Book of the year: Charlotte on Charlotte

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ReadingRoom

ReadingRoom has named The Mirror Book by Charlotte Grimshaw as the best book of 2021. The author backgrounds her memoir

I grew up in a family in which, from my earliest memory, my father CK Stead was writing fiction, often using fragments of our real lives. I spent decades writing fiction myself. One day, an inexplicable impulse sent me to the bookshelf where I found myself reading a Frank Sargeson story, “An International Occasion.” The story portrays characters who share a few features with my parents, who knew Frank Sargeson well.

I have clear memories of Frank myself, and still have presents he gave me when I was a child. I began thinking about a life lived in fiction, and the idea started forming: to write a memoir with a specific aim. It would be an attempt to find out who I was. I had no idea what I was like, and what was my real self. I’d always been able to imagine my way into other people’s experiences, in order to write fiction, but I seemed to inhabit a self that was in some sense a false front, and I wondered whether this was linked to a life lived in the midst of fiction. From then on, my writing and research at that time became part of a forensic examination, and an attempt to integrate and construct a real self.

Some years ago, I had thought about applying for a particular writer’s fellowship. The application needed to be based on a significant project, either a book requiring a lot of research or, I thought, potentially two books. I wrote a proposal for two books.

The first was to be a novel exploring ideas of identity in the age of Trump. It was to be about the exercise of power in microcosm, and on a macro level. I wanted to write about the idea of a family as a regime, in which power might be enforced in some of the same ways it’s enforced by a state.

I was fascinated by Trump, by the way he lied and gaslighted, by the misogyny he represented and the backlash against it that probably gave rise to the #Metoo movement. I wanted to write about narcissism, conformity versus rebellion, gaslighting, fake news.

I was interested in the fact that Trump was helped into office by Russia, and what that meant, and continues to mean, for democracy, because if you follow the fortunes of Trump and the Republican party in the US, you will know what Trump hasn’t gone away, and the threat to democracy in the US is even greater. And, I wanted to write a pacey, plot-driven story that would take place in New Zealand, France, and Buenos Aires. So that was the first book, a novel.

The other half of the project, the second book, was to be non-fiction. It was to be a memoir exploring the way power was expressed and arranged in my literary family – the one I grew up in. It was to be a memoir in which I explored the ways we’d fictionalised ourselves. It seemed to me that fiction had become a more acceptable way for us to express ourselves than open communication. I’d started to feel that we operated within a nicely curated storyline we conformed to, and if we strayed outside it, there tended to be strife. Both my father and I could use recognisable material in our writing, and could really sail close to the wind in that regard, so long as it was safely framed as fiction.

So that was the second book – a memoir.

These two books, the project, together would be an exploration of the interaction between fact and fiction in my own life – in my own history. It would be the story of a family and more broadly, it would be a discussion about the complex dynamic in families.

The first book, the fiction, would be written in my usual way, using a combination of real and invented material.

The second book, the memoir, would be a true story, the examination of a profound experience I’d had. I reconstructed my personality and my perception of myself, and my way of interacting with the world, by telling another person – a psychologist – the true story of my life.  In the course of telling the true story, I brought separate parts of my mind together. I wanted to explain and describe this profound experience in the memoir.

This was my proposal, the two books. I set it out and applied, and later on found that the fellowship had gone to someone researching a book on indigenous plants, or something like that. So that was fine.

I forgot about the proposal, but then, in the meantime, I did what I often do, what I find I’ve done, if I’ve had an idea and made a plan accordingly. I went ahead and did it. And one day I came across that proposal I’d written and forgotten about, and saw that I’d done exactly what I’d proposed.

I knew there were some really significant issues in our family, including ones I haven’t included in the memoir, which is heavily censored

I had called my planned project, ‘The Mirror Books.’ And the two books, the fiction and the non-fiction, were the novel Mazarine, and the memoir, The Mirror Book. I published the novel in 2018 and the memoir in 2021. The two books mirror each other, in that they’re dealing with the same material. They’re an examination of that material from two different angles. They’re concerned with two processes: on the one hand fictionalising, and on the other, the processing of fact that is real, and the creation of coherent narrative, a real story, and the use of that to map out a coherent sense of self.

