow out there, but in there too, kinda of like sex without the sex, or Pirsig’s analogy the Hindi notion of zero and nothing to do with sex. Phaderus the ancient Greek philosopher who stalks the narrator’s journey and might even by the narrator himself that claims the idea of zero was familiar to Hindi thought but not Roman or Greek. They stumbled along bumping into increasingly large numbers and so no need for zero tolerance, because they didn’t know what it was. I can’t imagine that, but I can imagine somebody handing my mum a bottle and saying you can’t fill this with tap water, because it’s not good for you, buy this stuff in a plastic bottle and it’s really good for you and costs only a few quid. An oxymoron.  She hadn’t heard of lol either. In the digital age 1 and 0 rock our worlds. Little rockslides of self falling away every day into the abyss and you know what I Know Who You Are. I’m glad at least one person does.