Flesh Wounds is Richard Glover’s memoir of his childhood. I’ve been a fan of Glover’s Sydney Morning Herald weekend column for a while now. I love his self-deprecating humour and the way he pokes fun at modern life.
The humour is here too, though there are also some pretty tough home truths. Glover was born in Papua New Guinea, apparently by artificial insemination, according to his English mother. But given the other monster lies she told about herself, who knows if that is true? She described herself as the daughter of an upper class family whose father had worked with Winston Churchill. The truth turns out to be about as far from upper class life as it is possible to get. Glover’s father didn’t embroider his background but caused damage in his own way – he was an alcoholic. Glover’s mother eventually left him for Richard’s English teacher and though she was neglectful and uninterested enough in her son, it was still a devastating blow.
Of the two parents, his father comes off best although the pain that alcoholics can cause is all there. But his mother seemed interested only in herself and her new husband and cultivating an image of themselves that was completely at odds with the reality. She gives new meaning to the term ‘English eccentric’. My favourite story was the stainless steel coffin she had ordered for herself, which she kept stored in the garage. She, albeit unwittingly, sends her son into the arms of a man who abuses him. He describes what seems to be the familiar dissociation from himself while this was going on, that many people who experience trauma use to cope.
But Glover doesn’t feel bitter or sorry for himself and seems remarkably well balanced for someone who didn’t get the best parental care. He puts this down to the stories his mother told of the Papuan native woman who carried him around until the age of three, doing the early nurturing that is so important, and which most of us get from our mothers. He describes his upbringing as ‘relatively moderate neglect’ from his father’s moderate alcoholism and his mother’s unremarkable attempt to climb up the social ladder.
He also attributes part of the reason he came through this neglect relatively unscathed down to a caring family friend who provided a father figure at just the right moment, and the love of his own wife and sons. As he says about those who had inadequate childhoods, ‘we just found the love we needed elsewhere’. I do wonder though how some people can come through adversity in childhood and be made stronger, and others are damaged for life. At one point, Glover notes that:
‘I didn’t want to be one of those people who wasted their existence focusing on, and thus giving power to, the worst people in their lives – preoccupied with bad parents, with predators who had sexually abused them, with so-called friends who’d made them feel worthless – so much so that they missed out on living their actual, available, and possibly useful lives’.
Of course he is right. It’s a remarkably pragmatic attitude but something so many people are unable to do. He also talks about the importance of two characteristics that go hand in hand – confidence and self-doubt. He says that confidence is so important to achieve in life but it can’t work without the self-doubt that enables us to try harder. It’s a really good insight and so important to remind ourselves that self-doubt doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
This is a lovely, funny, sad and uplifting memoir from a great Australian writer.