The novel is an endorsement of fiction, including plot-driven fiction. After that I broke out of fiction, broke ranks. The Mirror Book is a rebellion against fiction in a family where fiction rules.

If the two books were ever published in one volume I’d call it The Mirror Books, and I would include the quote: Telling your story is existentially important.

*

So, how did these ideas start? At a certain point in my life, after a crisis in which my marriage imploded, I had to confront the fact that there were some things about myself that were strange and problematic. I also discovered that any attempt to explore what was wrong with me was blocked by my family – my parents, my sister. They would only stick to an official line, that all was normal, our family was more or less perfect; there was nothing to see here.

Karl said to me, “Where is the girl who had such a clear sense of reality and its boundaries and such a marvelous sense of humour – replaced by this scolding (as it seems to me) fantasist?”

According to him I’d lost my charm, lost my sense of humour, but worst of all, I’d lost my sense of reality and its boundaries. In other words, he was suggesting I’d gone mad.

Book of the year: Charlotte on Charlotte
“He [my father] was suggesting I’d gone mad.”

I knew there were some really significant issues in our family, including ones I haven’t included in the memoir, which is heavily censored. Obviously, all families have secrets and keep up a front, to protect privacy, to keep each other safe. But I was barred from even privately discussing our family problems, and every time I tried to I was told I was making it up, I was being negative, not being generous, imagining things, and eventually, I was actually going mad. The more I tried, the more aggressive were the attempts to shut me down. There was quite a wild story underneath, and I wondered at this iron enforcement of the official line.

The enforcement itself began to seem part of the problem. In a strange and significant sense, I felt that I and my siblings had never quite been allowed to be real.

It’s important to say though, that The Mirror Book expressly sets itself against the idea of fault or blame. It’s a forensic inspection of what went wrong with me. I stress all through it that I love my family, and that the only thing I won’t do for them anymore is not write about my real experiences. I was no longer willing to frame the story safely as fiction.

The memoir isn’t a hard luck or sob story, or an assertion that I should have had better, let alone ‘perfect’ parents. No one has perfect parents. The odd online commentator has accused me, effectively, of whining. One issue there is the degree to which I’ve censored material in the book. I’ve described some very traumatic experiences, and the fact that I never sought any help until pretty late in life, and yet still the odd person will say I’m moaning, or wanting to have been treated with kid gloves. But I think they’ve essentially missed the point. I’ve stressed I’m not interested in anyone being a perfect parent. I’m writing more as a mother than as a daughter, and I’m interested in how we break out of negative cycles, how we can avoid damaging one another.

My brother and others in the family have said they love the book. The young people in the extended family have said they’ve found the openness liberating. Many readers have noted that I’ve treated my parents with respect, kindness and understanding, and that was my express intention in the book.

If I’d obeyed them and not published, I think I would have remained for them conveniently unreal, a kind of living fiction.

I think we’re all the same animal. All is connected; we all act upon one another. There’s definitely room for careful thought and the acquisition of knowledge, and questioning about how we can do better. I include myself in that most of all; how could I have done better with my children, for example?

I grew up in a family where we didn’t seem to acknowledge serious problems; perhaps it was embarrassing, so we denied

The response to the book has been hugely positive, but I noticed one reviewer wrote in a blog that my descriptions of traumatic and violent experiences made him embarrassed. He rather trivialised, but also seemed to suggest I should be correspondingly ashamed. I’m interested in the mysterious power of shame. I detail in the book how one event, for example, seeing a close friend killed in front of me, threw me into crippling shame, which is mysterious. Before I wrote the book, I was silenced by shame. I grew up in a family where we didn’t seem to acknowledge serious problems; perhaps it was embarrassing, so we denied.

Shame is a prison and it can also be a weapon. To quote Karl Ove Knausgaard, “Writing is a way of casting off shame.” I think that’s right.

I wanted to write a story about a family, but also to write about power. I had the idea that an inspection of family dynamics, with an emphasis on psychology, wasn’t just a personal inquiry. I was interested in human motivation. I had autocracy and democracy, conformity and dissidence in mind.

