A distant star

A distant star ---

“A writer out of loneliness is trying to communicate like a distant star sending signals”.

When I moved to my current house in Glasgow seven years ago I claimed a leaky shed as my workplace, insisting to my husband that I needed the space to write. Seven years later and outnumbered by buckets and saucepans, I knew a reckoning was needed. Besides, it was time for a clearout.

Installed in my now-rainproof shed, I’m reminded of the above quote by John Steinbeck. For months I’ve felt displaced and unable to work despite being at home alone for 12 hours a day during the working week. Any effort to settle at the kitchen table or in the living room proved futile because somehow I’d convinced myself the shed was the only place to find the ‘loneliness’ I needed in order to write.

Writing is a mysterious process where even the most disciplined practitioners develop habits and rituals; the need for a favourite chair or table perhaps, or a set of objects or images close to hand. Some writers favour music, others silence. What they share in common is habit and habit – I believe – is an equation of choice over behaviour multiplied by effort. The shed is now part of my habit.

Dwelling on this, I think of Erica’s desire to repattern her mind. A student of ethology during the 1950s, she was fluent in behavioural research, first as a Zoology undergraduate reading the Natural Science Tripos at Newnham College, Cambridge from 1951-54 and later as a doctoral student with the Nobel laureate, Niko Tinbergen’s Behavioural Science Group while at Somerville College, Oxford. As the daughter of refugees, hers was a remarkable achievement.

Erica’s tenure at Oxford was brokered by several prominent academics, not least Tinbergen himself who part-funded her PhD through grants obtained from both the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. Alongside Carnegie’s, these institutions were – and remain – influential backers of much academic research. While the work financed through their corporate philanthropy was and is mostly benign and beneficial, in retrospect there was a dark undertow, such as the funding of Eugenics research both in the US and pre-war Germany and in the ethical minefields of neurosurgery and psychiatry.

Extraordinary circumstances have always accommodated the charlatan. This applies to most professional spheres: politics, culture, the law, religion, the military. Of course, timing is everything. By the mid-1950s, the reverberations of WW2 and the ensuing Cold War were heady times for science and especially those in the behaviour game, where the ghosts of Weimar magical thinking, such as Erik Jan Hanussen or Elsbeth Ebertin were exorcised in favour of the psychoanalytical theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and the physiological findings of Ivan Pavlov, whose methods could be construed as questionable.

By the mid-century, American industrial-fuelled largesse had advanced many legitimate and humanitarian scientific endeavours while backing controversial figures, among them the psychiatrist, William Sargent, whom Erica would later encounter through her work with the celebrated neuroendocrinologist, Geoffrey Wingfield Harris at The Maudsley.

Placing her faith in natural science and what was provable, Erica staked that belief by basing her research on the behaviour of birds. Influenced by Tinbergen, she specialised in avian breeding habits, possibly a clue to her disappointment with the ‘homo sapiens’ she believed to be unreliable. Among her papers I found a handwritten note describing a childhood memory of ‘abject submission’ to her mother and brother – both highly extrovert and forceful characters. The note is both poignant and pathetic. Why, I wonder, did she feel the need to recall this painful episode decades after the event?

Watching a series of archive films shot by Erica’s father, Josef ‘Bob’ Eisner, I’m struck by the relationship between her and her older brother, Eddi and the violence he inflicted on her that went beyond any playful skirmish. Unfazed by the camera – the films were shot in the 1930/40s – Eddi, perhaps jealous of his young sister, unleashes his fists. In one shot he’s on the verge of beating her with a stick. Later clips, shot in England shortly before Bob was interred as an enemy alien in 1941, suggest that Eddi’s casual cruelty had evolved into the psychological. A clip shows Erica shunned as she tries to join in the play with another child. In her diaries she recounts her decision to dissociate, to resist showing emotion for fear of provoking enmity. As a middle-aged adult, a time when she most craved company, she admitted her dread of receiving telephone calls from her mother.

Erica concluded – perhaps wrongly – that she had been conditioned from an early age. But rather than confront those she believed had harmed her, instead she silently accused and condemned them. When I first met her in 1993, I had no idea of the depth of her anxiety. What I did notice, however, was her curious lack of empathy. Outwardly Erica seemed incapable of ‘normal’ conversation and rarely solicited other people’s views. This I put down to the self-absorption often displayed by solitary people. Privately however – at least on paper – she articulated her despair, of her powerlessness to act, locked in what Pavlov described as ‘transmarginal inhibition’.

Only after Erica’s death in 2004 did I learn the extent of her poor mental state, a state regulated by psychotropic drugs that stemmed her capacity for emotion. I also learned she had spent a considerable sum on private psychotherapy sessions to little or no effect, as well as alternative therapies verging on the crackpot. The more I discovered, the more I felt aggrieved at the indolence of doctors who found it acceptable to prescribe such drugs, not for a few months or years but in her case for over three decades. How many others are in that same trap?

Reflecting again on the Steinbeck quote, now that I’m back in my shed I feel at home. But in many ways I feel Erica had more claim to being that distant star. One can only speculate whether her self-inflicted dissociation had pitched her too far for the signals to be noticed.

The above photograph is a composite, of Erica and Eddi at Lake Balaton, Hungary circa 1936 with a later shot of a waterfall taken by Erica during a trip to the Caribbean in the early 1950s.