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A writer with a splinter of ice in her heart

Rachel Cusk discusses her controversial divorce memoir, motherhood, and why the denizens of Mumsnet

"They hate me. They really hate me. They say such horrible things about me," the novelist and memoirist Rachel Cusk observes cheerfully. She is talking to me about the denizens of Mumsnet, the parenting website whose discussion forums are as reliable a guide to the ­collective id of a certain stratum of reasonably affluent, reasonably liberal middle-class womanhood as one is likely to find.

“[She] is the very worst kind of public figure," wrote one poster on a Mumsnet thread, discussing a newspaper extract from Cusk's new memoir, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation. "She writes about everything that happens to her, good and bad, with a navel-gazing, narcissistic, self-obsessed tone and she moans and moans." That was one of the more temperate contributions.

Aftermath is a memoir of Cusk's separation and eventual divorce from Adrian Clarke, a former human-rights lawyer to whom she was married for ten years. (This was Cusk's second marriage. Her first, to Josh Hillman, a banker, lasted barely a year. "We should never have got married," she has admitted.) And it's not the first time she has written about what she describes to me as the "universal parts of life, experiences that happen to everyone, but seem sometimes only to be happening to you".

An earlier book, A Life's Work (2001), about becoming a mother, attracted vituperation and admiration in more or less equal measure. Cusk's attempt to limn the "strange reality of motherhood" was so unsparing that one reviewer urged that it be kept out of the reach of all pregnant women. The new book is similarly unflinching in its depiction of the breakdown of her marriage ("The blackness of hate flows and flows over me," Cusk writes at one point). "Human beings have a need, generally, to destroy things," she tells me. "The Freudian principle of civilisation is correct. There's always, always a difference between the family image and the reality."

The accepted journalistic shorthand when writing about Cusk is that she "divides opinion". As Jane Shilling, herself the author of a recent memoir (on middle age), points out, other women writing in a similar vein also "get it in the neck for ruthless narcissism". Yet there is often a viciousness to the attacks on Cusk that can't be explained simply by her readiness to, as her critics would have it, violate the privacy of those closest to her.
You could argue that her daughters didn't ask to be written about in the way they are in Aftermath. But they didn't ask to be born, either. "Children," she has said, "have to share their parents' destiny to some extent, like it or not." That logic is evidently too austere for many tastes. Though it doesn't apply to those, not family members, who sued Cusk for libel in 2009, forcing her publisher to withdraw The Last Supper, her memoir of an extended holiday with her husband and children in Italy.

Looking back in 2008 on the reception for A Life's Work, Cusk recalled: "One curious article questioned the length of my sentences: how had I, a mother, been able to write such long and complicated sentences?" I was reminded of this when reading a Mumsnet commenter write: "It seems to me that her very florid articulateness is a large part of the reason . . . she attracts such dislike."

Consider the introduction to A Life's Work, in which she describes the book as a "letter addressed to those women who care to read it, in the hope that they find some companionship in my experiences". There is a characteristic fastidiousness about that last formulation, a studied costiveness - for "companionship in experience" is not quite the same as sisterhood, say, or solidarity.

Perhaps, then, the animus Cusk attracts has as much to do with her writerly withholdings, her obsessive shaping and patterning of her material, as it does simply with what she chooses to disclose? Reviewing Aftermath, Julie Burchill describes Cusk setting about her task "with all the care and deliberation of a monk illuminating a medieval manuscript". And Shilling, in her review of the book, praises the author's commitment to the "difficult discipline of self-scrutiny". (Reviewers often don't do Cusk the courtesy of paying attention to the writing when considering her memoirs; though the ad hominem treatment is arguably an occupational hazard for any memoirist.)

Difficulty, discipline and rigour are qualities that Cusk prizes. She has compared novel-writing to the making of "small manoeuvres" in the "shrouded space of [one's] imagination" and once wrote that she couldn't imagine ever explaining to the other members of a book group to which she briefly belonged just "how difficult it is to make things life-like". She admires the North American laureates of domestic interiority - strenuous noticers such as John Updike and Alice Munro. And she abhors the kind of state-of-the-nationism to which she thinks the English are addicted - the sort of novel in which the hero is built from an "armoury of technical, political and sociological information yet . . . casts no shadow".

How deep does her commitment to truth-telling, to making things "life-like", run? Someone who knew Cusk slightly in the 1990s (her first novel, Saving Agnes, was published in 1993 and won the Whitbread First Novel Award) and who judged a literary prize with her, says: "She has that splinter of ice in the heart that Graham Greene talked about."

I ask Cusk if - since Aftermath, like A Life's Work, is partly a book about the politics of domestic work and childcare - she'd ever considered writing something more discursive, less memoiristic. Her answer is emphatic, but also slightly obfuscating. "For me, there has to be an expressive element in it, otherwise I don't want to do it. There has to be some creativity involved. I'm a novelist, not a social scientist or a commentator. I have some pretty forceful ideas about the world - obviously I do. But I suppose I can only really speak about them from within the protection of a literary form."

Maybe that's why they hate her?

Jane Shilling's review of "Aftermath" is in The Critics, on page 44

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The last Tsar

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood