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‘Unlike the Heart’ by Nicola Redhouse

By Sophie Quick
Motherhood prompts a bracing interrogation of the human mind in this remarkable memoir

After the birth of her first child, Nicola Redhouse could not stop crying. She was consumed by anxiety and dread. “I saw disaster in every outcome,” she writes. “My suburban walks were forays into minefields – cars might drive onto the kerb; dogs might lunge at us.”

There are many memoirs of motherhood, tales of elation and ambivalence and psychic collapse from the frontlines of cot and cradle. But Unlike the Heart: A Memoir of Brain and Mind (University of Queensland Press; $29.95) is highly idiosyncratic. It’s steeped in psychoanalytic thinking. Redhouse’s father is a psychodynamic therapist, and her early life was suffused with the words and ideas of Wilfred Bion, Melanie Klein and, of course, Sigmund Freud.

In the frightening spiral of Redhouse’s postnatal anxiety, however, psychoanalysis proved ineffective. Eventually, and with great reluctance, she turned to medication – and found relief. Chemical intervention prompted a kind of crisis of faith in psychoanalysis. And it also prompted a rigorous and deeply personal inquiry into the human mind.

“There will be those who encounter this book and turn away from it for the well-worn notion that psychoanalysis is indulgent, naval-gazing,” Redhouse warns in an author’s note. It’s a necessary disclaimer because this is a book that literally contains a passage on naval-gazing. “Maternal separation had long preoccupied me, but it was only after Reuben was born that I felt the cyclical implications of being both mother and child. I considered my own belly button … What did it represent – was it where I was attached to my mother or where I was attached to my son?”

It’s fascinating, and at times exasperating, to follow the author’s buzzing mind as it pivots around psychoanalytic constructs, reflexively reaching for meaning and metaphor at every turn.

Redhouse inhabits a rarefied world. Most people in her family, including both her grandmothers, have received (or administered) some form of therapeutic or psychiatric attention. She writes evocatively of the mystique and allure that her father’s work held for her as a child. Redhouse herself had been seeing a psychoanalyst in Melbourne twice a week for five years by the time her first baby was born.

The early life Redhouse describes is rich with incident, making for riveting though sombre reading. The central drama of this book is the author’s troubled severance from her parents – premature severance in the case of her father, who left her mother to be with a man when Redhouse was a baby, and delayed severance in the case with her mother, from whom she still struggles to part. But the central intellectual inquiry, inextricably linked to this drama, is into the cause of her postnatal emotional disturbance. “Was it mechanical, organismic, a result of the biochemistry and genes and hormones of my body?” Redhouse writes. “Or was it emotional, mental, the result of the part of me that is formed of memories and feelings?”

The reader might be tempted to consider a third factor. Psychoanalytic theories place tremendous weight on the mother–child dynamic, with the assumption that the unconscious mind may bear for life the imprints of our earliest experiences with caregivers. If your mind is saturated from childhood with this tradition of thinking, then an absolute mental collapse seems like the natural and predictable response to the onset of motherhood. How might you hope to experience anything less than crippling, intolerable anxiety with the understanding that you shape your baby’s unconscious – and probably their destiny – at every instant of every day? “My knowledge of psychoanalytic ideas delivered its own source of anxiety,” Redhouse writes, which seems a breathtaking understatement. “I was constantly trying to deconstruct what my innermost unconscious feelings might be …”

But Unlike the Heart pushes and pulls the reader in all sorts of directions. In the book’s second part, Redhouse mounts a robust and impressively unfashionable defence of Freud’s legacy. Freud started out as a scientist and he aspired to the standards of science with his research. He failed to meet those standards partly because the organ he studied, the brain, is not static and does not behave like other organs. The special case of the brain is something scientists now take for granted.

Redhouse is frustrated by the contemporary antagonism between research disciplines, which sees neuroscientists studying the biological brain and psychoanalysts (and others) studying the intangible mind, with little or no common language. Redhouse is alive to the myriad criticisms of Freud’s work, but finds much to admire in his notion of the dynamic mind, indivisible from the brain, but with “invisible borders”.

Redhouse writes with eloquence on the limitations of science, and of conceiving of the brain as a purely material, in the treatment of mental illness. She raises some profound questions. “What if we start to understand that words, talking, relating, thought, come from the biological too? What is immaterial arises from the material. Our bodies are affected at a basic cellular level by both chemical intervention and by living and speaking and understanding.”

There is so much more to this dense and heavily researched book. Apart from weaving in the personal histories of her parents and grandparents, it also contains a history of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, new evidence on maternal brain plasticity, research on inherited trauma, a discussion of the efficacy of antidepressants, and new thinking on epigenetics.

The third part of the book focuses on the emerging field of neuropsychoanalysis – in which neuroscientists and psychoanalysts are trying to find a common language – and on the late Jaak Panksepp’s theories of primal emotions. Redhouse is optimistic about these frameworks and has a real gift for distilling complicated academic ideas and controversies across a dizzying range of disciplines. She has a gift, too, for describing the mysterious phenomena of the mind with both awe and lucidity. She never disguises her own biases – her intuitive belief in psychoanalytic models and her sense that language, “talking cures”, can hold curative and creative possibilities for troubled minds.

In one sense, Unlike the Heart embodies the dynamic model of mind that Redhouse embraces. It contains material that can be empirically studied and verified, but it also comprises memories, books, theories, feelings, people and ghosts. The combination generates copious – and inevitably subjective – meaning. Unlike the Heart is sometimes maddening and always remarkable.

Sophie Quick

Sophie Quick is a Melbourne-based reviewer.

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