My intention was, especially, to examine the vicious circle where we ‘do unto others’ what’s been done to us. These issues obviously apply on a wider level. It’s not only people who do evil unto others when it’s been done to them. It’s politicians, groups, countries.

To me, The Mirror Book celebrates the power of family, the power of open communication, and the fact that having been completely lost, I found my way to a single integrated self, and to happiness.

*

Some time ago, I ran into my mother at the supermarket. She was annoyed that I’d written a piece about our family, and in the course of our exchange she said to me, “You don’t even know me.”

It was said in the heat of the moment, it was ‘said in haste’ but still, it struck me.

I mentioned the exchange to my father Karl, and quoted the line. He said, defending her, “Well, you don’t really know her.”

I pointed out I’d known her at close quarters for quite a few decades. I found myself, surreally, reminding him she was my mother.

He still didn’t think it was an odd thing for her to say.

Book of the year: Charlotte on Charlotte
Karl Stead’s investiture at Government House to the Order of New Zealand, 2007; Charlotte Grimshaw at far right. Photo from CK Stead’s memoir What You Made Of It

‘You don’t even know me’ seemed relevant to the questions I’d been asking. It was said in anger and it meant, ‘Who the hell are you, to write about me?’ I’d been thinking about this question. Who the hell was I? And what did it mean, that my mother would say I didn’t know her?

I had begun to ask questions, and I’d begun to wonder about myself. I was a mother of three children, and I knew how important every interaction with them was. But when I started reading psychology texts, I got more interested this. Basically, I guess we all know that a child forms a self and personality in the course of relating to close caregivers. It’s a complex process of give and take.

I’d started reading about the subject when I realised I had a somewhat fractured, confused sense of who I was. The material I found particularly interesting related to the formation of personality. I had always assumed everything that happened long ago when you’re a child was irrelevant to now. But the articles I was reading were telling me that personality is formed when you’re very young, that the issues you have as an adult can relate to the early formative years. Genes are important, but environment matters.

My exchange with Karl reflected his take on family, which was that the interaction between parents and children isn’t significant, or relevant to anything. To his way of thinking, people are born with a set of genes that determine how they turn out. You just have to feed and house children, and that’s it. He wrote in his second autobiography, You Have A Lot To Lose, “What struck me often, observing our children on these trips, was how much that was in each character sprang from the particular mix of elements from the gene pool. So long as each received basic nurturing and security, the character formed itself on its own terms and each was unique.”

This was reasonable on its face. It suited his temperament: he wasn’t the kind of guy who was going to bother with anything as boring as ‘parenting’ (fair enough, each to his own) but it also represented what I came to think of as a kind of blindness. I wondered if he couldn’t envisage the idea of the development of a child’s self through relating. So, for him, it didn’t seem odd to agree with my mother that I ‘didn’t even know her.’ It didn’t suggest to him that if this were true, it could be problematic. It didn’t even seem to him potentially a negative idea.

I thought these questions were interesting in the abstract.

There’s the still face test, where psychologists get a mother and a baby together and tell the mother to adopt a completely poker face, to stop reacting to the baby, and just look blank. The baby pretty soon starts to get distressed, to scream, to try to get the mother back, to writhe around, bite its hands. Eventually, it collapses in a heap.

You only have to watch this horrible experiment to see how profoundly important each interaction is for a baby. Karl wrote that ‘the character forms itself on its own terms’, but really it forms itself in the course of each complex, minute by minute interaction. I think we all know that instinctively, really.

I don’t want to get into minutiae about childhood or psychology, and I don’t in the book, but I looked at things like that as part of testing Karl’s idea about character forming itself on its own terms, and family not being significant.

So, I’d started to wonder about myself, and I’d got the idea that there might perhaps after all be answers in the past, in memories of growing up and family.

What did it mean that both my parents asserted, without thinking it was odd, that I didn’t really know my mother. It depends on how you define the word ‘know.’ Does to know mean to understand? To find predictable? To experience as dependable? To love? If you don’t ‘know’ someone, can you find them predictable, dependable, loveable, even so?

