When Things Turn Dark

A Book Review by Stephen Foster, Ph.D., Jungian Analyst

Forget heroin. Just try giving up irony, that deep-down need to mean two things at once, to be in two places at once, not to be there for the catastrophe of a fixed meaning.  Patrick Melrose (the hero of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose Novels)

When things turn dark I like to reach for The Patrick Melrose Novels written by Edward St. Aubyn.[1] I relate to Patrick’s sense of displacement, homelessness and betrayal. His longing to escape into lonely oblivion is balanced by his need for relationship; the tension between these poles is very Jungian. He is caught between worlds and cultures, which makes him an outsider grappling with life and trying to understand why he has been so affected by the actions of others.

If you have not read these novels, I invite you to enjoy this unique view of the English privileged classes. This is not Upstairs, Downstairs or Downton Abbey. We learn about the cruel acts of Patrick’s father: the rape that fathered Patrick and the paternal pedophilic incest that perverts the course of Patrick’s life forever. Patrick’s father is a product of a class system that silently condones such acts, as if they are normal practice or brutal bonding rituals. These violations crush the young boy’s psyche and set up the sense of abandonment and powerlessness that haunts Patrick his entire life.

Like many wounded children, Patrick escapes as best he can and watches his life from the sidelines. The darkness that surrounds him is a reflection of life in this modern age for those of us who are unable to find the right formula to deal with that aging parent, that partner who no longer fulfills our need in relationship or the realization that our so-called friends have been manipulating our world to suit themselves. And yet, Patrick’s affluent upbringing by self-involved parents was not rich enough to provide the tools to deal with all the situations life presents him. After a traumatic day he watches his parents with their friends bantering at dinner from half way down the stairs. He is sobbing quietly, and frozen. This position is symbolic; he hopes to be saved by his wire-monkey mother, but fears being visited by his perpetrating father. The resulting desolation sets him on a path to escape using drugs, and alcohol.

Because I grew up in England during the same time The Patrick Melrose Novels are set, I might relate to Patrick’s exploits more than Americans. Yet, symbolically his story reflects many of the Archetypal patterns I see in America, even today. It’s not that everyone finds themselves in some of the physical situations as Patrick, but they are allegories; he is searching for ways to fix broken aspects of his life. We all have our own tales of searching for the next “fix,” whatever that might be for each of us.

Have you ever found yourself deeply lost in a foreign country, in a neighborhood that is ethnically different or on streets that only the desperate and lost find themselves? For Patrick it was when searching for relief in New York following the death of his father. Lost and in pain, it was a compassionate African American man with kind eyes who tried to help him. But, like Perceval, he did not even realize he had lost his moment—until later. In trying to return to the castle, Patrick returns to the man who thought he was an egg, and experiences the tastes and smells of his past, but he cannot find the Grail. Patrick is lost in a foreign city; he is lost in his own inner world and his relationship with the Self has been severed. Patrick is required to retrieve and carry his dead father’s ashes back to England; a physical act that matches the psychological weight he has been carrying over the years. In trying to escape his father’s friends he is required to confront his father’s shadow, and behind this shadow is where he hides his shame. Discovering his inadequate desperation and impotent rage is Patrick’s “jumping off point.”

It is strange how things sometimes fall apart of their own accord, only to re-form at a higher level. Our egos feel powerless to stop the process. We watch Patrick as we might watch a child playing with a toy; we watch him break it, and in trying to hold all of the broken parts together we see more parts inexplicably fall off. Later in life this dynamic plays out with breaks in relationships with friends, family and colleagues. We somehow know we can never get the parts back together. When we look around for help as children, we often find the same parental void that Patrick finds, and the same lack of modeling that leaves his relationships broken and unfixable. Is this why we come to analysis—to find some inner understanding that might prevent future breaks? Of course! And in the deeper moments, when a dream provides clarity, the unconscious fills the void with meaning or creates a tension that pries apart the veil behind which meaning peers out.

There is an abundance of psychological reflection in the later novels. Patrick’s friend from his using days has trained as a Freudian psychoanalyst and in his conversations with Patrick he helps Patrick reflect on his predicament from the inside of Patrick’s experience. The psychoanalyst found his way through his own addiction using the Jungian tools of holding the tension between his conscious desire for recovery and his unconscious fantasies of escape. This tension has activated his transcendent function to give him the refined skills of self-reflection, clear observation, and the thing I find lacking in so many people these days: reflective compassion for others. He and Patrick are sittings in the garden late in the evening after a party at Patrick’s house. They are talking about the affair Patrick is about to embark on with a family friend who is staying the weekend with Patrick’s family. Without judgment the analyst tenderly opens Patrick to the broader meaning of his actions, and holds the moment psychologically; he imagines the affair like a gem in mid-air, turning it over and over to inspect each facet, and the affect on Patrick and his family. He does not prevent Patrick from forging ahead, wraithlike, onto the path that leads to the slow death of Patrick’s marriage. Psychologically, this shows that failure is a way of life; it is not sad that we fail, it is sad that we fail to see that it presents us with an opportunity to provide the kind eyes of reflective caring compassion to the person who needs it the most.

Patrick’s struggle to “recover” reflects our own striving to understand the reasons for the betrayals in our lives; to find meaning in the mean and cruel acts of others and a release from our attachment to a certain outcome in uncertain times. And in the end, like Patrick we still have to get up in the morning wondering how to pay the bills when the inheritance we felt was ours has been given away to the Shaman, or spent by the second family of our estranged parent. The reality is that these things were actually never ours; they were simply the wishful thinking of a child who has the fantasy that things would be different.

Patrick’s life is complex, and the description of how it unfolds is engrossing. These books are perfect for a rainy day.

[1] For readers who are unfamiliar with this series, there are five novels that make up the body of work: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk and At Last. In these books St. Aubyn chronicles Patrick’s life from birth to middle age, with sharp wit and poignant observation. Published in the U.S.A by Picador, New York, NY, a Registered Trademark of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.