ABOUT THE BOOK
In this moving memoir Irish Times columnist Nuala O'Faolain tells the story of
being raised in Dublin by an alcoholic, overwhelmed mother and a feckless, absent
father. Born into a penniless family, O'Faolain could have quietly composed her
life within the confining boundaries of male-dominated Catholic Ireland. instead,
she plunges into her life, full of questions and wonder and fear. Against all
odds she becomes both an agent and a beneficiary of change in Ireland.
With candor and eloquence, O'Faolain explores the power of words, the awakening
of her sexuality, her education, her search for love, and the trajectory of
her career. She is unafraid to confront the darker side as ,well-the lapses
into despair and alcohol, her romantic disappointments, the doubts that plague
her, the yearnings she cannot stifle. in her bold pursuit of truth, O'Faolain
exposes the loneliness, passion, loss, love, pain, and self-discovery that have
shaped her life. Are You Somebody? is testimony to the courage that voicing
the truth requires and the rewards it brings.
NOTE TO READERS
Sometimes I feel that I've sneaked my story into the world. Nobody ever asked
me for it. I wrote opinion columns, and because they were about politics and
economics and other weighty public matters, there was interest in them. But
when I agreed to put together a collection of columns, no one was expecting
the lengthy and very personal introduction which became Are You Somebody? I
wasn't expecting it myself. I sat at my kitchen table all one summer, and almost
as a private farewell, I looked back over my life and I tried to see what significant
things I had done or known or felt. I was talking to myself as I wrote, as far
as I knew. I was just like any one of the millions of anonymous people all over
the world. But unlike the millions, I got a chance to transform my anonymity.
And my spirit lit on the chance, long before my mind knew what I was doing.
I never imagined anyone reading what I wrote. I'm glad I didn't -- the thought
of readers would have inhibited me very badly. As it was, l was free to be as
reckless as I liked. I did worry about my family. I knew I somehow had to negotiate
tacit permission from them for what I was doing -- anyone who writes a candid
autobiography has to do that. But I literally never allowed into my mind the
picture of a complete stranger, somewhere far away, reading the words I was
thinking up at the kitchen table. I never thought of critics. I would have tried
to write in a more literary way if I'd had reviews in mind. But I didn't have
them in mind. I just talked to myself. Urgently.
"What have I to lose?" I used to think. The question I should have
been asking myself was, "What have I to gain?" But joy has come to
me late. I wasn't really joyful until the experience of writing and publishing
Are You Somebody? purged a lot of the confusion and distress which I was carrying
around with me. My readers understood me exactly. It didn't matter how different
the details of their lives were from mine: that they were American, not Irish;
men, not women; old or young, not middle-aged; fortunate, not -- as I believed
myself to be -- unfortunate. They still identified with the central human quest
which, unwittingly, my memoir describes. I have had very many letters from readers
all over the world. I never fully grasped before I read those letters that we
are all in the human condition together. We are much more alike than we are
different. And the greatest consolation for the inescapable pain of being human
is the love we offer each other.
What I have learnt from the whole experience is not about reading and writing.
It is about people. They're much wiser, and much, much more generous, than I
suspected. I thought I was describing incurable loneliness -- when I was writing
away in my quiet room. But the very act of describing it brought me the readers
who have peopled it.
1. Nuala's parents "didn't have other values, to replace what they had
lost. They were just careless" (p. 17). Where does Nuala find values to
live by? What role does her relationship with her parents play in Nuala's choice
of values? How is Nuala's relationship to her parents transformed-even after
their death as she discovers new values?
2. Although Nuala O'Faolain delights in romance, she has not married or settled
into one long-term monogamous relationship. What has she lost and gained as
3. Nuala O'Faolain describes the wreck of her mother, declaring, "This
was where grand passion had left her" (p. 11). How is Nuala able to escape
the debilitating, overwhelming association with passion and love that undid
4. Although the women's movement had begun, Nuala O'Faolain remained in the
old culture, "wandering among its ruins, picking through its fragments"
(p. 138). But later in life she "wept for the millions and millions of
anonymous women who might never have been', for all we know of them" (p.
167). What kept Nuala in the old culture? What finally altered her perspective?
5. Nuala O'Faolain's age informs and colors her story. How might this memoir
have differed had she written it ,when she was in her twenties? How might the
book differ ,were she to write an autobiography when she is in her eighties?
6. "Each thing is itself, discrete: near each other, and made from the
same material, but never flowing into each other," O'Faolain writes. "That's
how the life I have described here has been. There has been no steady accumulation;
it has all been in moments" (p. 188). How is this belief enacted in the
structure of the book? What effect does the book's form have on the portrait
Nuala O'Faolain paints of herself?
7. How does Nuala O'Faolain's relationship to her country of origin change
with time? in what ways is Nuala O'Faolain's story also the story of Ireland?
8. What role do children play in the unfolding of Nuala's story? How are children
betrayed by adults? What do children need from their parents? Why does Nuala
believe that she would be a good parent at this stage in her life?
9. Discuss the ways in which Nuala's mother and father succeeded as parents.
10. As an opinion columnist, Nuala O'Faolain has no responsibility for trying
to present objective truths. Do you think her portrayal of her own life is accurate?
How does the author's reliability affect your reading of her story?
11. At the end of the book, Nuala O'Faolain suggests that she can't do anything
but "thank the God I don't believe in for the miracles showered on me"
(p. 215). O'Faolain has a complicated relationship with God -- she both expresses
her gratitude to God and denies God's existence in the same sentence. In what
ways do O'Faolain's story and voice seem to underscore a belief in God? What
aspects of her life undermine such a conviction? What is the source of her fierce
12. O'Faolain writes, "When I called my memoir Are You Somebody?
it was largely to preempt the hostile people who'd say, at my writing anything
about myself at all, 'Who does she think she is?"' (p. 191). What other
meanings does the title hold? The subtitle?
Recommended Further Reading
Once in a House on Fire Andrea Ashworth
Spring of Affection Maeve Brennan
A Dublin Girl Elaine Crowley
The Hours Michael Cunningham
Northern Ireland Adrian Guelke
The Bendfor Home Dermot Healy
Wounds of Passion bell hooks
Dubliners James Joyce
Angela's Ashes Frank McCourt
Charming Billy Alice McDermott
A Fanatic Heart -- Selected Stories of Edna O'Brian Edna O'Brian
The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor Flannery O'Connor