Is it rational to believe that the child you’ve brought up and interacted with year after year doesn’t ‘know’ you? Could my father’s acceptance of the idea suggest that, correspondingly, he didn’t really ‘know’ his children? That he had a hazy notion of them, or wasn’t interested in what they’re really like? Was there a sense in which he was elevating himself and my mother above their children? Sure, we’re family, but you don’t know us. How could you? How could you really?

Karl wrote, “One wanted to control the world and make it more orderly and beautiful than reality could ever be”

My detached interest, my curiosity about in these questions kept running up against my literary family’s take on family, which was that nothing that happened in the past had anything to do with the way we were now. Family interaction was neither significant, nor formative, nor interesting.

There was that, but there was also a kind of rigidity. I had the sense that my siblings and I had roles, that if we stepped out of them it wasn’t welcome. I took note of this comment of Karl in his second autobiography, You Have A Lot To Lose, when he was describing the peace that came with writing a good poem. He wrote: “I recognised there was probably something neurotic about this. One wanted to control the world and make it more orderly and beautiful than reality could ever be, so one created a world of one’s own and controlled that.”

This is touching, in a way, understandable.

I’d always had a strong sense of him controlling the world. I resisted it to a degree, and yet in many ways I conformed to it, right up until I published The Mirror Book, at which point I broke free completely.

I suppose you could call the memoir my rebellion against his fiction.

I wrote, “I wanted to tell the story of our family, at least to myself, in order to save myself. All my life Kay and Karl had been telling it, and now I didn’t think it was accurate. Karl was a controller by nature; he controlled the message. He wrote the story. I learned from him and from reading: I knew how to create a composition, shape it, make it orderly and beautiful. How to push darkness outside the circle, make wrong things right, make sure no one felt a heel. (Unless they were outside the circle and amusingly, the shoe fitted.) And then I fell out of step, and started recording messy details, trying to assemble something authentic from the facts. I thought of Picasso creating a sculpture out of junk. You could make something meaningful, control the composition, without disguising its constituent parts.”

And later: “I realised our realities weren’t likely to converge; Karl and Kay’s way of thinking would mean they would see my description (my telling the true story) as evidence of a defect in me. For them it was simple: I’d gone mad.”

These were questions and ideas that could be used, explored, played with in fiction. But they had an added interest for me, because I’d reached a point where I had to confront the fact that there was something unusual about my way of relating to the world. After I’d published The Mirror Book, my mother reiterated that I didn’t know her. She said I’d misrepresented her beautiful life. I said the book was actually about my life.

I mentioned to her that I’d written about things I’d never told her or anyone, about being assaulted and beaten up, about seeing a violent death, about loneliness and distress. Her response was disdain. She made no comment about my experiences.

The reaction to the book has been in itself such a strong and difficult and interesting experience that I could almost… write another book about it.

*

So, I was a fiction writer, and then I ran up against some hard reality. I had to re-examine everything. I was living alone for a while, devastated, and I felt seriously cut off. I didn’t have a network of women friends. My systems for dealing with the world were collapsing. I didn’t have any choice; I needed help, so I googled at random, psychiatrists in Auckland.

I was too embarrassed to consult my GP for a referral, so I insisted on an appointment direct. As it happened, the psychiatrist I marched in on happened to be one who specialised in the criminally insane. On a break from his forensic psychiatric unit, where he looked after those who’d perhaps beheaded someone, or killed their whole family, he listened to my desperate spiel, and was very understanding.

He referred me to a psychotherapist, Dr Marie Sanders, and I embarked on a project that turned out to be transformative. I began to tell my own story, the real story as best as I could recall it, and in the course of this, I experienced a gradual, and eventually profound, change in my brain.

Book of the year: Charlotte on Charlotte
“I googled, at random, psychiatrists in Auckland”

One reviewer, Emma Espiner, wrote about The Mirror Book, “Very occasionally you encounter a book where you think – this writer saved their own life in the writing of this.” I appreciated her take very much. I felt it was true. I was trying to save my own life. I did it by learning, in real time, how to have a relationship with the psychotherapist, and by replacing a fractured and inauthentic perception of myself with a real and coherent picture. The book is an account of this process, as much as it’s a memoir of growing up in my literary family.

