Lisa Appignanesi’s brave memoir explores what happens when grief gives way to anger

“I should have felt sorrow and pity,” Appignanesi writes. Instead, she felt rage.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

When it finally came, death “smelt strange”. There was rot and ash and shit. The lifeless body, devastated by cancer and the chemicals meant to fight it, was not dignified, but “a reprimand”, while in the background, “time imploded”. Such is the unstable set-up to this memoir of grieving, written after Lisa Appignanesi, in 2015, lost her partner of 32 years. “I should have felt sorrow and pity,” she writes. But instead she felt rage.

There was a proximate cause: John’s last words to her were needlessly cruel. Perhaps they were the product of his meds-addled mind? Or a weird joke, the kind that just comes out all wrong – a Freud scholar’s slip? Or perhaps they sprang from his “reluctant throwback to helpless infancy”? They might easily not have been his last words. They just happened to be. And what he told her, as she washed his soiled pyjamas in the hospital bathroom, was that all she was good for was cleaning shit.

“This is not a romantic tale,” she cautions at the start of Everyday Madness, which is not her first reckoning with the human mind, and heart: in the past she has written about “women and the mind doctors” and the “unruly emotion’” of love. Nor is it a Joan Didion-esque chronicle of mischievous magical thinking. The grief it documents is wild in its anger, wayward in dealing with myth and history. Appignanesi felt worthless, “abased” by John’s words. She couldn’t read; couldn’t spend time with anyone outside of a tiny circle of friends: everything grated on her, rang false.

Propelled into a flurry of industry, she embraces the onslaught of paperwork that attends death and piles on commitments relating to work. Still, an “inner madness” strobes her, triggering fury and self-doubt. Unwisely obeying an urge to trawl through John’s private correspondence, his computer, his desk, she turns up stuff about his past she would rather not know. Appignanesi’s mourning has more in common with the Maenads – who tore their hair and wailed and keened – than with any sanitised grieving you see at funeral parlours. And its fury is directed, above all, at John, for leaving her alone. Loss, in the end, is an abandonment. Appignanesi hates being a widow: “it was a box that might sport a small window, but it was very close to a coffin.” The archaic word for widowhood, she tells us, is “viduity”, which conveys the idea of being emptied out (she notes that “bereavement” derives from the verb to plunder: this is loss that destroys its victims); and she cites Sylvia Plath quipping that the widow wears death as a dress. It is not that Appignanesi doesn’t feel emptied out herself, garbed in mourning. But, in addition, she feels something that doesn’t have public (or even literary) legitimacy: a desire for “retaliation”.

Grief counsellors, familiar with the rage of the left behind, recommend a steady re-integration into social life, where the fury might dissipate. But everywhere Appignanesi looks she finds her own rage reflected back and amplified. The world seemed to be in the grip of an “explosive rage”, with Brexit and Donald Trump stoking the politics of hate, social media teeming with sewer rats and trolls, and newspaper columnists venting spleen. Even #MeToo – a corrective to the way male anger expends itself on women – was itself driven by righteous rage. 

Appignanesi is stronger on the ire that contaminates daily life. The vendor at her local fruit and veg stall, for example, who bawls her out for toppling a punnet of berries, causing her eyes to sting with angry tears. In a crowded underground station a red-faced commuter turns on her with a whiplash of invective – “Stop pushing, stupid c***” – and an angry driver gets out of his car to come and thump on her windscreen. These are casual insults, ones the healthy can brush aside, but you feel for Appignanesi because you know that she is already compromised, hobbled by pain.   Besides, it is anger of the everyday sort that is currently being politicised. Feminists are fighting back against the way women’s anger is typically caricatured and delegitimised, and celebrating the power of collective female anger as a way of flexing socially progressivist muscle. Last year, the American essayist Leslie Jamison used the Tonya Harding biopic to spring-vault into arguing that henceforth she would no longer sublimate her own anger into the more acceptable female complaint of sadness. October brings the publication of Good and Mad, the New York magazine journalist Rebecca Traister’s much anticipated analysis of the changing face of female anger.

Appignanesi opts for a tone that is interrogative and historically probing rather than crusading. She quotes Montaigne – “No passion disturbs the soundness of our judgement as anger does” – before delving into the ways that anger and madness have been long allied. The Furies were deranged by anger; the clinically insane were historically locked in chains. Today, intermittent explosive disorder is a mental condition recognised by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). But if wrath is one of the deadly sins, injuring others, ultimately, like envy, it only poisons us. The challenge is to source the right antidote. Inanely, we tell the grieving that time is this antidote – that it heals all wounds. But Appignanesi is after something more rigorous; something that looks more like self-forgiveness.

Her interest in psychoanalysis helps. It takes her back to her father (“the angriest man in my life”) then forwards to the nursery, where her grandchild, Manny, undone by the arrival of a younger sibling, does nothing but rage and pinch and bite. Thus does Appignanesi tie her own anger into theories of psychological development and generational succession. To infants – John, infantilised on his hospital bed, or Manny, an actual toddler whose world has collapsed – anger comes naturally, without regret or punishment. It’s different for adults, for whom it frequently arrives with self-rebuke. Besides, as Appignanesi, not angry by nature, pithily notes: “I didn’t enjoy an emotion that, like an ejaculation, felt as if it would need constant repetition.”

Everyday Madness is not without flaws: tighter editing might have checked repetition and trimmed the excessive length given over to the adored grandson. But it is a brave and compelling book none the less. Towards its end, Appignanesi complains that “age erases us”. That’s as may be, for most. But I suspect, somehow, that this writer will kick back at being so easily rubbed out. 

Marina Benjamin’s “Insomnia” will be published in November by Scribe

Everyday Madness: On Grief, Anger, Loss and Love
Lisa Appignanesi
4th Estate, 272pp, £14.99

This article appears in the 28 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Brexit crisis