When I was studying counselling, I had frequent debates with one of my lecturers about the intersect of the mind and our biological instincts – I am a scientist at heart; I have always listened to my instinct or ‘gut feeling’; and believe that although our mind can be powerful, sometimes biology drives what we do. It’s a huge topic, with many facets (for example the links between gut health and mental health, and the study of epigenetics in terms of inherited trauma), and one that goes well beyond the scope of a blog post, but it’s why I was drawn to Nicola Redhouse’s Unlike the Heart (a book billed as a ‘memoir of brain and mind’).
Redhouse wrote the book in response to her experience of postnatal anxiety. Prior to pregnancy, she had been devoted to psychoanalysis –
What use would it be to spend more years patching up where the cracks were by using the putty of another person’s positive affirmation and kindness? Psychoanalysis with Dr Parkes served the purpose of an engineering surveyor: it felt out the cause of the cracks to begin with.
However, as her anxiety increased and psychoanalysis wasn’t cutting it, Redhouse reluctantly went to her GP for medication. When she mentioned that she saw a psychoanalyst, her GP responded with surprise, “…as though I had told him I was using a loom to weave my own undergarments.” The medication worked, which in turn prompted Redhouse to consider the relationship between the body and the mind, and to question psychoanalysis as a form of therapy –
…if we consider the mental as also bodily does that mean it is best treated medically? What if we start to understand that words, talking, relating, thought, come from the biological too? What is immaterial arises from the material.
‘Memoir of brain and mind’ undersells the amount of information in this book – it goes beyond memoir and examines the human ‘mind’ in terms of philosophy, science and literature; the distinction between the conscious and the sub-conscious; the role of genetics in postnatal anxiety; and the impact on the ‘mind’ of the physical and hormonal changes experienced during motherhood.
Of course, psychoanalytic theories have a lot to say about the mother–child relationship, specifically that our unconscious mind may be forever imprinted with our earliest experiences. Given her deep understanding of the theories, you might conclude that Redhouse’s anxiety was inevitable –
I was unable to let my baby know my absence, know my inability to meet his every need, my inability to be available to him at every moment.
I feared that Reuben wasn’t sleeping because of something that I was doing to him or not doing to him.
Redhouse examines the theories alongside her own experience as a mother, and as child. Her relationship with her parents is an important and interesting part of this memoir (I do love attachment theory…). Without giving away all the detail, it is useful to know that her father was a psychotherapist. Redhouse grew up familiar with the names of great analytic thinkers – Freud, Melanie Klein, John Bowlby, and Wilfred Bion – and that her adolescent reading was –
“…far from the romances my friends were absorbing at night under the covers; while they were secreting Virginia Andrews’s tales of family incest I was reading those fictitious relations in Freud’s theories of the Oedipus complex.”
In one sense, this book is exhausting. The relentless picking apart of everything, and the constant search for meaning, is overwhelming to read, let alone live. But Redhouse navigates the reader through her research and in doing so, exposes the inconsistencies and biases in her own thinking. For example, she states that hospitals make her feel safe and observes –
…for nearly a quarter of my life I had given myself over to psychoanalysis, to understanding my mind on the couch of Dr Parkes, an act so personal and subjective and bound to language that it seemed to exist in a different galaxy to the certainty and measurability of medicine and science.
Redhouse returns repeatedly to the mind/ body question, and in reflecting on the origins of her anxiety, asks –
Was it mechanical, organismic, a result of the biochemistry and genes and hormones of my body? Or was it emotional, mental, the result of the part of me that is formed of memories and feelings?
She goes on to consider the neuroscientific perspective –
To ignore consciousness and the subjective experience of feelings…ignores the possibility that feelings have a functional biological role.
My thinking goes in a dozen different directions when I read thrilling things like this but somehow Redhouse wrangles the complicated information and reaches some firm conclusions. The book ends with both academic merit and a memoirist’s eloquent flourish.
4/5 It’s niche, but very interesting.
In between the crying, I’d felt an overwhelming affinity with other mothers; a disbelief that I had not realised they had survived this. I’d wanted to message even my enemies who were mothers, to say: ‘I forgive you. Tell me how to survive.’ I’d marvelled that I was crying and I had made it this far with smoked salmon bagels and a hospital and a mobile phone and a husband and an epidural, and that so many women did it without any of those middle-class accoutrements.