If you’re a writer and you experience something as significant as ‘changing your brain’, you have to write about it.

I had a lot of material to work with. In the book, I recall my father’s line, when anything significant happened. I was always writing, and he knew it, and he always said I was the one who could write well. He would say to me, ‘It’s material, make a story out of it.’

I remember listening to Adam Dudding’s Frank Sargeson memorial lecture, when he talked about writing his terrific memoir, My Father’s Island. I recall Adam describing how he’d suspected his father, Robin Dudding, might have had an affair. In the course of writing the book Adam had researched this, read about 10,000 letters, and he’d finally concluded that the suspect relationship was platonic. I waited, but… that was it. That was the extent of the scandal. I privately compared this with my family and I thought, Well, if I write a memoir, I’m not going to be short of material.

My family was, in many ways, though outwardly respectable, pretty wild. This was part of the puzzle. Why were we so wild, and why was so much of this hidden, not allowed to be revealed or discussed?

Book of the year: Charlotte on Charlotte
CK Stead: “Karl was orderly and yet also in many ways uninhibited and wild.”

Perhaps it reflected my parents’ personalities. Kay was a kind of undercover rebel and anarchist.  Karl was orderly and yet also in many ways uninhibited and wild. My son Conrad wrote me a terrific email about The Mirror Book. Conrad is a very funny guy. In his email he said he was considering writing his own excoriating memoir of my ill-treatment of him, and was currently tossing up between calling it Sins of the Mothers, and Legacy of Hate. (I said I thought Legacy of Hate was quite punchy.) He described Karl, his grandfather as, “the combination of intellectual rigour and rationality with whatever you want to call it – bohemianism, poetry, a kind of wildness. Rigour on the home front, swashbuckling poetry abroad.” I think it’s pretty good.

I should emphasise that I sought psychological help only because I’d reached a real crisis point. Before that, I’d adhered to a regime of rigid stoicism. I’d never sought any help at all, zero, after witnessing the death of a close friend, after a violent relationship, or after any other trauma. I’d soldiered on through various difficulties, and in the course of that I felt that my mind had split into two.

By the time of my marriage breakup I felt that I had two selves: an old, bad self that had had negative, traumatic experiences, and a new self that was highly efficient, well-behaved, orderly, but also in some sense a front, and not necessarily real. I had the sense that this mental division, or way of perceiving myself, had interfered with my interactions with the world.

So, as I’ve said, the writing and research became a forensic examination, and an attempt to integrate and construct a real self.

In all my adventures with psychotherapy and reading about psychology, I discovered that fractured narrative is the enemy of a coherent self.

I had become disconnected. I didn’t confide in anyone about anything, ever. I had a decades-long record of never telling anyone else a single thing about myself. My tendency to self-isolate wasn’t helped by the fact that I had a slight difficulty distinguishing the faces of people I didn’t know well. It didn’t help my confidence to mix people up, or to be secretly wondering if I had someone’s identity right.

I wrote about bad experiences in the memoir, that I’d never described to my family. So, it was interesting to get their reaction. They were only worried about the public facade. They put pressure on me not to publish. There was talk of suing me.

My aim was to be fair and affectionate, to reflect my deep love of my family, but also to be completely honest.

My parents accused me of exaggerating. But there’s nothing in it that’s not true and it’s not exaggerated, it’s censored. The first draft of the book was twice as long. I spent months editing out content that was true, but was just too extreme, too wild to include.

Before the memoir, I’d translated experiences into fiction. As I’ve said, that was acceptable. Now I was writing a true account, and I can tell you, there was an exhilaration and a joy in telling for the first time, my own true story.

I received an email about The Mirror Book from Deborah Hill Cone…She talked about fragmented selves

A psychiatrist who wrote to me described The Mirror Book as an account of alienation and reconnection, and of the importance of storytelling in reconnecting.

I was interested to learn that people who’ve had traumatic experiences often have difficulty giving a logically arranged, coherent account of them, and that people who have serious difficulties like say, borderline personality disorder, which I became interested in after reviewing the letters of Sylvia Plath, have problems with a coherent, narrative sense of the world around them. They lack object constancy, live in some sense from moment to moment, and are unable to rely on narrative continuity to fill in gaps like, say, a person’s absence.

