Synopses & Reviews
Chapter OneI am not entirely content with the degree of whiteness in my life. My bedroom is white: white walls, icy mirrors, white sheets and pillowcases, white slatted blinds. It's the best I could do. Some lack of courage -- I wouldn't want to be thought extreme -- has prevented me from having a white bedstead and side-tables. They are wood, and they annoy me a little. Opposite my bed, in the very small room, a wall of mirrored cupboards reflects the whiteness back at itself, making it twice the size it thought it was. Some time ago, I had a builder in to make another room. He wanted to know what I was going to do with the walls. White, I told him, like the walls throughout the flat. "I suppose it stops arguments about what wallpaper to have," he said unenthusiastically. It was the only good reason he could think of for having white walls.In the morning, if I arrange myself carefully when I wake, I can open my eyes to nothing but whiteness. The soft white of the sheet, with darker white shadows in the folds of the duvet. A brasher white with scored lines at the point where the walls meet the ceiling or turn the corner: ninety-degree angles in shades of white. A repetition of white when I raise my eyes slightly to the mirror opposite. Morning moments of indescribable satisfaction. Eventually, I'll have to let colours in to my day, but for a while I can wallow in a seemingly boundless expanse of white.If I trace it back, that wish for whiteout began with the idea of being an inmate in a psychiatric hospital. Not during my first stay in a mental hospital, in Hove, when I was fourteen, but later, aged twenty and twenty-one, in London's Maudsley psychiatric unit, hospital became mypreferred environment. White hospital sheets seemed to hold out the promise of what I really wanted: a place of safety, a white oblivion. Oblivion, strictly speaking, was what I was after, but white hospital sheets were an approximation, I believed.Actually, the reality of the hospital in London was rather different, though the sheets "were white. The near-demented Sister Winniki (identical twin of Big Nurse) always ripped the crisp white sheets off me at too early an hour in the morning, in the name of mental health. "Up, up, up, Mees Seemonds. Ve must not lie in bed, it vill make us depressed." I was depressed and all I wanted were the right conditions for my depression, but we weren't allowed to be depressed in the bin. I spent eighteen months off and on during my early twenties in this and other hospitals in London, not getting what I was really after.Sister Winniki was like a gust of wind. She breezed about her ward (or, as I thought of it, "my ward) at remarkable speed, talking as she went in her South London inflected Estonian accent. "How are ve, today?" she would cry, but by the time you had thought up an answer she was gone. So, one patient was informed that today she had ECT, another one that if she didn't attend occupational therapy Sister would be compelled to inform the consultant, another that her medication had changed. Sister Winniki was on top of everything, though you felt that she was in control only for as long as she kept moving, clipping along on the backs of her heels, her black-stockinged legs scissoring, her bright-orange lipsticked mouth snapping out instruction and exhortation. A healthy ward of mental patients was, to her mind, a busy ward, but busyness isnot what mental patients are best at, except, of course, those who are too good at it, so there was a permanent tension between Winniki's whirlwind and our languor. I had to battle against Sister Winniki to achieve even a modicum of oblivion -- and since the whole point of oblivion is that it is total or not at all, I could never prevail.When hospitalization failed, I transferred my fantasy to the idea of a monk's cell. A small, bare, white room with nothing to distract the eye from the emptiness, a strict routine of silence broken only by the regular rhythmic ritual of the liturgy, had all the advantages of hospital -- spareness and passivity interspersed with meal and medication times -- without the disadvantage of Sister Winniki. A fallacy, since doubtless there would be a Father Winniki to chivvy me into useful action. But there wasn't anywhere I could go with the fantasy, being both the wrong religion and the wrong sex, so I settled maturely, compromisingly, for making my almost blank bedroom and achieving at least my morning whiteout. It's something, but not quite enough. Though I'm very good at getting what I want, the world is better at not letting me have more than a taste of it. Sister Winniki never quite goes away; eventually, I have to start the day and the empty white world fills up with colour.Finally it came to me, effortlessly, as these things seem to come. Suddenly, there's a moment when a thought in your head makes itself known as if it's always been there, as if you've been thinking it forever. Sometimes I think I don't think at all, if thinking means some conscious process of the mind working out the nature and solution of a problem. I'm a little ashamed of this. Iwish I thought properly, like proper people seem to think.Still, the thought was there. Antarctica. And along with it a desire as commanding as any sexual compulsion that Antarctica was what I wanted, and that therefore I had to have it.
So writes Jenny Diski of the parent she has neither seen nor heard from since 1966, the year her father died.
In search of an escape from her suicidal sexually abusive parents, Diski spends her teenage years in the oblivion of heavy drug use and psychiatric wards. As an adult she finds a new haven: the boundless, blank iciness of Antarctica where everything "is colored white and filled with a singing silence."
This blistering account interweaves the story of the author's journey to the end of the earth, her daughter's search for Diski's missing mother, and Diski's own search of her memory-hardened heart.
About the Author
Jenny Diski has written seven novels, a volume of short stories, and a collection of essays. She lives in London.