Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
1 March 2012updated 27 Sep 2015 4:01am

Rachel Cusk and the difficult discipline of self-scrutiny

"Mumsnet really hate me" says the author of Aftermath.

By Jonathan Derbyshire

I interviewed Rachel Cusk, author of Aftermath, the watercooler book du jour, for this week’s New Statesman. Aftermath is a memoir of Cusk’s separation from her husband of ten years, and it’s pretty unsparing – “The blackness of hate flows and flows over me,” she writes at one point.

It’s conventional to say that Cusk divides opinion. Her 2001 memoir of motherhood A Life’s Work was received with equal tinctures of rapture and revulsion, and it looks as if the same will be true of Aftermath. Cusk is fairly stoical about the reactions she incites – especially from women. “[Mumsnet] hate me,” she says of the parenting website to which politicians these days pay rather too much attention. “They really hate me. They say such horrible things about me.” “Navel-gazing, narcissistic, self-obsessed” is how one poster on the site described Cusk recently.

This has much to do with Cusk’s determination to write about what she calls “the universal parts of life” (motherhood, marriage and so on), her outlook on which is decidedly bleak:

Human beings have a need, generally, to destroy things. The Freudian principle of civilisation is correct. There’s always, always a difference between the family image and the reality.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

In the piece, I ask if it’s not so much Cusk’s will-to-disclose so much as her commitment to turning her experience into aesthetically satisfying shapes that attracts such opprobrium. She tells me she isn’t interested in writing in a more journalistic or discursive fashion about those “universal parts of life”:

Content from our partners
Transport is the core of levelling up
The forgotten crisis: How businesses can boost biodiversity
Small businesses can be the backbone of our national recovery

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 [but I] can really only speak about them from within the protection of a literary form.

There is something rather impressive about Cusk’s commitment to what Jane Shilling calls, in her review of Aftermath (which also appears in this issue), the “difficult discipline of self-scrutiny”.