I received an email about The Mirror Book from the journalist Deborah Hill Cone, who I believe is now studying psychology. She talked about fragmented selves, and about trauma leaving a “lack of temporality in narrative identity.”

So, I was exploring the idea that the literary family’s rigidly imposed ‘reality,’ and my reaction to various difficulties I’d experienced, had disrupted my sense of self.

I did ask the psychotherapist at one point whether she thought I was real. This might sound insane, but it wasn’t really. I was never in the least delusional. Intellectually, I knew that my perception of myself didn’t make rational sense, but emotionally it did. The question, ‘am I real?’ was a reflection of the fact that I inhabited a self, effectively the false front, that didn’t feel entirely real to me.

There was a striking moment, for me, in our dialogue when Dr. Sanders said to me, “You realise the things you’ve described to me, the way you’ve tried to make good with your life, the good things you’ve done, with your kids for example, the person who’s done those good things, is the real you.”

I was struck by this, because previously I’d felt that the real me was the old bad shameful self, that was dead (I’d killed it off) and that anything good I’d done didn’t count, because it was done by the less real me, the false front. I was actually moved to be told that the I who did good things, who had achieved some good things, was really, genuinely, me.

I’ve related various other oddities about my adventures in psychotherapy, for example that there are no images of Dr. Sanders on line, and in between sessions, I couldn’t visualise her face. In the end she gave me a photograph of her, so I’d know what she looked like.

I’ve been delighted that the response to the book has been huge and overwhelmingly positive

One reader wrote to me and said he’d initially been put off reading the book because the coverage of it in the Listener had made him suspect it would be sensational and potentially nasty. His partner persuaded him to read it and he wrote to me to say, among other things, that contrary to his initial expectation, he’d enjoyed and understood the book, and felt I’d treated my family with kindness and understanding. That was the aim, and so I’m glad so many people have got that.

*

So, the main thread of the book is the exploration of alienation and reconnection; the idea that the creation of a coherent narrative is the basis for a unified sense of self. I’ve ranged widely, from personal memory to thoughts on autobiographical fiction, to my layperson’s reading of psychology texts, in the course of describing how I became a much more solid version of myself.

As I said, I wrote the book much more as a mother than as a daughter.

Book of the year: Charlotte on Charlotte
Charlotte with good old Phil

The book describes intensely personal experiences, but it deals with universal themes. I’ve never quite thought of it as an account of ‘personal trauma’, although on one level it is. To me, it’s an exploration of wider ideas and broader implications. There are the psychological questions: what can go wrong in families, what do certain experiences do to the brain? What was the scientific explanation for my perception of myself, before and after I’d related my story to another person? What was the reason for my experiences with identity, with shame? What was going on in my mind?

I read material on trauma and brain development. I read about attachment, and it didn’t escape me, that in the course of telling my true story to another person I became attached to that person, and that this had a powerful formative effect, as if I was completing some developmental step (ridiculously, absurdly late in life) that I’d missed.

That made me consider the converse scenario: if you don’t allow a person to express a perception of what is going on, of what is their true experience, are you preventing attachment? Are you creating what psychologists call an ‘invalidating environment’?

I read that humans are inherently social, and that trauma is made worse by a sense that ‘the mind is alone.’ What is the role, in attachment, of expressly sharing common experience? Is expressly sharing a ‘mutual reality’ as necessary to the human mind as food is for the body? If you fictionalise your children, do you disrupt their sense of coherence? Do you make them feel their ‘mind is alone?’ If you fictionalise yourself (perhaps by saying to them, as my mother did, ‘You don’t even know me?’) are you depriving them of a mirror they could use to make sense of themselves?

As well as these questions, I was interested in power structures, in the family as a microcosm of a power structure, in politics, and in addition, I was always engaged with literature. My writing was accompanied and assisted by the research and reading that went with reviewing Sylvia Plath’s letters, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical fiction, particularly his recent long fiction The End; with reviewing books on President Trump (part of my interest in his autocratic instincts, but also in personality disorders, especially narcissism) and the memoir of his clinical psychologist niece, Mary Trump.

