My first year classes are finding their way this week into Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace. It's a dankly Gothic – and of course – this is Margaret Atwood – a ravishing, unsettling tease of a novel. Its Grace might have murdered her master and his housekeeper in cold blood, whatever cold blood is, but she might have been an amnesiac, might have been under the thrall of a psychotic alter ego, might have been the scared-witless witness to a murder, and after five hundred pages or so we still don't know. Which is maddening, and pleasing too.
Yesterday afternoon, we stumbled across the place where Grace learns that her master has made his housekeeper, Nancy, pregnant. Grace remembers instantly her best friend, who bled to death beside her after an abortion. She thinks about Nancy who stands a chance of survival, who might marry the master, and she thinks about her friend Mary who bled, and she feels a righteous rage. Of course, it's a perverse kind of justice, where if one person is wronged, it seems right that other, similar, people, should be wronged too. But it occurred to me that trauma, or – let's not use that word, because people use it for what happens when you spill your carrot soup – the sorts of emotional experience that discomfort your intuitions about how the world should be, tend to de-stabilise your sense of justice too. One of your reference points is moved, and your whole network of beliefs shifts three degrees north-east.
The week that Dad died, I didn't have to look for snakes as I waded through the grass along Darebin Creek. I didn't have to check for the cars that surge round the corner just near my house. I waited for my green man, and I walked. I made a point of not checking for those stray cars. It seemed impossible to me, unjust and therefore impossible, that my mother might lose a child and her husband in the same week.
I found myself yesterday afternoon saying this to my students. "I remember the week when my father died," I began, pretending that what I was remembering wasn't eight weeks ago, but safe and far away. There was a sort of hush that fell on the room. I hadn't expected empathy – I hadn't expected anything, I guess, since talking about Dad certainly wasn't part of my lesson plan – but it felt like the class could see through "I remember the week" and "Here I am telling you an anecdote to illustrate how sadness can derange our sense of justice" to "I am sad".
The first year course is meant to be a welcome-to-literary-studies-and-its-key-concepts thing. We felt that the best way to introduce literary studies and some of its key concepts would be through overtly intertextual pairs - Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea, Sylvia Plath's Ariel and Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters, and Alias Grace, which is itself an assemblage of different texts. It's not a particularly original organising principle, but it does the trick. Rolling out the course for the first time last year, I realised that the secret thematic link between the texts was the mentally ill woman: Ophelia in Hamlet and R&G, Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea, Grace in Alias Grace, Sylvia Plath. Which was good. My inner 70s feminist has a lot to say about mental illness and women. But we started the course again this year with Hamlet, and I realised for the first time that he has lost his father. And Jane Eyre is an orphan. And Antoinette/Bertha Mason loses her father, her mother, her step-father. And Grace's mother drowns at sea. And Sylvia Plath rages for and against her dead Daddy. The secret thematic link is the death of a parent.
I could tell them this, to illustrate how the reader's lived experience interferes with her reading, but I have such mixed feelings about the pedagogical value of the teacher's, i.e., my autobiographical detours. I had a favourite English teacher at school, and our ears would prick up like dogs' whenever he pulled a story out of his own annals. He'd grown up with a white family in Kenya, been there during the violence of decolonisation, gone to a boarding school in England where he slept in Thackeray's old bed. It helped us pay attention to the other stuff, not that the other stuff (Under Milkwood, John Keats, Margaret Atwood again, with The Handmaid's Tale) wasn't interesting enough. But when it's my life and times: it's not that I'm short on stories, but I know that there's something self-serving about my telling, to this captive audience, who have to laugh on cue, or look engaged, lest I gnash my terrible course coordinator's teeth, or set them three thousand pages of Freud on the joke for homework. I'm worried, I suppose, about turning into the David Brent of the classroom.
So I said that thing about the week that Dad died. It was just an anecdote - three sentences - to help explain a point about trauma and magical thinking - but they looked at me, and I don't think I mistook the compassion in their faces. I can be steely and resolute, until someone offers sympathy, and then I collapse into myself, or into them, into their sympathy. Here it was my class, of mostly eighteen-year-olds, and I had to turn to the whiteboard and collect myself.