Unlike the Heart by Nicola Redhouse

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.


12 responses

  1. The Buddha suggested : Do not believe everything you think. I believe anxious people would benefit from this approach. Drop thoughts. They come and go and do not necessarily have meaning. Focusing on them as this author does is both exhausting and ultimately meaningless.

    • I agree that there is much to be gained from meditation and mindfulness however it is a discipline that requires practice. For many people who have suffered trauma, particularly those who have had traumatic childhoods, starting out with a Buddhist approach can be ‘too introspective’ and too isolating, and ultimately triggering. That’s not to say that the methods this author chose are the ‘best’, but I think it’s important that whatever therapy or approach people choose, that it resonates for them in some way.

      Interestingly, the author had been seeing a Buddhist therapist for many years prior to beginning with the psychoanalyst, and felt she had made significant progress with him – he helped her calm her anxiety, however, when she wanted to understand the source of her ‘pain’, she needed different methods.

      In one sense, feelings can’t ‘hurt’ you – they pass. However, there is no question that feelings can have a physical manifestation, and some people are crippled by anxiety and depression – that is their pain and I would be loathe to not acknowledge that or dismiss it as meaningless.

  2. This book sounds fascinating. One of my particular interests is the intersection between literature and psychology. In fact, that interest is what made me decide, at age 57, to go back to grad school for a doctorate in psychology. Thanks for the detailed review.

  3. This isn’t a book I’m going to read, but your review is fascinating.
    I hope this doesn’t come across as being ‘judgy’: it’s a genuine question… do you think there’s an element of narcissism in ‘spending a quarter of her life’ in psychoanalysis?

    • Your question is not judgy. There is certainly a lot of navel-gazing in this book (metaphorically speaking and also literally, when she considers the umbilical cord) – what I didn’t mention in my review were the challenging (and even traumatic) elements of the author’s life (I left them out so that there were some surprises for people who wanted to read it) – I think it is important for people to understand the source or context for their pain/ suffering/ discontent (and joy). For some people this is a very difficult and slow process. Of course, denial is a wonderfully protective thing, and many who suffer will switch into defence mode and get by for years/ decades like that. But even in denial or defence-mode, we are still driven by biological responses – under threat, animals either freeze, take flight, or fight. I don’t know if you know anyone who is suffering from undiagnosed anxiety or depression (you probably do!) but once you see the freeze/ flight/ fight in action, it’s hard to ‘unsee’ it.

  4. My father suffered from high anxiety all his life, but the reasons were obvious. His mother died when he was very young, the Germans bombed him out of his house when he was boy, and he had a terrible time as an evacuee, trying to protect his little brother from the brutal people they were forced to stay with. A few years late he was given leave from the air force to nurse his father who was dying at home with stomach cancer because there was no room for civilians in the hospitals, and he lost that only brother (in the forces) and an aunt (a civilian) to the war. So he was all alone in the world by the time he was 20. Understandably, he was always anxious about the safety of his family and I doubt if any shrink could have altered that…

    • How terribly traumatic, Lisa.

      I agree, the anxiety he felt about the safety of his family is something very difficult to ‘shift’ (regardless of whether any shrink could have or not, it is also a generational thing – older generations don’t talk about their problems in the way people do now). These types of experiences in children can ‘hardwire’ anxiety/ trauma, meaning their ‘normal’ state is one that others would consider heightened.

      I find phrases like ‘let it go’ or ‘just move on’ insensitive and unthinking, particularly in the context of people who have suffered trauma – if we could all let our ‘stuff’ go, we would, but it’s not that easy.

      • Yes, that’s true, but there’s more work being done on building the resilience that enables us to live with trauma without being crippled by it. At school we trialled a resilience program that had some benefits but it was unevenly taught and we had helicopter parents sabotaging it every day with the after-school post-mortem about some trivial incident in the playground. I think possibly I was the person who benefited most because I learned not to catastrophise, something I had inherited from my mother — who also had war-related trauma but never, ever talked about it until the last year of her life, and even then couldn’t go on with the story of being buried alive under bomb damage.
        OTOH I did a course on teaching children who’d suffered trauma and torture and learned the process of helping them to construct a narrative (oral, written, illustrated) of the event and learned that this was often very helpful with breaking a trigger of sensate memories. My role models for resilience as a teenage were the Holocaust survivors who lived among us, and I always think it’s sad that so many of them are only now, in their very old age, writing their memories down. Perhaps if they’d been able to do it long before, it might have been helpful to them.

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