They didn’t take too well to my story at first, but in fact I think we’re gravitating back towards one other, because that Stead whanau bond is pretty strong

The book started with the problems that I’d encountered, but as a writer I went at them in an impersonal way, as if I’d stepped outside myself and was writing about any person.

And we could have been any family, in any country. My father could have been a novelist and poet only published in Icelandic, say.

This is a book about the mind.

To me, what seems relevant to the project is not that my father is a well-known writer in New Zealand. The idea was not to write a ‘celebrity memoir, or ‘expose’, although it may have been described that way incorrectly in some local media. It doesn’t depend on ‘name recognition.’

The point was that my father as lifelong fiction writer, as controller of his own reality, also tried to control our reality, and to make us live by various fictions that suited him. And my mother was his partner in this. They required conformity with their story, and they refused to look outside of that. This didn’t seem to me the worst of crimes by any means, but it had interesting and sometimes destructive psychological effects, and that was the focal point of my writing.

To complicate matters, I had become a fiction writer myself, so the book records my progression from loyal purveyor of fiction, and of our family fictions, to ‘rebellious’ seeker of hard facts, truth, real memories.

I can’t see why these universal themes wouldn’t be relevant to any reader, in any country.

Issues like this go beyond family; you could also say they represent a moral and intellectual test. I think of Trump, enforcing his lie that the 2020 election was stolen. There is such a thing as truth, and there’s a responsibility to stand up for the truth.

When Trump banished those who wouldn’t go along with his false account, he caused huge damage. And he ended up surrounded by yes people, by mediocrity.

In The Mirror Book I wrote, “There was the sentence that had caused so much trouble: ‘Telling your story is existentially important.'”

I saw now why it was existentially important. My reading about psychological syndromes and disorders, all the studies and articles and textbooks, had led me on a path from the Trumps to Knausgaard to Janet Malcolm to Sylvia Plath, but none of that reading had achieved as much as relating the true story to another person had done.

Telling the true story had changed my brain…. This is what is existentially important: to be heard and understood, to have a listener affirm it, to know the mind is not alone. You are not an idealised character in someone’s fiction, you are real. Your literary family is not a work of fiction, they are real. What you have heard and experienced is real. Your protests are valid. In every story about a dog there is a beginning, a middle and an end. The chant is a chant, not a beautiful song. The thread that will lead you out of the maze is the thread of narrative.

Readers have responded to the universal themes, and have told me the book has made them think about the dynamic in their own families. I’ve had psychotherapists tell me they’re recommending the book to clients and colleagues, and one psychiatrist wrote asking for permission to quote the book in a training manual he is writing on trauma.

I wrote The Mirror Book partly as an attempt to explain matters to my literary family. They were so resistant, so closed to anything but their own story (so hair trigger) and I thought: they understand books; if I write a book, if I set it all out very carefully, perhaps they’ll read it and absorb a different perspective. Perhaps they’ll let in a different reality. This is why I’ve never accepted people’s suggestion I should have ‘waited until my parents were dead.’ There’s no communication with the dead.

They didn’t take too well to my story at first, but in fact I think we’re gravitating back towards one other, because that Stead whanau bond is pretty strong.

It did take courage to defy my family, and tell my own true story. We are not a bland group; the personalities in the family are very forceful. It also took courage to reveal myself when I’d spent decades confiding in no one. I did nearly lose my nerve a few times, when I came under pressure.

But I’m glad I published the book because I think I’ve seen, in the strong reader reaction, that I succeeded in doing what I wanted to do: not just to write about myself, but to write more generally. It’s a book about one possibly interesting family, but also about all families, how they work and don’t work, and how we can all try to do better.

As I said recently, “It’s not a book about me me me. It’s about everyone out there – it’s really a book about us.”

This article first appeared as the 2021 Frank Sargeson Memorial Lecture staged by the University of Waikato. The Mirror Book by Charlotte Grimshaw (Penguin Random House, $30) is available in bookstores nationwide.

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