One of the things I’ve learnt in counselling is to pay attention to my judgements, to examine very closely what’s behind my assessment of another person. In particular, what does a ‘judgement’ say about me (as opposed to my client)? To be clear, 95% of my time counselling is free of judgement – I listen, I try to understand and that’s it. But 5% of the time, someone will say something that triggers an immediate personal reaction, and it’s in that 5% where counsellors do their own work. Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s memoir, The Erratics, was a whole book of 5% for me.
Laveau-Harvie is Canadian-born and raised but has lived much of her life in Australia (hence this book being longlisted for the Stella Prize). The Erratics captures a short time in her life when, along with her Canadian-based sister, they moved their elderly mother into permanent care, and made arrangements for their father to stay in the relatively remote prairie home he loved. This sounds straight-forward, however, the blurb hints at something more dramatic – the mother is mentally unstable, hostile and delusional, and has systematically starved her father and kept him a hostage in his own home.
One of the few coherent messages my mother repeated to me and to my sister as we grew up, a message she sometimes delivered with deceptive gentleness and a touch of sadness that we weren’t more worthy prey, was this one, and I quote: I’ll get you and you won’t even know I’m doing it.
There are gaps in this story – a traumatic childhood is alluded to but not detailed; her mother’s diagnosis, or suspected diagnosis (my feeling is Borderline Personality Disorder); what events triggered the author and her sister to be estranged from their parents; and what made Laveau-Harvie leave Canada. Had these gaps been filled, I may have had more emotional context around what unfolds and my ‘5%’ may not have been exercised. But it was. Here’s why:
01. Laveau-Harvie clearly and repeatedly ‘opts-out’ of helping her sister and others bear the burden of caring for her father. And her sister repeatedly steps up. Of her sister she says –
I feel she has strained for years, jumping again and again like a terrier, trying to see over the wall of their rejection. We’ve been disowned and disinherited. There’s no changing it, I say.
It’s pretty easy to opt-out when you know your sibling, whose sense of obligation might be greater than yours, is there. Her disconnection from her family made me curious and wondered why she could not separate the care she might show for her sister and father from that she does not want to show for her mother? Interestingly, she observes, ‘The one who doesn’t care has all the power.’
02. So then we come to the tricky situation of siblings making decisions about parents, complicated in this case by distance. I fully own my 5% here – my husband and I are geographically closest to both sets of parents, with our siblings all some distance away. Care of parents falls to us by default, and everyone in the family knows it.
I told her bluntly: Do not do this. Not unless you can carry it alone, because I am not here, and I can’t be here every time there is a problem. You will be alone with this…and I can see sinkholes of simmering resentment about to develop between us.
03. What does Laveau-Harvie feel? The book is written in an emotionally distant, almost clinical style. I found one of the few revealing paragraphs particularly interesting –
Scratch me and you get grief. It will well up surreptitiously and slip away down any declivity, perhaps undermining the foundations but keeping a low profile and trying not to inconvenience anybody. Scratch my sister…you’ll get rage, a geyser of it, like hitting oil after drilling dry, hot rock for months and it suddenly, shockingly, plumes up into the sky, black and viscous, coating everything as it falls to earth. Take care when you scratch.
Interesting because my instinct (judgement) says she has it around the wrong way. Sure, Laveau-Harvie may feel grief, and the opting-out may be a way of keeping a low profile but I think she is full of rage. And I return to my suspicion of unresolved childhood trauma. Laveau-Harvie hints at it –
I do know this: where there is nothing, there must have been pain. That’s why there is nothing. Be glad if you forget.
People handle trauma differently – has she successfully ‘forgotten’ hers or has she not even touched it yet?
I openly acknowledge that my reaction to this book was more about me than the book per se. Kim at Reading Matters fairly reviewed the book, not the author! Check out her review here.
3.5/5 My score doesn’t reflect how engrossed I was in this book at the time of reading but I finished with questions and a lack of resolution.
I order a lemon, lime and bitters, and after they question me carefully about what it might be, they do their best and I try to drink some of the result from the milkshake container it comes in, because they tried, that good old Canadian spirit. Over the border in the US, they would have just brought me a Sprite.
It never occurred to me that lemon, lime and bitters was an Australian thing… (it’s one of my favourites).